Scotland/China articles

Interview - finding the unseen reality

by Website Editor, 15 August 2012

This is the second in an occasional series of interviews focussing on individuals from Scotland and China who have spent a lengthy period in the other country.

Chi Zhang is an artist who has lived in Scotland for seven years, and is now based at the Confucius Institute for Scotland in the University of Edinburgh. His works have been exhibited at the Henan Province Art Centre in 1999 ; the Tramway Visual Art Centre, Glasgow, in 2006 ; and Visual Arts Scotland annual exhibition 2012 in the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh. We met him – appropriately enough during the Festival season – to hear more about his background, his time in Scotland and his work.

Zhengzhou city in Henan Province, Chi's hometown, is one of the oldest cities in China, and was the ancient capital of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046BC). The area's links to the history of calligraphy and Chinese writing are even stronger, as the famous “Oracle Bones” were found in Anyang city, northeast of Zhengzhou, in the 1920s. These have the earliest known examples of Chinese characters.

So, against this rich cultural background, it is perhaps not surprising that Chi began his artistic career at a very early age. “I began painting when I was about three or four”, he says, adding “my first exhibition was in Japan in 1991, when I was only ten”. Chi explained he had been much influenced by his great-grandfather, a skillful and highly educated artist and calligrapher.

Chi's early achievements in painting were nurtured by his family and teachers in Middle School, where he began to develop a keen interest in calligraphy as well as traditional Chinese painting. His first calligraphy exhibition was in 1997 at the Henan Province Art Centre. It was logical for him to go on to study art and design at the Beijing Institute of Printing, graduating in 2004.

It was at this point in Chi's life that fate brought him to Scotland, in the shape of the high reputation of the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee. There, he completed a Master's degree in Media Arts & Imaging in 2006. Another significant factor was the Scottish Government's “Fresh Talent” scheme, launched in 2005, which allowed students to apply to stay and work in Scotland for two years after the end of their course without the need for a work permit. Under this scheme, after graduation Chi worked for the advertising and design agency Marketing Concepts in Edinburgh, before taking up his current post in early 2008. Through his weekly classes and occasional workshops at the Confucius Institute, Chi reveals the art and ethos of calligraphy and brush painting to a wide audience.

Chi's current paintings focus on Scottish landscape, with distinctive features of ancient Chinese style as well as expressions of contemporary art. As he explains, “I am experienced in traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy, and now experimental in combining contemporary art forms and elements from ancient Chinese works of art”.

He adds, “I am drawing on classical style, but trying to make the paintings contemporary and to focus on simplicity, to try to find the unseen reality behind the scenes”. He is also using his experience in Scotland, its landscapes and iconic buildings, and “especially the atmospheric weather !” The lighthouse painting shown on this page is one example of this kind of influence.

With growing interest in China and the art form of China, Chi has taken part in numerous culture events with the institute ; he delivers workshops, live performances of Chinese calligraphy and public demonstrations. He performed in the Edinburgh's Scottish Story Telling Centre in 2008 and later in the National Museum of Scotland in 2009, and he recently hosted a special event at the McManus Art Gallery & Museum in Dundee. Chi also provided the calligraphy frontispiece for all the poems in Selected Poems by Robert Burns in Chinese Translation, which was published by the Edinburgh University Press in 2010.

Chi has found local people are taking considerable interest in his Scottish/Chinese paintings, and he is aiming to develop his work further in the coming years, “both in terms of quality and quantity”, as well as more exhibitions and books. Although he is a long way from Zhengzhou, Chi has clearly found a second home in Scotland, and his art will continue to bring together the most interesting “unseen realities” of both countries.

Details of Chi Zhang's calligraphy classes can be found here. Chi's own blog site is here.

The Dragon Boat Festival, 1937

by Website Editor, 21 June 2012

The weekend of 22-24 June is the Dragon Boat holiday in China, and there are many events to celebrate this important festival. It may be particularly colourful as 2012 is, of course, the Year of the Dragon. There were some talks about the festival at the Glasgow Confucius Institute, and, indeed, some actual dragon boat racing at Leith in Edinburgh, on Saturday 23 June.

However, we thought it might be of interest to readers to hear how the festival was celebrated back in the 1930s, courtesy of an article from the magazine China Journal, published in Shanghai between 1923 and 1941. The following text extracts and photos come from the issue of July 1937, pages 8-10, by journalist Julius Eigner.

