John Shakespeare lived in Peking in 1936. Now in his 80s, he has just gone back there for the first time. His son Nicholas Shakespeare tells the tale

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2014

They were beheading someone. We were driving down a narrow street in the centre of town, and came out into a big square,Tiananmen Square for all I knowat which point my nanny thrust me to the floor of the car so that I wouldn’t see what was going on.”

My father is one of a handful of Westerners alive today, perhaps no more than a dozen, to have lived in Peking during the 1930s. His recollections fanned the image of China I grew up with, which probably only ever existed on the snuff bottles that his parents brought home to Worcestershire, along with miniature trees dangling with jade leaves, intricately carved camphor-wood chests and paintings of mountain temples on brown silk.

Never having visited China, I persuaded my father last autumn to accompany me as a guide through the fabled walled city of his boyhood. I wanted to see through his eyes the changes that none of us can avoid hearing about.

A child of the Empire, my father saw out its last moments. He is an example of the speed with which national fortunes change. In January 1936, aged five, wearing a black armband because George V had just died, he boarded the troop ship Neuralia, taking his father out to Peking on his posting there as medical officer to the garrison guarding the British Legation. “I can remember the beef tea served by stewards on the upper deck every day at 11am,” he says, “and the soldiers noisily playing Housey Housey [a form of bingo] on the decks below.” The journey along the great imperial route lasted six weeksas opposed to six and a half days by the more expensive Imperial Airways flying-boat. “We stopped at all the British bases, either to disembark detachments of troops or to take on coal. Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said, Aden, Bombay, Penang, Singapore and Hong Kong. On the way from Hong Kong we stopped at Shanghai, which was also a British concession. This meant in effect that throughout the long journey we never once set foot on foreign soil. At every port, the Union Flag was proudly flying and Royal Navy gunboats lay at anchor in the harbour.”

At the time, Britain remained the chief foreign power in China. By contrast, China had the sort of status Vladimir Putin sees when he calls today’s Britain a small island no one pays any attention to. In 1936 China accounted for a mere 1.3% of British trade abroad, according to the British ambassador, Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen (today it is more than twice that). On the list of Britain’s customers, China ranked 25th. “When I was young,” my father says, “it was inconceivable that this country would dominate the world financially.”

The last leg of the journey was by train. After hours of empty desert and monotonous grassland, suddenly, there on its plain, nestling in a crook of mountains, was a vast walled garden containing 1.5m inhabitants. Nothing prepared you for the beauty of this city: it seemed so completely designed. Green burst up from the open courtyards like frozen explosions, and traditions survived that were a thousand years old.

Among my father’s first memories are paper kites flying in the sky, blue-coated men with pigtails and uncut finger-nails, and old women shuffling along on bound feet. “I saw them all the time, slightly hobbled. I was fascinated by their feetthey were absolutely tiny. I didn’t realise how hideously deformed they were.”

With his black armband still on, he entered a Peking that was barely touched by the modern world: a unique, unindustrialised city protected by a series of high crenellated walls within walls. These 40-foot battlements of hardened grey brick were surmounted at intervals by heavy 15th-century watch-towers, with rose-coloured gates that closed at dusk.

The great metal-studded portals stand guard over an unusually low city in the photos that we flick through on our ten-hour flight to Beijing—as Peking became known officially, in 1958, under Mao Zedong, who had established the People’s Republic in 1949. In one image captured by my grandmother’s Box Brownie, my father, actually wearing a pith helmet, stands on the roof of the Jesuit observatory (above), then one of Peking’s tallest buildings, and looks down on a horizon broken by the golden roofs of the Forbidden City“winged as if to take flight” in Harold Acton’s words.

Acton was one of several British writers living in Peking. Robert Byron was finishing “The Road to Oxiana” in Acton’s house, and disagreed with him about Chinese architecture: “These are tents, booths and summerhouses, pshaw!contraptions for bazaars.” Also there were I.A. Richards, the founder of modern literary criticism, and the scholarly forger and fantasist Edmund Backhouse, a homosexual Old Wykehamist who entertained visitors with memories of the last empress, Cixi, whom he claimed personally to have bedded 200 times. All these men were visitors to the British Legation, my father’s home for the next two years.

The family bungalow was reached through a large brick gate on British Road (later rechristened Righteousness Road by the Communists). Inside the walled compound were 22 houses with tiled fireplaces and chintz curtains. It was an artificial existence. The legation was a microcosm of small-town England, where people moved, according to another writer, Peter Fleming, “with the slow, stately and mysterious grace of fish in an aquarium. Round and round they go, serene and glassy-eyed”. There was a theatre, a bowling alley, a squash court; and sentries from the Worcestershire Regiment, to which my grandfather was attached, punctually mimicked the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. They were there in response to the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, in which an ambassador had been killed and the Legation Quarter put under siege for 55 days by the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fistsa nationalist sect that had plotted to massacre all foreigners and halt European encroachment and gunboats. The garrison was a defiant blast of reassurance, addressed principally to Peking’s 1,000-strong British community. The only Chinese speaker, it was said, was the legation parrot.

Fronted by two stone lions, the ugly grey gate carried the words “Lest We Forget”. Communication with the population outside was minimal. The handful of Chinese within the legation were “house-boys” or “coolies” who brought water to the bungalow on creaking single-wheeled barrows, and carried away the “night-soil”plus mounds of wilting pansies and chrysanthemums. My father’s Pekinese, Winks, scampered through flower-beds in constant full bloom which were changed from day to day. “A coolie would turn up with basketfuls of pansies on a shoulder-pole, and the gardener pushed them in overnight.” Otherwise, entry was by letter of introduction.

My grandparents mingled socially with the Chinese only at Paomachang, the dusty racecourse four miles away. Here my grandmother displayed what Acton called “the adaptability of the more masculine, hard-riding, happy-go-lucky type of Englishwoman who haunted Paomachang”. She kept two small, stout, pessimistic Mongolian ponies, Contango and Comyangpat, and raced them in her colours, orange and green. The Chinese, who liked to gamble, bet their shirts on them.

Top Same place, different world: A newly wed couple on the roof of the Jesuit observatory, near Tiananmen Square, 2013

Above John Shakespeare, aged six, with his nanny, at the same spot in 1936—when it was one of Peking's highest points

See also Video: A childhood in China. John Shakespeare on going back after 75 years