Tea with the last Emperor, by Patty Elwood

Nerium oleande. Wikimedia CommonsrI was born in Chiaotso in the Province of Honan in Central China in 1921. My sister was four years old then and our parents had already been in China about eight years. My father was a doctor from Dublin and they went out with an Irish Protestant Mission; there were other missionaries from America and Canada in the same area.

I do not remember that first house, but my sister described it as typically European in style, built of stone with a verandah along the front and a long driveway lined with oleander trees in big pots. Visitors would arrive on horseback but the doctor’s wife and children had to be carried in a sedan chair.

My first memories are of our house in Peking. Father was working at the Rockefeller Institute and during that time we lived in a Chinese house consisting of single storey rooms set around a paved courtyard. A solid wooden gate at one end and high wall all round excluded the outside world.

Here we were taken for walks on the Great Wall and through the massive gates into the city thronged with people, rickshaws, carts, camels and donkeys. A funeral procession was very exciting; the mourners were all dressed in white and dozens of coolies carried a huge bier followed by a great procession of people carrying brightly coloured paper decorations and paper models of household articles. A band dressed in traditional costumes brought up the rear.

A wedding procession was equally fascinating, but this time the overall colour was red, and the bride would be invisible in her sedan chair.

We visited the Forbidden City with its lakes and temples, bridges and pagodas, and the Temple of Heaven – a beautiful round building with a three-tiered roof covered in blue tiles – and then on to the Altar of Heaven – a perfect circle open to the sky. I remember especially a visit to the Ming Tombs; the road was a rough stony highway with huge animal figures on each side and we rode on camels. It was so dusty we had to wear hats with veils to keep the dust out.

A few years later we moved to Tientsin, the Ford of Heaven, where the Grand Canal ends and the Sea River flows into the Yellow Sea. We lived in the British Concession where everything was made to resemble England as closely as possible! Our house looked almost like an English house, but at the back it was different – a row of low rooms was set apart and connected to the house by a little covered passageway. These rooms were the servants’ quarters – cook, coolie, boy, amah, and sewing woman. At the end of the lane was a big archway bearing the words ‘Falkland Villas’. The front garden was full of pink oleanders and little grey lizards and an occasional scorpion. At dusk the air was full of bats and the rasping sound of cicadas.

My sister and I spoke Chinese with Tsaitasow, our sewing woman, and Lotusow, our amah, who hobbled around on bound feet. Our parents never learnt to speak fluently and resorted to pidgin English when speaking to the servants. Our boy (actually a man) called Junjaming, was something like an English butler and had to answer the front door. He wore a long cotton gown and officiated smilingly in the dining room serving food like bacon and eggs, porridge and roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

Unhappily, our parents did not like Chinese food, though we ate one or two local things like green sweet potatoes and pomelos, a fruit resembling a huge grapefruit but much sweeter and drier. Every piece of fruit had to be peeled to avoid infection and each grape had to be passed through the flame of a spirit lamp with a pair of forceps before we could eat it. In spite of these precautions I had a bad attack of dysentery one summer. We children were allowed to have a Chinese meal once a week, which our amah prepared and took up to the nursery. It was the highlight of the week.

Life in the Concessions seemed to be an endless round of social pleasures for the European population – tennis, bridge, cocktails, race meetings, coffee and cakes at Kiesslings in the German Concession, and expeditions to places of interest.

We went everywhere by rickshaw as few people had cars and the motley traffic was directed by Sikh policemen in smart uniforms waving their batons from a raised platform.

The English Grammar School was an exact copy of schools in England and was staffed entirely by Oxford and Cambridge graduates. We blithely sang the school song in Latin during morning prayers, not understanding a single word of ‘Gaudeamus igitur, juvenes dum sumus.’

On Sundays we were sent off to Sunday School which was run by missionaries, our teacher being Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner in the film ‘Chariots of Fire’.

The recreation ground, a vast expanse of dusty earth, was quite near our house and we used to go there in the summer to watch the Americans playing baseball. In winter we went to the skating rink which was just a sheet of ice under a straw matting roof.

Winters in Tientsin were very cold indeed – canals froze over and snow was thick. We wore fur coats and hats when we went out, carried fur muffs, and our legs were covered with long leather gaiters with buttons all up the sides which our amah had to fasten with a metal button hook. Father used to wear one of those Russian hats with ear muffs which could be worn folded up or tied under the chin.

Summer was correspondingly hot and we never went out without wearing our topees, and slept under mosquito nets at night.

BlackbirdWe were not allowed to go far on our own as there was a rumour going round that shawled Russian women were trying to kidnap European children; we called them ‘urgwaren’ and felt really afraid. Some of the stray dogs which roamed the streets were quite frightening too; they were a kind of chow called ‘wonks’ and we tried to steer clear of their fights. We were safe walking in Victoria Park which was just like an English park with a bandstand in the middle where soldiers from the garrison played cheerful music. English nannies walked up and down between the flower beds with children and prams, and Chinese amahs did the same well clear of them.

Little girls had to go to dancing class, of course. Madam Baar was our teacher; she had short black hair and I was rather in awe of her solid thighs revealed beneath a short Greek tunic. Going home at night after the class was lovely because you would lie back in the rickshaw and watch the shooting stars wheeling across the sky; there seemed to be hundreds of them endlessly crisscrossing that hugh black dome; it was magic.