"As with the New Year and the Harvest Moon Festivals, the Dragon Boat Festival is one of the three settlement days of the Chinese year ; and like them, it provides a longed-for occasion for merry-making and feasting.

"Every year on the 5th Day of the 5th Moon (this year [1937] on June 12), triangular rice cakes, filled with sugar and candied fruit, are eaten in all Chinese homes. In addition salted duck's eggs and hisang kuang wine on the tables of all those who can afford the latter as an antidote against future sicknesses.

"The festivities staged on this day vary, of course, according to the local customs of the country. The main events of the day, the Dragon Boat Race and the setting afloat of lanterns as guiding lights to the "happy ghosts", is confined, generally speaking to the southern part of China, where there is an abundance of rivers, creeks, lakes and ponds, and where life on the water plays a much more prominent part than in the north.

In North China, on the other hand, various sports on land used to mark the festival. People were, and still are, accustomed to go picknicking in large parties to the natural beauty spots in the vicinity of the big cities. Children set out small boats in which lighted candles are stuck, watching them float down the river until they disappear in the distance.

The photos below from China Journal, July 1937, show some dragon boats in Shanghai in that year. Click on each photo to expand.

"In addition there used to be many theatrical troupes, which, touring the country all the year round, crowded near the big cities at this time and performed for the delectation of the high-spirited holiday throngs. There were also big groups of stilt walkers, dancers of all sorts, tight-rope walkers, conjurers, acrobats, storytellers, musicians and the like. To-day, while some of these ancient traditions are still alive, the most colourful and spectacular parts of this pageant have died out.

"The origin of the Dragon Boat Festival is handed down in a legend which dates from a time long before Christ. Popular tradition has it that this festival commemorates the death of a high-minded statesman and philosopher. The name of this man was Chu Yuan, a Minister in the State of Chu of no mean capability. He lived in the feudal hierarchy of the third century BC and was despondently dissatisfied with the corrupt state of affairs. He was one of those rare figures, characterised by honesty, integrity and a high sense of responsibility, who occasionally make their appearance even in times of rebellion and corruption. Yet the Prince he was advising turned a deaf ear to his admonitions. In accordance with the philosophy of the age he decided that the only course open to him was to commit suicide. After having written what may be termed his political testament, he threw himself into the Mi-Lo river in Hunan province. Boatmen who were out on the river at the time busy with their fishing gear flocked to the scene, as he was well beloved by the population, and tried to save him. Their efforts, however, were in vain.

Ever since, so the story runs, people have commemorated the heroic death of Chu Yuan every year by going out in boats and dropping tseng-tze, the above mentioned glutinous rice cakes stuffed with sugar and fruit, into the water, so that his spirit may not hunt in vain for his food...."

"...the main duty or rite of the day is the collecting of debts. The merry chase after the unwilling debtors begins two days before the holiday and comes to and end with the dawn of the festive day itself..."

"Unfortunately, the climax of the festival, namely the Dragon Boat Races, is not much in evidence these days [i.e. in 1937]. There are some districts, especially in the southern part of China, where the spirit of carnival demands the traditional boat race, but they are rare. In the capital itself [i.e. at that time Nanking, now Nanjing] the boat race has been prohibited. Shanghai has reached a compromise. The boatman's guild here has rigged out two huge boats in what appears to be all their former splendour, manning them with sturdy crews. But instead of having these two boats compete in a race, they merely content themselves with padding round each other [it is assumed these are the boats seen in the photos]...the venue of the Shanghai Dragon Boat Race is the Pan Sung Garden, a typical Chinese garden with a huge pond, near the Nantao Bund..."

The author of the article would perhaps be glad to hear that dragon boat racing is now a common feature of the modern festivals, especially in Hong Kong and South China, and even in the UK (for many more examples, see here).

Interview - respect for Chinese culture

by Website Editor, 23 March 2012

Eight years in China, a language and literature degree from a Chinese university, the first foreigner to act in Shaanxi Opera, and countless media appearances – this would be a good track record for anyone. For a Scottish 26 year old, it must be pretty unique. We caught up with Adam Varjavandi, originally from Dundee but now based in Xi'an, during a short visit to Scotland to develop his new “gap year” programme, Chinaberry.

