Wilma’s Water Colors

Wilma’s Water Colors Exhibition

In recent years, as China opened again to Americans, returning travelers who know I lived in Peking for four years in the 1930s have been asking me “Won’t you tell us what it was like then?”

Plum blossoms are the herald of spring in Peking. They bloom in pots indoors in February soon after the Chinese New Year and their fragrance reminds us through the Gobi dust storms that better days are coming. Some time in April a day of still blue sky, soft air and beckoning sunshine makes the heart leap. Spring is here! Strolling in the park, we celebrate the budding trees, the sun-warmed ramparts of the Forbidden City, and the golden roofs of the Palace against the sky. What it is to live in a city that so fills the senses!

Under the East Wall
It is a midsummer day in Peking in the middle of the rainy season. The sun has reappeared after the downpour, the dust is laid and the air is delicious. Soon the people will come out to sit or work in the shade of the great trees. We are looking down from the city wall into a courtyard on an unpaved lane. The dwelling under its overhanging roof faces directly south. So do the principal buildings great and small in all other Peking courtyards. All houses were low in dynastic days by imperial decree, not to compete in height with the great palaces of the Forbidden City. Within the walled courtyards the trees as here grow freely; only outside the city in the strip fields across the plain are trees begrudged their share of soil and water.

Lotus Lantern
The night of the August full moon is a time of special delight for small boys in Peking. Like our Halloween, it gives children the heady joy of playing a role in the outside world after dark. The lanterns are improvised of lotus leaves, each with a candle impaled at the center. The little boy holds his high. For the moment the green glow of the candle-light filtered through the leaf transforms him into a small sprite.

Split-Pants Straggler
This sketch is a reminder that Chinese women, too, have babies and toddlers close in age. Sadly, some Chinese women even in this century have to walk semi-crippled on tiny feet tightly bound since childhood. Little girls endured this pain to win a husband, but for daily life, and especially for motherhood, it is a complication. Yet in at least one respect child care for Chinese mothers is simplified. Note the split pants worn by the little straggler.

Public Well
Under a wintry sky, bundled in their padded clothes against the chill, the people of the neighborhood come for water from the public well. They balance a wooden bucket at either end of their carrying poles. Pedlars come also, to deliver water to households able to pay. A wheelbarrow is their chosen vehicle. Unlike our wheelbarrow with its small front wheel to share the burden with the user, theirs has a large wheel centered between two casks to bear the entire load on its axis. This ingenious invention still leaves unsolved the age-old barrow-problem, how to avoid tipping sideways. A leather strap stretching from handle to handle across the pedlar’s nape is a help, but accidents do happen. The creaking of these barrows is central to the cacophony of the Peking streets.

Rag Pickers
Against the city wall is heaped up the neighborhood trash. The “town dump” we would call it; but what a difference! This poor and thrifty society has no old tires, bed-springs, refrigerators, or broken machinery to throw away. Still, a family living close to starvation can here pick up chipped bowls, damaged hand-tools, even scraps of metal or cloth to carry off in their handcart and sell to others not quite so poor. With help from all the children scratching about and dumping their findings in the cart, the family soon has enough to wheel away and sort. Treasures not needed at home are spread on a cloth beside a busy street. With luck, passers-by stop to haggle and by nightfall some of the throwaways have been turned into cash.

Shansi Farmers
These farmers are tilling the soil of their native Shansi. It is loess soil laid down through eons by dust blown in from the Gobi Desert. People say it is hundreds of feet deep. What a contrast to the rocky soil of my native New England! This is neither sandy nor loamy but viscous. I try to imagine piecrust graham-cracker crumbs hundreds of feet deep. It is this very adherence of the loess that has enabled peasants to carve and occupy thousands of cave-dwellings in the loess cliffs of Shansi and its neighboring provinces. We see them everywhere here. The freestanding structure on the cliff opposite is an exception. It is the local Buddhist temple.
From Works of Wilma Fairbank-China 1930’s

At Work

Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies