I have always wanted to go to China and see the Great Wall, and last year I finally had to opportunity to do so, as I travelled to Beijing and Inner Mongolia to undertake research for my novel The Blue Rose.
In this novel, my Welsh gardener David travels to China as part of the British embassy to the emperor, led by Lord Macartney. The ambassador wished to persuade the Chinese emperor to open up trade with Britain, which was suffering a huge trade imbalance as the English bought up vast quantities of tea, silk, porcelain and the gorgeous blooms of peonies, camellias, jasmine, magnolias and other exotic Chinese flowers (including the ever-blowing, blood-red rose that is at the heart of my novel).
I travelled with my son Ben, who had just turned twenty. We flew first to Beijing, and had a few days there exploring the old quarter. It was remarkably close to what it must have been like in 1792, when the ambassador and his entourage travelled inside the city walls, among the first Westerners permitted within. My son Ben is very tall, with fair skin and blue-grey eyes, and it was interesting to see how much attention he attracted as we explored the narrow alleyways. It gave me a fascinating insight into what the men of the British embassy must have felt like as they walked the same streets, dressed in their tight breeches and tricorn hats, many of them wearing powdered wigs on their heads.
This is how I wrote the scene in The Blue Rose:
The embassy reached Peking on the 21st of August.
Lord Macartney and Sir George and his son were carried in red lacquer palanquins, gaudily painted with golden dragons, but the rest of the entourage were crammed into common hired carts, with a roof of coarse straw matting. The horses were raw-boned and harnessed with rope, and no attempt had been made to match one to the other. It took seventy carts to carry them all, with four hundred porters trudging ahead, carrying the baggage.
‘This is not how the British embassy should be received!’ Anderson cried. ‘Where is the pomp and spectacle, the magnificence of one great nation welcoming another? Are we not the first nation in the west and China the first nation in the east?’
David and Scotty and a few of the other young men preferred to ride, and – after a great deal of argy-bargy complicated by the language divide – were at last given some short rough-coated ponies to ride, with gaudy over-decorated saddles and bridles. It was a relief to be free of the carts, though, which had no springs of any kind, and David relished the chance to see more of the countryside.
Thousands of people had gathered to watch the procession, climbing the ancient willow trees to see more clearly or pushing so close on to the highway that the Chinese soldiers had to beat them back. Some were struck with wonder and fear, hiding their children behind their gowns. Many others pointed and made unpleasant scoffing sounds. Some even spat.
‘Why do they stare so?’ David asked uncomfortably.
‘They think you devils,’ Father Li explained, in his oddly accented Latin. ‘In Chinese theatre, only devils wear such tight clothes, or have red hair. And your eyes are wild beast eyes, devil eyes.’
‘Maybe I should wear tinted spectacles,’ David muttered, and fixed his gaze on the dusty road.
At last the city walls of Peking reared above them, nearly fifty feet tall and immensely thick. One could have galloped a horse along the wall’s broad top. As the ambassador approached the wall, he was welcomed by the ritual firing of guns, which cast a pall of smoke over the scene. Refreshments of cold fruit and drinks were given to the hot and perspiring foreigners within the shelter of the gate. Then they were ushered into the city, the mandarins leading the way, their servants shading them with silk parasols, soldiers keeping back the crowds with whips.
The road was lined with shops decorated with tall gilded pillars and intricately carved woodwork. Long banners hung with Chinese characters swayed in the breeze. Old men scurried ahead of the entourage, sprinkling water on the roads to keep the dust down.
Riding on his pony, David was able to see over the heads of the teeming crowds and down the narrow alleyways, lined with rows of dilapidated grey houses with grey tiles. They were so low and uniform, and so lacking in windows, it looked like an encampment of army tents.
Men with long bamboo poles resting on their shoulders carried straw baskets filled with persimmons and dragon fruit. A young man in a loose robe and flapping queue ran past, clutching rolls of brightly coloured silks under his arms. An old pedlar with a weathered face and no teeth sat behind a table piled high with desiccated bats, dried snakes in stiff coils, animal horns, ginseng and severed tiger paws.
One shop had a display of exquisite porcelain plates and jars, decorated with sinuous dragons or graceful designs of cobalt-blue roses and peonies. Another shop sold coffins carved from incense cedar, the lid sweeping upwards at either end like the eaves of a temple. A silversmith bent over his work in a window, the tink-tink-tink of his hammer cutting through the clamour of the crowd.
In flimsy street-stalls, blind fortune-tellers read horoscopes, singers warbled to the accompaniment of strangely shaped stringed instruments, and storytellers beguiled their audiences with tales of love, betrayal and reunion.