Adam's China experience began, as it does for many young people, with a gap year trip in 2003. “I had friends who'd been to China and who told me I had to experience it”, he says, “so I started in Macau before moving on to Xi'an”. The northwestern Chinese city attracted him because of its historical connections and the “romance” of old China, he explained.

He quickly settled in - “I was so welcomed by the people, they were so forgiving even if you just tried a little Chinese”. Adam was also struck by their simple and straightforward attitude to life. As he put it, “if I asked someone what they did yesterday, they might say, 'I visited my mother' – whereas a westerner might say, 'I visited my mother...and then I did this, and then I did that'”.

Adam remained in Xi'an until the spring of 2005, learning Chinese as the only westerner in a class of Koreans. He almost returned to Scotland to take up a place as an architecture student, but during this period, he became particularly interested in the Chinese language. “It was when I met Professor Tang Han, a Chinese etymology researcher, that I decided to stay on in China”, he explains, adding “Professor Tang invited me to be his student and take part in his ground-breaking research, as a foreign 'guinea pig'”.

The focus of Professor Tang's research is the folk origins of Chinese characters, and into the transformation of a society with no language into one with language – he believes that they all originally “came from life”. In addition, he argues that the stories of these origins are a very powerful way of teaching Chinese to foreigners, and one that is superior to more recently “made up explanations” of why certain characters have certain forms. “This is a very new area of research”, Adam noted, “that really only began with the discovery of the 'oracle bones'” (see here for more background). It remains a controversial topic in Chinese language studies.

After completing his degree at Shaanxi Normal University, Adam's own study of the Chinese language continues, not just from books and day-to-day life, but also from using it as a performer. He came second in CCTV4's 2008 national competition for international students speaking Chinese – one element of this was a short talk on “my favourite character”, for which he chose 安, “ān”, meaning peace or safety. As he says, “I love the fact it is made up of the characters for a roof and for a woman – so if you have a home and a woman, you are safe”.

In 2007, he went one better by being the first foreigner to perform in Shaanxi Opera – he appeared in a play called 'Picking up the jade bracelet'. He explains, “I was wearing a traditional white cloak with huge sleeves and my make-up was very severe with pink eyes, and big eyebrows – I looked like a punk musician but it was very striking, and everyone started cheering as soon as I came on stage”.

Adam is now working on developing a “gap year” programme in Xi'an for students from Scotland and elsewhere, called Chinaberry, which is due to be launched in September 2012. As he explained, “I see Chinaberry as the culmination of years of experience and work in education and cultural exchange, it was my research into the language and the need for new teaching methods that inspired me to start this project”. He adds, “as well as intensive language lessons, the programme will also include internships in local businesses and cultural field trips, giving participants a taste of real life as well as the classroom”. Throughout, Adam emphasises, “we will stress respect for Chinese culture”, as he has done in his own China experience so far.

Chinese film reels for Year of the Dragon

One notable aspect of the Chinese Spring Festival events in Scotland in 2012 was a focus on film, with Ricefield's 'Takeaway China' film festival in Glasgow and Take One Action's 'China on the Move' events at the Edinburgh Filmhouse. In addition, the SCA Edinburgh branch hosted a talk on Chinese cinema in February. This article brings together reports on these three events.

A brief history of humour (and gloom) in Chinese cinema

by Website Editor, 24 February 2012

This was the title of the talk by Dr Julian Ward, Senior Lecturer in Chinese in the Asian Studies Department at the University of Edinburgh, to the SCA Edinburgh branch on 14 February. As he noted in his introduction, "for many the stereotypical film made in mainland China depicts the harshness of life for the ordinary Chinese people, either in the unchanging countryside where the peasants are mired in poverty or in the rapidly changing cities where both locals and migrant workers are ripe for exploitation by greedy employers - however, all is not doom and gloom”. His talk explored how humour has been used at different periods of Chinese cinematic history.

Dr Ward began with Labourer's Love (1922), the earliest complete extant Chinese film, written and directed by Zhang Shichuan and Zheng Zhengqiu respectively. The hero is a doctor who wishes to marry a fruit seller, but cannot afford to do so. In the scene we were shown, the hero tampers with the stairs leading from a gambling den in order to injure departing gamblers and thus generate business for himself.

