Books: Flying Visits: Mrs T. in China - 1 : The Dragon Lady Flies East |
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Mrs T. in China - 1 : The Dragon Lady Flies East

It was Wednesday in Peking. Out of a pale sky as delicately transparent as the finest ch’ing-pai ware of the Sung dynasty came the wolf-grey and sharktooth-white RAF VC-10 bearing the great British War Leader Margaret Thatcher and her subservient retinue. The British Media, who were along for the ride, tumbled down the rear gangway and took up their positions in a tearing hurry, because the War Leader would be among the first of the official party to deplane. Hands in China have to be shaken in order of precedence. Alphabetical order is out of the question, especially when you consider that the Chinese version is calculated by counting the number of brushstrokes in the surname.

The British Ambassador introduced his illustrious visitor to the Chinese official greeters and to the British military attaché, whose particular job, it was rumoured, was to make sure that the War Leader’s husband didn’t run into difficulties with the mao tai. A clear white local fluid in which toasts are drunk, mao tai has the same effect as inserting your head in a cupboard and asking a large male friend to slam the door.

Every world power, down to and including the Fiji islands, likes to think that its indigenous liquor can rob visiting dignitaries of the ability to reason, but let there be no doubt about mao tai. Without it, the Chinese hierarchs would be forced to listen to one another. It was therefore plainly advisable that the War Leader’s Husband should be limited to a single crucible of the stuff per banquet, if necessary by military force. The Media, needless to add, were under no such compulsion.

Moving a discreet step behind his all-powerful wife, the Husband was looking ravishing in a silk tie of Ming under-glaze blue and a smile of inlaid ivory, but it was the War Leader herself who captured all eyes. Her champagne and rhubarb jersey suit recalled painted silk of the Western Han period, her shoes were dawn carnations plucked at dusk, but it was her facial aspect that must have struck the first thrill of awe into her prospective hosts.

Nothing like that skin had been seen since the Ting potters of Hopei produced the last of their palace-quality high-fired white porcelain with the creamy glaze; her hair had the frozen flow of a Fukien figurine from the Forbidden City’s Gate of Divine Prowess, an edifice which, it was clear from her manner, was just a hole in the wall compared to the front door of 10 Downing Street.

The official greeters having been dealt with, the War Leader’s party climbed into the waiting limousines and howled off towards town, followed closely by the British Media in a variety of specially arranged transport. The basic Chinese character for any wheeled vehicle looks like a truck axle viewed from above. I was thinking this while standing there alone. The only Media man to watch the plane land instead of being on it, I was now the only Media man left behind at the airport: a bad augury for my first stint as a foreign correspondent.

By the time I reached town in the back of a Mitsubishi minibus laden with ITN camera boxes, the War Leader had lunched privately and was already due to arrive at the Great Hall of the People in the Square of Heavenly Peace, there to press the flesh with the inscrutable notables of the regime’s top rank.

The War Leader’s transit through China was competing with a simultaneous visitation by Kim Il Sung of North Korea. Despite respectful articles about Mrs Thatcher in the daily papers (both the English-language China Daily and the Chinese-language Renmin Ribao carried the official No. 10 handout glossy that makes a Shouchou bronze mirror look relatively unpolished) there was a general feeling that Kim was being given the more effusive welcome, possibly as a tribute to his prose style, by which he has already, single-handed, outdone those Chinese encyclopaedists who codified the classic writings into 36,000 volumes nobody ever read.

But if Kim was hogging the local television time, it could only be said that he was, after all, the leader of a fraternal Socialist country attuned to the way of Lenin and Mao, who have the same embalming fluid flowing through their veins even though they now lie in separate mausoleums. The War Leader was something else, something alien. And yet, somehow, something familiar. Where had the Chinese seen that icy strictness before?

There were only a few thousand people in the Square of Heavenly Peace, which meant that it was effectively deserted, because it can hold half a million spontaneously cheering enthusiasts on a big day. The armies of eight different Western countries paraded there in 1900 without even touching the sides. But they did leave a lasting feeling of humiliation, and when you take into account the fact that it was the British who actually burned down the Summer Palace in 1860 it will be understood that the Chinese were under no obligation to ge berserk with joy. They hung out a few Red flags and laid on a Combined Services honour guard of troops all exactly the same size, like one of those terracotta armies buried by Qin Shi Huangdi in Shaanxi Province, a district which was even at that moment being toured by the heavily publicised Kim.

