Finding Gormenghast and the Groans in China

Not Gormenghast.

English-speaking novelists brought up in the Far East have often made the Orient a central theme of their output, while even those making only brief visits can rarely avoid producing at least one book with an Eastern setting. The West’s predilection to find the East mysterious and inscrutable means that an oriental location can add allure to even the most humdrum narrative, and selling power to books of all kinds.

Mervyn Peake was born in the Chinese hilltop resort of Lu Shan overlooking the Yangzi River; apart from one long visit to Britain three years later, he stayed in China from his birth in 1911 until his family returned to Britain in 1923. Most of his early life was spent in Tianjin, a city on the route from the port of Tanggu to Beijing and about 140km southeast of the capital, so it’s a mystery why there’s apparently so little of China in his output.

Some view this puzzle as solved by naming the Beijing winter palace of the Manchu Qing dynasty, the Forbidden City, as the inspiration for Peake’s fictional castle in the Gormenghast trilogy. Its final royal occupant, the Qing boy-emperor Aisin Gioro Puyi, who was only five years older than Peake himself, is offered as the inspiration for the character of Titus Groan.

But 20th-century China offers much better candidates for spurs to the young Peake’s imagination and to the creation of both Gormenghast and the Groans. In fact there’s more of China in the books than first appears, and the problem is perhaps that readers have often been looking for the wrong sort of China in the wrong sort of place.

For some the problem is the same as that which bedevils much thinking and writing about China to the present day: the Turandot, Tintin, or Kung Fu Panda idea of a China with streets of curly-eaved mansions thronged by gaily-gowned but Machiavellian mandarins, their hands thrust deeply into generously cut sleeves, constantly quoting Confucius. There’s certainly none of that in Peake, and indeed part of the objection to the Forbidden City as the inspiration for Gormenghast, however appealing its exclusion of the outside world behind walls within walls, is the single-minded repetitiveness of its very traditionally Chinese architecture. Gormenghast may not be locatable on a map of Europe but is nevertheless in Peake’s description a jumble of very obviously European styles.

The world of early 20th-century expatriates in China was in large part something quite different from the popular idea of China, one in which Chinese culture was shut out and attempts to engage with it thought odd or undesirable. In the larger concessions foreigners themselves lived within walled areas designed to exclude all but selected Chinese, and this isolationism increased following the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 which saw the foreign populations of both Tianjin and Beijing besieged and nearly wiped out. Far from having any Chinese characteristics, the subsequently rebuilt foreign enclaves of these cities sprouted imported architectural styles that stridently asserted national characteristics almost to the point of parody, rather like an early Expo. It was here that most foreigners were resident and where they conducted most of their business.

Peake went to school at Tientsin (Tianjin) Grammar within one of the three British concessions and which was part of a group of eight foreign-run areas collectively amounting to nearly 3800 acres (1500 hectares). The others belonged to Japan, Italy, Germany, Austro-Hungary, Russia, and Belgium, and featured brick and stone administration buildings, commercial offices, shops, and mansions in self-consciously European styles. Even the Japanese were emulating European architecture at the time.

These mansions dwarfed the mostly low-rise and more wooden construction of the Chinese city, especially after foreign forces relieved the 27-day Boxer siege and then occupied Tianjin for two years, pulling down the walls of the Chinese city to prevent it being used as a base to launch future attacks.

In Tianjin the foreigners were in fact more walled-in than the Chinese, and at school within the foreign concessions the young Peake would have been amongst an impressive towering roofscape that was a hodgepodge of styles ranging from the crenellated towers of Gordon House (the British headquarters) through the neo-classicism of assorted banks and the mansard roofs of stout, half-timbered German residences, to the hints of Art Deco in the imposing French administration building and others.

Here, surely, rather than in the repetitive orderliness of the yellow roofs of the Forbidden City, was the inspiration for Gormenghast’s varied but never Chinese roofscape: in China, but not of China.

The foreign concessions had street lighting, paved roads, running water, and sewers. The malodorous and ramshackle Chinese city had none of these things and if anything was likely the inspiration for the dwellings of the Bright Carvers, cowering beneath imposing European-style walls.

But just as this suggests a better Chinese candidate than the Forbidden City as the possible inspiration for Gormenghast, so there’s a more compelling original than the Qing imperial family as the inspiration for the Groans themselves.

