Isn’t it remarkable how many things you can think of to be bourgeois if you really set your mind to it? The ideological brains behind the Cultural Revolution were very good at this. The Hua Wang, flower king, a respected gardener, became the Hua Gong, flower worker, and all of China’s gardens fell into disrepair. Teams of women would walk round Beijing’s parks with besom brooms sweeping the packed dirt where the grass once grew and a uniform greyness fell upon everything. It was so grey that in 1975 when we watched a movie about Beijing, it took us a long time to work out whether it was in colour or black and white.

You can’t totally suppress all beauty. On our way to work we would pass a lone plum tree and, one April morning when it finally flowered, its effect on us was like that of an electric shock. It had been so long since we’d seen any colour.

In July 1976 we took a holiday at the old missionary and new cadre resort of Beidaihe. This involved idyllic days on the beach and nights drinking beer with friends. Even the Chinese who had been detailed to see that we didn’t get into trouble were relaxed and when we tried to swim along during the liturgical celebrations of the tenth anniversary of Chairman Mao’s famous swim in the Yangtze, nobody seemed to mind.

There wasn’t a lot to amuse yourself with in those days. All attempts to buy a TV set had been met with blank stares and the universal reply to sales enquiries, No stock. And even if we’d succeeded, there was limited appeal in watching night after night of Albanian war movies and worker-peasant-soldier panels discussing the Right Deviationist Wind to Reverse Correct Verdicts. So it was with some interest that we received the notice from the Rest Sanatorium for Diplomatic Guests that there was to be a flower opening.

It appeared that there was a rare plant named Queen of the Night. This plant opened only once in seven years and emitted a glorious fragrance. The gardener of the resort used by the senior government ministers had one that he had been carefully cultivating. And tonight was the night!

We checked our diaries. They were free of engagements that night. So we dutifully filed our up the hill to a pavilion.

Rows of seats were laid out around an elaborate flower display whose centrepiece was something large and tropical with suspiciously pregnant looking buds. The gardener stood stiffly to attention beside it. His Mao suit had been specially ironed for the occasion. Tonight there was no question of him being the flower worker. He was the flower king.

The diplomatic corps milled around and mingled with the uncharacteristically relaxed Party cadre contingent. Conversation flowed in English and French. But after an hour or so diplomatic topics ran out and the talk lapsed into Swahili, Albanian, Polish, whatever. Then silence.

Nothing was happening. A look of concern started to appear on the faces of the cadres. People had been diverted to Learn from the Experience of the Masses for much less than an unopening flower.


A slight smile appeared on the pursed lips of the gardener. Slowly it spread. The flower began to open. Soon the room was infused with a rich heady perfume. Yes. It WAS as good as they’d said. Cadres breathed sighs of relief. The gardener’s face was wreathed in smiles. The scent filled the room. We all clapped loudly. Then the flower closed again. We made polite noises. Then we went home to bed.


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