Cover image for The Peking letter : a novel of the Chinese civil war
The Peking letter : a novel of the Chinese civil war
Topping, Seymour, 1921-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : PublicAffairs, [1999]

Physical Description:
xii, 300 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
General Note:
"A Cornelia and Michael Bessie book."

Maps on lining papers.
Reading Level:
860 Lexile.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



From the well-known New York Times correspondent who brought the Chinese Revolution alive to Americans in the 1940s, a thrilling debut novel of the burgeoning love affair between a young American intelligence agent obsessed with ancient China and a rebellious young Communist, set against the backdrop of China at the height of the civil war.. The Peking Letter is Seymour Toppings remarkable recreation of China on the eve of revolution. Torn by his infatuation for a saucy Chinese student with Communist sympathies, CIA agent Eric Jensen finds himself thrust into the epicenter of the Chinese Revolution. With the eye of a seasoned journalist, Topping shows us the details of a civilization in peril: the inside of upscale brothels and traditional pleasure houses, the corridors of military compounds, and the quiet inner chambers of Buddhist temples. The Peking Letter is Seymour Toppings remarkable recreation of China on the eve of revolution. Torn by his infatuation for a saucy Chinese student with Communist sympathies, a CIA agent, Eric Jensen, finds himself thrust into the epicenter of the Chinese Revolution.Topping takes the reader to the sites he covered as a young correspondent for th

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Set right before the Communist takeover of Peking, Topping's engaging first novel is part thriller, part love story, and part historical drama. Eric Jensen, an American scholar studying Taoist philosophy and infatuated with Chinese culture, is drawn into a political power struggle when Lilian Yang, a beautiful medical student and leftist sympathizer, pleads with him to carry a letter negotiating the peaceful surrender of Peking. Driven by his growing love for Lilian and his desire to help save Peking from destruction, Jensen agrees. In the meantime, the CIA is watching Jensen and blackmails him into spying on the Communists. What should have been a one-time favor turns out to be a fight for his life as Jensen is pulled deeper and deeper into the conflict. His struggle to get back to Lilian takes him directly onto the battlefield, pursued by the CIA, the Communist military police, and the Nationalist secret police. Though one may need a scorecard to remember who is fighting for which side, the depth of detail, Topping's knowledge of China, and the unseen twists in plot make for an entertaining read. --Carolyn Kubisz

