China is a country which fascinates me. Over the last few years I've been lucky enough to work in China, and have travelled to many parts of the country. It is truly vast, but it is entirely its own world. Much is being made of contemporary China and its current rise in the modern world – politically, economically, militarily. It's fascinating to see how China is changing – and, also, how it isn't. There is a huge difference between the city and the countryside. While certain metropolitan areas are surging ahead there is much in the rural areas which remains unchanged since Mao Zedong's Communist Party took over the country. But, as always in China's history, there is a great disparity between those who have and those who have not.
If you are interested in China's history there are any number of books, films, and websites which will give you chapter and verse on the rise of Chairman Mao, the “Great Helmsman” – whose enormous portrait hangs above the entrance of the Tiananmen, looking out over Tiananmen Square towards his own mausoleum, where he still lies in State to this day. There are also countless books on China’s Imperial past too. One era which it is harder to find books about is the interim period between the revolution which did away with the Manchu Qing Dynasty in 1910/1911 and the Communist "liberation" in 1949, when the Nationalist Government fled into exile on the island of Taiwan, where it remains to this day.
The United Nations continued to recognise the Nationalists as the legitimate Government up until the 1970s, after which many Western countries have maintained their support for Taiwan, but in more muted political and diplomatic terms, quietly supporting Taiwan through trade and cultural initiatives. Whilst cross-strait tensions have eased of late, Beijing would still like to see Taiwan return to the fold one day, as have Hong Kong and Macao. But only time will tell what will become of all these several versions of essentially one China.
The interim period of China’s history in the first half of the twentieth century is a period which has come to take over much of my recent research interests. I am currently researching the life of a British Consular Official who was stationed in China during this turbulent period. He is remarkable because he went against the grain of his time, especially for a man essentially in the diplomatic service of one of the 'great Western powers', by marrying a Tibetan. It was a move, which in part, cost him his career.
I’ve been undertaking this biographical research for the best part of six years now. Amassing all the relevant source material and piecing together various items of information to create a clearer picture has turned into a mammoth undertaking. But it has been and still is immensely interesting and rewarding of itself – not least because I have a family connection to the couple themselves. Their names are Louis Magrath King and Rinchen Lhamo.
Going in search of Louis and Rinchen's personal history has taken me to many different places. I’ve just spent the last two and a half weeks at the National Archives in Kew Gardens. I’ve also spent a lot of time working my way through archive material held at the British Library and the School of Oriental and African Studies, and I’m hoping to look at further archive material in due course at the Royal Geographical Society, and, if needed, at the University of Bristol too. The search has also taken me on a number of journeys, both near and far. I’ve trekked down leafy lanes in Kent, along the bustling thoroughfares of Beijing, Chengdu, and Shanghai, and even up remote mountain paths in western China, where the province of Sichuan borders with Tibet. I’ve also had to familiarise myself with the times in which they lived – not just the complicated and chaotic politics of the feuding Provinces and their various tin-pot warlord Generals, but also the sights, sounds, and smells of their world, to try and imagine what it would have been like to have lived their lives and seen that era as they would have known it back then.
I’ve found a couple of wonderful films on the internet which show, more evocatively than any dusty book or scholarly article, the bygone China which they would have found familiar.
The first is a short documentary made by Sidney D. Gamble (1890 – 1968), who made several journeys in China between 1908 and 1932. This film of a pilgrimage to Miao Feng Shan, some twenty-five miles north-west of Beijing, appears to have been shot between 1924 and 1927. The costume, sedan chairs, and Nationalist Soldiers uniforms are fascinating to me – and whilst China has changed largely beyond all recognition there are some elements here which still echo down to the present day. It’s fascinating to see the Lion Dance – which I’ve seen performed twice, just the same as this, once inside the Forbidden City in Beijing, and once at a small village, called Kam Tin, in the New Territories area of Hong Kong.
The second very short film, from an unmarked reel, appears to be of a metropolitan area – most likely Shanghai or its environs during the 1920s. It shows what life was like for the native Chinese in the foreign concessions.
The third is a newsreel style documentary film about Peking in 1931, with a very sober-style of narration – but which says as much about its time as the pictures it describes. Two continuities between then and now I noted in this film were the split trousers of the small boy eating peanuts – nappies or diapers are a Western child-rearing custom which has never been taken up by China; plus the keeping of song birds as pets and promenading with them in the evenings, which continues to this day too. Happily the custom of female foot-binding has long since ceased, although there are still today a few exceedingly elderly women alive whose feet were bound in infancy. I saw one such woman in the city of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province in 2007.