As a silent movie, the film has to rely on primarily visual gags and slapstick humour to get its message across, as well as a few bilingual English/Chinese inter-titles. Even with later “talkies”, this is a common theme in many of the films Dr Ward discussed. He agreed it is possible that visual humour may have attractions in a Chinese context as a way to make film more accessible to the whole population of the PRC, many of whom do not speak Mandarin as their first language.

In the era between the establishment of the PRC in 1949 and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, almost all Chinese films were on what might be called “serious” topics, in support of various political campaigns and on “issues” and “messages” that the Communist Party wished to stress. In addition, there were many films extolling the Party's successes in conflict with the Japanese (1937-45), the Nationalists (1945-49) and the West in Korea (1950-53), with stereotypical characters such as the “piggy faced Japanese”, the “stupid Nationalist collaborator” and the “brave Communist fighter”. So there was not a lot of room for humour in this period. A rare exception noted by Dr Ward was Before the New Director Arrives (1956), directed by Lu Ban, a satirical movie made around the 'Hundred Flowers' period when mild criticism was allowed.

In more recent times, some non-political Chinese films have used humour as a way to get messages across. For example, The Bungling Troop (1990), a film about egg selling in the early days of economic reform in Xi'an, includes many scenes of slapstick and wordplay. Spicy Love Soup (1997), directed by Zhang Zheng, was a romantic comedy involving a number of couples and their assignations, and Big Shot's Funeral (2001), directed by Feng Xiaogang, is a satire on consumerism in modern day China, unusually with a Western star, Donald Sutherland. However, as Dr Ward noted, the comedy in these films, while being understandable to a Chinese audience, generally does not “translate” for Western cinema-goers – he noted very poor ratings on the 'Rotten Tomatoes' film review website for these films.

However, one film that used humour, in a satirical sense, very successfully was Devil's on the Doorstep (2000), a black comedy directed by Jiang Wen. This is set at the end of the 1937-45 Sino-Japanese war, tells the story of a Chinese villager who is forced by a mysterious figure to take custody of two prisoners, one a Japanese officer and the other a Chinese interpreter. Fearing both the mystery man and the Japanese, the village falls into a dilemma over what to do with the two prisoners. In one classic scene, Jiang Wen subverts the stereotype of the plucky Chinese peasant by having the villagers conduct a completely pointless and ignorant interrogation of the prisoners. This film was – perhaps not surprisingly – not shown in China, and also attracted criticism in Japan, but it won several awards in the West, and has a 90% approval rating on 'Rotten Tomatoes'.

All in all, it was a very interesting and amusing presentation, by a speaker with both deep knowledge and great enthusiasm for his subject.

Reflections on Ricefield’s ‘Takeaway China’ film festival

by Barry Moore, SCA Glasgow Branch Chairman, 24 February 2012

'Takeaway China' is a celebration of Chinese film, photography and culture, running from 20 January to 14 April 2012, the start coinciding with the beginning of the Chinese festivities. This is the second year it has been run by the Ricefield Chinese Arts and Cultural Centre. Between 23 January and 6 February, thirteen films were shown across three venues in Glasgow. The photographic festival begins on 3 March.

I was able to see five of the 'Takeaway China' films, and while the films could be broadly characterised according to Dr Ward's comment in the previous article, they also revealed some of the sinister and undesirable elements of the social upheavals that occurred in China in the second half of the twentieth century. I understand that although several of the films have won accolades at international film festivals, some are not allowed to be shown in China.

Fengming : A Chinese Memoir (directed by Wang Bing, 2007)

This film lasts for three hours and is completely taken up by an elderly Chinese lady talking to the camera about her experiences during the Cultural Revolution, as well as those of her dead husband. To quote from Andrew Chan’s web review, “at the height of Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign, during which intellectuals were advised to contribute their opinions and let ‘a hundred schools of thought contend’, her husband wrote an essay criticising the corruption of bureaucracy, which led to the couple being branded as rightists. A long period of darkness ensued, separating the family, and transporting the woman from one state of persecution to another in China’s labour camp system”.

Fengming articulates her story eloquently, calmly and with little emotion although she has suffered horribly. She is clearly eager to communicate her experiences. Probably a major reason for this film being made is that she has written a book My life in 1957, but unfortunately this is not available in English. For an understanding of the fortitude of a maligned person, this film is recommended.

