Hidden History

The Rite Stuff

How a Christian missionary fell foul of the Chinese Emperor – Jeremiah Jenne

Every expat living in China has bad China days, but surely none of them could compare to that of French missionary Charles Maigrot, when arguably the most powerful emperor in Chinese history openly mocked his bad Chinese in front of the entire court.

Charles Maigrot (1655-1730) was a 20-year veteran of missionary work in China on behalf of the Missions Etrangères de Paris. In the summer of 1706, Maigrot traveled to Chengde, the vacation home of the Kangxi Emperor, at the invitation of the Vatican’s new representative in China, Charles-Thomas Maillard de Tournon, also a Frenchman. It was Maigrot’s unfortunate assignment to assist Tournon in relaying a Papal decree, which set the emperor straight over just who had the final say when it came to China’s growing number of Christian converts. This meeting would set up the ultimate cosmological steel-cage match: the Son of Heaven vs. the Supreme Pontiff.

Hidden History

The Chinese Playwright Purged after Writing the National Anthem

Jeremiah Jenne on the writing of ‘The March of the Volunteers’

A few meters into one of the less attractive hutongs of Beijing – down the lane from a cheap neighborhood bathhouse, and a boutique coffee shop featuring cold-pressed cruelty-free beans – is a squat grey courtyard that was once home to playwright and author Tian Han (1898-1968), who penned the lyrics to the Chinese national anthem.

A native of Hunan and the scion of an elite family struggling to maintain appearances in a time of declining empire, Tian Han became one of the most influential writers of the post-imperial, Republican era. His work combined a life-long love of Chinese opera with a passion for film and new forms of theatrical expression aroused during a sojourn as a student in Japan between 1916 and 1922. By the 1930s, already an established author known for his radical politics and semi-secretly a member of the Chinese Communist Party, Tian Han tried his hand at writing screenplays.

Hidden History

Skeletons in the Golf Course

Jeremiah Jenne unearths the history lying beneath a Beijing park

Qingnianhu is a typical Beijing park. Older women dance in ragged unison. The husbands chase after their grandchildren. A few folks are playing chess or cards. An artificial lake – covered in white fuzz every spring, the detritus of the city’s annual explosion of poplar and willow spores – is surrounded by a fitness path. A water park, complete with slides and wading pools, awaits warmer summer months.

“A bucket of balls is 150,” intones the bored looking teenager at the front desk of the Qingnianhu Park Golf and Fitness Club. I scan the payment QR code on my phone and trudge out to the driving range, which is enmeshed by steel pylons holding up a net. Somewhere out there, buried under golf balls and landfill, are bodies.

Hidden History

A Very British Time in China

Penelope Fitzgerald’s holiday in China – by Paul French

With the release of the film of Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1978 novel The Bookshop this year, hopefully she’ll win many new fans and readers. The Bookshop was Fitzgerald’s second novel and is thought by many to be her best. The film version, by the Spanish director Isabel Coixet, stars Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Bill Nighy. The story revolves around Florence Green, a middle-aged widow, who decides to open a bookshop in a small town, finding some support and some opposition. Though the book was famously set in Suffolk (Hardborough, a satirical version of the real town of Aldeburgh) the movie version was filmed in Northern Ireland and Barcelona.