Music, Food and Love – Guo Yue & Clare Farrow

Guo Yue was born in Beijing in 1958 so was eight years old when the Cultural Revolution began and this memoir is of a childhood through a period of turmoil as Chairman Mao ran his country into the ground from The Great Leap Forward in 1958 with the re-organisation of China into collectives dedicated to single products which largely failed and ignored the skilled workforce elsewhere who were now forced to do something different, usually badly, to the personality cult of the The Cultural Revolution. Yue was given this name as it means leap forward (Chinese names are family name first, then given name) to mark the year of his birth and the book largely follows his life from then until May 1982 when he left China to study music in London. As you can imagine because he was a child throughout most of the events this is not a usual book about China in those times, rather it is story of family life and survival in a period of extreme upheaval most of which made little sense to the small boy growing up in a two room home around a courtyard of an abandoned temple which was populated by various musicians who had been allocated rooms there in 1949 during another of Mao’s policies.

His overwhelming memories are of making music, cooking, eating and making what fun he could with his friends, politics only creeps in when it impacts his family, those also living in the courtyard or his school friends. His father died in 1964 and this obviously had a massive impact on the family not only emotionally but financially. His mother was a teacher and intellectual who spoke several languages which of course drew the ire of the People’s Army when the Cultural Revolution began and she was eventually bundled off into the countryside to work the land as a punishment for intelligence only reappearing for the occasional night to see how her six children were coping without parents and comfort her youngest, Yue. Eventually she was too exhausted and ill to continue to be in the fields and she was returned home but by then her health was broken.

Yue describes his neighbourhood and the various shops he would run errands to for his elder sisters to get the rationed ingredients they needed and cheap restaurants he would later gather at with friends in his teens before joining the army as a musician beautifully. The map at the start of the book helps you follow him around his local part of north eastern Beijing. You also register his bewilderment and things suddenly change at the whim of Chairman Mao and the changes again ten years after the start of the Cultural Revolution when Mao died and subsequent leaders unravelled the his immensely damaging policies. His fellow author is his wife Clare Farrow a writer and editor on various arts publications specialising in architecture.

One of the joys of the book is that it also includes recipes. At the end of most chapters there is a short list of dishes mentioned in the text and the final seventy pages consists of a quick guide to Chinese cookery and numerous recipes that have had minor tweaks to allow for the unavailability of some of the ingredients used in revolutionary China in London in 2006.

In September 2007 I was visiting my original home town of Nantwich in Cheshire, England to go to its excellent annual Food Festival where Guo Yue was one of the celebrity chefs doing a cookery demonstration, so I actually bought the book from him at the time and he signed it for me in both Pinyin Chinese and English. From memory he cooked two or three of the dishes featured in the book and as I had a front row seat I managed to try some. Sadly the festival has been cancelled again this year due to the uncertainties around what can and cannot be done done the pandemic but I hope to go again in 2022.

Yue also played one of his flutes at the end of the cooking demonstration. Apologies for the poor quality of the image but it was taken with only the natural light through a marquee roof using a mobile phone, which back in 2007 did not possess the camera quality of modern smart phones. In 2006 Guo Yue went back to Beijing to work on an album also called Music, Food and Love and you can see a video recorded then here.

Sky Burial – Xinran

This is one of those books that is only on my shelves because it completes a set, in this case the twenty six volumes of Penguin Drop Caps which I have covered as a series right back at the beginning of this blog in early 2018. This does mean that I came to read the book with no preconceptions at all knowing nothing about either it or the author and I have really enjoyed it. Having said that I have a suspicion that Xinran made it into this collection more due to her name beginning with X than for the literary merit of the book. This could be the fault of the translators from the original Chinese, Julia Lovell and Esther Tydesley, as the style is rather flat which considering the subject matter seems odd but as I cannot read the original I have no way of knowing if that is better. I don’t know why Xinran didn’t make the translation as she has lived and worked as a journalist and writer in London since 1997 and this translation was first published in 2004 so presumably she would be more than capable of producing an English version herself.

The conceit of the book is that it is based on the real life story of a Chinese doctor Shu Wen who in 1958 who in 1958 at the height of the Tibetan-Chinese conflict went to Tibet to try to find out what happened to her husband who was a military doctor and ends up stranded there for over thirty years living with the nomads and travelling from camp to camp. According to the introduction Xinran met Shu Wen in Suzhou and talked to her over a period of a couple of days whilst she related her story, Shu Wen then suddenly checked out of her hotel and disappeared. Wikipedia appears to have fallen for this and describes the book as a biography but it is clearly listed as a work of fiction on the publication data page and frankly the idea that an intelligent woman would make no attempt to either continue her search or head back to China and would stay with the nomadic family for three decades is desperately unlikely. The resolution of the novel also stretches credulity to breaking point as a real life case with too many unresolved plot points being sorted out in a relatively short space of time compared to the vast amount of time with no movement on them at all.

Treating it as the novel that it is becomes far more rewarding than looking at it as a dubious biography, the book is 220 pages long in this imprint and I read it at one sitting as you do get drawn into the story. The depiction of Tibetan nomadic life is fascinating and it appears that Xinran did a significant amount of research, so you slowly learn, along with Wen, how the dynamics of family life operate. The book also largely avoids discussing the Chinese takeover of Tibet which has existed since the 1950’s, this is done by completely ignoring the subject by putting Shu Wen away from all contact with other Chinese people and any news of the world outside of the nomadic family she is with for a couple of decades. The exception is at the start where the conflict is acknowledged because that is why Shu Wen’s husband, Kejun, was in Tibet in the first place and also the description of Wen’s journey into Tibet having enlisted in the military and the surprise that her fellow soldiers have that they were not being welcomed with open arms as liberators from the rule of the Dalai Lama. This is where another extremely unlikely event occurs as Wen discusses with a senior officer and gets agreement from him to desert her unit in her search for Kejun. In a novel this is fine, strange things happen in novels, but in real life deserting the Chinese army at the time would have been punished severely.

I have deliberately not written much about the time Wen spends with the nomadic family or how the various issues are resolved as this is the real meat of the novel and any coverage would just be spoilers. Suffice to say that even though there is much that is not as good as it could be the book is a pleasant way of spending a rainy afternoon, just sit back, suspend belief a little, and go with the flow.