The Stories of Beijing of David Kidd

The  Stories of Beijing of David Kidd

This book narrates some events in the life of an aristocratic family during the years in which China ended its traditional history and became a communist country. The author arrived in Beijing as an English teacher two years before the communist revolution triumphed, and continued to live in that city until two years after the establishment of the new regime. The purpose of the work is to narrate the atmosphere of those days, of which the author became an exceptional protagonist, since shortly after his arrival he fell in love with one of the daughters of one of the main families of the regime, who lived in a large garden house in the center of Beijing, with several courtyards. Possibly one of the most impressive houses of the time. Although the family was already in some decline, because the author’s father-in-law, who dies shortly after the book begins, had made a series of patriotic contributions a few years earlier that had volatilized most of his fortune, the other having been lost with the great write-downs of the companies that followed the revolution, they still retain that air of nobility that has characterized them.

David Kidd meets his bride at the Beijing Opera House and marries shortly before the founding of the New China. The book is structured around a series of scenes that attempt to document and summarize how life was transformed during those years. From the relative calm, decadence in a certain way and sophistication of those last years of the republican regime, to see how little by little the implementation of the new regime is leading to situations that are described as absurd, which undoubtedly are the result of the establishment of communist policies.

Of course, seeing this development from the point of view of one of the most important aristocratic families, we can lose sight of the great vision of the moment.  That the family, as we have already said almost ruined, is forced to sell the great mansion due to heavy taxes and then the new owners who make it a hospital do not care for the plants or the centenary trees, does not seem to us such a tremendous misfortune as it is for some protagonists. Perhaps it is a lack of good taste, but possibly that is one of the minor problems or faults that were committed during that time. The important thing is to see if this situation served to really create a more egalitarian regime. Other episodes told by the author show us the chaos that reigned at that time when new rules were being established and the old ones had not yet been repealed, and yes, we also consider, like him, that some of the policies could be absurd, such as those men who spied from the rooftops at night that people did not play mahong, even people who were retired and could not contribute anything to the working world. But it should also be noted that gambling had become a public problem in the years leading up to the revolution.

Then there are scenes, with all the police arriving at the house at midnight to see if there are any gamblers, which would be comical if they did not have their tragic component. Finally the author and his wife manage to leave for the United States and each of the more than 10 members of this family is separated from the others to begin a new destiny in a New China.

The book concludes with another visit to Beijing by the author in the 1980s. The wall has disappeared and the city is unrecognizable. It also shows us that those who had once been possibly one of the wealthiest families in Beijing have had to suffer enough during the 30 years of the revolution, and are now nothing more than a bunch of decrepit old people, or with injuries from seasons of hard labor. The allegations these members make about the killings carried out by the Red Guards in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution fortunately did not affect them, and although their numbers are greatly exaggerated in this book, which is not intended to be a history book, Beijing was actually among the places that suffered most from the gratuitous violence of the Young Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Many families were completely exterminated, and many other people considered rightists or aristocrats also suffered torture, persecution or were sentenced to hard labor. Therefore, the reunion with the main members of the family still alive after the great Chinese tragedy is really fortunate.

The book is read with interest, because there are certainly few works that describe how life was in those special years, but the author does not pretend to show absolutely nothing of the general atmosphere of Beijing, of which we only know a little bit when he recalls an episode in which he went with other foreigners to know the area where the houses of prostitution were, and the brief references he makes to that matter. We can only know that the city of Beijing had great monuments, temples, walls, parks, trees, but there is really absolutely no reference to what life was like for the people. We do see that there were rickshaw drivers, who are continually mentioned and they don’t disappear immediately after the Revolution.

So, all that remains of that purpose of showing that environment that the writer assures us no one has described, I don’t think he does either, because he simply shows us, and even a little bit quickly, how that transition was from the world of the republic, from the world still in the last throes of the classical Chinese world, to the new reality of the People’s Republic. But since there is nothing, absolutely no social reference, not even to what he could see, except for the allusions to the servants not wanting to work or even denouncing their bosses or this type of really anecdotal facts, the book loses value as a witness of that time, and remains nothing more than some memories a little frayed about what the protagonist lived in the Beijing of those years.

The book is easy to read, and the author’s pen makes the characters most mentioned end up being endearing, but the excessive obsession with talking about this family prevents him from telling facts that he must have lived as a witness, and that today would have greater historical value.

David Kidd. Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China. 1996.

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To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "The Stories of Beijing of David Kidd," in Ethnic China, 20 diciembre 2021, https://ethnic-china.com/the-stories-of-beijing-of-david-kidd/.
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