Red on Red

William Empson witnesses the inauguration of the People’s Republic of China

2 October 1949. Yesterday we were busy with Jacob’s birthday till about five (or rather Hetta and Walter were and I was hanging about): then Kidd and his wife turned up and we all set out to look at the celebration of the new Government and capital. There was supposed to be a difficulty about getting sanluerhs, but we did and Hetta and I at once got separated from the others because our drivers went left by Coal Hill instead of right. Columns of soldiers were marching east and we didn’t see how to turn south through them towards Tien An Men. So we walked westwards to the pailou beside Pai Hai, getting rid of sanluerhs. The north gate was finely got up. I did not expect to be more than bored, but found myself extremely moved almost at once. You may believe that what is being celebrated will turn out a delusion, but history is full of gloomy afterthoughts. Here you have celebrated a victory of revolt against tyrants, supported by the countryside alone, practically with their bare hands, against a government drawing on the full terrors of modern equipment with medieval or fascist police methods into the bargain. If anything in history is impressive you are bound to feel that is. The troops looked very brown and sturdy, and had probably done some fighting (conceivably on the other side no doubt); some looked dolts, perhaps the majority, but none had an air of successful brutality, and the young with an air of simple goodness could regularly be picked up – the face that first struck me as so unlike Peiping when I crossed the lines to go to Tsing-Hua. They were singing, off and on, those extremely impressive marching songs. They were fully and elaborately equipped, some platoons with fixed bayonets, some carrying e.g. machine guns spread-eagled between four, who would be relieved occasionally by neighbours. I could not see if it had American lettering on, but the reflection that the equipment must all have been captured did seem to me enormously impressive. Only a few idlers were looking at them.

The red flags, stars etc on the red of the palace walls (a poppy scarlet on a faintly mauve rust-red) makes a gorgeous basis always for the colour schemes of the capital, and perhaps a symbolical one; the present blank insistence that Thibet is part of China, merely because the emperors conquered it in the past, does not give the impression that one red is to be obliterated by the other. Indeed, the whole idea of a tremendous procession and display which practically no one looks at – at least with many streets closed to spectators and no arrangements for them – is very like imperial sentiment. Two lao-pai-hsing passed a remark to this effect, the sanluerh man on the way home passing the Forbidden City north gate, who said there are the King’s lanterns being used, and our cook who said it was all a waste of public money just like the emperors. However, I don’t think that is a bad thing in itself; anyway, it is a reasonable result of Communist doctrine that the people themselves are the procession – it is the ones who turn out for it that the Government is trying to impress; it does no harm to the Government (however much harm it may eventually do to the rest of the world) if the people think they are reviving the imperial glories.

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William Empson, with his wife and two young sons, lived from 1947 to 1952 in Peking, where his teaching post at the Peking National University was subsidised by the British Council. The Empsons remained there throughout the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists, enduring the six-week siege of the city from December 1948 to January 1949.

After years of occupation and neglect, the fabric of the city was a mixture of downtrodden imperial splendour and indigent modern bustle. More than two million people lived within the 25-mile oblong perimeter of its crenellated walls, which were 40 feet high and ‘broader than Fifth Avenue’ (as an American correspondent remarked). Large, regular thoroughfares drove from one to another of the two-storeyed gate-towers, east and west, north and south, boxing the compass of the three constituent sectors of the city: the Imperial City, the Tartar City and the Chinese City. The intersections were marked by glossy triumphal arches, called p’ailou, of painted wood surmounted by high banks of coloured tiles. Within the symmetrical pattern outlined by its walls and highways, alleys of trodden mud created an insoluble jigsaw puzzle between high and windowless walls that screened off courtyard homes, small businesses and workshops. At the heart of the whole stood the Forbidden City, the Imperial Palace of the Ming and Ching dynasties (since 1925, the Palace Museum), with its walls of faded purplish pink topped by glazed imperial yellow tiles. On Saturday, 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong and his Party leaders filled the nine bays of the terrace beneath the red and gold gate-tower in order to inaugurate the People’s Republic of China.

Empson did not keep a journal, but he felt this grand historical event needed to be marked by jotting down his impressions of the ceremonial. His account was discovered among the personal effects of Hetta Empson after her death in December 1996, and is published here for the first time. Walter Brown and David Kidd were two young American teachers. Sanluerhs were pedicabs; Pai Hai is a lake to the west of the Forbidden City; lao-pai-hsing – literally, ‘Old One Hundred Names’ – means ‘ordinary people’.

John Haffenden