While the War Leader checked the honour guard for any deviation in altitude, Peking’s only remaining large portrait of Mao looked down from the Gate of Heavenly Peace across the thinly populated square. Some Young Pioneers suddenly slapped their tambourines but the War Leader didn’ flinch. She didn’t smile at them either. She was a mask, no doubt practising her inscrutability for the encounter with Premier Zhao Ziyang, whom she accompanied inside, there to begin the opening dialogue which instantly became famous as the Great Fog Conversation.

Among the gilt friezes and cream plaster columns of the Great Hall, far below a ceiling full of late-Odeon period light fittings with frosted globes, Zhao Ziyang, the man whose name sounds like a ricochet in a canyon, asked the War Leader whether the cause of fog in London had anything to do with the climate. His guest said that it was due to the burning of coal but now there was no coal burned, so there was no fog. But people in Peking, her host countered, burn much coal, yet there is no fog. Clearly he had no intention of letting the point go, but her tenacity equalled his, and as the Media were ushered from the hall the War Leader was to be heard giving Zowie a chemistry lesson. Apparently the coal smoke had been more concentrated in London than it ever could be in Peking.

The Welcoming Banquet that night was in the Banqueting Hall of the Great Hall of the People: different room, same light fittings. The War Leader was in a long dress the colour of potassium permanganate, thus to drive home her superiority in chemistry. Zowie’s speech was tough on the hegemonists, meaning the Soviet Union and Israel. Of China’s hegemonial activities in Tibet, not a mention. He sat down and she stood up, to deliver a speech ten times as Chinese as his, both in its subtlety and range of cultural reference. She quoted ‘one of your T’ang poets’ to the effect that distance need be no division. The T’ang poet in question was, I am able to reveal, Wang Wei, but for her to name him would have sounded like showing off.

She was far enough ahead already, since Zowie had neglected to quote even a single Lake poet. There was also the possibility that she was making an arcane reference to Mao, who was, in his own poetry, much drawn to the T’ang style. Out there, hovering above his mausoleum, his immortal spirit was no doubt wondering whether his successors would be up to handling a woman of this calibre. Inside the mausoleum, his wax-filled corporeal manifestation lost one of its ears some time ago but it was rapidly sewn back on, thus restoring the physical integrity which had been denied to his fellow artist Vincent van Gogh. Mao was out of it, but Zowie was in the land of the living, where the real decisions are made.

There were two main toasts, both taken in mao tai. The Media watched the War Leader’s Husband, and pooled their observations afterwards. The consensus of their data was that he had scored a hole-in-one on the first but had settled for a par four on the second. Behind the flower-and-frond, yellow-dove-decorated centrepiece of the main table, the War Leader and the Premier kept talking. Nobody knew what they had said during the afternoon, but it seemed possible that the War Leader had now shifted the subject of casual conversation from fog to the light fittings. She spent a lot of time looking at them, when not eating. The military orchestra played a rhythmically questionable cha-cha, but the food was sensational, especially a crispy noodle pancake which the Westerners attacked futilely with copsticks until they noticaed the Chinese sensibly picking it up with their fingers.

Next morning, before more talks with the War Leader, Zowie told the assembled Media that there was no prospect of the Chinese yielding on the very point at issue, namely Hong Kong. Since the assembled Media included the Hong Kong Media, there was some consternation at this show of inflexibility, but as far as I know only one foreign correspondent, myself, formed the opinion that it might have been prompted by fear. Even without the Falklands Factor, Mrs Thatcher would have been perceived by the Chinese as a strong woman. Indeed they call her the Strong Woman. But in addition to her already renowned strictness she had fought and won a war. That rings a bell with the Chinese — a large bronze chung bell of the Western Chou period, decorated with projecting knobs and interlaced dragons.

The Chinese think historically at all times, and in their long history there have been at least three notoriously tough women: the Empress Wu of the T’ang dynasty, the Empress Dowager Ci Xi of the Chi’ing dynasty, and Jiang Qing of the Mao dynasty, otherwise known as Madame Mao. Though none of these women, especially the last, could be considered precisely sound from the modern Socialist viewpoint, they had undoubtedly shared the virtue of decisiveness.

The Empress Wu, for example, had ascended from the status of Grade Four concubine (massage and hot towels) all the way to the throne, partly through having a child by the Emperor, smothering it, and pointing the finger at his favourite. Having attained unchallenged rule, she dealt with any potential criticism by depriving its perpetrator of all four limbs and keeping what was left alive in a jar of pickle, or hanging it up on a hook.

