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Brushstrokes in Time by Sylvia Vetta

Beijing childhood 1962

On Friday nights, my mother would lock the door of our flat in the nineteen fifties block, constructed in the favourite building material of the time, concrete. After a forty-minute bus ride through the western suburbs of Beijing, we emerged to the sound of birds welcoming us to their earthly paradise, my father’s cottage in the grounds of the old Imperial Summer Palace. My father, a senior communist party officer, worked in Fundamental, the department concerned with the development of industry, and was allowed a house in the grounds of the Summer Palace. Most weekends, my mother and I joined him there. I liked to rush ahead and skip through the opening courtyard and make for the Garden of Harmonious Interests, where the cool waters were completely hidden by brilliant green lotus leaves. This perfect playground appeared divine but mother said it was a man-made creation.

‘The Emperor Qianlong built it as a gift for his mother. You see even the emperor respected his mother. Just remember that when you stamp your feet and pout your lips.’

She tried sounding martial and aloof but, despite the unisex clothing, nothing could disguise her feminine features and gentle nature.

Not far from the entrance, I caught the eye of the great bronze ox looking over the glistening waters of the Kunming Lake and ran my fingers over the eighty character poem carved on its body. This too was the work of the Qing Emperor whom my mother so admired. One of the poems she had written for me on the fan she gave me was by him. But in the steaming summer days, I avoided the shrewd eye of the imperial ox because I could hardly wait to plunge into the refreshing waters.

As I walked down the longest corridor on earth, decorated with classic tales of Wu Song beating the Tiger and dreamy scenes of the Red Mansion, I took a fleeting glance at the Romance of the West Chamber. Then I looked up the hill at the tiles on the sweeping roof of our weekend home. Grooved like the straight etched trunks of the pines, they seemed to merge into the landscape. The hundreds of bosses on the circular ends of the roof supports were moulded with ancient patterns. Mama pushed open the huge red lacquered door and I ran into the courtyard and father came out to greet us. He was tall for a Chinese man of that time and when he laughed he looked like a jolly Buddha; and he was laughing as he gave me a bear hug. I didn’t realise how unusual he was. I thought all fathers hugged their daughters. Watching the pleasure in my parents’ greetings, I even thought all husbands and wives loved each other.

On Saturday morning as soon as I had finished my little breakfast, I rushed outside. I had made friends with the boy and girl from the next courtyard house. The boy’s name was Weiwei. Chinese names are given for their meaning and his meant cultured. Jia meant beautiful, but his sister Jia didn’t have a regular beauty: her features were square compared with mine and her forehead was a little narrow but she, like her brother, had sparkling mischievous eyes. I thought of her as my best friend because she was such fun to be with.

I can close my eyes and hear and see clearly the three of us laughing as Weiwei persuaded us to climb onto the flat roof of an outhouse next to their weekend home. Weiwei stretched to his full height and grasped a wooden joist, pulling himself onto the yellow tiles. He reached down a hand for me and soon I stood beside him. Jia refused his help and we waited while she struggled up to join us. We shouted and laughed as we jumped from roof to roof until, short of breath, we stopped and gazed across at the sparkling lake. We turned to face Dragon Alley and swept our eyes down, along the invisible spine of the great dragon, to its end in the little island in the lake.

Towering over us was the largest building in the Summer Palace, the Fragrant Buddha Temple, with its four towers of eaves spreading a shadow over the man-made Hill of Longevity. In school, we were so proud when we learned that, after the revolution, this Imperial Playground was opened to the heirs of the labourers who built it. Now I am surprised that my ten-year-old self did not feel privileged to be there.

Jia, Weiwei and I slid down a side wall and started striding up the steep stone steps leading towards the temple. I stopped for breath and noticed the pebbles set in the path creating patterns of flowers and leaves that later that day I would draw for my father. Underneath, I would write a poem. I tried to write calligraphy with a chalk long before I understood the significance of those double strokes. I discovered that a simple brush and a block of ink were all that was needed to transform a blank page into a thing of beauty. But at ten, I was not aware that art was at the very heart of my being. Then, my feet itched to climb the trees until hunger drove me home. I struggled to open the huge door guarded by stone lions, the powerful protectors of our young lives.

Saturday lunch was eaten in the Tingli Guang, or Yellow Song Bird Hall, where emperors once dined with their court. I had an ability which I did not realise was unusual. Once I had seen a painting, I easily recreated it in my mind – so I could visualise the delicate pictures of those imperial banquets, and wondered what the emperor Qianlong would have thought of our communal canteen style meals. I filled my plate and solemnly joined my parents but Father laughed and pretended not to know about my antics with Weiwei and Jia.