Our furs were kept in a big carved wooden chest lined with zinc to keep insects at bay, and downstairs near the kitchen was another plainer wooden chest lined with zinc to hold big blocks of ice which were delivered wrapped in straw matting – our ‘refrigerator’. Bronzes were arranged along the stairway, one of them being the Buddha-rupa which I have now.

A favourite expedition was a trip down the river in our motor boat. A pungent smell rose from the wide water which was brown with silt and full of every kind of rubbish; occasionally a bloated animal carcase floated by. Little naked Chinese boys splashed about in the mud along the river banks. Mother tried to ignore such gross indecency, especially when they screamed with laughter one day when my rag doll fell overboard. Mercifully it was fished out downstream and returned on the end of somebody’s boat hook.

During the hottest months we had a bungalow on the coast at Peitaho. The sand was burning hot, too hot to walk on barefoot, but we had some shade under a straw matting shelter. The sea was warm, but full of jelly fish – great big ones with waving tentacles, small snake like ones coloured orange, and yellow and round flat ones the size of a shilling which somehow got inside your bathing costume leaving a sharp sting. Our days were spent on the beach or having donkey rides, riding away so fast the poor donkey man could not keep up and sat down to wait for our return.

The basket maker used to call at the bungalows and would sit outside on the ground making any shape or size you wanted in that strong pale reed you sometimes see in shops over here. Another pedlar was the model maker who could fashion any kind of figure you asked for, all beautifully made in coloured wax about six inches high.

Each summer we went to Japan for three months where father did a locum and stayed in a little place called Kariazawa. We took an overnight steamer to Kobe and then a train to Tokyo, passing Fujiyama on the way. We had a Japanese house raised off the ground on large stones with a family of toads living underneath. There was an open air swimming pool nearby (for Europeans) where I finally managed to take my feet off the bottom and floated away on my water wings. The water was always green and full of fallen leaves because it seemed to be in the middle of a wood.

Shokin-tei (松琴亭 'Pine Zither Tea-house') @KyotoDailyPhotoWoods and rain and spiders are my chief memories of Japan, but especially the spiders – black ones, red ones, small ones and huge ones which stretched their webs between the trees so you were liable to walk into one at dusk and find your face all covered in sticky stuff. Spiders always seemed to accompany our bath time as well; they dropped out of the woodwork and floated on the water as we sat up to our necks in a deep wooden tub which had a little metaristove attached to one end to heat the water.

Walks with our Japanese amah sometimes took us into the town where we had glimpses through half-open doorways of Sumo wrestlers and men and women in the communal bath house washing themselves, each with a separate bowl of water on the matting floor.

Workmen were mending the road one day when we went out for a walk and a big barrel of lovely-looking black stuff invited me to plunge both arms in to find out what it was, so I was taken home dripping with tar and had to endure hours of being scraped with pumice stone by the servants!

In the evenings we sat with the shutters open and a big incense spiral burning near our legs to keep the mosquitoes away. Evening primroses opened, the air was full of insect noises and the undergrowth was dotted with the tiny soft lights of hundreds of fireflies.

Tsaitasow, our sewing woman, made most of our clothes and when we needed shoes we went to the shoemaker’s shop and stood barefoot on a piece of paper while he drew round to get the right size. On special occasions we wore dresses and hats which mother had knitted in thick white silk and we wore these when we had tea with ex-emperor Pu Yi and his wife. This came about because a friend of the family, Miss Ransom, who was the art teacher at the Grammar School, was teaching Pu Yi to speak English, and told him she knew two English children who spoke Chinese fluently.

We were invited to tea, and sat at low tables drinking tea and eating very sticky sweetmeats which I did not like very much. There were monkeys running all over the balcony where this photo was taken of us with Pu Yi, his wife, his brother and a Japanese princess. The Royal Seal, was the opening shot in the film ‘The Last Emperor’. Before leaving, we were shown the dogs and horses, and then the Empress presented each of us with a beautiful length of hand woven silk from the Dowager Empress’s Palace. Mine is a deep blue with a cloud pattern in gold and the symbol for long life, and my sister’s is pale mauve with chrysanthemums.

At the beginning of 1928 our parents decided to return to England. Father went ahead of us in order to buy a house and practice, and took the train across Siberia – a journey which lasted two weeks. We followed later by boat. We travelled to Shanghai and on May 1st embarked on a German boat for a nine week voyage ending in Rotterdam. My magical childhood was over.

Those years in China must have had a profound effect on me as I have always been drawn to anything and everything from the Far East, and especially their art, which is itself influenced by Taoism and Buddhism. When I gave up trying to be a Christian about forty years ago, it just seemed natural to turn towards the Buddha.

l-r The Emperor's brother, The Emperor Pu Yi, The Empress, a Japanese princess, Patty Elwood and her sister

First published in the February 1993 issue of Buddhism Now.


Patty Elwood 1921-2002

Patty with Shi Yanzi at the Leicester Buddhist Summer School 1998Patty was born in China where her parents were doctor-missionaries. She loved all things Chinese including Buddhism (particularly Ch’an/Zen), and for years helped run the South Dorset Buddhist Group. She was also an expert of Japanese flower arranging (Ikebana), was a great potter, and enjoyed painting. She was a student of Stella Coe, a master of Ikebana and for many years created the most striking flower arrangements at the Leicester Buddhist summer schools. She was also one of the first Trustees of the Golden Buddha Centre project. She died on 2nd November 2002.

Photo: Patty with Ch’an monk Shi Yanzi.

Categories: Biography, Buddhism, History, News & events

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