Hidden History

The Peking Aesthetes9 min read

An alienated community of foreigners in interwar Peking – Jeremiah Jenne

In 1935, American scholar George N. Kates settled into a courtyard home in a Peking hutong just north of the Forbidden City.  “No electric light, no wooden floors, no heating apparatus except several cast iron stoves, and no plumbing did I ever install,” he wrote in his memoir The Years That Were Fat: Peking, 1933-1940, which Kates published in 1952 (and which later inspired the title of Chan Koonchung’s sci-fi novel The Fat Years). Long before anyone had coined the term “Hutong Hipster,” Kates and a group of like-minded cultural enthusiasts – dubbed the Peking Aesthetes – were learning Chinese, raising crickets, studying painting from elderly neighbors, and shunning the distractions of the city’s international community. Interwar Peking was a city divided along lines that would not be unfamiliar to foreign residents of Peking almost a century later. Kates wrote:

Those in the Legation Quarter who lived in foreign-style houses may have had the benefit of sash windows and of laid floors, of plastered walls and even radiators for steam heat, yet they missed much… In these asphalted streets the multitudinous sights and sounds of the old capital did not exist. Trees were planted along their well-swept borders as in some model European city; and local peddlers and hawkers were excluded by special police guarding the entrance barriers. The clangor, the vociferousness, the energy of the cheerful and roisterous proletariat were here replaced by something restricted.

Another member of the Peking Aesthetes community, John Blofeld, was a British scholar and teacher who lived in Peking in the late 1930s. In his memoir, City of Lingering Splendor: A Frank Account of Old Peking’s Exotic Pleasures, not published until 1962, Blofeld made clear on which side of this divide he stood:

Apart from the Christian missionaries, of whom I saw and can recall almost nothing, the remaining Westerners in Peking fell roughly into two categories. The larger consisted of those diplomatic officials, bank staffs and employees of mercantile firms who lived in stuffy walls, guarded from the dangers which had long ceased to exist by military detachments furnished by their respective countries… Most inmates of the Legation Quarter led lives so detached they were always the last to know what was happening, if they ever came to know it at all.

Kates and Blofeld, as well as fellow hutong enthusiasts such as the British scholar Harold Acton, the infamous fantabulist Edmund Backhouse, and, a decade later, the American writer David Kidd, author of Peking Story, counted themselves fortunate to have the gumption to escape the musty confines of the Legation Quarter and set up what they saw as lives of authenticity in the back alleys, brothels, antique shops and markets of Old Peking.

Author and self-proclaimed “aesthete” Harold Acton both celebrated and satirized this world in his 1941 novel Ponies and Peonies. Acton’s protagonist Philip Flower, reputedly based not-so-loosely on George Kates, has a fascination with Chinese men, especially those involved in the demimonde of the theater. Flower is obsessed with Yang Pao-ch’in, an actor talented in performing the dan, or female role, in opera; it is hard not to see in the depiction of Yang elements of Acton’s Peking neighbor, the opera singer Mei Lanfang.

In Acton’s novel, the cloistered hothouse of the Legation Quarter is represented by Mrs. Mascot, the eye of the swirling international social scene who declares, “I am Peking – at least so many people have told me so that I’ve come to believe it. I’ve a moral certainty I was a Chinese in a former incarnation.” The inspiration for Mrs. Mascot was likely Helen Burton, the proprietor of the Camel Bell, an emporium where shoppers could buy a fur coat or a Tibetan thangka and catch up on the latest gossip. Burton’s shop was in the Grand Hôtel de Pékin, giving her a prime vantage point from which to observe the comings and goings of the international elite. It was the sort of place where hotel guests or other tourists might come in to buy a souvenir of their time in Peking and run into Helen Snow, journalist and wife of Red Star Over China author Edgar Snow, trying on the latest imported gowns from Europe.

Acton and his fellow aesthetes avoided, or claimed to avoid, the social piste of the Legation Quarter, and the disdain appears to have been mutual. Alastair Morrison (1915-2009), son of the famous Times of London China correspondent George Morrison, once remarked that other foreigners tolerated the aesthetes, “although one wouldn’t necessarily invite them to dinner.” 1

In his memoir Why China? Recollections of China 1923-1950, Australian historian C.P. Fitzgerald gives a vivid description of the foreign community in general and the Peking Aesthetes in particular:

They floated as it were, halfway between the culture of the West and the civilization of China. They had often virtually withdrawn from active participation in their own culture, largely because they found some aspects of it very little to their taste. There were many with homosexual proclivities, others who had no inclination in the world of business, or to any skilled profession. They were cultured, but unproductive, and mainly uncreative also. It is a significant fact that this community of intellectual people, and artists also, never produced a writer of fame, nor an artist of international reputation. They knew much about Chinese civilization, they studied it with love and learning, but they did not succeed in interpreting it to the world at large. The few works of merit on the China of that age were written by visiting scholars and writers from the West, who lived in Peking for some months, absorbed and understood its importance and character but, seeming to realize that it was a subtle but corroding force which would undermine their own creativity, left – to write perceptive books about their experience.

