Nainai has lived in Shanghai for many years, and the time has come to find a wife for her adopted grandson. But when the bride she has chosen arrives from the countryside, it soon becomes clear that the orphaned girl has ideas of her own. Her name is Fu Ping, and the more she explores the residential lanes and courtyards behind Shanghai’s busy shopping streets, the less she wants to return to the country as a dutiful wife. As Fu Ping wavers over her future, she learns the city through the stories of the nannies, handymen, and garbage collectors whose labor is bringing life and bustle back to postwar Shanghai.
It’s a sign of the times that this novel about Hong Kong’s June 4th vigils, Chinese dissidents, and village protests seems almost quaint compared with recent real-life events. In the same way, Chinese Spring is an apt story. While Hong Kong has endured weekly protests, police clashes and mass triad attacks over the past two months, the underlying reason is fear of the Chinese authorities and their legal system. This is also what the protagonists in Christopher’s new novel confront.
It can be difficult to remember today, but before 1978—the beginning of the reform era—famines struck China with depressing regularity. Many (or perhaps most) of them were human-induced. That certainly goes for the terrible famine of 1959-1961, which resulted from Mao Zedong’s so-called “Great Leap Forward” economic development program. A key element of this murderous social experiment was the forced collectivization of farmers into enormous People’s Communes consisting of thousands of households. Intended to bring about food security and income levels approaching those of the United Kingdom (the Soviet Union wanted to surpass the US, so Mao targeted the UK), it led instead to the starvation of some 20-50 million people. No one knows the true number.
Collecting objects gives enormous pleasure to approximately one third of the population, providing such benefits as intellectual stimulation, the thrill of the chase, and leaving a legacy. On the other hand, the same pursuit can engender pain; for example, paying too much for an object, unknowingly buying a fake, or dealing with the frustrations of collection dispersal.
At the end of a network of quiet alleys just to the east of Beijing Railway Station sits Kuijiachang Hutong—Armor Factory Alley. Few stumble across it; you have to search it out. In imperial times, as the name suggests, this was an area dedicated to the manufacture of munitions and the paraphernalia of war. It is not stretching the historical association too far, I hope, to link the street’s former purpose to the explosive power of a work of journalism completed on this hutong in the 1930s, for few could dispute the international impact made by Edgar Snow’s 1937 work of reportage, Red Star over China.
This is the story of the Reeves Collection of botanical paintings, the result of one man’s single-minded dedication to commissioning pictures and gathering plants for the Horticultural Society of London.
There always comes a time when, as people age, events move from being “within living memory” to “history”. There is even more urgency to capture these voices in a place like China where, for reasons of war and turmoil, fewer voices were, on the whole, captured at the time.