I knew the Old Summer Palace was both a sensitive subject and important historically so when it was suggested Stefan and I should visit I didn’t feel I could say no. You would think that being the only two foreigners would have brought me and Stefan together, but we worked in different departments that rarely meet and, on a few nights out, we had not hit it off. As a Swede, Stefan has no connection with the history of the Summer Palace, but as westerners, we have been probably tarred with the same brush. I hoped on our return to work we wouldn’t be lectured about western imperialism. I have no love for history, nor interest in the old wounds that our Chinese colleagues carry from its destruction by my country in a long-ago war. I had just wanted a break from the difficulties of working and living in Beijing and, just for one afternoon, not feel so foreign.
Stefan is waiting near the ticket barriers when I pull up in a taxi. I am pleased to see that there are not many other people about. I look at the few coming out, they don’t look sad or angry, no one looks accusingly at me, yet I feel ridiculously guilty about my colonial past.
We say our hellos and enter through the turnstiles into a small open square. There’s a large map of the palace grounds on the wall and we stand in front of it looking at the various paths, all labelled in Chinese.
“Which way?” He asks me.
I’d already mentioned Ito him that I was only interested in somewhere quiet and relaxing; any path would do. But now I’m here, giving the impression I don’t care, might come across as callous. I point down a wide paved path decisively. “That way,”
We walk through the almost empty grounds, once known as the garden of gardens, making small talk about the day, the progress of some work projects and our recent summer holidays away. We pass beds of flowers gone to seed, bushes needing a trim, ranks of low trees and lakes filled with the yellowing leaves of lotus plants. There are no ruins here, unless the unremarkable shrubbery is the remnants of a landscape of exotic plants and manicured lawns.
“Did you hear Tom Cook is back?” Stefan asks me “I got the message this morning. He’s working on the project as a special consultant.”
I’m not sure how to reply. I thought I’d escaped him long ago. There had been a time where he had dominated my life, but years had passed since we last met, or even spoke. The last few e-mails exchanged between us lay ignored and his Christmas message un-replied to. I thought he’d been forgotten, and I had moved on from the dark time that the mention of his name had brought suddenly back. Part of the pain had been that no one knew how I’d been treated, if there had been some visible wreckage, some lasting evidence to remind people, it would have been easier. He’d retired two years ago and I’d silently endured the praising goodbye messages in which I was copied. I avoided the farewell speech from management which I’m sure extoled the achievements of his career and contributions to the company. A history written by new managers that never knew him, who didn’t know my story and the destruction he had brought on me.
“He’s definitely special,” I eventually reply.
Stefan senses some hidden message and looks puzzled at me. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, it’s hard to explain,” I tell him. “He was my manager once, hardly spoke to me. Then when he did it was like he was reading from a management book. His behaviour, responses and his actions were un-natural, like the practiced lines and moves of a bad actor.”
“Really? Stefan asks. “I hadn’t heard anything like that. I thought he is well liked; I was told he was one of the company’s top designers.”
“Oh, I’m not saying he wasn’t a good Mechanical Engineer, I just mean he was a bad manager. Not to other Mechanical Engineers, but to me he was awful. He didn’t understand the role, my job, or me; all he did was give me quotes and vague advice from management books.”
We pass over a bridge where some Chinese boats are tied up alongside. In the summer, the red and yellow covered barges would be ferrying passengers about the willow lined lake. Stefan stops to take a picture. In the distance the water fades into the dark shadows beneath far off trees. There is no sign of the city, we could be in the countryside.
I hadn’t thought of Tom for a while. I’d put those times behind me, but the mention of his name and in particular the title of ‘special consultant’ had brought it all back. How typical that he wouldn’t be just a consultant like I had been, but instead get a superior title. He would be bound to mention it if I meet him. I was surprised by the strength of my feelings and the resurgence of the bitterness of the past. I thought I’d moved on, but my old resentments hadn’t gone, they’d been lurking in the background, hidden like the city behind the distant treeline.
We walk on further, passing a row of small shops selling grilled sausages and fried fast food and locked up buildings of unknown purpose. Some had been made to look old but were betrayed by broken patches in the facades showing the modern brick behind. Then more clumps of shrubs, small banks of pale-yellow stone and patches of trees – another lake.