Fitzgerald is undoubtedly too dismissive of the creative and academic output of the foreign community, but his portrayal of the Aesthete community as self-absorbed, insular and obsessed with cultural ephemera was widely shared – as was his presumption of the sexuality of its members.

Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, at home in China (Wikicommons)

Julian Bell, a tangential figure in the Bloomsbury circle (he was the nephew of Virginia Woolf), arrived in China in 1935, and hastily left in 1937 after his affair with the writer Ling Shuhua was discovered by her husband. Bell became acquainted with Acton and his circle during the latter’s time in Peking, describing Acton as “very chi-chi and homo, but high culture to the hilt.” The city, declared Bell, was “the nicest town in the world: the only great capital besides Paris – full of queers.”2

Allowing for a bit of exaggeration on the part of the at-times recklessly heterosexual Bell, Peking could be a refuge for men afraid to express their sexuality in their home countries, many of which criminalized homosexuality. In his memoir, longtime hutong dweller Edmund Backhouse recounted in his memoirs Décadence Mandchoue a robust and imaginative sex life which included visits to male brothels, dalliances with actors, and even a fervid series of biologically improbable couplings with the much older Empress Dowager Cixi. (In Backhouse’s memory, it was the Empress Dowager who sodomized him, with Backhouse in the passive role. Backhouse was a famously unreliable narrator, prone to peddling fantastic untruths to unsuspecting members of the more established Peking community.)

Acton’s sexuality seems to have been generally acknowledged, although others have suggested that he was “more asexual than anything else.” Acton may have felt an unrequited love for his friend Desmond Parsons, a dashing, aristocratic adventurer and linguist who came to China in 1934. During his time in China, Parsons explored – and attempted to plunder – the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, narrowly avoiding arrest by Chinese authorities. Parson’s death, of Hodgkin’s Disease at age 26, deeply affected Acton. The travel writer Robert Byron also became infatuated with Parsons when he stayed with him in Peking after Byron’s long journey across Asia. It was in the courtyard of Parson’s hutong home that Byron wrote and edited the manuscript for his celebrated travelogue The Road to Oxiana, published in 1937.

Ultimately, circumstances forced the Aesthetes to abandon Peking. Some, like Parsons, died young: Julian Bell died in 1937 while driving an ambulance on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War; Byron was killed when his ship was sunk by a German U-Boat in 1941. Others, such as Acton and David Kidd, rebuilt their lives in other parts of the world. Harold Acton became a well-known expert on art, living much of his life in Florence, Italy. David Kidd pursued his passion for art and culture in Japan. Despite being a recognized expert on Chinese antiques and furniture, George Kates struggled personally and financially after returning to the United States.

What might have become of the Aesthetes if war and revolution had not driven them from their hutong homes? Perhaps their epitaph is best expressed by C.P. Fitzgerald in Why China? In words which ring as true for expatriates in China today as they did for the Aesthetes of an earlier era, he concludes:

Peking had too strong a cultural force: it charmed the foreigner, but it sucked him out of his background without integrating him in its own. He was a foreigner, conspicuously so to any Chinese, however well he spoke their language… He might know and understand their social customs, but he did not practice them. To many younger Chinese he also remained an example of China’s national decline and weakness… perhaps a more agreeable one than the rest, but inevitably marked by the same stigma. Peking was a dream city for the foreigner; few realized that the dream must have a rude awakening before many years passed. ∎

Header: Sir Harold Acton (right), with his mother and uncle in Italy, before embarking for China (Wikicommons).
  1. Anne-Marie Brady, “Adventurers, Aesthetes, and Tourists: Foreign Homosexuals in Republican China,” in Anne-Marie Brady and Douglas Brown, eds. Foreigners and Foreign Institutions in Republican China, (Routledge Press, 2012) 
  2. Quoted in D.E. Mungello, Western Queers in China: Flight to the Land of Oz(Rowman and Littefield, 2012)