Things aren’t always what they seem.

Stephen Hallett

One summer evening in 2007 a friend and I were walking back to my flat in a hutong, not far from the Drum Tower in the heart of old Beijing. Passing the entrance to an old courtyard house I noticed a little boy in red shorts and a white T-shirt squatting in the doorway together with a floppy-eared grey rabbit. He couldn’t have been more than seven or eight and his rabbit seemed very large next to him. Being rather fond of rabbits I squatted down and said: “That’s a lovely rabbit. Is it your pet?”  Quite unperturbed the boy continued stroking the rabbit’s ears and said earnestly, “Yes, he’s mine.” 

A ‘Hutong’ in Old Beijing, which has probably been demolished by now

“What do you feed him on?” I asked.

“Vegetables, rice, meat… any left-overs.”

“That’s interesting,” I said. “I like rabbits, because I used to have one a long time ago. He was called Genghis Khan…”

The boy looked at me inscrutably, then said, “Yes, I know. He died.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“My granny told me.”

Beijing Agricultural University

That was the end of the encounter. The boy picked up his rabbit, pushed open the peeling red door and went inside, leaving me in the street feeling a bit perplexed. Did the boy really know that I’d had a rabbit twenty years earlier when I was teaching at a Beijing’s Agricultural University? Genghis was a rabbit with attitude who loved eating carpets and chasing cats. But he sadly died of lung disease when I went away on holiday and left him in the care of a colleague. Kind students then presented me with another rabbit whom we named Kublai Khan. Both Genghis and Kublai were eventually laid to rest in the grounds of the Old Summer Palace. I had an odd feeling that this boy, or his mysterious granny, knew all about my rabbity past. But how could they have known? Twenty years had elapsed and this was a completely different part of the city. I’d never seen that boy before. And to add to the mystery I saw neither him nor his rabbit ever again. 

Many images of Nezha, the boy-god of Beijing exist, this is one of the most boy-like

I started fantasising that maybe this boy was actually an incarnation of Nezha, the boy-god of Beijing, who used to perform miracles and zipped around on wheels of fire. That was a surreal time, both in my life and in the life of the city. Against the backdrop of a city being demolished and rebuilt for the Beijing Olympics, I was trying to set up seemingly impossible projects, working with amazing young disabled people who wanted to challenge generations of discrimination. City planners were reinventing Beijing, crazed architects were littering it with bizarre and ugly megaliths, farmland was being put under concrete in the name of the Olympics… and meanwhile some people on the fringes of society – sexual minorities, disabled people, migrant labourers… were beginning to demand their rights. Everything seemed to be up in the air, but no one knew how it would all turn out. 

My strange encounter with the boy and his rabbit was one of many surreal experiences I had in China at that time. So often I had the sense that surface appearances disguised hidden mysteries. There was nothing particularly mystical about this. China is a hugely complex society with a convoluted and often tortuous history. Over generations so much of what has happened in Chinese society has been hidden, rewritten or denied. As in other countries it is often true that “history is written by the victors”. But in China many layers of reality can coexist without even being recorded for posterity. Disabled people, I learned, were one section of Chinese society that had barely existed in the public consciousness – less so in the official records – except as occasional objects of pity, scorn or humour. 

So when I first began working with young people with disabilities who were keen to reinvent themselves as humans with dignity, personhood and agency, people able to articulate their dreams and frustrations and challenge the status quo, that seemed as profound a change as any in the fabric of reality. Our work with disabled people, parents groups, preschool teachers and others over the past dozen years has not been easy. Repressive policies have again squeezed the space for civil society, trying to force disability and other social concerns back into a confined box under tight state control. But however tight the controls, disability, gender, sexuality and other human differences do not go away. Neither do the aspirations of people to live rich and meaningful lives. 

This Covid year has been another time of pain and confusion for China and the world. Fact, fiction and the utterly bizarre have coexisted in the minds of millions of people caught up in this pandemic and its effects. Today the Chinese Communist Party hosted heroes of China’s war on the virus in the Great Hall of the People, announcing a great victory for the Party (the very Party that had repressed warnings of an epidemic back in January). Thousands of valiant scientists, medics and public workers deserve our praise and gratitude, but that doesn’t erase the criminal responsibility of officials who covered up the truth.  Yet the narrative has been remoulded and history is being rewritten by the “victors”. But this pandemic is far from over and how this will all play out in the fullness of time is impossible to say. Reality can present many dimensions and different people will choose different realities. 

Meanwhile I wonder whether, amidst the huge changes sweeping the world, that little boy isn’t still sitting in some doorway stroking his grey floppy-eared rabbit. Some aspects of reality may exist beyond time and space – and perhaps that is what we need to hold on to. 

Stephen Hallett

Beijing,  9th September 2020