Thor's China Diary

A Dream of Red Mansions which our hero is duchessed

So there was a dinner invite'. I'd assumed Gx was inviting me to her house - I'm still thinking Australian. No, we were to go to a restaurant. She arrived in a taxi with her friend, Wx. Wx is a slender woman of around 40, with better English than Gx, and lavish with her flattery. She also seems quite bright.

Gx was dressed in deep crimson velvet, which turned out to be particularly appropriate, for we were going to no ordinary restaurant. The Tie Deng Shan Zhuang is the nearest thing to a Chinese version of a geisha house that I am ever likely to see. Come to think of it, Gx's sexual aggressiveness would cut her out perfectly for a mama san. Anyway, it was clear from the moment we walked into this place that she might as well have owned it. She knew every staff member by name, she walked boldly into sanctums without a blush, taking us on a grand tour, and the final bill was negligible (for businessmen and others it would be very steep). I did my best to play the part of distinguished, cosmopolitan guest, and thanked my luck for having worn my only pair of good trousers.

The Tie Deng Shan Zhuang is built high on a hill (and there are only a few real hills in this town). It has the form of a traditional temple complex, swooping roofs, winding pathways and passages to secret places, intimate rooms with ornate furnishing, and discreet attendants. The approach driveway itself is a precipitous labyrinth that gives no hint of its inner destination. At the entrance are a bevy of delicious young women in cheongsams, and equally picture-postcard sartorial soldiers on "guard duty". We greeted them with the comradely familiarity of "backdoor guests". The entrance parlour has a large painting of a Rubenesque naked lady (Oz's Cloe, or Venus in situ?), making the general ambiance pretty clear.

We were accompanied to a small room with embroided and padded walls, a revolving table, high-backed lacquered chairs, and various accouterments for personal service. With the ladies parked on either side of me, the serious business of dinner began: 8-flavoured tea, Indian corn & pine nuts, mussels minced & impregnated with garlic, spiced soup, and fish weirdly serrated and so crisp that pieces broke off like fish-crackers. And Budweiser beer.

The conversation revolved inexorably around me. Wx intimated that all the good things that were happening to me flowed from her unseen hand. She had personally sent Gx to the airport. A postgraduate would be put at my disposal to teach me Chinese. A second-hand bicycle would be found cheap. They would show me how to shop tomorrow. Each woman has undertaken to play matchmaker, and I am to choose between the brides in waiting. As payback their was a hint of many friends wanting their theses gone over. Ever eager, Gx produced a document for correction, but was shushed back by Wx. They were intensely curious about my salary, and enthusiastically congratulated me on Y2500 (being "the top") - apparently my social prestige as a "foreign expert" turns on this figure. It would have seemed churlish to remind them that I'd taken a salary cut by a factor of seven to come to China. Wx suggested supplementing the stipend with additional evening classes at Y50 per hour (the School's extra curricular budget is built on such things), but fell silent when I indicated a wish to control the extra hours to preserve time for learning Chinese.

I didn't raise politics, having no agenda, but they bought up the Cultural Revolution and Wx seemed eager to express some slightly critical views. It is clear already that her generation has been burned in a way that the 30-something generation and younger have not (so that youth are reacting to the cynicism of the old with a new credulity, if not idealism). Wx and Fx both knew a childhood that was rocked by turbulent forces they scarcely understood.

The curious bonding of this pair gradually became clear as they talked. They were old classmates. University students here spend four or more years in the same dormitory with a small coterie of age-mates, and something like a lifelong family relationship develops. You might not have chosen the members of your surrogate "family" if asked in the beginning, but they are there, you know them intimately, and they make a foundation for building "guanxi" (advantageous relationships) later. Thus it (jokingly) emerged that Gx's husband had recommended Wx's husband, for membership of the Communist Party in times gone past (an important career move), and now Wx  had recommended Gx into her new university position. In the new-speak of Western managerial life I suppose this is what they call "networking", but the strands of guanxi are more tenacious than the love-you-and-leave-you career courtships of the West..

What is unclear is how much of the evening's engagement was scripted, how much spontaneous encounter. Certainly I learned indirectly the next day that CD knew exactly where I had been. I am assuming that there is a slightly haphazard process of behind-the-curtain discussion& evaluation going on. That is the nature of the political beast here, but the sensible thing to do is ignore it. The only real risk (and it is very real) is of misunderstanding arising from confusions of language and culture. And it is also in the nature of my battered brain to find relationships and motives where none may exist. In truth, it is pleasant not to be ignored, to be involved in some aspects of the local drama (even if my role is opaque), to be invited to places otherwise inaccessible, and to be offered the hand of friendship. Our visit to the Tie Deng Shan Zhuang, whatever the hidden agendas, if any, was above all a great night out for two mature, worldly women.

"A Dream of Red Mansions" copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 29 August 1998