“A story is a garden you can carry in your pocket. The stories we tell ourselves and each other are for pleasure and for refuge. Like gardens they are small places in a large world.”
“Madam Hong has paid the money, and you will be a concubine in a great house…with ancestor paintings and high walls and a courtyard all of your own…”
“The wedding ducks on her dressing table…are a gift from Wenqing. ‘The meaning is’, he said when he gave them to her just as he was leaving for Peking, ‘that we will stay together forever’ …’They must always face each other,’ he told her, moving them closer together so that beak touched beak.”
“Madam Hong has been sitting here for hours watching birds and fish and dragonflies…and she has been contemplating Wenqing’s letter on the table…pondering how a single lotus plant can live for a thousand years–and thinking, too, about poison.”
“The palace is yellow and white outside, with giant, naked men carved in stone at the gate, and it is beautiful but strange…”
“The giant stone men are like demons. They are shocking to look at…As muscled as plow-pulling oxen, with grimacing faces…”
“Standing at the top of the great white staircase, looking down–down the long red carpet–Jinhua is thinking now that it is a journey of a vast distance to go from the third floor of the Palais Kinsky to the places she longs to go…”
“She goes with him. She doesn’t know why, but she does. It is his eyes and his voice and the way he is strong and what he says and how he took her hand and kissed it…”
“The empress smells of something sweet, and her hair is wavy and magnificently thick and ornamented with diamonds, and it reaches almost to her ankles. She is lying now on top of all that hair and on top of a flowery carpet..and she is saying ‘Come sit thee down upon this flow’ry bed..”
“[Edmund] likes to talk about politics. He is interested in the empress [Cixi]. Strangely, almost obsessively so.”
“…Baba. I have come home to Suzhou, where the sound of water is never far away…”
*The pictures in order:
A traditional Chinese moongate in one of the famous gardens of Suzhou.
The first courtyard in the historic home of Hong Jun (Jinhua’s husband) on Xianqiao Lane, Suzhou.
The wedding ducks that inspired the wedding duck scene–a gift the author received from a friend. A recipe for a happy marriage, the red duck is for a wife and the blue for a husband. If one partner is displeased, she (or he) turns her/his duck around to face away from the other. When harmony is restored, the ducks face one another!
Lotus pond at the Summer Palace near Beijing.
Facade of the Palais Kinsky on the Freyung in Vienna.
Sculpture decorating the facade of the Palais Kinsky.
The author descending the stairs inside the Palais Kinsky just as Jinhua did, although for her it was much harder on her bound feet.
A postcard with picture of the real Count Alfred von Waldersee in 1901.
Engraving of the empress Elisabeth of Austria, who was considered the most beautiful woman in all of Europe. She was also known as Sisi.
A copy of the book that Edmund Backhouse co-authored with JOP Bland, a text that codified the dowager empress Cixi’s reputation for evil and sexual depravity–found by the author, quite by accident, in an antique shop on Vienna’s Ringstrasse.
One of Suzhou’s lovely waterways…”where the sound of water is never far away”.