The Xuantong emperor, who would turn out to be the last of the Qing and who was more commonly known to foreigners simply as Puyi, was placed on the throne in late 1908 three months before his second birthday and passed a lonely and isolated boyhood within the Forbidden City’s repetitive courtyards. His reign came to an end in February 1912 (with the exception of a 12-day restoration by a warlord in 1917) as a result of China’s rather accidentally successful 1911 revolution. He continued to be resident in the rear half of the Forbidden City until summarily ejected by another warlord in 1924, the year after the Peake family moved back to England. The main facts of his life, although largely based on an unreliable and politically manipulated autobiography published in English in 1964, have been widely known overseas since Bertolucci’s 1987 film, The Last Emperor.

But Puyi’s general situation was also well known to contemporary foreign residents of China, and the Forbidden City itself was the object of as much curiosity as any other corner of the planet largely inaccessible to outsiders, from Mecca to Tibet. Some accounts of the palace’s interior had been provided by the few foreigners granted audiences, and reporters had joined a march by foreign soldiers through the complex from south to north in August 1900 following the relief of the Boxer siege of the neighbouring Legation Quarter, and the subsequent occupation of the capital.

There was no intention to topple the Qing, but the parade was intended to demonstrate to the imperial family, which had fled to Xi’an, that victory was complete. Contemporary photographs clearly show rotting wood, sagging beams, fallen plaster, and peeling paint, and the journalists on the post-siege march reported more of the same: the carpets were filthy, the interiors dingy, and in the words of a Times report published a few days later, ‘everything indicated slovenliness, neglect, and decay.’ Grass had been allowed to grow up through the bricks of the courtyards in sufficient quantities to interest the officers’ horses.

Limited public access was eventually allowed inside, to the Hall of Martial Valour and of Hall of Respectful Thought near the main south entrance to the palace complex, which had been linked together by a German architect and opened in 1914 as the Government Museum. Peake’s father is known to have visited the Forbidden City, and perhaps this is what he saw, probably passing through and perhaps later describing to his son the wilderness of flagstones in one of the vast southern courtyards.

In 1919 the well-known British government official Reginald Johnston, previously an administrator of territory leased by Britain at Weihaiwei, was invited to take up the newly created post of foreign tutor to the young emperor. His account of this period, Twilight in the Forbidden City, was published in 1934, 12 years before Titus Groan. Much of the material for Bertolucci’s much later account of Puyi’s teenage years came from here, and Johnston was memorably played by Peter O’Toole in the film.

So there were published accounts, both while the Peakes were in China and later prior to the publication of Titus Groan, of a boy who inherited power while still an infant and who was brought up in isolation and formality in a vast decaying mansion. In this précis the similarities seem undeniable, but there was a second family of considerable importance in China whose history matched that of the Groans more closely still.

While the imperial Aisin Gioro family were arriviste foreigners who had absorbed Chinese territory into their own Qing empire only as recently as 1644, the Kong family claimed to trace its lineage all the way back to the illustrious Kong Fuzi (Venerable Master Kong) of 551–479 BCE, better known in the West as Confucius.

The family was resident in Qufu, a walled city near Confucius’s birthplace, in the province of Shandong about 450km (280 miles) south of Tianjin. The sage’s ideas had first been adopted as state ideology during the 206 BCE–220 CE Han dynasty, centuries after his death, and the senior male direct descendant of Confucius was known as the Yansheng Duke. The dukedom was created during the 11th century Song dynasty, and successive emperors bestowed gifts and ever greater honours on the family. Whereas other lines of nobility were extinguished with the fall of each dynasty, the Yansheng Duke’s title was always re-established.

The Duke had the privilege of using the Purple Bridle and was the possessor of the Double-Eyed Peacock’s Feather, both marks of the highest rank which almost sound as if they might have been invented by Peake. By his time the Kong establishment was lavishly funded by the profits from vast donated estates known as sacrificial fields, had vast additional private wealth, and lived in a vast multi-courtyard mansion with hundreds of rooms adjacent to an even larger site containing the country’s most impressive Temple of Confucius. The family also had a large private cemetery to the north of the town, containing the tomb of Confucius himself and those of innumerable descendants.

The Duke could raise his own army, and was the only person other than the emperor who might ride a horse within the Forbidden City. His word was law within his own miniature empire where he had the right to issue arrest warrants, put people on trial, and order executions. At the height of its power during the 18th-century reign of the Qianlong emperor, the Kong family owned its own bank and issued its own currency. The Analects, a compilation of Confucius’s conversations and pronouncements made by his students, were studied in schools along with texts by early commentators and were the canon upon which examinations for government positions were based.

