Monday, March 28, 2011

City of Lingering Splendour

The city is Peking as described by the Buddhist/Taoist scholar, John Blofeld, recalling a younger self who, in his early twenties, lived in Peking in the 1930s, teaching English,  and savouring its delights - from flower girls to Taoist hermits.

It is, as its sub-title advertises, a frank account embracing his first love affair with a flower girl (a sophisticated prostitute endowed with an education of traditional charms), his disapproving flirtation with opium and an idling life enjoying the many aesthetic pleasures of a city, poised on the edge of transformation, first a brutal Japanese occupation followed, after a corrupt Nationalist interlude, by the purging 'mercies' of Communist rule.

But a city where past traditions continued to hold sway, where the lingering scent of empire clung to the landscape.

Blofeld was incurably a romantic, drawn in his own belief by past lives, to a place he felt utterly at home and duly celebrates. It is a beautiful book where in the company of an open-minded, questing and generous spirit, you feel the resonances of a particular place in time, and certain of its patterns of life and custom.

Filtering out through the descriptions is the growing conviction of a spiritual path, though one unerringly forgiving of the temptations of the sensuous, and it springs out in brief encounters with  Buddhist, both monk and layman, and Taoist hermit.

There are memorable descriptions of particular personalities - his friend Pao who marries a 'drum girl', socially 'beneath' him, rescusing her from the clutches of an admiring Japanese colonel, and becomes a Communist spy, resisting occupation. The mysterious Father Vassily, a White Russian exile, who blends Christianity with Buddhism in his own unique creed, and gives a creepy comfort to some of the dispossessed Russian community in Peking, scratching a living, despised by their hosts. Dr Chang, the prosperous doctor, long widowed, who forges a partnership with a former flower girl and musician, who refuses to marry him lest it destroy his status who amidst a hearty appetite both culinary and sexual maintains a devout Buddhist practice, and writes abstruse explorations of Buddhist doctrine.

It is a beautiful memoir that artfully blends the worldly and its transcendence.

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