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Blog 34 - The Emperor's Boots

I chose a couple of extra silk scarves last week from my collection for this journey and made sure they were made in China. Indeed they are from the same manufacturer Triangle.... one label reads, Made in The People’s Republic of China, the other simply Made in China. Interesting! I bought them both in the Lanes of Central on Hong Kong Island from a market stall. I should have bought one with peonies, China’s national flower, instead of irises. The one I am wearing today has quite a modern design, a geometric pattern in blue and green alongside orange irises, very fine silk, quite gossamer like and colourful. What a contrast these colours and pattern are to the sameness of the clothes of the Chinese people at the time of my visit more than forty years ago. Every adult wore the same blue high buttoned denim tunic and trousers, man and woman alike. The only variation we saw was the khaki of military uniforms of soldiers enjoying leave in a beautiful Changsha park where Chairman Mao found his communist belief. I wonder if the Mao Walk still bears his name?

This uniformity of dress was brought home to me when we were in Zhengzhou at the top of a fourteen storey tower built to commemorate the rail workers strike of 1923. Looking down at Erqui square I could see hundreds of blue clad figures. Was it a public holiday, were they gathered to watch a procession? No, they had come to see this small party of foreigners.....and our coach. There were no cars on the streets, only bicycles.

We would encounter this interest wherever we visited; at the remote huge Buddhist carvings in the limestone cliffs, where one moment we were alone and then from nowhere a crowd emerged, staring. We tried to be diplomatic and not take photos noticeably of what seemed extraordinary to us, men and women hauling huge carts of coal dust, harnessed like workhorses, an old woman with tiny feet, crippled from previous binding of her feet...what was her story, was she from a privileged background and forced to work in the fields as a result of the Cultural Revolution? Everywhere we went, we heard propaganda against the Gang of Four. We had no political views, we were merely observers, enthralled by the wondrous cultural sights, but very aware of extreme hardship at that time. It was early 1979. I doubt if I would recognise these towns now, Guangzhou, Changsha, Chengdu, Kaifeng, Luoyang with high rise buildings, modern factories, designer boutiques, countless restaurants, bars, busy road traffic, a buoyant economy.

How wonderful apart from all the culture in museums, temples, pagodas, I saw close up artisans painting glass snuff bottles from within the bottle with the finest of brushes, the intricate work of cloisonné, yes even visiting a ball bearing factory and another making matches. The factory floors were like art galleries with workers’ posters delivering political messages. Certain machines had special flags. I questioned whether these were rewarded for reaching production targets. No, just for keeping the old machine running! How different from today with everything high tech I expect. Now came our was evident that both men and women worked and each factory had a nursery for the children. As I said, all adults wore the same blue denim clothes, but the children were dressed in a riot of colour and put on concerts for us, singing not nursery rhymes, but very adult propaganda messages. I have to mention if you look at our English nursery rhymes, they often had hidden political references as well! Everywhere we got surprises....a simple child’s pushchair home made from bamboo, bricks from sand from the Yellow River mixed with mud, hand shaped drying in the sun, young girls carving intricate pieces of jade.

We visited a university with eager Chinese students wanting to practice their English, a hospital with two patients to a bed, one in it, the other in a chair awaiting his turn to stretch out. I witnessed two major operations under acupuncture and learned a little about Chinese medicine which would later in life lead me to study therapeutic massage...and also appreciate our NHS service and a full anaesthetic! Yes, I owe a lot to this visit.

But, I was going to tell you about my borrowed boots. We were invited to a Peking Opera and unaware of my faux pas, I wore my daughter’s white platformed boots, not knowing they were like the Emperor’s boots. The characters in the opera are identified by their dress, the colour of face painting, whether the character is female or male, both usually performed by a male, whether they will sing, perform martial arts or acrobatics. The audience were well informed and knew exactly was happening. Sitting in the front row as an honoured guest, I was observed with interest. Had I pinched some of the theatre props? Would I make a guest appearance on stage? I completely disgraced myself by falling asleep and slipping off the small hard chair into my husband’s lap. Not very imperatorial! My only excuse was I was very tired having climbed to the top of this tall pagoda earlier in the day.

I will linger a little longer in this amazing country and take you to Beijing next week where we unwittingly blundered badly. I will store the magic carpet safely, lest I have to make a quick get-away!

Busy Bee, Scarf Face!

Series 2, Blog 34.

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