Eventually we arrive at the start of the palace site. We walk around what’s left of the first building trying to imagine where each stone, now lying in the thin weeds, might fit together. There’s a picture of what it once looked like. A grainy black and white print of a building that looks very European. There is a description that might help, but it’s in Chinese. We stand looking at the broken and scattered marble blocks, white as royal icing in the sun, but there are too many missing parts to see how the pieces could have been the building in the photograph.
Stefan takes a shot of some steps still flanked by half a colonnade. “I didn’t know you had worked for Tom, he says. When was he your manager?”
I count the years in my head, and I’m surprised that its almost exactly 15 years ago. “Quite a while ago now, I tell him. My previous boss had died on his way to work and the team, there had been three of us, was merged with Mechanical Engineering under him. Within a week he’d called me into his office and told me my job wasn’t required, said it could be done by his Engineers.”
“Wow, he says. I didn’t know that, it must have been a shock.”
I assume he means the redundancy not the death. “It was, I reply. Not just to me, but a lot of people.”
I didn’t want to tell him more. It wouldn’t look good to show I still bear a grudge after such a long time. If I said more, it would only be to discredit Tom’s reputation. Probably I would just look petty. I didn’t want to appear mean or spiteful. Instead, I steer the subject back to the palace ruins.
“I don’t know why they want to cling on to this event”, I say. “In the ruins of Greece and Rome or the pyramids at Giza there is a sense of wonder at the achievements of the ancient cultures. These gardens are relatively new, and all that remains are copies of western architecture. Hardly a celebration of Chinese glory. It’s as though they want to remember the grievance. That can’t be healthy.”
“I agree, he says. But I suppose it’s not simple. It can be hard to move on without some apology given, or a recognition of the wrong, maybe reinforced by a return of what was looted. It would be a simple enough gesture if it wasn’t complicated by the narrative of your own county’s past. I doubt you learned about the opium wars at school, your history forgets about its abuse of power around the world and its immoral wars. Your memorial in London famously says ‘least we forget’; these ruins are a reminder from the other side.”
I want to argue that the cenotaph is a tribute to the selfless sacrifice, that it is a more positive symbol than a reminder of a century of shame. But I don’t want to be in the position of defending what we’d done and I don’t believe that argument myself. The statues of unknown generals and memorials that litter London’s streets don’t remind us of the pointless death and misery that war brings. So why should these stones remind Chinese visitors of the meaningless, but inevitable destruction of war.
“I feel uncomfortable about Britain’s past” I blandly reply. “But it was a different time, what was done can’t be changed by me.”
It’s a true enough reply that ends the delicate subject, but in doing so it only leaves the topic of Tom to be continued.
“So, what did you do after you found out you were made redundant?” He continues
“Nothing, I reply. It’s hard to believe now, looking back. I was too busy to think about it. Like you said, it was a shock and maybe I just couldn’t take it in. I was doing the work of three people and then there were some field issues: I’d never been so busy. After a week he changed his mind. Said I was needed after all.”
My simplification of that week and the time that followed made it sound petty. A decision made and then reversed; it was nothing unusual, nothing that explained the obvious grudge I had. So, I’m forced to continue and explain how his actions justified my poor opinion of him and my 15 years of bitterness.
“His decision showed that he had made it without any understanding. It was apparent that he believed my job could be done by anyone. He didn’t value me, my skills, my knowledge or experience; he thought I was unnecessary, a bottleneck he called me. He could have admitted he’d been wrong, tried to show I was valued. Instead, for ages after, he only wanted to reduce the role. There was a constant pressure to give work and responsibilities to others, to train people to do what I did. There were other incidents too that made it clear that his mind hadn’t changed, he’d just discovered I couldn’t be got rid of overnight. It’s hard to work for someone knowing that he only wants you gone.”
We walk further along the path parallel to the broken bits of buildings, more squares of marble, parts of pillars, curved sections that must have once formed an arch. There were holes too, filled with water or just empty, whatever had once been there gone.
“It must have taken some time to pull all this down, I say. A massive amount of effort.”
“It wasn’t completely destroyed”, Stefan replied. “There was more destruction during the boxer rebellion and cultural revolution, then years of plundering the stones and statues for other Beijing buildings. The burning and looting kicked it off, but it’s taken a century longer to get like this; its only recently that the site has been protected. Like all history, its far more complex than the uncompleted stories that are told. A lot of destruction was by the Chinese themselves, but when you’re bitter about something its common to reframe what happened in terms that others agree should be upsetting. People fantasise about revenge, or where they’d be now if things had gone differently.”
