This is a moving, authentic, tautly written saga of 40 years of blood, sweat and tears in China, and of Europeans and Chinese trying to align private and public values amidst it all.
As a boy of 10, Jakob Kellner heard a spine-tingling sermon about heathen China by a missionary in a church in Manchester, England. He resolved to help "save China." In the early 1930s, he arrived by boat at Shanghai as a raw but eager servant of the Anglo-Chinese Mission.
"Peking's" thematic stage is set when Kellner, on board ship, is told by Lu Chiao, brother of a beautiful Shanghai girl who takes the budding missionary's fancy: "China is a very sick country. My father is among the lucky few. He owns several textile factories in Shanghai. That's why he sent me and my sister to a Christian missionary school. But I came to realize long ago that Christianity can't cure China's illness."
Lu Chiao and his sister Lu Mei-ling shock their traditional Mandarin father by becoming youthful Communists. They turn out to form a counterpoint to Kellner--enduring tribulations with Marxism as he does with Christianity.
Kellner marries an American missionary trainee (even before they kiss for the first time). But at a mission post in Hunan Province, the couple and their infant daughter are soon captured by the Communists during the Reds' Long March from Chiang Kai-shek's clutches. Foreigners were suspect because "imperialism" was a chief target of Communist revolutionary wrath. In a horrific scene, Kellner's wife is beheaded like a chicken.
The Long March troopers, "looking more like fugitives from a natural calamity than soldiers," are vividly portrayed crossing the Xiang River and, in their hunger crossing west China, eating their leather belts and the dung of their animals.
As Kellner suffers loneliness and physical privations, the beautiful Communist girl from the boat turns up. Now an assistant to Zhou En-lai, she has a baby of her own by a German Communist adviser--the one foreigner traveling with the top Communist leadership.
Kellner is drawn to Mei-ling, but his lust is clouded by his sense of Christian discipline. Mei-ling quietly eases his plight as a prisoner, caring for his child when her own dies of the Long March's rigors, torn between single-minded devotion to the revolution and her impulse to replace her German lover with Kellner.
Kellner, despite his sufferings as a prisoner, finds the zeal and commitment to equality of the Red Army seductive. It challenges his own sagging Christian faith without ever taking its place. The towering crags and dark ravines of the Chinese hinterland help turn him into a kind of fatalistic neo-Taoist.
Anthony Grey's deft plot brings back the veteran missionary who in Manchester had inspired Kellner's career. The old man goes by sedan chair to try to rescue Kellner. But he, too, just about loses his faith as the natural world in its myriad forms proves its superior power.
Kellner, freed toward the end of the Long March, returns with a stilled tongue to Europe. Tough Mei-ling is content to be wedded to the Chinese Revolution.
At times, the historical material about the Long March weighs down the story, but Grey always gets back on course. Only now and then does he lapse from historical credibility--as when he has the Communists seek Kellner's opinion as to what fate the executioner of his wife should meet.
Grey, himself a prisoner of the Chinese Communists in the 1960s (he wrote a fine book, "Hostage in Peking," about the experience), dedicates the novel to Alfred Bosshardt, who, like Kellner, spent the Long March as a lone European captive of the Red Army. There are complex personal vibrations here, but they only add power to the novel, making it far deeper than Grey's earlier China novel, "The Chinese Assassin."
After the revolution of 1949--as the novel takes quite a fresh shape--Kellner is found in Hong Kong, no longer a missionary but a China-watcher. He doesn't want his daughter Abigail (now about 20) to pursue China, but she wishes to do so. She probes her roots: Someone in China killed her mother; someone else in China saved and cared for her as an infant. What were these people like?
In an exciting twist, Abigail meets up in Peking with a young man who is none other than the offspring of Kellner's liaison with Mei-ling on the Long March. He is now a fiery, ignorant-of-history Red Guard. He preaches Maoism to the captive masses with the same fervor that his father used to preach Christianity to the unhearing farmers of Hunan.
It is only when Abigail and her half-brother begin an affair that Kellner is stirred from his shell to tell those close to him the truth about his life and what China has done to his soul.