China in 1975 was a strange, undiscovered country, still half-mad from Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, when young Frances Wood boarded a plane in London to study for a year in Peking. Based on the letters she wrote home, this account of her experiences is both affecting and hilarious, a unique insight into a mysterious and painful moment in China’s history.
Virtually closed to outsiders for the preceding decade, China was just beginning to make tentative moves towards the outside world when Frances and her fellow students were driven in an ancient coach through the dark silent countryside to their new quarters at the Foreign Languages Institute. Here they were settled into small rooms with hard iron beds and a single dim light bulb. Outside were showers powered by an enormous boiler emitting boiling steam from cracks in the pipework. Next day, at the medical centre, they learned that medical treatment was free but ‘we would have to pay for our own abortions’.
Throughout the following year in an extraordinary Alice-in-Wonderland world where ‘education’ consisted of shovelling rubble, hand-grenade practice, and cripplingly tedious ideological lectures, Frances never lost her sense of humour. Or indeed her fascination for the ancient civilization that lurked behind the Cultural Revolution’s grim façade. Based on the letters she wrote home in 1975‒6, Hand-grenade Practice in Peking is both affecting and hilarious, a unique insight into a mysterious and painful moment in China’s history. It was an interlude which would eventually lead Frances to her position as head of the Chinese collection at the British Library.