Though I am gone (directed by Hu Jie, 2007)

This film tells the story of an elderly teacher recounting the death of his wife, also a teacher, who forty years before was battered to death by students during the Cultural Revolution. The sadness and apathy of the distressed man is interspersed with apparent newsreel footage taken at the time, showing mass demonstrations and Mao Zedong encouraging young students to be fierce and destructive and not to accept the authority of their teachers. Tragically the elderly man has retained the torn and dirty clothing and bloody bandages from his wife’s body, which he unravels for the viewer to see, once again reliving the torment caused by his wife’s untimely death. Though I am gone is a film of historical interest, but not for the squeamish.

Fujian Blue (directed by Shuoming Wang, 2007)

At the time of watching this film I found it confusing as it seemed to be showing two themes in parallel. However on reading a web article, the picture became clearer as it was actually recounting two stories ! The film is composed of two separate but linked tales entitled ‘The Neon Lights’ and ‘At Home at Sea’, and touches on a number of controversial topics including juvenile delinquency, human trafficking and drug use.

The first tale is about a gang of youths who blackmail lonely housewives who have started affairs while their husbands are working away from home. The second tale also takes place in Fujian province, across the water from Taiwan, and is linked to the first tale as one gang member has fled to a small offshore island and is in hiding after stabbing someone. It is a colourful film, much shot in bright sunlight and with lovely views of the province and of the river but also many shots of youths driving motor bikes around, seemingly somewhat aimlessly. 'Fujian Blue' would probably benefit from being viewed for a second time after a head clearing walk around the block !

The Old Donkey (directed by Li Ruijun, 2010)

This film certainly fits Dr Ward's earlier comment, as It shows the back breaking arduous life of an elderly peasant, whose land is under threat of being stolen by a heartless industrialist and unscrupulous local party official. However the elderly man has a loving and supportive daughter who willingly assists him, and his neighbours are friends who also come to his aid. He has wonderful and loyal support from his donkey, which he tends carefully.

Although the working conditions shown are brutal and fighting the encroaching desert also takes its toll on him physically, the film is not without humour. Some elderly neighbours get into tussles while trying to fend off the industrialist bully boys, others drain the oil from the bully boy’s vehicles, while another rams handfuls of moist soil into the exhaust pipes of their cars. All these scenes provoked a ripple of laughter from the audience. Towards the end of the film the old man is overcome and his less than thoughtful sons appear and squabble over their inheritance, while the dutiful and diligent daughter is overlooked and ignored. The Old Donkey is a film that encapsulates the farmer versus industrialist conflict, but which also says much about the disharmony that can arise amongst family members.

When the Bough Breaks (directed by Ji Dan, 2011)

This film shows atrociously squalid living conditions in a shack where a family with a dictatorial father eke out their living by collecting and dealing in various types of scrap. Endless family arguments are heard about the merits of trying to improve their lot through education, but they are continually handicapped by their poverty. The teenage children persistently bicker amongst themselves over trivial matters.

However together with their mother, the children unite when their father starts his stupid rants and shouting, and they are seen laughing behind his back, although fearful of being caught doing so as this would very likely induce beatings. Their life is a constant struggle for which the inadequate husband blames his wife. In reality it is his own inadequacies that are a major cause of their predicament, although he does not realise it. If you enjoy listening to others arguing this film is for you, but please appreciate it is not ‘The Archers’ !

From this small sample of films this was an educational film festival. I am saying this partly as it was for my own benefit, but also because there were several Chinese students in the audiences who should have gained insights into their country's past that they might not have been able to see at home. It is often said that an understanding of history is important in helping to prevent it being repeated. I believe that the Ricefield’s 'TakeAway China' Film Festival has contributed to this worthy aim.

Development and debate with Take One Action 'China on the Move' film series

by Website Editor, 24 February 2012

Take One Action Film Festival, an Edinburgh-based charity using film to raise awareness of international development issues, aired a short series of Chinese films in its 'China on the Move' event at the Filmhouse in late January. These were well-attended, and each film was also followed by a short panel discussion about the issues raised.

Last Train Home (2009, directed by Lixin Fan)

This documentary film draws us into the fractured lives of a real family caught up in the annual return home by migrant workers at Spring Festival, and focusses on the impact of separation of parents and their children. The parents work in Guangdong and live in Sichuan, and at the start of the film, in 2006, their teenage daughter and younger son live on the farm with their grandmother. Initially, all seems well. However, it soon becomes clear that the daughter resents her mother and father, and she drops out of school and travels south to work herself.

