In Back Quarters at Number 7, Ye Guangqin recreates what it was like growing up Manchu in a traditional Beijing hutong during the early years of the New China. Once part of a prince’s stately residence, the Big Courtyard now belongs to the masses and serves as a venue for collective activities such as neighborhood meetings, or rehearsals for the Rice-Planting Dance performed on National Day.
Traditionally, at the very rear of a Qing Dynasty prince’s mansion one finds a two-floor structure that functioned to “enshroud and anchor the entire quadrangular compound.” These “back quarters” — “Number 7” in the cold military parlance of post-liberation Beijing in this tale — housed females. They were private and not easily accessible to men, even those of noble lineage, residing within the compound.
Herself a member of a Manchu family related to the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi, Ye Guangqin peppers this semi-autobiographical story with references to Manchu culture: the mysterious Zhen Gege, whose title “gege” means princess in Manchu (格格); jangkulembi (撞客), a sudden and inauspicious encounter with a spirit that can engender illness or bad fortune; and of course, the traditional art of story-telling among the Manchu that expressed itself during the Qing Dynasty both orally and through literature (Manchu Novelists).
Ironically, the fascination of two children with Grandpa Zhao’s tall tales ends in tragedy when the Cultural Revolution arrives, and Red Guards target class enemies — including remnants of the Qing ruling class.
The full text of the extract below has been published in Spring 2014 Pathlight, a quarterly featuring Chinese literature in translation. The original short story is entitled 后罩楼 and was written by Ye Guangqin (叶广芩).
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Back Quarters at Number 7
(Original by Ye Guangqin, translated by Bruce Humes)
Grandpa Zhao was a Manchu Bannerman in one of just three elite Banners – there were eight total – personally commanded by the Emperor.
He said one of his ancestors had served in the Emperor’s personal guard at the Hall of Mental Cultivation in the Forbidden City. This relative had seen His Imperial Majesty as He wrote by a window, and watched Him strolling along palace verandas, so he must have been one of His bodyguards. How else could he have witnessed these details in the life of the True Dragon Emperor?
But this descendant of the Emperor’s personal guard was a laborer at the flour mill in the east of the city now, working face-to-face with white flour all day long. Every day when Grandpa Zhao came home he sported white hair, white eyebrows, and a white face. We hutong kids dubbed him the “Great White-Haired Immortal.”
Back then, bathing facilities weren’t widely installed, and our family had to go to the public baths at Dongsi. But taking a bath wasn’t cheap, so except when preparing for the Lunar New Year, we normally made do at home.
I loved visiting Grandpa Zhao’s, especially to observe him wash his face. The way he went about it was very special. He’d place a brass basin, filled with water to the very tip-top, on a stone stool in the courtyard. Why must it be in the courtyard? Because Grandpa Zhao’s face had to be washed outside.
Grandpa Zhao cleansed his face amidst a flurry of airy grunts. Just as he slapped the water onto his face, he’d exhale violently through his mouth and nose — hulu! — and with each handful the water sprayed beyond the basin, as if carried on those bursts of breath. By the time he’d finished, all the water once in the basin was on the ground. Grandma Zhao couldn’t stand to watch. She said it was like a duck at play in the water, mucking about for no good reason.
My knowledge of ghosts and monsters basically originated with him. On summer evenings after dinner, we hutong kids would gather round Grandpa Zhao, bring him a mug of tea, arrange our wooden stools, present him with a palm-leaf fan, and wait upon him until he felt good and comfortable. Then he’d begin.
Every story-teller commences with a poem when he first sets foot on the stage. Here’s Grandpa Zhao’s:
Behind Number 7’s black black gate
A princeling of the last dynasty.
Gone endless enmity and intrigue
Now women’s quarters linger desolately.
As soon as he recited his opening verse, we’d all turn our faces toward that dim little gate. The chicken-hearted would inch their stools closer to Grandpa Zhao, leaning as close as they could.
“Keep your distance!” he’d growl, brandishing his palm-leaf fan. “Such steamy weather. Don’t rub against me!”
Grandpa Zhao’s narration was populated with fairy foxes, Siberian weasel spirits, and serpents. We were terribly afraid of these creatures, all inseparable from Number 7’s courtyard. It seemed behind that small gate were hidden innumerable deadly demons:
It was an inauspicious residence. No one would rent or buy it. In 1900, during the reign of Qing Emperor Guangxu, the Eight Allied Armies took the capital, and the retinues of the two palaces – the Emperor’s and the Empress Dowager’s – departed in great haste with Their Highnesses.
But the Prince in Number 7 remained behind for he had not received an Imperial Order to leave the Capital with His Excellency. The Prince had always been blessed with his sovereign’s kindness, and deeply regretted that he could not join the Emperor in proceeding westward. Now that the city’s moats had been violated, there was no reason to continue living.
So early on July 21st, following the breaching of the city walls, the Prince led his wife née Dong, his Consorts Liu Li and Pang, and his two sons and six daughters, and committed suicide by jumping down the courtyard well.
At the time, the little Princess was still in her swaddling clothes, so her wet nurse jumped down the well with the infant in her arms. But the pair were eventually rescued, part of a valiant tale of martyrdom and an act that earned a citation from the court. The old Prince was posthumously designated a martyr, and given the honor of burial in the Temple of Illustrious Martyrs.
The Princess was granted a double imperial salary, and the Empress Dowager bestowed the name ‘Zhen’ upon her, and she became known as ‘Zhen Gege’.