For a moment I wonder if he’s talking about my little rant about Tom. Does he think I’ve simplified my story, or exaggerated, or only told one side, or that I’m vengeful? It is one sided, but that’s unsurprising. There was no discussion of what motivated the need for change, or what vision there was of the future. I had followed his directions, even pretended enthusiasm. But to be honest, I’d also made sure his idea hadn’t worked and distanced myself from its obvious stupidity. If it had been recognised or acknowledged by others, it would have been justice not revenge.
The palace section ends in a square where a small crowd had gathered around an old woman singing Chinese opera. Several of them were videoing her performance on their phones, another ruined building as a backdrop. This time parts were still standing, thick sections of walls, tall pillars, a series of steps leading to a doorway. I wondered what her song was about, and its relevance to here.
“So why didn’t you just leave?” Asks Stefan. “You could have gone somewhere else where you were valued. It doesn’t make sense to continuing work for someone that doesn’t support you, in a company where there is no future for you. Why not get another job?”
“Looking back, I probably should have. But at the time I only had a couple of years till my mortgage was done and the kids left for university – I just had to hang on. There were things I liked about the job too, I was still busy going from crisis to crisis and there were occasional trips abroad. The organisation was growing and there was a feeling of being an expert. I felt important, too important to be got rid of. I did leave in the end, but I should have done it earlier.”
The opera singer stops and there is a small round of applause. We take some pictures as the little group wanders off, then follow them down a path that narrows between a line of hedges. It leads into some trees and then to another smaller square where, to one side, a rugged metal bust sits on a plinth. A modern addition, and for once there are two large plaques, one in French and the other English. I’m surprised to read its Victor Hugo, immortalised here because of his letter criticising the Anglo-French army for their actions. There is a group of school children nearby completing some question papers, presumably learning about his critique.
“A little surprising,” I say reading the inscription. “Finding amid a park dedicated to the war crimes of the west, a westerner. It’s as though his testament, gives credibility to the story, like evidence in a legal case. Do you think a trial would help in healing? Help in establishing guilt or finding forgiveness?”
“I doubt it, he says, forgiveness is a great psychological release, but only if you’re ready and its real. It only becomes possible when you admit what’s really upsetting you. Bitterness is often a disguise for a fear of change or of failing. The Chinese have had a century of change, and much of that time is a failure. A trial would reveal uncomfortable truths about their share of responsibility. If that truth could be admitted there would be some chance of reconciliation. But I don’t see either nation ready to confront their past.”
“What about you and Tom,” he adds, turning to face me. “Surely some part of where you are today happened because of the decision that he made. Even if it was wrong, painful or unjust, I bet there are positive things about your life that only came about because of what was done. You can reframe the time since in your own terms, in the successes and experiences you gained; history, you know, is written by the victors.”
I’m taken aback by the directness of the question and can’t answer. We walk back towards the entrance gate in silence. The sun is lower now, sinking into the haze which diffuses the light into a brightly glowing sky. The lakes have become grey and flat, the browns and yellows of the lotus faded into pale bands of beige. Trees are dark silhouettes against the washed-out blue of early sunset. We stop to take our final photographs from the arching hump of an old bridge. The colour is leeching out from the pictures like the old black and white prints of the palace.
Stefan is right, I think. That day in Tom’s office was pivotal to the path that led me here. There were opportunities in the changes he had brought that I failed to take advantage of, and I knew, even then, what they were and that I lacked the ability to do what was needed. I blamed him for his lack of help and guidance and the bitter narrative I told had become my simplified version of history, a disguise for my own inadequacy.
Yet, if I think of where I am today, with my years of better experiences, the new and exciting opportunities I’ve had and the positive future still ahead, that harsh self-criticism becomes irrelevant. That short period was a different time and place and there’s no shame that I couldn’t be then what was needed. The bitter version of history isn’t useful, reminders and apologies are not needed nor is recognition or revenge. I’ve grown, and doing well despite what happened, or maybe even better because of it.
We put our cameras away. Only the sky is bright now and the white stone of the bridge standing out ghostly against the dark land. We turn our backs on the monuments and the stuck record of the haunted past and walk towards the city lights already glowing into the sky. We leave behind what
can’t be changed and head into the brighter future. Moving on.