This challenge to their authority goes down badly with her parents, especially her rather overbearing mother, and leads to further acrimony, finally exploding into an unexpectedly violent confrontation over a Spring Festival dinner. Eventually, the parents decide that the mother should go back to Sichuan to encourage the daughter to return to school. Apparently, since the film was made, they remain somewhat estranged – as of 2011, the daughter is a student in Beijing and the father only still works in the factory.

The film was especially interesting as a documentation of the 'Chunyun' migration, notably in spring 2008 when severe weather disrupts the journey for hundreds of thousands – the scenes of near-chaos at Guangzhou railway station were particularly dramatic.

The post-film panel focussed on the rather poor conditions where the parents were working, and the hukou system that restricts the rights of migrant workers in urban areas, not least in educating their children. It's probably fair to say that, since the film was made, things have moved on to some extent for both issues, reflecting the rapid rate of social change in modern China.

Apart together (2010, directed by Wang Quan'an)

This is a tale of bittersweet romance, as former lovers separated by China's civil war in 1949 are re-united after some 50 years in modern day Shanghai – the man returns from Taiwan to meet his past sweetheart, now happily married with children by both him and her new husband. The Taiwanese gentleman attempts to get her to return with him, initially supported (slightly bizarrely) by her husband, although it doesn't quite work out in the end. There is a parallel plotline involving one of the grandchildren and her boyfriend who wants to go to the USA.

Some in the audience saw all this as an allegory for reconciliation between Taiwan and mainland China, and this dominated the post-film discussions, although that was perhaps stretching it too far. Ignoring that aspect, it was an attractive and enjoyable film, with some humour, such as the scene in which the husband and wife attempt to obtain a divorce certificate from an official, in fact discovering they were not actually legally married and must do so before getting the divorce. Also of interest was the removal of the family from their old home, in an area of central Shanghai that was being redeveloped, to a new high-rise building on the outskirts, with – it seems – similar results in terms of the dislocation of families and neighbours that we saw in Scotland during the clearance of the central slums in our major cities in the 1960s and 1970s.

Manufactured landscapes (2006, directed by Jennifer Baichwal)

Although not strictly speaking a Chinese film, but rather a film that was, partially, about China, this follows photographer Edward Burtynsky on a journey through some of its vast industrialised areas. The images of mass manufacturing, resource mining, environmental damage and recycling of the west's electronics equipment were certainly dramatic, technically magnificent and somewhat thought-provoking.

However, I found it somewhat inconclusive, and hardly showing us anything we did not already know. Burtynsky claimed to be presenting his images without any moral implications, but this seems to be impossible. The fact he was clearly setting up some of the photographs (such as the vast crowd of workers outside their factory, or the man with his donkey walking through a town that was being dismantled for the Three Gorges project), rather than capturing spontaneous images, also seemed, at least to me, to undermine his premise – the term “manufactured images” came to mind ! All in all, this was the most disappointing of the three films I watched.


"Stewart-Lockhart changed my life"

By Website Editor, 13 January 2012

Shiona Airlie's biography of the colonial administrator James Stewart Lockhart, Thistle and Bamboo, has recently been republished. Longstanding SCA members may remember the original edition produced by Oxford University Press in 1989, which sold out very quickly and became highly sought-after on the second hand market. So the recent re-issue by Hong Kong University Press is a very welcome development - see end of this article for publication details.

Shiona has had a distinguished museum career and in 1985 curated the Terracotta Warriors exhibition at the Edinburgh City Art Centre. She is also the author of Reginald Johnston: Chinese Mandarin, a biography of the tutor of the last Qing emperor - soon to be superseded by a more detailed book. This article is based on Shiona's talk to the SCA Edinburgh branch on 10 January 2012, as well as an earlier interview with her in 2011.

James Stewart-Lockhart (1858-1937) was born in Ardsheal, Argyll and educated at George Watson's College. He served as a Hong Kong colonial official - Lockhart Road is named after him – and rose to become Registrar General and Colonial Secretary. He was instrumental in the acquisition and early administration of the New Territories in 1898.

