20 Summer Days In China by Betty Blunden (1974)

31 August

As usual I was up at 5.45. The view from the balcony outside our bedroom window was breathtaking. I was looking south over the old residential area of Peking. The car park below in front of the hotel, the bank of trees along the footpath, the buses and bikes already moving along the Avenue of Peace and then Old Peking as far as the eye could see. It was dawn and a grey mist was just lifting over the city. Grey tinged with gold as the sun rose. And all the roofs of all the little houses were gold tinged with grey. But there were many more tree tops than roof tops.

I decided not to go with the group to visit the Peking Viet Nam Commune that morning but to visit the fine art shop and the antique shops in Liulichang. I must find the prints that I promised to bring back for Mary and Mara and I hoped to find some small antiques that were modestly priced. After breakfast I wrote some postcards and sent them off at the hotel postal counter. This was always quite a business. It was usually crowded, it was important to choose the most beautiful stamps and there were so many to choose from, and it was a tricky job to stick them on the cards with the brush and pot of glue provided. Very few Chinese stamps were adhesive.

Miss Chi had written down the Chinese characters for the street of the antique shops, Liulichang, for me, as the taxi drivers spoke no English. From another counter in the hotel foyer I was able to arrange for a taxi. As this was the first time 1 had gone anywhere in China by myself I felt excited. We arrived at the street at nine o'clock. I found the art shop and read a notice on the door to say that they opened at 9.30. So I just sat on the steps in the sun and waited. About ten minutes later 1 was looking in my bag and found to my astonishment that I did not have my purse. I felt sick. All my money and travellers cheques were in it. I raced back to my taxi driver and somehow communicated to him that I had left my money back at the hotel. So we drove straight back to the hotel and I went to the postal counter. Without a word of explanation they handed me my purse. Back to Liulichang and now the shop was open.

A beautiful shop filled with natural light. There were three bays, a counter in each and all the walls covered with prints. I spent half an hour just looking before I made my choices. Both black and white prints. A landscape for Mara, a fishing boat on a lake with jagged mountains in the background and a vertical print for Mary, a man on a donkey in vigorous calligraphic brush strokes. Both prints were mounted as scrolls with wooden dowelling top and bottom. Rolled up I knew they would travel well though it was an awkward parcel to carry being nearly five feet long. But I was happy. Being by myself I had been able to concentrate and take time over making my decisions. 1 walked back to the taxi, left this parcel then walked down the antique shop end of the street. It was narrow with small shops. Not many antique shops but the few there were crammed with things. An antique lovers delight. As my budget was small I went straight to a case full of small objects. Some were expensive. I remember a little turtle less than an inch long that was two hundred yuan. But I was able to find things that I liked and could afford, four small jade pidiscs and an inch tall jade man holding a lotus over his shoulder. This last piece I was told was from the T'ang (ed. ?) Dynasty. Stupidly I didn’t ask the age of the other small pieces.

Back to the taxi and to our hotel. I'd had a wonderful morning, being out in Peking by myself, losing and finding my purse, lovely shopping and the taxi had cost me only about three Australian dollars.

The afternoon’s outing was to the Forbidden City, the seat of government and home of the emperors for 550 years. It is now known as the Palace Museum, is beautifully restored and is visited daily by thousands of Chinese people. The entrance the Gate of Heavenly Peace stands on the north side of the huge Tien An Men Square. It was just a short bus ride from our hotel. The whole complex of palaces is so immense, the total area is 720,000 square meters, there are 9000 rooms that it is hard to bring away any clear memories. I remember walking in the front gates, stepping over the great slab of wood into the entrance and then just walking on and on and on. Through palaces, over courtyards, up and down shallow flights of marble stairs, the flights divided by slabs of marble covered with intricate low relief sculptured designs. Every vista, looking from one palace to the next was classic and seemed quite perfect. The palaces have been looted many times during their long history, the last time by Chiang Kai Shek before his flight to Taiwan. Many treasures are in Taiwan still and many have been sold to the museums throughout the world.

The things I loved best were outside the palaces. The wonderful symmetry of courtyards and buildings, the ochre tiled roofs, the rusty red walls and brilliant red wooden pillars around some of the palaces, the great urns (did they have fires in them to create warmth in the courtyards in the winter?) the big bronze tortoises on pedestals, and my favourite palace dogs, here about five feet tall, gilded and guarding the entrances to some of the palaces. And tying it all together the exquisitely carved white marble walls and the flights of marble steps. So much beauty that 1 became saturated and could take in no more.