FILMS AS NOTES
Places and people, and the way they interact and influence each other, have always fascinated me, and as in the case of Silvestro Aquilano so living just outside Beijing in the hills I find the stories of three men linked to the immediate vicinity quite fascinating. I have already made a short film in the form of video+still notes about each of them, roughly 10-15 minutes each, with a combination of some new footage and old photographs. Perhaps they could be put together as a single documentary or built up into three individual documentaries.
They are all unusual, deeply intriguing if relatively unknown, minor figures but intelligent, intellectual and artistic, who offer unusual insights into their time and place. Here is a brief summary of the three men.
ALGERNON FREEMAN-MITFORD, 1ST BARON REDESDALE
In the lovely Dajue Temple in the western hills, a British diplomat spent the summer of 1865 studying Chinese and riding in the hills. At that time many foreign residents and diplomats moved out of Peking during the hot summer months. He described his year in China, with a chapter on the temple, in the book Attaché at Peking (1900), which will serve as the basis of this film. As we can see from the quote below, the temples in Beijing always remained an important memory. The diplomat's name was Algernon Freeman-Mitford, later Lord Redesdale, and - rather like Prince Chun, below - he enjoys reflected fame as the grandfather of the Mitford sisters. But he deserves attention in his own right. He was born at Exbury House, then the family home, in 1837, and died in 1916 at Batsford House.
He was well-known as an author, but made his name originally as a diplomat. In 1858 he joined the foreign service, and after spells in St Petersburg and London was sent to Beijing in 1865 . He also served in Japan, where his experience and knowledge of the language led him to write two books that made his name, the first was Tales of Old Japan (1871), in which he introduced the legends of the 47 Ronin to a western audience. He knew significant artists and writers like Millais and Thackeray, and was a patron of the American painter James McNeil Whistler - who painted a now-lost portrait.
After resigning from the diplomatic service in 1873, he became Secretary to the Office of Works, and was involved in the restoration of the Tower of London. More interestingly he become interested in bamboo while in China and Japan, Collected seeds and introduced many species into England, in his role with the office of works he was responsible for a new layout and plantings in Hyde Park. The result of his expertise may still be seen in the Japanese garden he designed in the park, known as the Dell, and in what is now the Batsford Arboretum at the large country house he bought and rebuilt in the Cotswolds. Throughout his life he was a passionate lover of trees, and in 1896 published an influential book called The Bamboo Garden, which was not only an aesthetic approach but explained propagation and growing bamboo trees.
There are several twists to his story, just as unconventional - for a man who had been to Eton and Oxford, and served as an usher at the Prince of Wales’ wedding in 1863 - as those of his descendants but all the more unusual in the hide-bound Victorian era.
THE SEVENTH PRINCE
An anonymous road on the northwest outskirts of Beijing leads to a country lane which points due west towards the mountains towards the village of Qiwangfen. It leads to the tomb of an imperial prince who was son of an emperor, brother of an emperor, uncle of an emperor, father of an emperor, and grandfather of the Last Emperor, Puyi. He was also brother-in-law and Advisor to the dowager empress Cixi.
But why is it here, far from the other great Qing dynasty tombs?
For thirty years Prince Chun was a key member, with his brothers Prince Gong and Prince Tun, of a triumvirate which effectively ruled China under the aegis of his sister-in-law the Empress Cixi.
He was born as Yi Huan in the Forbidden city in 1840, as the seventh son of the Emperor. When his brother ascended the throne as Emperor Xianfeng in 1851, he was given the title of Prince Chun (junwang). He assisted Cixi during the conspiracies at Chengde in 1862which enabled her to place her son Tongzhi on the throne. Asreward he was made High Officer of the Presence and General-in Chief of the Yellow Banner Corps. A contemporary observer note that while he was not as good a scholar as Prince Gong, he "possess much energy and courage".
When Emperor Guangxu took the throne, in accordance with Qing Dynasty regulations, because Emperor Guangxu was born in the Huaiyin Study in Prince Chun's Mansion at Taiping Hu, when he ascended the throne, the property could no longer serve as a residence and had to be returned to the emperor. Prince Chun and his family moved to a new mansion on the north bank of Houhai, which has an interesting future story and still survives.
An imperial prince, and a powerful man for decades, on his death in 1891 there was a problem of where to bury him. His moderating influence and seniority - not to mention his close personal connection to Cixi - made him a significant personage at the imperial court. Yet he was not important enough to merit a mausoleum at the imperial tomb sites. This site at was a compromise, near Beijing in beautiful scenery, near to a place which produced the peaches and cherries which Cixi loved. It will be recognised by many film buffs since it served as the location for scenes at the temple of the kung-fu master Pai Mei in the second part of Quentin Tarantino's film Kill Bill.
The banner at the top of this page is a photo of a small temple within the grounds of the tomb.
Fifty years later, another diplomat, this time French, also took refuge from the summer heat in the grounds of a ruined Daoist temple just thirty minutes ride from Dajue Temple. His birth and professional name was Marie-René Auguste Alexis Leger, born in 1887 to a plantation-owning daily in the French colony of Guadaloupe in the Caribbean Sea. But he was usually known more simply as Alexis Leger, and later took the pen-name Saint-John Perse and achieved fame when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for a poem inspired by this landscape and written in these hills.
High above the village of Guanjialing, in the foothills north-west of Beijing, stands a white stone pavilion built in his honour and a stone inscription nearby. The ruins, long since cleared away, lay behind the site of the pavilion. Perhaps the rounded tree-covered hills reminded him of his native landscape in Guadaloupe, so while his fellow diplomats in Peking chose more elegant temples to pass their summers and weekends he took to an isolated mountainside.
This is interesting because although he wrote many books, the long narrative poem for which in 1960 he won the Nobel, Anabase (published in 1924), was conceived and at least partly written here - perhaps amidst the ruins, perhaps in village houses below where he is said often to have slept.
Nothing unusual, since these hills are studded with shrines, pagodas and pavilions. But beside it stands a plaque which commemorates the presence of a now forgotten French poet in the village. Forgotten. Yet in 1960 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for a poem inspired by this landscape and written here, Anabase. It was considered a major work at the time, and was translated into Italian by Giuseppe Ungaretti and into English by no less a writer than T.S. Eliot (with the obvious title Anabasis).
Anabasis, a march from the coast to the interior. That’s what the dictionaries say: ‘A going up, a military advance; esp. that of Cyrus the younger into Asia, as narrated by Xenophon’ (Shorter Oxford Dictionary). Cyrus started his journey in Sardis, then a Persian outpost in Lydia and now the Turkish town of Sart, where he began his ‘march into the interior’ (Xenophon, Anabasis, I,ii) through what are now Syria and Iraq into Persia. I did the route once.
But in Perse’s usage the word is complex and ambiguous, as he explained in a letter to his T.S. Eliot: ‘In my mind, the word is neutralized, eliminating the normal usage, and should therefore no longer suggest an association of classical ideas. Nothing to do with Xenophon. The word is used here is abstractly, embedded in everyday French with all the necessary discretion, in the simple etymological sense of ‘journey to the interior’, with a meaning both geographical and spiritual (with deliberate ambiguity). It also includes the etymological meaning of ‘horse riding’, ‘climb into the saddle’. This second level of meaning is crucial, since throughout his life Perse loved horses and used to ride up to the temple from the French Legation, a full day’s journey.
Anabasis is a fascinating study of the comparative lifestyles of the nomad (he made a long journey through Mongolia), and the sedentary population of the capital city beneath. This would be the focus of the documentary if it comes to be made.