The family had a vast bureaucracy whose reponsibilities included running the rituals, issuing punishments, and managing the estates. While the emperors’ retainers were all eunuchs, the Kongs were more like the Groans, having an extensive retinue of servants the more senior of whom had servants of their own. Strict rules controlled how far servants in a rigid hierarchy of different ranks were allowed into the mansion. Many of them held hereditary positions, passing down very specific responsibilities from generation to generation. Different families were in charge of trimming beansprouts, making brooms, carrying sacrificial objects, supplying ice, or wailing at funerals.

The Yansheng Dukes’ comforts came at a price. Their lives were devoted to ritual celebration of their ancestor’s memory and to performing ceremonies in the temple. In 1904, Reginald Johnston, then still Secretary to Government at Weihaiwei about 650km northeast of Qufu, visited the Yansheng Duke in order to deliver a portrait of Edward VII that had been requested the previous year. In his report of the journey he wrote:

‘The life that must be lived by the ducal family of K’ung [Kong] would probably be found intolerable by any Englishman or American. Inherited qualities of patience and contentment have probably made it bearable to the cultured and vigorous young nobleman who now bears the responsibilities and enjoys the privileges of his distinguished race. He informed me that he would probably pay a visit to Peking on the occasion of the Empress Dowager’s birthday this year: but he did not show any marked pleasure at the prospect of exchanging the dreary routine of his daily life at Ch’u Fou [Qufu] for the more dazzling excitement of the Court.’

If a life spent in a vast multi-courtyard mansion at the top of a rigid hierarchy devoted to ritual already sounds exactly like Sepulchrave and the other inhabitants of Gormenghast, there is a more striking similarity still.

In November 1919 the Yansheng Duke of the time, Kong Lingyi, died while on a visit to Beijing. He had no male issue, but his concubine was already pregnant. There was considerable rejoicing in February 1920 when she gave birth to a boy, who was officially confirmed as the new Duke by Presidential decree in June the same year.

Both Titus Groan and Kong Decheng were infants as they inherited their titles, and just as Sepulchrave was the 76th Earl of Groan and Titus the 77th, so Kong Lingyi was the 76th Yansheng Duke, and Kong Decheng the 77th.

I first noticed these parallels, which seem beyond coincidence, while undertaking other research in Qufu around 15 years ago, and began to wonder whether any documentary evidence might be found to suggest that knowledge of the Kong family would have been common at least amongst the more open-minded and curious parts of expatriate society at the time, and to missionaries and the Peakes in particular. Curiously, it is perhaps only because a verson of Puyi’s history has been put on film that any knowledge the Kong family, comparatively unknown to modern readers, seems in need of greater demonstration.

My starting point in a search for further evidence was to scan the numerous publications in English servicing the expatriate populations scattered around China’s major and minor treaty ports including Tianjin. Articles on Qufu and the Kong family published during the Peakes’ time in China would suggest that they were discussed more widely even in the mostly conservative and inward-looking foreign enclaves.

I spent a very limited amount of time in the National Library of China (as dusty, obscure, and unhelpful as anything Sourdust might have run), the Hong Kong Public Library, and the British Library. When searching newspaper archives I concentrated on two key newsworthy events: the death and subsequent funeral of the 76th Duke in 1919, and the arrival of his male heir in 1920. The Peakes were still in China and Mervyn would have been eight years old at the time.

But expatriate publications were generally as inward-looking and self-important as their readership, meaning that while notices of amateur dramatics were plentiful along with coverage of crimes against foreigners, caustic discussion of the failings of China’s officials, and other mockery, intelligent remarks on Chinese culture were relatively rare, and I discovered no mention of the Yansheng Dukes.

Confucianism itself certainly was much discussed amongst certain classes. Jesuit pioneer Matteo Ricci gained a foothold in Beijing from 1602, and became the first Westerner to gain imperial permission to live there. The Jesuits were the first to popularise the name of Kong Fuzi in the West, Latinizing him to Confucius in the process. They approved of Confucius’s family values, which proposed a ladder of authority with heaven at the top and everyone else fixed permanently on appropriate rungs of the ladder below, as modelled in miniature at Qufu itself.

Confucianism remained of interest to 20th century missionaries such as Peake’s father since it was seen as a competitor to Christianity, and it would certainly have been mentioned in the household. Even the Shanghai-based North China Herald commented when Confucian rites were revived at a Hangzhou temple in 1920.

But even a thorough familiarity with Confucius would not of itself demonstrate knowledge of the doings of the Kong family, which for the most part took place deep within the mansion and as privately as those of the imperial family itself. While there was no doubt gossip, and indiscretions from servants, an account of the inner workings of the Kong family household in the 20th century was not published in English until 1984 (The House of Confucius by Kong Demao, who was the 77th Duke’s sister, and Ke Lan).