Mrs Thatcher had not been quite so firm with Norman St John-Stevas, but there could be little doubt that she belonged to a great tradition. She was the Fourth Strong Woman in Chinese history, an invader from the strange kingdom of the Two Queens, in which one Queen stayed at home minding the palace while the other came marching towards you carrying a severely cut handbag like an Anyang Shang dagger-axe with a jade blade. Give her an inch and she would take the whole of Chang’an Avenue, from the Dongdan intersection to the Babaoshan Cemetery for Revolutionaries (number 10 bus).

After further secret conversations with Zowie about fog and light fittings, the Strong Woman arrived at the British Embassy to meet the British and Chinese communities. This was the second big party of the year for the diplomats of the China station. The first had been the QBP (Queen’s Birthday Party), but that was an annual event, well understood. This one was for the other Queen, the one that gets out there and wins wars.

For many of the minor diplomatic faces it was a big moment in a hard life. The Strong Woman gratified them by looking her best, in a plum-blossom and quince-juice silk dress finely calculated to remind Chinese guests of a mo ku painting of the Late Northern Sung, although the Chinese might equally have reminded her that William the Conqueror successfully invaded England during that period.

But the garden party was not an occasion for confrontation. Instead she socialised, meeting, inter alios, the delightful Katherine Flower, presenter of BBC TV’s ‘Follow Me’, which teaches English to the Chinese. Francis Matthews, the star actor in the programme, is the most famous British face in China. Katherine comes second and Mrs Thatcher third, but by this time she was catching up fast, although getting barely half as much air time as Kim Il Sung, who was still checking out that terracotta army. Perhaps he had at last found the ideal audience for his brand of oratory: statues don’t shuffle. Also present at the garden party was the Hong Kong shipping magnate Sir Y. K. Pao. Destined to crop up everywhere in the itinerary, Powie is a name you should note. He and the War Leader go back a long way together, to the time, one gathers, when he was before the mast and she was being called to the bar.

Thursday afternoon was culture gulch, meaning that the Strong Woman could plan her upcoming talks with Deputy Prime Minister Deng Xiaoping while her face and feet were on automatic pilot. At the Conservatory of Music there was much emphasis on Beethoven, of whom there is a plaster bust in even the most humble homes, but the star act was undoubtedly the girl Wu Man. Later on she will be the woman Wu Man, but punning on Chinese names is a low form of humour. Meanwhile she is the best young player of the pipa in China. On the pipa, which is less unlike a zither than it is unlike anything else, Wu Man played some dance music of the Yi tribe. The Yi tribe sounded like a fun outfit, and for a moment the War Leader relaxed.

Relaxing at the British Book Exhibition was less easy, because the joint was packed with a chosen spontaneous crowd of nervous intellectuals. One of my own books was among the carefully selected thousand and I had visions of helping to make a three-pronged impact on China’s spiritual future, along with Margaret Drabble and Iris Murdoch, but there is the problem of distribution. The War Leader’s Husband found it hard to see why all the rest of the Chinese couldn’t just walk into the library like this lot and sit down to read. A very impressive British Council lady, who speaks effortless Mandarin and is also able to communicate with the Strong Woman’s Man, explained that there was a considerable number of Chinese out there, many of them living quite a long way away.

After the standard plum-blossom beauty of a Peking sunset the War Leader dined privately with the British business community while the Media formed groups to eat Peking Duck, a large beast which needs a team of people sitting around its perimeter and all eating inwards for several hours before it disappears. Apart from duck demolition there is practically nothing to do in Peking after 10 p.m. except dance to old Fats Domino 45 rpm EPs, usually on your own. The Chinese opera on television is OK if you like acrobats. Then comes a blank hissing screen followed by a fitful sleep and one million bicycle bells at dawn. It is Friday, and the population is on the move again.

So was the War Leader, entering the increasingly familiar Great Hall of the People for the first meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Deng Xiaoping, hero of the biggest comeback story since de Gaulle. Mrs Mao had him down and almost out, but he hung in. Deng knows a strong woman when he sees one. He was seeing one now, with the strawberry-blotched blue taffeta suavely off-setting the cloisonné enamel of her maquillage, so reminiscent of a Ming dynasty incense-burner. He had heard how Zhao had been bested in the great Fog Conversation, but Zhao was a youngster. He, Deng, was an old hand.

