If you were to read this book without first reading the prologue, you would find the prose rather stilted. In fact, it might remind you of books you've read that have been translated from another, more formal, language. You would be correct in this case. Old Pu's Travel Diary was written in Chinese. But an Englishman wrote it.
John Blofeld, who died in 1987, was born to an upper-class English family at the height of the Empire, and yet his greatest wish throughout his life was to live in China. As a small boy, he spotted a little statue of the Buddha in a curiosity shop and wept copiously until his aunt bought it for him. Thereafter, without understanding any of its significance, the boy prostrated himself before the icon, which he decorated with flowers in the privacy of his bedroom. He dropped out of Cambridge when he saw a chance to go East and began his engagement with Buddhism, the Tao, the
I Ching and Confucianism as a teacher in Hong Kong.
When an opportunity presented itself, he was able to fulfill his dream to live in Peking, where he worshipped in its monasteries, contacting very saintly guides along the way, smoked opium in its notorious dens, and consorted with beautiful young prostitutes in "the floating world." Because of encroaching war, he was forced to leave China and returned to England to complete his degree program. Remarkably, he was then offered a wartime post as the British Consulate in China (his language skills by that time were highly advanced, making him an ideal candidate).
Blofeld was able to live in China itself only a short while longer, this time ejected by the Cultural Revolution and Maoism. He remained in the East and finished out his life in Bangkok, for him a kind of exile, because his greatest wish then as ever, was to live in China. But he recognized that the Communist regime had set about destroying the very classical virtues and ideals of the past that so attracted him. Blofeld became a traveling lecturer, and his translation of the
I Ching, among other works, became a popular favorite among the flower-child generation. He contacted leaders and imminent practitioners of Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism and was well-respected among them as a Westerner who truly revered the manners and spiritual teachings of the East.
Blofeld set out his account of his years in what was then called The Orient in a very honest autobiography towards the end of his life, written in Chinese. Daniel Reid, a bestselling author and expert on Chinese herbal medicine, made a personal pilgrimage to meet the distinguished sinophile (some would say a sinopath, as Reid points out) within months of his death. Reid was later invited to translate Old Pu's Travel Diary into English and did so while living in Blofeld's old house in Bangkok. He gave it the title My Journey in Mystic China and added an explanatory prologue and some comments/reminiscences of Blofeld contributed by his multi-cultural circle of friends.
The book reads like a charming account from a long-forgotten era, and that is precisely what it is. Blofeld gives a detailed and scintillating portrait of ancient China, still extant when he lived there - a culture that was highly stratified and regimented, and included the virtues of always welcoming "guests from afar" such as Blofeld himself, who made a comfortable niche for himself by being the perfect visitor.