I make it sound as though this were a Utopia, and in a way it was. It was my Utopia. It was the view from the longest corridor in the whole world, and the view from the Hill of Longevity. My parents treated me as a precious little jewel, and I was given everything I wanted. I pestered my parents until they bought me paints with which to colour my imagination blue and red and gold and green, like the paintings in the Long Corridor. However, not every moment was bliss. China’s recent past occasionally interrupted my idyll.

Once, early in the morning, before the palace opened to visitors, we children played on the steps of the Pavilion of Precious Clouds and I ran towards the Long Corridor shouting, ‘Catch me if you can.’ As I turned the corner near the ferry boat wharf, I skidded to an abrupt halt. Weiwei came up behind me and stared. The man blocking the pathway was the figment of nightmares. His huge dark eyes protruded so far I imagined they could roll like marbles along the ground. In a booming voice, he asked what we thought we were doing. Shame– faced, we said sorry to the caretaker. With that, he turned and walked away leaving us riveted to the spot; our eyes fixed on a vision like nothing we had seen before. He seemed to have no separate neck; it was as if his head was glued to his body. Once he was out of sight, we made for the safety of home. My father was surprised to see us back so soon. Fear was still written on our faces so he asked what had happened.

‘Ah, I see you have met old soldier Wang. Well, you must show him respect, he is a brave man.’

Weiwei’s face reddened and my father asked him, ‘Would you like to hear Wang’s story?’ We all three nodded eagerly because we loved my father’s stories.

‘During our struggle with the Japanese, like your mother and I, Wang joined the Red Army to free our land from occupation. You will find this story hard to believe but it is true and you have seen the evidence. His pia was sent to locate the enemy and was told to spread out in the woods that surrounded their camp. So Wang was quite alone when he came across a whole platoon of Japanese soldiers. As he turned to run, one of them swung his bayonet to decapitate him. Yes, children, they very nearly succeeded. The blade narrowly missed his spine but summoning all his strength he held his severed head in place and ran and ran and ran for five miles. Our doctors saved him but that is why the back of his head looks so strange.’

We were silent then gasped, ‘Wow! He is such a hero.’

Sara, a Pia is the equivalent of a platoon. I’ll try not to take it for granted that you will understand Chinese terms.

I thought of Wang in school the next day when the teacher praised revolutionary heroes. I wanted to tell her about him. Instead I learned about another hero. The teacher stood up very straight and her eyes looked at each of us in turn as she told the story of Lei Feng. She was only five-foot tall but seemed to grow by inches when she was inspired.

‘Girls, this is the story of a great hero. His name was Lei Feng; he was just an ordinary soldier who came from a poor family. Soon after the death of his father, while Lei Feng was still a boy, their greedy landlord abducted his mother and raped her. Our hero vowed to avenge her. The revolution brought about the downfall of that evil man. In gratitude, Lei Feng joined the People’s Liberation Army promising to sacrifice himself for others and for Chairman Mao.’

My parents called me Xiaodong, Little Winter, because I was tiny at birth and born in December when a bitter chill settles over Beijing. Because of the meaning of my name, I took particular notice at the mention of winter. My teacher praised me enthusiastically when I quickly learned to recite this poem from Lei Feng’s diary.

To the commander we are as warm as spring

To the revolutionary worker we are as hot as summer

To the selfish we gust like the autumn wind

To the enemy we are as cold as winter.

So Sara, Lei Feng’s ambition was to become a cog in the revolutionary machine. Our teacher said that Chairman Mao liked that so much that he wanted every Chinese to copy him!

I loved to sketch Lei Feng plunging deep into a sea of flames, all for Chairman Mao. The tongues of fire I painted seemed to burn even brighter when a shaft of sunlight settled on my picture after teacher pinned it to the wall. We were urged to be like the hero and be prepared to sacrifice ourselves for our country and our leader. Each morning, the whole school marched under the red flag singing energetic songs.

My school was Number Three Girls’ School so I only got to meet boys at the weekend. That was when Weiwei told me his favourite hero was Wang Jie whose platoon was practising grenade-throwing when one landed close to his comrades. Weiwei’s eyes lit up as he said, ‘The hero threw himself on it, sacrificing himself so the others would live.’ All our heroes seemed to write diaries. We studied them and learned whole passages by heart. Sitting here alone on this Californian hill, I can still recite,

Firstly, I am not afraid of suffering. Secondly, I am not afraid of death.

Looking up into the hills wondering how to explain my childhood enthusiasm for Chairman Mao, I think the next chapter of my belated diary must be ...

Brushstrokes in Time is available in paperback and ebook

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