I had mixed feelings about this book. It’s the story of an English student studying Chinese language & history in Peking in the 1970s, during the final days of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. What disconcerted me at first was the tome of humorous incomprehension. I was tempted to pick this up because I’d been reading articles about the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Everything I read emphasized the horror & the tragedy of this period of Chinese history, when the Communist leadership, led by a resurgent Mao Zedong, incited students to form the Red Guard. The Red Guard violently suppressed intellectuals, exalted the role of the peasants & forced so-called class enemies to work in the fields. In the process this new policy ruined the economy & led to millions of deaths from famine as well as the many people imprisoned by the regime. China was almost an unknown land to most people in the West at that time & Frances Wood didn’t know about the atrocities until her return from Peking. The book was based on her letters home & emphasize the absurdities of a regime that she compares to Sellers & Yeatman’s 1066 and All That rather than Orwell’s 1984.
I can’t imagine how Wood kept her sense of humour in the circumstances of her life in Peking. She was one of a group of foreign students studying at a Language Institute & then, she was permitted to study history at Peking University. Living conditions were primitive, no heating in the winter, very little hot water (& that was usually monopolised by the aggressive North Korean students). Washing sheets in the winter & trying to keep the sleeves of a thick padded coat free from soy sauce are only two of the challenges Frances faces. Her Chinese tutors & fellow students lived in a state of fear that their words would be misinterpreted & so real friendships were impossible. Some of the foreign students deliberately tried to question the official version, which changed depending on who was in or out of favour with the leadership of the Party. Teaching materials were bland & uninteresting because so much history was being rewritten & so many books stamped Negative Teaching Material & only available from the library with written permission from a tutor.
Then, there were the compulsory games & the periods spent working in the country, trying to plant rice or bind enormous cabbages with inferior rice straw that broke. Every aspect of life was dictated by the Party & foreigners were restricted in their movements, forced to get permits to travel &, like other Chinese, having to take all their food with them for the journey. There are some beautiful moments, seeing the dawn at the Great Wall, for instance, but most journeys, whether by train or bicycle, were frustrating. The British Embassy staff provided respite for the British students, providing transport for them to get into Peking & inviting them to social events & outings. Wood always feels an outsider & the horrified reaction of most Chinese to Westerners gives her insight into racism at a very basic level,
An immensely tall and lanky Swedish student with a great clump of fair hair got tired of walking along city streets and having the entire population call out Waiguo ren (Foreigner) as if he didn’t know. … The same thing happened to the rest of us, all the time, although we weren’t quite so visible from a distance. Wherever we went, whatever we did, there was always the insistent whisper, Waiguo ren. If you just slipped out of the Institute gates to post a letter, people staggered back, arms flailing, or flattened themselves against walls and stared. I remember one little old lady in her thick black cotton padded suit, hobbling along on bound feet, who had to clutch at a tree when I passed as she muttered Waiguo ren to herself.
After a year in Peking, Frances returns home after a long journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway & through Eastern Europe. She regrets her failure to really become a part of China, unrealistic though such an aim might have been. On her return home, she was paralysed by the choice of cereals at breakfast (even though she’d dreamed of such choice in Peking) & felt paranoid when she was ignored by her fellow travellers on the bus. Frances Wood & her fellow students were witnesses to the essential absurdity of all totalitarian regimes. She was fortunate in being an outsider, able to observe & be amused by the ridiculousness without becoming a victim of the arbitrary whims of the leadership. I enjoyed Hand-Grenade Practice in Peking with reservations. Having just read Christabel Bielenberg’s memoir, The Past is Myself, I had similar questions about writing & reading memoirs. Although written many years after the event, both authors take us back to the people they were at the time with the knowledge they had then. I can only respect their honesty & their ability to strip away the knowledge they gained after the fact & take their stories at face value, for the fascinating slices of life they are.