In 1902 he become the first British Civil Commissioner in Wei-hai-wei (now Weihai), Shandong Province. He was later joined, and indeed succeeded, by Reginald Johnston, another native of Edinburgh, whose biography Shiona has also written. Outside working hours, Stewart-Lockhart was also a serious Confucian scholar and a collector of Chinese art, and after returning to Scotland, continued his Chinese scholarship.

These photos show a view of Wei-hai-wei in the early 20th century, with Government House in the centre (The Clark Family Collection) ; Stewart-Lockhart with his daughter Mary (private collection) ; and Shiona Airlie with her husband Mike Gill and Zhang Jianguo (second right) and Ma Xianghong (far left) of Weihai Archives.

In her talk, and the book, Shiona presents a portrait of a man who strove to preserve the Chinese way of life, treated his Chinese colleagues and subjects with respect, and was treated by Chinese mandarins as one of their own. Another recent history of Weihai by Chinese scholars says that, “compared to most contemporary colonialists, Lockhart was more far-sighted and effective both in his understanding of China and also of its traditional forms of administration”. Soundly based on his papers and other primary sources, Thistle and Bamboo is still a superb insight into Hong Kong and China at the turn of the 20th century.

But for Shiona, it has been much more than simply a piece of research and writing. As she said, “it never occurred to me that the published book would fill the next twenty years of my life in such an extraordinary way”. Central to this has been a deep friendship with Zhang Jianguo, Director of the Weihai Archives Bureau, although Shiona admitted this was tricky when they first met on the early 1990s. “It was difficult at first for a Scottish historian and a Chinese archivist to agree over what we were reading, but Zhang Jianguo and I got to know each other over the years, and I am proud to call him an elder brother”. Shiona visited Weihai in 2005 and 2008, and – remarkably – found on one trip that her driver's father had been Johnston's gardener when he was Commissioner. She later managed to find an old photo of Johnston with the gardener, to send back to the driver – excellent personal feedback arising from her knowledge of the Scottish officials' archives.

Indeed, one long-term outcome of the book's original publication was that it brought the Stewart-Lockhart collections to wider notice. Bequeathed to George Watson's College by his daughter Mary in 1985, they are now in three national institutions, although ownership remains with GWC.

His papers, which Shiona laboriously catalogued in the 1980s, occupy 40 feet of shelving at the National Library of Scotland, and are regularly consulted by academics (her detailed inventories can be found online here and here). His photographs, several thousand in all, are in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and are now accessible again with the recent re-opening of the refurbished building – they were the subject of exhibitions at the City Art Centre in 1982 and Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2008, as well as being shown in Weihai. And his paintings, ceramics and other artistic items are in the National Museums of Scotland, and the collection was the subject of an exhibition at the City Art Centre in 1982.

The recent Dulwich photo exhibition brought one further extraordinary re-connection, providing the opportunity for James Hung, the direct modern descendent of Confucius, to meet Clive Stewart-Lockhart, Antiques Roadshow expert and great-grandson of Sir James. This mirrored the 1904 meeting between the British official and Duke Kong, the then direct descendent of the Chinese sage, in Shandong. “I know Sir James would have been so proud to see them together”, says Shiona.

These photos show Reginald Johnston with Duke Kong in 1904 (Stewart-Lockhart Collection ; Clive Stewart-Lockhart with James Hung and his family at Dulwich in 2008 (Dulwich Picture Gallery) ; and the cover of Thistle and Bamboo.

Shiona loves China with the same passion as Stewart-Lockhart and Johnston. “But I do not think I could have visited the country with my eyes so open had I not studied their lives so closely”, she admits, adding “they have filled my life with friendships and experiences I never dreamed I would have”. In her talk, she told of sitting on the verandah of the former Government House in Weihai, “surrounded by ghosts”.

But Shiona has not stopped pursuing the spirit of Stewart-Lockhart and Johnston. She is now working with the Hong Kong Museum of History on a 2013 exhibition on Weihai, and her full biography of Reginald Johnston will finally see the light of day in English later this year, too (see our later review here). The journey of historical friendship between Scotland and China will surely continue for some time yet.

Publication details – Shiona Airlie, Thistle and Bamboo – the life and times of Sir James Stewart Lockhart, Hong Kong University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-988-8028-92-4 paperback, 262 pages, 19 black and white illustrations, extensive notes and bibliography. It is available from Amazon or at the 'Scotland/China collection' in the Library of the Confucius Institute in Edinburgh.