Deng initiated the Great Food Conversation, using the Governor of Hong Kong, invited for that very purpose, as an unwitting foil. Deng said it had been great fun welcoming Kim Il Sung. Having thrown his right, he crossed with his left, saying the food had been very good in Sichuan. The Governor of Hong Kong agreed that the food was good in Sichuan. But the War Leader refused to be drawn. She said that on her earlier visit to China — meaning to imply that she would visit China more often if there were not so many wars to win — she had found the food best in Suzhou. ‘Well,’ said Deng, ‘I don’t think so.’ He had been forced into a hollow protestation, an uncomfortable position for beginning secret talks. The widow of Chou En-lai, holding a bouquet of roses specially flown out by British Airways, complimented the War Leader on her wisdom and tact. ‘At your age,’ she added, ‘it can be said it is the Golden Age.’ The Strong Woman took the compliment as her due, forgetting to return it. What was she, a devil? For in the great Sung painting ‘The Picture of the Search in the Mountain,’ are not the women of angelic appearance more ferocious than the dragons?

The War Leader stumbled on the way down the steps but the Media’s excitement soon subsided — she was merely preoccupied, not fatigued. Off she went with the Chinese for a visit to the Summer Palace, the replacement, on a different site, for the one the British burned down. Actually the interloping forces burned down the replacement too, but it had been replaced again. If the Chinese should bring this awkward subject up, she could always remind them that they, in turn, burned down the British Embassy in the days of the Cultural Revolution.

Later on Friday afternoon the Media were granted access to the War Leader so that she could announce what sounded like a stand-off in negotiations. Confucians among the Media might have said her voice was choked with emotion. T’ang positivists might have said she had negotiator’s throat. She herself could hardly speak, but this fact meant nothing unless you could see what shape Deng was in, and he wasn’t available.

It was a pity that, whether for protocol reasons or because of strained vocal cords, Deng didn’t show up at the Return Banquet thrown by the visiting team in the Great Hall of the People, because the War Leader had saved her most stunning outfit until the last. A magenta silk gown that recalled Chi’en-lung flambeau ware at its most exquisitely uninhibited, it clashed with the pink tasselled chairs, but that wasn’t her problem. Let them change the chairs. Her throat was still in tatters but she delivered a Chinese proverb in both languages. ‘It is better to come and see for yourself than to read a hundred reports.’ The Chinese version sounded a bit short. The Party functionary sitting beside me described it as ‘understandable’. His name was Fang so I did not argue.

Zowie’s return speech was the usual railway station announcement read at high speed, but when the eating started he indicated bilateral flexibility by employing a fork. The toasting fluid was a pale British equivalent of mao tai, and some of the British dishes bore a close resemblance to Shark’s fin soup and fish lips, but the imported thin mints were a hit. The rapidly moving military band played a very good arrangement of ‘Greensleeves’. There are some instrumentalists in that combo who would make von Karajan drop his whip.

As they dined on relentlessly, it was dusk outside, with the curved yellow-tiled roofs of the Forbidden City glowing softly like honeycomb through a sea of grey powder. The War Leader had chosen the right time for Peking ‐ a time of transition, when the Lotus Lake in the Winter Palace Park is thick with green leaves, after the blossoms have fallen and before the roots have been collected to be eaten. Out on the lake rises the Jade Island, coming to a point, like a lovely pimple, in the dome of the White Dagoba. When Mrs Mao was at the height of her power, she closed the Winter Palace Park to the people and reserved the Jade Island for her own use, so that she could ride her horse in private.

In China’s history, a few women are tyrants and millions of them are chattels. The problem is to make them something in between. You can still see thousands of women in Peking whose feet were bound when they were young. You can’t miss that awkward splay-footed walk: they must forever struggle to keep their balance. Feet are no longer bound but that does not mean that minds are free. Despite everything the Revolution can do, the women still serve the men, the girls are still snobs who marry boys who get ahead, and you still can’t get ahead without connections. The Revolution, like any other Chinese dynasty, is behind the times. Margaret Thatcher is a democratic product to an extent of which even the most radical Chinese theorist can hardly dream. She doesn’t even have to think about it, and often forgets to.

On Saturday morning the Strong Woman rose into the air, heading for Shanghai with the Media clinging to her wings. After that would come Canton, with Hong Kong soothingly employed as the gate of departure. For does not Wang Wei’s poem say that a chip off the dragon’s tooth is a spear in its side? No, it does not. I made that one up.

— September 26, 1982