When I was a child I often listened to the wandering story-tellers who performed in the market-place in Tientsin, a river port of northern China. They spoke of emperors, peasants, warriors, mandarins, monks, courtesans and heroic outlaws who defended the oppressed. As if unfolding a Chinese screen, they presented their tales of chivalry, blending fact and imagination, in dramatic and unforgettable scenes.
I was born in Tientsin in 1918 and spent the first eighteen years of my life there. I must have been about three when our Chinese amah began to take my elder brother Pat and me to the market. So it was from an early age that I came under the spell of the story-tellers. Part of their lure was in the atmosphere of distant and exotic places that they brought with them. It was hazardous to travel in northern China in the 1920s and 1930s. There were hardly any roads, trains were frequently commandeered by the soldiers of rival war-lords, and few ships reached Tientsin on the Grand Canal without being boarded by pirates.
Travelling northwards by river and canal, the intrepid story-tellers would break their journey to give their recitals at the main landing-stages, such as Nanking. In the spring they would reach Tientsin. In midsummer they went on to Peking, eighty miles inland. By November, when the waterways began to freeze, they would be on their way south again.
The small Tientsin market was always full of mule-drawn carts, coolies and pedlars. Sometimes a camel train, bearing dust-covered packs, would arrive from the desert lands of the Interior, and the harsh cries of the camel drivers could be heard above the calls of the pedlars and stallholders, and the din of the crowd. Against all this noise and bustle, the story-tellers had to work hard to hold their audiences. Few people would bother to listen, let alone throw any coppers at the feet of a story-teller who mumbled on with his nose buried in a book.
The story-tellers recited tales from ancient history that had been passed down from father to son for many generations, but the best of them also improvised a good deal. They did not try to resurrect history so much as relive it in their imaginations. (The great classic Chinese novels owe much of the richness of their plots to the inventive genius of the story-tellers.) Brilliant actors, they could move their audiences to tears and then to laughter with only a few gestures; and they would rouse their passions with lurid descriptions of cruel rape or with poetic touches on the delights of love-play.
Not even peasants and coolies can live by hard labour alone, and those who crowded round the storytellers, must have found spiritual refreshment in the heroes and heroines they were given to admire, as well as some nourishment for their hopes.
One of the story-tellers also put on puppet plays from behind a wood and canvas stage which he set up in a corner of the market. He used only two figures, and he would rapidly change their costumes from a box hidden behind the stage. Once, after his performance, I stole behind the stage. One of the figures, in the bright pink robe of a concubine, lay on the ground. The other stood inside the open box, among the scattered clothes of an emperor that had just been stripped from it. About a foot high, its wooden arms were stretched out, making it look like the frame of a scarecrow. It had an iron mask for a face; its eyes, which could be opened and closed like a doll's, were two slits. Now that the play was over, this sinister figure with its iron mask gave me the uncanny feeling that it had a twilight life of its own.
Many years later, when I was writing the story of Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China, whom I had seen several times in Tientsin, that scarecrow figure with the iron mask kept returning to me, as if insisting that it was the real emperor.
Other things I had learned in the market-place came back, like the tones of a language, long lost but once well known and loved. Without meaning to, I found myself reliving parts of Pu Yi's story and arranging it in scenes as if I had witnessed them myself. It seemed to me only natural that history should be presented in this way. The story of a person's life should be true. But truth does not mean, simply, a respect for recorded facts. Beyond the fabric of facts, there lies the truth of the imagination. If I have been a truthful witness at some imagined scenes of Pu Yi's lifetime, I have to thank the wandering story-tellers of China.