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All the Tease in China

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Scheming concubines and pampered little emperors sum up Beijing's imperial past - and its present, says Sarah Shuckburgh.

As a concubine myself - concubine notoire - being the common-law partner of a Frenchman - I find myself drawn to my real, Chinese counterparts. Therefore, on our first day in Beijing, we head straight for the palace that, for 500 years, was home to royal concubines without number.

The Forbidden City is a series of courtyards, halls and 9,999 rooms in 800 buildings. Surrounded by a deep moat, the palace was forbidden to all who lived outside, while concubines, brought in as young girls, were never permitted to leave, and remained within the palace walls until they died.

The wooden palace buildings are exuberant and thrilling. The tips of every red and yellow roof are peopled with mysterious lines of little figures, silhouetted against the sky - auspicious processions of birds, animals, mythical beasts and humans, striding purposely towards each upturned roof edge.

Peoples Liberation Army guards stare impassively as we step inside. The lofty halls are dark and overpowering, heavily decorated in red and gold and lacquer. In contrast, the imperial apartments seem small - pokey box-beds lurk in dark chambers round modest courtyards. For centuries, the harem was catalogued on dozens of jade tablets in one of these rooms. Each evening the emperor would select a tablet, and the chosen concubine would be carried in by eunuchs, her naked body and tiny bound feet draped in yellow - the immortal colour that only the emperor might use.

A concubine's eternal hope was that she would become a favourite. Cixi, the formidable Dragon Lady, started as one of Emperor Xianfeng's junior concubines, but after his death in 1861 she became the all-powerful Dowager Empress, a position she held for 47 years, appointing, as emperor, first her five-year-old son, then (after his death) her three-year-old nephew, and then (after his death, while imprisoned by the Empress in the Forbidden City), a young great-nephew - who became the Last Emperor.

We peer at a small throne and, behind a curtain, the Dragon Lady's much grander throne, from which she would hiss instructions to the boy-emperor during royal audiences.

Next, we visit the Summer Palace, rebuilt by the Dragon Lady with money intended for the navy - including, as her
little joke, a full-sized ornamental boat made of marble. We marvel at her 900-yard covered way, decorated with
8,000 paintings.

As the light fails, we travel by rickshaw through the narrow streets of hutongs, traditional old quadrangle houses. Although many new apartments in Beijing have bathrooms and kitchens, most hutongs still have no plumbing - waste from public wash houses and lavatories is emptied into carts.

Alleyways are cluttered with washing and rubbish. Men squat outside bicycle repair shops. Tiny shops display sacks of rice, heaps of brown roots. Older men and women perch on low walls, playing Chinese checkers.

On the pavement, a barber is cutting hair, a sheet wrapped round his customers' shoulders. There are few children - the one-child policy is strictly enforced. An old lady totters slowly by, leaning on a stick. Her feet are hobbled and stunted - lingering evidence of centuries of binding baby girls' feet, a practice theoretically banned since 1912.

Our rickshaws drop us at the palace of the Dragon Lady's favourite, Prince Gong, now the Beijing Music Academy, home to the Peking Opera. We are escorted through a curtain to a ramshackle backstage area, where the leading lady sits on a stool, peering at her dimly-lit reflection in a tarnished mirror.

Operas were traditionally performed in noisy teahouses, and we take our seats round a table, and sip tea and nibble steamed cakes as the performance begins. Just beside us, musicians suddenly produce a weird, deafening cacophony on two-stringed fiddles, wooden whistles and flutes, side-drum and cymbals - and onto the empty stage shuffles our leading lady, beneath a projected surtitle which says "The Drunken Concubine".

She is resplendent in silver and red robes, with sleeves dangling to the ground, a headdress that sprouts four-foot tendrils, and pom-pom slippers. As incomprehensible bangs and crashes emanate from the orchestra, the leading lady starts a raucous caterwauling - a totally alien din of piercing noises. She takes tiny steps forward, cocks her head at the audience, flicks a sleeve over a forearm, and screeches some more. I grasp the plot from the surtitles (the Emperor has rejected her for another concubine) but I quickly become aware that each ear-splitting squawk and jerky gesture has a symbolic and deeply affecting meaning to the enraptured audience around me.

Finally, with more screeches, grimaces, gestures and shuffles, the discarded concubine exits, to spend the rest of her life imprisoned in the Forbidden City.

But are there emperors or concubines today? Yes, today's Chinese emperors are the doted-upon baby boys. Everywhere, we see top-heavy families of grandparents and parents, drably dressed in grey and black, gazing adoringly at a plump, cosseted toddler. The xiao huangdi, or Little Emperor, autocratic ruler of the family, is invariably extravagantly decked out in red and silver brocade jacket, fur-trimmed hat, pointy-toed slippers, and strange trousers split up the back to reveal naked buttocks.

As for concubines, it seems that they, too, are reappearing with China's increasing affluence, consumerism and free enterprise. My own concubin notoire, Guillame, speaks Chinese, and as I struggle to lift pork-filled dumplings with chopsticks, he eavesdrops a conversation at the next table. A middle-aged, elegantly suited man is discussing with his glamorous young lover the flat that he has just bought her.

She says she wants a car. I take a furtive look at her as I sip my wonton soup. I know what am I am seeing - a 21st-century Dragon Lady.

First published by the Telegraph

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