John Eaton Calthorpe Blofeld (Born Anthony, 2 April 1913 - 7 June 1987) was a British writer on Asian thought and religion, especially Taoism and Chinese Buddhism.
City of Lingering Splendour: A Frank Account of Old Peking's Exotic Pleasures
In his early twenties, John Blofeld spent what he describes as "three exquisitely happy years" in Peking during the era of the last emperor, when the breathtaking greatness of China's ancient traditions was still everywhere evident. Arriving in 1934, he found a city imbued with the atmosphere of the recent imperial past and haunted by the powerful spirit of the late Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi. He entered a world of magnificent palaces and temples of the Forbidden City, of lotus-covered lakes and lush pleasure-gardens, of bustling bazaars and peaceful bathhouses, and of "flower houses" with their beautiful young courtesans versed in the arts of pleasing men. With a novelists' command of detail and dialogue, Blofeld vividly re-creates the magic of these years and conveys to the reader his appreciation and nostalgia for a way of life long vanished.
I had no idea when I picked up this book that I had such a pleasant experience in store for me. Beginning in 1934, a young man in his twenties spends "three exquisitely happy years" in a China at the edge of the abyss. Japan had already invaded Manchuria and made no secrets of its intentions of further conquest. The shaky Chinese Republic was ruled out of Nanking; and Peking was still full of memories of the old Dowager Empress, the last of her line.
The streets of Peking were full of Confucian scholars, aging palace eunuchs, adepts of Taoism and Buddhism, starving White Russian refugees, 14-year-old opium addicts, and gentle courtesans and flute girls. Blofeld threw himself headfirst into this world which was on the point of being snuffed out forever. Most memorable are the White Russian hermaphrodite Shura and the Rasputin-like Father Vassily; the decorous Buddhist scholar Dr Chang; Yang Taoshih, the Taoist sage, and his friend known only as the Peach Garden Hermit; the lovely courtesan Jade Flute; and the mysterious Pao, who elopes with a young girl intended for a Japanese colonel.
After Blofeld leaves for a trip to England, the Japanese finally invade. There are two bittersweet chapters at the end where Blofeld revisits the scenes of his youth after 1945. His fragile Peking of the 1930s is now poised between a growingly thuggish Kuomintang secret police and the great unknown of Mao Tse-tung's Eighth Route Army.
Blofeld's Dr Chang says it all: "Decay is inherent in all things, as Shakyamuni Buddha bade us always remember. Death swallows all that has been born; rebirth or re-creation follow in their turn, as spring follows winter. Things rise and wane in unceasing flux."
CITY OF LINGERING SPLENDOUR is recommended to all sentient beings who were ever young once and are now faced with a confused welter of possibilities, none of which seem particularly appetizing.