Tessa Keswick, wife of Sir Henry Keswick, former chairman of Jardine Matheson, the historic merchant trading house, formerly of Shanghai, now Hong Kong, has spent nearly 40 years exploring China, resulting in this part travelogue, part memoir. An intrepid and indefatigable traveller, she has visited many provinces of this vast country, immersing herself in its local history and artefacts, staying at the beginning in very modest accommodation (including communal toilets) and being prepared to undertake gruelling treks, such as an eight-hour climb along a section of the Great Wall.
Despite being in a privileged position as the wife of a man for whom doors are automatically opened, Keswick is no “memsahib”: to her credit she has undertaken the formidable task of learning elementary Chinese, describing herself as now having “minimal proficiency”. When one realises that 4000 characters are required for merely basic fluency in Mandarin and that elderly Chinese people have to keep practising the language so as not to forget it, one has to admire her determination.
Her intriguing title comes from her description of sunrise in the city of Wenzhou in 1982. In something of an epiphany, Keswick contrasts the hardship and poverty she notices all around her with the ravishing beauty of the early morning sky, writing that at that moment “I fell in love with this country”.
This moment remains the leitmotif of her book: the stoic dignity of ordinary Chinese people against the backdrop of their ancient and complex civilization, going back 4,000 years.
Not surprisingly, in a book that crams four decades of regular visits, exploring monasteries, caves, gorges, shrines and grottoes all over the country and travelling by boat, train, aeroplane, including dangerous car journeys along unpaved roads, it is top-heavy on detail; several detailed travel guides are compressed into one narrative. What the reader, somewhat surfeited by these splendours, looks for are those small but significant insights that might illuminate the particular characteristics of this enigmatic and (to Westerners) mysterious people. There are not enough of these; perhaps, as someone connected to a famous trading house, too many doors are opened too easily for her?
Those that we glimpse in Keswick’s book are more than fascinating. For instance, in Shanghai in 1998 “sometimes we saw the older members of a family carrying a birdcage and taking their birds for a walk” and watched “old men race their cockroaches”. Her husband tells her that the Canton market used to be “full of bears and tigers, hawks and eagles, snakes and other endangered species”.
And the extraordinary rate of material progress in China during the last 40 years, when millions have been lifted out of poverty as the author reminds us, is encapsulated in this amusing anecdote of a Chinese friend in Beijing who “came back to her house one day and scolded the taxi driver for taking her to the wrong place. But he had not: since she had left that morning a small park with gardens and trees had been planted near her house and an elaborate water scheme installed.”
Keswick is at pains to emphasise that in dealing with the Chinese on a business basis, personal trust is what matters – indeed, it is all that matters. In a country where the Communist Party holds power over the courts, the police and the prosecutors, that “they trusted us” is “the most deeply rewarding and generous of gifts.” That ordinary Chinese know they are not protected by the rule of law explains, for the author, “the bravery and absence of complaint” that characterises them. She is humbled by the fact that even middle-class, prosperous recipients of China’s economic miracle always describe themselves as “just ordinary people because we have no power.”
What sits slightly uneasily within this genuinely admiring, observant and respectful memoir, focusing largely on the “delicacy and refinement inherent in the best of Chinese culture”, are the occasional references to the darker side of modern China.
Keswick is not naïve about this aspect of the country she loves; but she is determined to avoid the subject of politics. This may be because it is too hard to reconcile the refined culture that could produce, for instance, under the Song Dynasty – 800-1200 AD – the beauty of Ru pottery ware, with its subtle, delicate, ever-changing glaze, with the alarming instances of brutality that surface in the Western news media from time to time.
She has read Wild Swans, the autobiography of Jung Chang, which details the horror of growing up during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, yet can mention a bric-a-brac shop at Yulin Caves where “I find a ceramic piece depicting a Red Guard yelling abuse at a poor professor kneeling in a dunce’s hat” without further comment. Indeed, a boat trip down the Yangtze with her husband and spotting a human body floating in the water simply elicits the brisk conclusion that “this is China and owing to flooding…bodies have been floating down the Yangtze River…for thousands of years.”
There are a few references to the Chinese Government’s ill-treatment of the Uyghur Turkic peoples in Kashgar in the province of Xinjiang, as well as a brief listing of the millions who starved, were sent into forcible exile or were purged after the Communist takeover of the country in 1949. At the end of her narrative Keswick does refer to the social problems caused both by the country’s one-child policy – now jettisoned – and China’s headlong material advances, such as a falling birth-rate, an increasingly elderly population, a declining workforce and the break-up of the traditional Chinese family, but only in passing.
She adds the significant statement that “Today China is the only country in the world where the numbers of suicides of women exceed those of men”, but without context or explanation. The reader is left perturbed but none the wiser.
These fleeting observations disturb an otherwise appreciative description of China’s cultural legacy. The author’s intention has been to introduce China to a largely ignorant and uncomprehending West. Has she succeeded in this ambitious task? I would describe her book as a spirited, if limited, introduction to a formidable race, written by someone who makes a lively travelling companion.