The Colour of the Sky After Rain
By Tessa Keswick
Head of Zeus, £30
For most of my life I had no interest in China. It wasn’t corona that got me interested – it was seeing Chinese mansions spring up in Jamaica, or driving into the Ethiopian bush on Chinese-built highways (they need the fertile land); but primarily it was hearing a museum-director friend hand-wringing in 2019: “One per cent of Chinese can now travel abroad. The galleries are already at bursting point. What will happen when it’s two per cent?”
Now we have these timely revelations from a uniquely positioned Sinophile who has, over 40 years, had more access and visited more recherché corners of the giant land than probably any Briton. More so even than her indulgent husband, Sir Henry Keswick, taipan emeritus of Jardine Matheson (also known as Jardines), which has been trading in the Far East for 188 years. It was his influence that undoubtedly facilitated her social, business world, art world and physical penetrations. “The Chinese people,” she reminds us, currently account for a fifth of the global population, and we need to engage with them as individuals and seek to understand the way they think and feel.”
Part history, part social history, part gossip and part travelogue, her book is in the mode of the late Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor. It sheds more light on the cultural and social history that animates the Chinese mindset, gives them their self-reliance, their sense of determination and ability to outwit the obstacles placed in their paths, than a reader could reasonably have hoped for. Tessa Keswick’s conclusion is that “the delicacy and refinement inherent in the best of Chinese culture is not matched by its Western equivalent”.
Keswick has the stamina, fearlessness and genuine interest in people from every level of society that you might expect from the daughter of a war hero, the 15th Lord Lovat and clan chief (Fraser). She visits temples, the Forbidden City and the Little Potala Palace from which the Dalai Lama had to flee in 1959. She has seen the Mogao Caves containing China’s most artistically important trove of Buddhist art and artefacts dating from 400-1400, and the majestic Jade Dragon Snow Mountain – inspiration for James Hilton’s Shangri La in Lost Horizon.
She takes endurance bus journeys, travelling 12 hours through the Min Mountains to see the turquoise lakes of Jiuzhaigou. She has slept on mattress-free iron bed frames with cockroaches a-plenty, and seen corpses bobbing – a fact of life – down the frequently flooded 3,900 mile long Yangtze River. But the hovels she first saw and ate in and the shops where shopkeepers washed, ate and slept in full public view are much harder to find now in the bastion of capitalism into which China has, at breakneck speed, transformed itself.
How did this happen? Jardines had to leave in 1949 when the People’s Republic forbade any foreign ownership. They lost everything and had to move to Hong Kong, “Queen Victoria’s rocky prize following the treaty of Nanking”. When Chairman Mao died, Deng Xiaoping announced gaige kaifang (reform and opening up) and capitalism was quietly allowed to take hold. To explain this controversial volte face the leadership coined the phrase “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”. In 1997 President Zhu Rongji invited Jardines back. Business is done differently in China. To detail your company’s successes is not deemed to be showing off, as it would be in England. It’s viewed as helpful. The Chinese don’t like swagger but they don’t admire self-deprecation either: “By being completely frank and open, trust can be established between the parties.”
Trust is paramount. “In business Henry has never, in 60 years of working with Chinese partners, been let down by a Chinese who has given his word – except once in 2018, and that happened outside China.”
Tessa Keswick moved in with a Chinese family, the Zhous, to learn Mandarin. Over the years she noticed how greatly their lives, like hundreds of millions of those in the emerging middle classes, were improving in terms of health, wealth and leisure interests.
But the Zhous insisted on still calling themselves laobaixing – “ordinary people” – because “we have no power”.
“The Chinese,” Keswick writes, “have no rule of law to protect them from the vagaries of the state, and they do not expect this since there has never been any in all the millennia of Chinese history.
“This why trust is such a key thing in China, trust in one’s social network has become a substitute for protection from the rule of law.”
Within the context of coronavirus, the Chinese government is capable of undertaking huge public projects to which the people seem amenable. In 2017 it managed to clear Beijing of smog by temporarily banning coal fires and restricting car movements to make the city more impressive for Donald Trump’s state visit.
The rate of progress is phenomenal – Keswick’s friend Fumei told her that once she thought a taxi driver had taken her to the wrong block, but actually a park with landscaping and water features had been installed next to her building since she left that morning. So it is little wonder that the authorities managed to build and staff huge corona hospitals in mere days.
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