Qufu was not on tourist itineraries or mentioned in the guidebooks of the day, although towns in Shandong Province with foreign populations, such as the treaty port of Yantai and the naval base of Weihaiwei, did appear.

When Mervyn’s brother was at school in Yantai it seems the Peake family may have holidayed there, but they may have travelled by coastal steamer rather than passing anywhere near Qufu by land. As Johnston’s superior James Stuart Lockhart, the British Commissioner of Weihaiwei, reported in 1903, progress by springless cart on Shandong Province’s dismal roads only amounted to three or four miles an hour, and an average of 26 miles (42km) a day.

Travel narratives would occasionally mention Qufu, such as best-selling travel writer Harry A. Franck’s Wandering Through Northern China, published in New York in 1923, the year the Peakes left for England, although he offers little more than a description of the temple and a brief mention of its ceremonies in a faintly mocking account.

Many might have read Lockhart’s report of his visit published in 1903. Lockhart was the first foreigner the 76th Yansheng Duke had ever met, was possibly the first Westerner ever to meet an Yansheng Duke of any generation, and a report on his visit did appear in the local Chinese press. But although this report included a detailed description of the Confucius Temple and its contents, of the family cemetery, and of other assorted temples in the town, he has nothing to say about the lives of the Dukes or the rites, and he employs the same tone to describe temples as he does to discuss matters of more obvious consular interest such as imports and exports, and railway and mining concessions under German control.

Johnston’s published account of his errand to deliver the royal portrait the following year is more sympathetic and vivid, and, as pointed out, does mention the dreariness of the ritual-driven lives of the Yansheng Dukes.

Perhaps that’s enough, but failing the discovery of a more dramatic link to English-language sources with fuller descriptions, the next step would be to consider whether Dr. Peake’s Mandarin might have been up to reading and understanding Chinese materials. Peter Winnington kindly provided assurance that Peake senior was said to have spoken Mandarin well, and that he passed two London Missionary Society language exams with decent marks.

Unfortunately the general belief of the native English speaker that Mandarin is an impossibly difficult language to learn, a view also appealing to Chinese amour propre but not supported by experience, means that both parties tend to give far more credit than is due even to those who can merely say, ‘Ní hǎo’ (‘hello’) properly, and even for consular exams the bar for success was generally set far too low. In expatriate society the common view was that those who learned Mandarin risked going soft in the head, sympathy for usually belittled or ignored Chinese culture being ill received. Those such as Johnston, who demonstrated an active interest in Confucius and who had read Confucian texts in the original, were liable to find themselves considered unreliable.

Dr. Peake may have had enough Mandarin to do his job, but the vocabulary necessary to read Chinese newspaper accounts of Confucian ritual and to translate it for his family would have been something else indeed.

Unfortunately, despite its supposed position as the second most important family in the Qing empire, and the Yansheng Duke’s status as the highest-ranking Chinese (the Qing themselves being foreigners), a rapid scan of major Chinese newspapers of the same period also revealed little coverage, although again those with more time and expertise in this area may succeed.

Research in the archives of the Confucius Institute in Qufu, or the organisation around the 79th generation descendant, resident in Taiwan with the hereditary title Sacrificial Official to Confucius, may possibly provide further evidence of early 20th-century foreign knowledge of the Kong family, and so may the archives of the London Missionary Society’s own publications.

Regardless of what may be discovered concerning the Peakes’ knowledge of Qufu in the future, others remain equally determined to identify Chinese elements in Peake, as illustrated by Hilary Spurling’s recent comments in The Guardian (2 July, 2011):

‘I recognized the gulfs, chasms and peaks of Gormenghast itself in China four years ago when I climbed Mount Lu, rising sheer nearly 5,000ft from the Yangtze [Yangzi] plain. Peake was born on top of this magic mountain. Its precipitous scrambles and dizzy plunges shaped both the inner and outer reality of the worlds his pen and pencil created in line or words with such apparently effortless authority.’

Unfortunately the resort on Lu Shan (Spurling’s ‘Mount Lu’), where Peake was born, was well below the 5000ft high point, and if Peake could remember much of his single summer return visit there in the summer of 1919 he would have found the bungalows and mock-Tudor of Wallington in Surrey, where his family settled on its return to England, quite familiar.

Lu Shan was another prosaic inward-looking alien enclave of homesick architecture, but the desire of visitors to find everything in China peculiarly exotic and especially magical survives to this day.

It’s a tendency rarely shared by foreign residents.

Originally published in Peake Studies, Vol.12 No.3, October 2011.

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