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?