A Forgotten Kingdom

Peter Goullart was a White Russian emigre in China who progressed from being a clerk through being the tour guide to wealthy Westerners to a promotor of co-operatives on behalf of the Chinese Nationalist government in the remote province of Yunnan from 1939 to 1948. He left on a plane never to return shortly after the brutal arrival of the Chinese communists who were to change the life of Yunnan for good. Ironically in the process destroying the co-operatives that Goullart had laboured to help launch and which had encouraged a significant momentum towards prosperity. Their grassroots collaborative agency naturally distressing the centralised directives of a collectivist state in the making.

Goullart's "Forgotten Kingdom: Nine Years in Yunnan, 1939-1948" is his charming account of his life there. It is an accomplished text where he sees with a clear eye - compassionate, balanced and engaged. This is an account with neither romanticism nor cynicism but one of a place actually loved and known. 

He had an obvious talent for friendship and for navigating the complex etiquette and customs of diverse groups - both ethnic and social. He gives a lovely account of adapting his medical practice - one of a lightly trained amateur but equipped with modern Red Cross supplied drugs - to local expectation. Medicine should hurt was the popular expectation and so benign medicine was rejected. He adapts his usage to safely introduce a touch of pain with remarkable effects on his medicines uptake.

Underlying this attitude of sensitive yet realistic navigation is, I suspect, his lightly worn but undoubtedly deep engagement with Taoism that you can infer from the text. Read through this lens, you see how he applies just the right amount of effort at the right time to achieve his aims with a healthy detachment from securing results that, paradoxically, allow great results to emerge, just so! He, also, has a self-forgiving attitude to his periodic failings.

You receive an exceptionally vivid picture of a lost world. A fascinating overlapping of societies where the role of women apparently subservient whilst actually exercising energetic control (and often being economically dominant); of the complex interaction of Chinese mores and local culture - giving a vivid picture of a different form of colonialism; and, a society where different faith traditions  intermingle in a harmonious whole where people 'use' traditions for different purposes, neatly compartmentalized but all equally felt.

You, also, have credible and lively accounts of the uncanny. Goullart's mother was psychic and like many upper-middle-class Russians of the Silver Age interested in Theosophy and the Occult. It was an interest inherited. So woven into accounts of daily life, and custom and the founding of co-operatives and their economic and social consequences is that other world  from the exalted plumbing of spiritual transformation of Buddhist monks emerging from their 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days retreats, through shamans repurifying houses after the perpetration of evil to poltergeists as naturally occurring, commonly accepted realities. 

In short, this is travel writing of a very high order - what it may lack in literary finesse is more than compensated for its vision of a Shangri La. This was not a static paradise, as Goullart makes clear, but a complex and gifted society that was continually in the making, adapting to its circumstances, flawed in parts, but gathering up its flaws in a wider wholeness that deeply, mostly worked and where improvement ought to have come gradually, from grassroots agency, and within its own notion of time, that left space for lingering and for celebration. Modernity had other ideologies, sadly.


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