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Wednesday30 July 2014

Building a Library 41: City of Lingering Splendour, by John Blofeld

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Robert Harbison picks 50 books that should feature in any architectural library.

City of Lingering Splendour
A Frank Account of Old Peking’s Exotic Pleasures,
by John Blofeld, 1961

Books like this seem even more wonderful because you could easily have missed them. John Blofeld’s enchanting memoir puts the case for a cruel, hierarchical civilisation that the author regards as the most beautiful that ever was. He was 22 when he came to Peking in the early 1930s with the aim of saturating himself in what remained of the traditional Chinese way of life.

In 1933 Peking was no longer a capital, and signs of decay were everywhere. Among the ruins of many traditions, refinements of the table seemed most intact.

Every outing and every activity was crowned by an endless meal or a single culinary delight. Chinese dishes have histories and geographies and aesthetic identities. They need to be enquired after and discussed. In this book old scholars more often bring their learning to bear on food than on any other object.

Like many of the characters in this book, I have been distracted by food, the filling of the book, not the structure. The ancient form of the city underlies the extravagant filigree of the meals, with its courtyards, lanes and dim interiors, its faded palaces and temples, its melancholy gardens. Monuments summon up those who are no more, like the terrible Empress Dowager, now felt simply as a lover of architecture and a person of the most refined taste.

There is a second nostalgia overlaid on the other, Blofeld’s for his youth, when he could fall in love with teenage courtesans without knowing their grim histories.

The book describes an extended awakening to the harshness that runs through reality at its most pleasurable. Finally the author sees himself as an exile who wanders the earth with his happiness behind him. He has left the beloved city twice, ahead of different armies, and heartfelt Buddhism can soothe his regret only so far.

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