For German readers of Pinselstriche and for those of you who have read Brushstrokes in Time and are interested in the background, Little Winter’s father is inspired by Qu Bo the famous father of the Stars artist Qu Leilei. Leilei, who inspired my novel and provided me with the authentic background detail, told me his father’s story.
‘My father was born in Shangdung in 1924- the youngest of ten children and the only one to survive to be an adult. The other nine died from starvation, disease and war. His limp was testimony to his battle injuries in the struggle against the Japanese and the Civil War but his handsome face was unscarred so he looked the part of a hero. After the defeat of Chiang Kai Chek, in the north, he was sent to the coast to help establish the navy. There was a problem – there were no ships! He intercepted two that Chiang had ordered from the UK .
‘Having impressed his colleagues, he was chosen to run a huge rolling stock factory in Qiqihar. Railways were glamorous in those days and, unlike his work force, some local politicians were jealous of his meteoric rise. For a party with ideals of socialism, the Communist Party was a hot bed of factionalism and personal ambition. My father offended the Chairman of the Province of Manchuria, the powerful Gao Gang, who sought an excuse to topple him.’
Young and energetic and suddenly faced with a life confined to home, Qu Bo turned to writing as a positive outlet for his frustration. Through it, he relived his experiences fighting the bandits allied to Chiang Kai- shek’s Guomintang forces, in the mountains of Manchuria. Madame Mao used his novel ‘Tracks in the Snowy Forest’, to make her model opera Tiger Mountain.
Here’s a trailer about it from a recent film of Qu Bo’s novel. https://vimeo.com/248118859
His son said,
‘I am in awe of this man, born a poor peasant, who became a brave soldier then an industrial leader and was able to turn into a writer. Years later, I came across this note…‘One quiet winter night I looked in and saw Liu Bo (my mother) and Jing jing (my brother) sweetly asleep together in our warm house. I don’t know why but my dead comrades came into my mind. They couldn’t experience such happiness.’
Leilei believes that ‘Without doubt these words were straight from his heart. That night he put pen to paper.’
His mother Liu Bo was also exceptional –she was a hospital administrator in charge of the biggest hospital in Qiqihar and later on of the biggest in Beijing. She was the inspiration for Little Winter’s mother.
( I regret that I needed to kill her off early in my imagined story.)
Politics in China swings like a pendulum.
Madame Mao’s first husband, Huang Jing was Minister for Industry. Because Qu Bo had been an efficient director of a large factory, Huang Jing came to know about his sacking. He summoned him to Beijing in 1955. When they first met he spoke to him with the wisdom of Confucius.
‘The tragedies that can happen to a person are different according to age. For the old it is when children die before them, in middle age it is losing your life partner but in youth it is success too early!’
Huang Jing oversaw the eight departments of industry which were, of course, all state run. Leilei s explained,
‘He co-opted my father into number 1, the fundamental and put him in charge of the bureau that oversaw the design and building of factories. Huang Jing proved to be a good friend but he died in 1958 aged only 46, a victim of the campaign against ‘Rightists’. Mao’s aim was to purge supporters of his Deputy Liu Shao-chi and Premier Zhou En-lai whom he had begun to regard as potential rivals. ‘
A forewarning of what was going to come in the Cultural Revolution.
‘As a famous writer and industrial leader, Qu Bo was offered accommodation in the Summer Palace. We joined him there at the weekends.’
The Summer Palace was built in 1750 by the Emperor Quinlong as a gift for his mother. He was a cultured man and wrote an 80 character poem which was carved on the great bronze ox on the bridge that crosses the lotus lake. The elegant palace took one hundred thousand men to build; even the hill behind Qu Bo’s house in the picture was man-made. Its grounds became Leilei’s playground. To reach Leilei’s (and in Brushstrokes in Time Little Winter’s ) accommodation, you have to walk down the longest corridor in the world, which is decorated with birds and historic paintings. Leilei loved art from a young age and studied the pictures in detail.
‘We turned right and slowly climbed the steep hill called Cloud and Pine Nest to reach our courtyard. Through the fan shaped windows we could see the Fragrant Buddha Temple. In our large back garden we played hide and seek and chase. Jing jing and I climbed on the wall and thence onto the roof. We jumped from roof to roof and vista to vista. We mostly ate in the Ting Li Quan or Yellow Song Bird Hall where emperors once dined with their court. A thicket of bamboos grew in our sloping front garden and sometimes we picked young shoots with mother and she cooked them with delicious egg fried rice, meals I can taste in my dreams.’
The house at the Summer Palace – the inspiration for Little Winter’s house.
Researching with Lei lei’s mother Liu Bo and his wife and artist Caroline .
Here are three short videos of the Meridian Society interview of Dr Joy Zhang with me at a launch of Brushstrokes in Time .
This is the link to Part 1
Below are 2 and 3
One of the reviews… https://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/14309796.review-brushstrokes-time-sylvia-vetta/
But my favourite is Ray Foulk’s. Ray founded the isle of Wight Festivals and stole Dylan from Woodstock – that is Bob Dylan. He wrote,
‘I haven’t done much work today because I could not put this page-turner down. As I reached the end just one thought dominated: “Everyone should read this book”. The modern history of this huge chunk of humanity should be of interest to us all and Sylvia Vetta’s historical novel not only provides an account of that uniquely complex society, it does so in a remarkably entertaining, compassionate and economical way. No one I’ve ever come across has managed to tell the story of modern Chinese politics, arts and society in so accessible, imaginative and compelling a fashion.’
If you would like to read Qu Leilei’s incredible life story here is the Oxford Castaway feature I wrote about him. It felt like he had lived nine lives so that is how I wrote it.