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Too Much of a Good Thing

I see Frances Wood in that great tradition of intrepid British women explorers, like Mary Kingsley and Gertrude Bell. She sets out for China in 1975, when the Cultural Revolution is still going strong, and soon she is hacking a path through impenetrable jungles of revolutionary doctrine and jargon. Now she is gamely slogging across arid deserts of boredom and hours of improving lectures about the heroic deeds and shining examples of simple peasants. There are a hundred discomforts and irritations to be endured. To the natives she is a figure of curiosity; they stare and point and they don’t accept her. Like her explorer predecessors, she is indomitable, but in her case it is because of her heroic sense of humour and her eye for the absurd. Hand-Grenade Practice in Peking – her account of the year she spent as a student first at the Foreign Languages Institute in Peking and then at Peking University – is a very funny book.

China in 1975 was, after all, a sort of undiscovered country, the strangest of strange foreign lands, half-mad from the Cultural Revolution. Intellectuals were being persecuted, universities were stamping out ‘ivory-towerism’ and from trees, buildings and street lights the tannoys bellowed propaganda. Terrible cruelties were inflicted at that time, which she learned about only when she returned to London. In the meantime the young Frances Wood, just down from Cambridge where she studied Chinese, was determined to improve her speaking of the language and to amuse herself and be amused by what she found.

So the battle lines were drawn: the Chinese Cultural Revolution versus the English Joke. Hers is that peculiarly English sense of humour which is based on the deflating of pomposity. In Hand-Grenade Practice in Peking, the pin is being jabbed into ideological grandiosity.

I confess it was its title that made me first pick up the book. That and the promise of jokes. Up till then, I mostly preferred to think that China did not exist, quickly turned the page of the newspaper at the mention of it, switched off the brain when the radio raised the subject. Did my best to ignore the Beijing Olympics. China was always a land of alarming statistics – its scale, its population, its disasters, its armies – and the modern China seemed like some industrial monster waiting to gobble up the world.

Frances Wood coaxed me into taking an interest. Her book, even as it entertains, manages to give a glimpse of the civilization behind the grimly absurd façade of the Cultural Revolution. It is based on letters she wrote during her year as a student, so, as a reader, you feel you are being drawn into her circle of friends. Maybe there’s also a bit of good old English pluck here – determined to look for the funny side, perhaps reassure her distant family.

Life in the time of the Cultural Revolution, with its paranoia and its arbitrariness, might suggest 1984 to most of us, but, typically, it reminds Frances Wood of that most English of humorous books, 1066 and All That. Sellar and Yeatman divided English history into Good Things and Bad Things. The Norman Conquest was a Good Thing; Queen Mary’s reign was a Bad Thing. Mao and his toadies approached history lessons in the same way. Confucius was a Bad Thing, while the first Qin Emperor, Shi Huangdi, who ordered the destruction of Confucian works and had Confucian scholars buried alive, was a Good Thing. ‘You cannot have too much of a Good Thing,’ Frances Wood drily observes.

At celebrations of National Day at the Languages Institute, the students from the various different countries are expected to perform. The North Koreans, in national costume, sing awful North Korean songs, the Albanians oblige, the Italians sing rousing revolutionary numbers, but what will the British students do? After some consultation among themselves, they offer their rendering of ‘Old Macdonald Had a Farm’. It becomes their standby at cultural gatherings and they get quite good at it, with their ‘moo-moos here’ and their ‘moo-moos there’.

There are compulsory games, of course and I have a suspicion that Frances Wood has a very English approach to organized sport – i.e. not all that keen. On Tuesdays, they have shovelling rubble. It should be shovelling manure, but foreigners are excused manure – much to the distress of the Canadian students who always enter enthusiastically into the spirit of the Cultural Revolution. Instead, a pile of rubble is dumped on a disused tennis court and they have to shift it to somewhere else. (Probably, it is the same rubble that appears on the tennis court the following Tuesday.)

On Wednesdays, it is hand-grenade practice. Dummy hand-grenades, actually (bad luck, Canadian students). The trouble with a lot of sport in Mao’s China is the danger of winning and thus breaching the principle of Friendship First, Competition Second. Scoring a goal in football, therefore, can be a deeply mortifying experience. Students also have to work on the land in a People’s Commune, making a botched job of planting rice (the plants float away), preparing spring onions for market and tying bundles of cabbages with flimsy string that always breaks. (Cabbage is a brooding presence throughout the book.)

And then there are Frances Wood’s fellow students. My favourite is Keri, her room-mate for a while. She is pretty and terrifically intense – a magical combination of Marxist-Leninist and drama queen. You have the feeling she is trying to be more Maoist than Mao. When Zhou Enlai dies and is universally mourned in China, Keri succeeds in out-wailing the whole population. The North Korean women students are even more annoying (and even funnier) than the joyless Canadians. They come into their own in the Peking University showers where the water is meagre and seldom hot. They are aggressively competitive, jostling all others out of the way and they tend to attack en masse. Showering, for them, is a form of guerrilla warfare and they favour the surprise attack.

The quality of Frances Wood’s writing is remarkable. You keep coming across images that stop you in your tracks – like the description of the steamed rolls in a local restaurant which ‘tasted a bit like warm laundry’, or the park where ancient trees provided ‘refuge for the tannoy-deafened sparrows’. She evokes the bitter cold of winter when the fierce wind ‘howled through the Languages Institute, sending all the bicycles crashing to the ground’. She conveys the heat at noon in high summer, with the streets deserted, the policemen asleep and the carters snoozing beneath the willows. ‘Even the frogs in the ditches beside the road were silent, sleeping amongst the pale water hyacinths.’ There is a lovely description too of a visit to the Great Wall at dawn with the sun appearing from nowhere and driving away the mist that manages to be both lyrical and comical.

As a linguist, Frances Wood is clearly interested in the slippery euphemisms of totalitarianism. She’s a connoisseur of the weasel words used by the Chinese authorities. I detect an affection for such expressions as ‘ivory-towerism’ and ‘negative teaching material’ (i.e. books that don’t fit the Party line) and I think she enjoys it when people who utter inconvenient truths are said to ‘fail to grasp essentials’. She also becomes rather fond of the word ‘embosom’ – even though Chinese women at the time seem desperate to remove all evidence of the existence of bosoms. She first spots the verb in a North Korean student’s picture book about the delights of Pyongyang. The caption to a photograph of soldiers crouching amongst azaleas says they are ‘embosoming’ the flowers. Later on a North Korean text declares: ‘The Chinese people are indeed leading a happy life in the bosom of Chairman Mao.’

In a rare downbeat moment, she writes of how she has learned something of what it is like to be a victim of racism in China, where white people can be treated as repellent, and of how she wearied of always being told she was wrong, of constantly being contradicted and told that her clothes were unsuitable. ‘There were times when I felt I was never going to be embosomed,’ she adds.

But like those great women explorers, she keeps going. If she is fortified by her sense of humour she is also driven by an explorer’s curiosity. She goes out into the countryside and meets the real people; she cheerfully tackles official obstructionism, the mass of irritating restrictions and the constant demands for passes and permits. Her love of China and its landscapes and culture shines through and the reader can’t fail to be touched by it. The absurdities have amused her, but not distracted her from her goal. And that year in 1975 was, after all, the start of another journey for her, which has led to her present eminence as head of the Chinese collection at the British Library.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 30 © Oliver Pritchett 2011
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 14: Frances Wood, Hand-grenade Practice in Peking

About the contributor

Having been embosomed by the Sunday Telegraph for 30-odd years, Oliver Pritchett still writes for that paper, and other publications, but feels that he has not yet grasped the essentials of journalism.

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