If you walk down the quiet dusty narrow street you will find her house. The way is shadowed by grey painted brick walls like bookends that press back the light of the sky and underfoot it is uneven and crumbling. Three well-worn stone steps lead you to the large red door upon which shreds of old propaganda posters cover layers of peeling paint. The doorway is crowned by a header carved into delicate flowing branches of leaves; but it too is suffering from years of neglect.
Her father was given this courtyard house by someone in Mao’s inner circle. Perhaps it was Mao himself, but she is not sure. As a young man her father was educated in Europe before returning to serve his country. During the Sino-Japanese War he led the Chinese forces against the Japanese in the southwest and accepted their surrender in Vietnam. He knew Ho Chi Min well. He had been the head of munitions for Chiang Kai Shek before the Nationalists were defeated by the Communists and fled to Taiwan. Her father was not a Communist though. But her uncle was. He was the first communist mayor of Shanghai so she believes that may be one reason why her family got special treatment. Even so, she says they lived in fear during the years of the Cultural Revolution that the Red Guard would break through the doorway of this house to the outer and inner courtyards and find something that would incriminate them.
These days someone she doesn’t know lives in the outer courtyard of their house. They just showed up one day and never left.
You pick your way past their dirty buckets, rags and hanging laundry to get to the second door, the entrance to the inner courtyard, the part of the house that is still her family’s.
The door to this is locked, but she has the key. With a rattle and a shake the large panels squeak open. You step over the raised doorframe and stand under the red and green carved portico so you can survey the inner sanctum. Three facades of glass paned doors open onto a paved square patio. The wood of these doors is rotting, the paint has faded and the traditional curved terra cotta roof above is cracked and crumbling. In the open space of the courtyard carefully crafted but now dried out flower beds hint that a gardener once took great care here. A rusted old bike leans against a broken screen, its seat covered in a dirty plastic bag. Behind the glass paned doors are the interior rooms of the house. Each has its own access to the courtyard and is also adjoined to the next by inside doorways. In the summer months the outside space becomes as the main hallway of the house. In the bitter cold northern winters however you have to walk from one room to the next to get to where you are going. Privacy has a different meaning here than what you are used to.
You are only blocks from the outer wall of the Forbidden City now and yet you feel as if you are in the country, far away from the politics, the tourists and the traffic of Beijing. The leaves on the trees inside the courtyard and the overhanging branches from outside the walls shade this tranquil scene and evoke images of a scholar’s life of quiet contemplation in the time of mandarins and concubines. A time long lost.
When her father died after 101 years, her mother moved from here to the comfort of an apartment on the other side of the Imperial Palace. But the family treasures remain. It is only a matter of time she tells you before the child of a senior party member will claim this place for his own and convert it to a high priced restaurant or boutique hotel.
She leads you to the biggest room of the house which is filled with books, photographs, trinkets and old newspapers. She hands you a large volume bound in red leather embossed with gold Chinese characters which you cannot read. Inside are the photographs and names of the all that were present at the first meeting of the communist leadership in 1949 when Mao declared the founding of the modern People’s Republic. Her uncle and father were there.
You lightly touch the piles of photographs carelessly scattered on a large polished wood desk. It is as if someone had been interrupted as they were arranging them and never came back to finish. In the faded black and white collage, you recognize faces from history books you have read about China’s leadership during that time. All of them have come and gone.
Nothing is left now but dust and stories retold by people who were never there.