'MAY WE ALL LIVE LONG,
SHARING THE SAME FAIR MOON,
THOUGH THOUSANDS OF MILES APART.'
Su Dongpo (1036-1101 AD)
Travelling round China it seemed appropriate to read books written by Chinese authors (in English translation of course). The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa has been sitting on my TBR shelf at home for quite some time so into the suitcase it went, and I finished reading it on a flight between Nanning in Guangxi province, and Kunming, provincial capital of Yunnan.
The Girl Who played Go is a beautifully written first novel set in a period of Chinese history I knew little about.
In the early 1930s, Japan invaded the northern part of China known as Manchuria, and placed Pu Yi the last Emperor of the Qing dynasty on the throne as a puppet ruler. There was a great deal of Chinese resistance to this, as the Chinese feared that Japan would use Manchuria as a starting point from which to conquer the whole of China. Set against this turbulent background, the lives of two individuals are gradually revealled to the reader. The first is a 16 year old Chinese schoolgirl from an upper class family who live in a small town in northern China, she has just embarked on her first relationship with a boy, and like most teenagers is wondering about what the future holds for her. She is a talented Go player, and every afternoon she frequents a square in the town where people congregate to play the game.
The other character is a young Japanese army officer who emulates the ancient Samurai code of honour. He has been sent to northern China where the Japanese are ruthlessly brutal in their attempts to end Chinese resistance to their occupation. As he speaks Mandarin his senior officer requests that he don Chinese clothing and spend time in the town to spy on the citizens, local resistance groups are thought to meet at the square where Go is played each day. So it is in the 'Square of the Thousand Winds' that these two meet, and start playing a game of Go.
The game of Go has been played in China for over 4000 years, and it became one of the most popular games played in Japan centuries ago. Two players engage in battle of strategy using black and white counters on a board which has been incised into a table top of either wood or stone. Incredibly complex, a single game can last for many days; when play has to be interrupted a careful note of the players' positions is taken, and the game can resume hours or days later at exactly the same point. Sometimes it is difficult to determine who has won and who has lost.
As the officer says when they have been playing for some time: "The black and white stones now form a series of intertangled traps where those that lay siege are themselves besieged....We are battling for narrow corridors and cramped corners." a comment which also reflects the position of the Japanese within Manchuria.
Written in very short chapters which are alternately narrated by the young girl and the Japanese officer, the story takes on something of the character of the game itself, with each player taking a turn. As the game progresses you become aware of the delicate emotional relationship building between them, and one has a steadily mounting sense of foreboding as events lead them towards a tragic ending.
We spent five extremely busy days in Nanning, with the usual round of meetings and banquets (a Chinese banquet is a formal dinner and is an integral part of business life out here) and the concept of the weekend as 'free' time doesn't seem to exist, so it was marvellous to snatch a half day to visit Dalong lake which is about two hours drive from the city. Actually it would take much less time to get there if the road were in better condition. Being bumped about until my backside was numb was well worth it, the lake is stunningly beautiful and completely unspoiled.
The landscape is very reminiscent of Guilin which is also in Guangxi province but about 400 kms east of Nanning. The real difference is that Guilin is very much on the tourist trail, and many lotus-eating Westerners have settled there and opened bars, spas and guest houses.
We arrived at a tiny hamlet on the lakeside and hopped straight onto a boat - we were the only passengers - which immediately set off for a two hour cruise. For once I had remembered to take my binoculars, which meant we could do some bird watching as we soaked up the sunshine. It was so peaceful, and apart from the occasional lakeside fishing village and a cluster of sampans here and there, it was hard to believe that this was in the most populous country on earth. By the time we left the lake I was so relaxed and full of fresh air that even the bumpy road couldn't keep me awake and I snoozed all the way back to the city, waking up just in time to change my clothes and run a comb through my hair before that evening's banquet.
There are so many wonderful restaurants in Beijing and the DH and I have been fortunate enough to have eaten in many of them, but on this trip one of the highlights has been a dinner we had at Mei Fu Jia Yan, or Mei Mansion as it is called in English.
Located in a 200 year old courtyard house in one of Beijing's ancient hutongs, just south of Hou Hai which is a beautiful ornamental lake, Mei Fu Jia Yan is the former home of the late Mei Lanfang - one of the greatest actors with Beijing Opera during 1930s -1950s. Mei Lanfang was famed for playing 'dan' roles, that is to say female roles. As in English theatre in Shakespeare's time, female parts in Chinese opera were always played by men although this no longer seems to be the case.
Mei Lanfang paid enormous attention to his diet in order to protect his voice, his health and his looks. He insisted on eating seasonal food with an emphasis on freshness, with low salt, low sugar, low cholesterol and minimal spice.
Mei Mansion is arranged as a series of private dining rooms set around a beautiful traditionally paved courtyard with bamboos, magnolias and willows and the gentle sound of water murmuring in the background. Owned and run by Mei Lanfang's son, the chef is the forth generation to have worked for the family, and continues to cook and serve the dishes created for the great star.
As is the custom, our host had chosen the menu, which was written on a fan in beautiful Chinese calligraphy, and the meal began with a selection of seven dishes, all presented in the most elegant way and looking like minor works of art. We were then served various delicious hot dishes, I particularly loved the beef with scallops, a combination that seemed made in heaven.
At that point we were invited to go out into the courtyard, where two young musicians were playing the traditional two-stringed fiddles called jinghu, to our great delight a young opera singer appeared dressed in costume, and sang several popular songs from various operas.
We then returned to continue eating, and were each served with freshwater crab. These were served whole, and each had a plastic tag attached to show they were legally caught and met organic criteria.
By the time the meal ended with the usual platter of prepared fresh fruit I was in a blur of taste sensations, and wished I could have taken photographs of each dish without being thought rude.
Mei Mansion is certainly expensive compared with many restaurants in this city, but for a memorable once in a lifetime experience it can't be beaten, and if you are going to be in Beijing it is really worth trying to get a table. I am told you have to book at least a week in advance.
24 Daxiangfeng Hutong
Hou Hai, Xi Cheng
Tel: +86 106 612 6845
So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
2 years ago