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Julia Boyd on the Lost World of Beijing’s Earliest Expats

Julia Boyd’s latest book, A Dance with the Dragon, is a fascinating glimpse into the lost world of Beijing’s first expats. Drawing on previously unpublished historical sources, Boyd paints a colorful world populated by diplomats, adventurers, scientists, missionaries and Russian refugees. Set against the backdrop of some of the most dramatic decades of the 20th century, it is a story of people willfully ignoring the forces sweeping the country around them, submerging themselves in the whirl of picnics, parties and polo ponies while China reeled from the forces of revolution, civil war and the Japanese invasion.

Mengfei Chen: How did you become interested in this topic?

Julia Boyd: Having met my husband John in Beijing – at a British Embassy picnic in the Western Hills in 1975 – I have always had a soft spot for the city. A few years ago I was looking for an interesting subject to write about and it struck me that this period of Beijing’s history, i.e. from the Boxer uprising in 1900 to 1949, might be just that. I don’t think I was wrong!

MC: Can you give a quick and dirty overview of Beijing’s foreign colony?

JB: Beijing’s foreign community from 1860 (when diplomats were first allowed to live in the city) until Mao Zedong’s victory was never very large but it was a rich mix. Initially it consisted mainly of diplomats and missionaries with the odd journalist, banker, academic and adventurer thrown in. But by the late 1920s Beijing had also become a magnet for artists and writers (Robert Byron wrote “The Road to Oxiana” there in 1935), as well as for scholars and even some scientists.

In my view the 1920s were the golden era for foreigners since “Peking” had modernised just enough to make things reasonably comfortable but not so much that its unique way of life had been seriously eroded. Think of the joys of living in a courtyard house!

Moreover Beijing’s stunning temples and palaces, not to mention its wall and gates, were all still intact. When the foreigners wanted to escape the heat and pressure of life in Beijing, they could retreat to the Western Hills where (cosseted by teams of servants) they could rent a Buddhist temple for next to nothing. Their charmed life, however, came to a distinctly unpleasant end when in 1943 so many of them found themselves in the Japanese internment camp at Weihsien. By December 1948, when Mao’s troops were besieging Beijing, the only foreigners left were the inevitable diplomats and missionaries, a few hardy academics and those who, like the White Russian refugees, had nowhere else to go. The party was over.

MC: You write that Beijing’s expats were a different breed from their Shanghainese counterparts. How so? What do you think accounts for this and do you think this difference has persisted into the present?

JB: Well, the behavioural incentives were so different. Shanghai was developed, virtually from nothing, by Westerners for commerce and business while in Beijing, (where commercial activity was prohibited on any large scale) the diplomats were locked in a wrestling match with the Chinese authorities and where even the most insular foreigner could hardly ignore the city’s extraordinary cultural riches. The International Settlement in Shanghai was huge – around 10,000 foreigners but in Beijing it never numbered more than about 3-4000. I think that because the Beijing lot thought they were more sophisticated and cultured, they looked down on the “Shanghailanders” who in turn probably thought the Beijing foreigners snobbish and effete. This rivalry was reflected in frequent disputes between the diplomatic and commercial views of China’s future.

MC: Why do you think 1920s Shanghai – the setting of innumerable books and films –  has had such a monopoly on the popular imagination?

JB: Shanghai was a volatile place, a classic intersection between East and West. On the one hand the lifestyle was glamorous exuding ‘anything goes’, but on the other there was real suffering, poverty and lawlessness. At a time when the pleasure-loving West was seeking new highs, such a mix provided wonderful copy for films and literature – and of course still does .

MC: Where did Beijing’s expats come from? Why were they here? Did you have a favorite subject to write about?

JB: Diplomats and missionaries always made up a large percentage of the foreign community but Beijing also attracted literati, dropouts, academics, widows, remittance men refugees and explorers from all over the West. The Peking Union Medical College drew many fine doctors and nurses to the city while it was a  particularly exciting period to be an archaeologist or palaeontologist based there. It’s hard to choose a favourite character but, rather to my surprise, I became fond of General Stilwell. Before he was appointed commander of the US forces in China and Burma in the Second World War, he had been a language student and military attache for many years in Beijing. He loved China and its people and, although soldiers don’t come much tougher than ‘Vinegar Joe’, he was very fond of Chinese art and collected ivory fan handles. Just before he left Beijing in 1939, he gave a banquet for 12 rickshaw boys in his courtyard house.

MC: Are there still signs of this era in modern Beijing? 

JB: There are a few but you need a strong imagination to conjure up this period. Having said that, much of the legation quarter still exists including the entrance to what was once the British Legation. The Peking Union Medical College is one of the finest surviving buildings from this period and is still a hospital. I did once manage to talk my way into the old Peking Hotel’s stunning ballroom before going up on to the hotel roof – a favourite dance place for the foreigners. Although I have been to Beijing many times it was only a couple of years ago that I first visited the surprisingly deserted Temple of Agriculture where public executions took place. I was also pleased to discover Sun Yat-sen’s  Russian-made steel coffin in the Azure temple and to spend a reflective hour in the eunuchs’ temple. A number of temples survive in the Western Hills where it is possible to get some sense of why the foreigners loved spending so much time there.

MC: At the end of the book, you write:

Nevertheless (with honourable exceptions) they [Beijing’s expats] stand guilty of a massive failure of imagination. Had they been more astute and less incurious, keener to nurture China’s self-confidence rather than undermine it, had they not lived so insistently in their own bubble and had they been, above all, less convinced of their own superiority, their legacy in China might not now be regarded with quite such contempt and China’s recovery of its former prestige would surely have proven less traumatic.

Can you unpack this statement a little? What is this legacy and what can Beijing’s latest pack of expats learn from it?

JB: The legacy is, I fear, a continuing difficulty in developing fundamental mutual confidence in a world that will only survive on a basis of real trust and active cooperation. Of course it always takes two to tango but looking ahead, I think perhaps the most important message for us expats is never to forget the deep continuity of China’s cultural tradition and behaviour patterns, and to keep on studying them and trying to understand them better.

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