I had been plotting my return to China for about a year, and now an invitation from Lanxin Xiang, author of a book on the Boxer rebellion, to lecture in Shanghai in September 2005 made it possible. I say “return,” because the last time I had been on the mainland was in 1948, when I was nine years old. I was born in Harbin in Manchuria in 1939, came to England when I was three, and then went back to China with my parents in 1947, living for a little over a year in Tientsin (now Tianjin). We escaped to Hong Kong just before the communists took the city.
Why had we gone back to China in 1947? The brief answer is that the Skidelsky family owned large properties in Harbin, and leased the largest private coalmine in Manchuria”the Mulin Mining Company. After the second world war, my father, a British subject since 1930, decided to reclaim the family business. In a spectacular piece of bad timing, we reached Tientsin at the moment when the communists were seizing control of Manchuria from the nationalists. We hung around in Tientsin waiting for the reversal of fortune which never happened. I remember thinking even then what a bad general Chiang Kai-Shek was to allow his best army to be cut off in Manchuria.