Magazine article The Spectator

The Return of the Native

Magazine article The Spectator

The Return of the Native

Article excerpt

THE FORD OF HEAVEN : A CHILDHOOD IN TIANJIN , CHINA by Brian Power Signal Books, £19.99, pp. 216, ISBN 1904955002

Brian Power's book, like the best Chinese paintings, contains a lot of empty space. You can either concentrate on what you see, or you can let your mind and imagination glide over into what might have been there. I have a silk-screen of a painting by the Song dynasty master Liang Kai (13th century) on my wall; Li Bai, the great Tang dynasty poet (8th century), probably drunk and standing on tip-toe, is gazing up at the moon. There is no moon in the picture, only the empty, not blank, space.

I know the moon is there because in one of his poems Li Bai describes looking up at it.

Power's book is like that. Misty figures appear and disappear; are they real, in a dream, or one of his 'reveries'? This slim book, first published in 1984, and brought briefly up to date as one of Signal's beautifully presented 'Lost and Found' series, is one of the saddest memoirs I've read.

Set in Tientsin, now Tianjin, where Power was born in 1918, The Ford of Heaven is different from other such books, of which there are many. Although for most foreigners in semi-colonial China the Chinese were servants, bandits, pedlars, or a tumultuous background never allowed into the club, for young Brian they were his closest friends and he spoke their language early and easily.

This is a book about loss. In one respect, as Frances Wood observes in her perceptive foreword, the greatest loss for the boy, as for many other children brought up in China before the Japanese war and the communist victory in 1949, was his amah, a person of fundamental importance for whom the word nanny is misleading. Amahs were really the mothers of many foreign children of the time, and when those children left China for 'home', a place where many of them had never been, a wound opened that never healed.

As Miss Wood notes, 'One wonders what the bereft amahs felt.' For Brian it was not just the amah and her family;

there were tea and flower-pedlars, storytellers, and donkey-men. Always, somewhere just off-stage, was the White Lotus, an ancient semi-religious secret sect or society -- it may be functioning again in China today -- dedicated to overthrowing the rich and ridding China of foreigners and other evils. One day Brian saw a pathetic little group of them being led through the streets to be beheaded. He imagines -- this is one of those empty spaces that is never filled -- that his amah, a Tibetan Jesuit (the only one ever? ), and even one of his family's closest friends, the Scot 'Mad Mac', were connected to the White Lotus. …

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