A hundred years ago few places on Earth were as captivating a destination as Peking. When American Ellen La Motte resided in the city in 1916–1917, she – like so many other Westerner travellers of the time – was smitten: “if you have ever stayed here long enough to fall under the charm and interest of this splendid barbaric capital, if you have once seen the temples and glorious monuments… all other parts of China seem dull and second rate.”
Peking was then the political capital, the military and cultural heart of China, a walled city of majestic palaces, intimate courtyard houses and elegant gardens, a city glittering with thousands of temples and shrines dedicated to a bewildering variety of deities – indeed, it was Asia’s greatest religious center.
During La Motte’s residence in Peking, she was witness to the wonderful mix of the medieval and modern – motorcars jostling with rickshaws and camel caravans in the narrow streets – and to the convulsions of great political change. The end of imperial dynastic rule in 1911 had ushered in a new uncertain republican era. First World War politics loomed large, too, with the various powers intriguing to have neutral China choose their side.
Ellen La Motte was a nurse, writer, and activist, an unconventional woman who immersed herself in the city’s politics, arts, and the opium trade (she would go on to be a leading international anti-opium advocate) and, likewise, her book is an unusual look at the ancient Chinese capital, combining the angry rants of a progressive campaigner and the upbeat impressions of a new arrival captivated by the sights and color.
This Camphor Press edition comes with a new introduction and explanatory notes.