Publisher's Weekly Review

When zealous young Sinophile Eric Jensen completes his assignment as an interpreter for the American truce teams in Peking during the conflict between Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese Nationalist army and Mao Tse-tung's Communist forces during the late 1940s, he fancies staying on in the city he loves to study Taoism. But in this intricate historical novel by esteemed former New York Times editor and correspondent Topping (Journey Between Two Chinas), Jensen learns that Chinese culture cannot be enjoyed independently of Chinese politics. He is tapped by the fledgling CIA to participate in Wagging Pipit, an operation kept secret even from other branches of the American government, which aims to foster communication between the U.S. and the Chinese Communists. Set up by the CIA as a scholar-in-residence in Peking, Jensen falls in love with medical student Lilian Yang. Through her, Jensen becomes embroiled in the pro-Communist student movement and is enlisted in a plan by leading intellectuals to surrender Peking to Mao's forces and save the ancient city from decimation. Thus begins Jensen's transformation from aesthete to wartime courier, a role he embraces with honorable albeit cloying earnestness. In his travels to Shanghai, battle-wracked Hsuchow and Nanking, Jensen faces the ever-menacing secret police and risks his cover to save Peking and return to Lilian. Innumerable obstacles postpone their reunion, and in the end, as the House Un-American Activities Committee gets wind of Wagging Pipit and Peking is choked under Communist rule, politics and love clash. Against the vividly rendered backdrop of a fiercely impassioned and ravaged collective desperate for revolution, the story's individual characters unfortunately seem caricatured, animated by a hollow resolve and a sense of duty that better serves the aims of a revolution than a novel. Maps not seen by PW. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In 1948, with Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist army in retreat, the last remnants of the U.S. military presence prepare to pull out of China. Eric Jensen, a young American scholar researching Taoism, decides to remain in Peking, along with dozens of other foreigners who have fallen in love with the ancient city. The apolitical Jensen is courted both by the newly formed CIA and by a cadre of young Maoists, led by the alluring student radical, Lillian Yang. As Communist forces advance on Peking, Jensen is called upon to help negotiate the city's surrender and save it from imminent destruction. Topping's fast-paced historical novel offers an insider's view of the final days of pre-Communist China, summarizing the often confusing course of events in crisp journalistic prose. Unfortunately, character development is often weak. Lillian Yang in particular never comes alive on the page, making it difficult to appreciate Jensen's obsession with her. The Peking Letter succeeds admirably as a political thriller but misses the mark as a romance novel. For larger fiction collections.ÄEdward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch. Lib., Los Angeles (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Peking, October 1948 The massive oaken door of the Peking Language School swung open and a tall, lean man in a soft ranch hat emerged. He paused in the dim light cast by the brass lamp dangling from the arch of the entryway. He was an American, in his mid-twenties, his height accentuated by the black hat pulled down over thick reddish hair that fell to his shoulders. He wore a long black Chinese robe.     Eric Jensen hooked the fur-lined collar of his gown against the October chill and tucked his hands into the broad sleeves. In the school chapel the evening prayer service was ending and he could hear faintly the school hymn being sung by the missionary students: In scattered rural hamlets, Or where great cities hum, To China as a Nation We pray, Thy Kingdom Come.     Jensen pictured the missionaries before the pulpit holding the hands of their children as they sang. "Innocents and martyrs," he muttered.     Communist armies were advancing on Peking. Other students, from the foreign banks, trading companies, and the military, had already been evacuated. The siege would soon begin. Yet the student missionaries were preparing to go forth into the countryside to preach their gospel.     Although living apart as a scholar-in-residence, Jensen had become friendly with a few of the younger missionaries. They approached him curious about his work. He answered questions freely about his study of Taoist scriptures at the universities, monasteries, and in the archives of secret societies. Pressed, he'd talk about his service with General Joseph Stilwell, the World War II China Theater commander and a graduate of the school: years of hacking through the jungles on the Ledo Road, in combat with the Japanese, opening the Burma Road, the link to China. But he dissembled--hating the need to be devious--when they asked why he had chosen to live in the austere missionary-run school. Jensen shrugged. It no longer mattered very much. Soon they'd hear that the director had thrown him out. Given him two days to leave the school premises.     Jensen rubbed the stubble on his chin and walked quickly down the worn stone steps into the alleyway. The cobbled hutung alley was deserted, murky under the darkening sky. Jensen beckoned, and a three-wheeled pedicab came swiftly out of the shadow of the school's compound wall, guided by a gaunt Chinese holding the handlebars with his left hand and the bicycle seat with the other as he ran alongside. "You are well, Master?" the pedicab man said in the purring Peking dialect, touching the brim of his brown fedora. The fedora was a whimsical accessory to Ying's blue cotton jacket and baggy trousers. At times Jensen would offer to exchange his Australian hat for the battered fedora, much to Ying's amusement.     "To the shop of Wang Li," Jensen said as he mounted the pedicab, not inviting the usual banter. He spoke fluent Mandarin. Only a slight tonal inflection revealed that he was not born to the language. Ying wrapped a frayed blanket around Jensen's legs, leaped onto the bicycle seat, and pedaled rapidly west along the Tou Tiao Hutung toward Hatamen Street. The pedicab bumped over cobblestones through the twilight, past the walled compounds of whitewashed brick houses. Here in Peking's Inner City, the old imperial Tartar City of the Manchus, most of the great houses belonged to Nationalist government officials, wealthy Chinese, or foreigners. Already their gates were barred for the night. Soon the police patrols would pass, and when the thud of their hobnailed boots receded, the peasant refugees would emerge from the shadows to trudge these alleyways, defying the curfew in their unceasing hunt for food. The refugees came from villages devastated in the renewed civil war between the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung's Communists, now in its third year. They hammered on the gates, imploring, until scraps of food were thrown over the compound walls: small bribes given to restore the peace of the night. As his pedicab rolled past the compounds, Jensen could hear the shouts of children at play in the courtyards. The smoke of coal stoves curled above the sloping tiled roofs.     Suddenly Jensen noticed shadows cast along the alleyway ahead. Three emaciated dogs were stalking the still form of a beggar woman. Slumped against a red door with shining brass fittings, she held a bundled infant in her arms. Jensen cried out to Ying to halt. The pedicab driver watched uneasily as Jensen jumped out, shook the woman's shoulder, and dropped some bills into her lap. The mongrel curs scampered away. A pedicab man who had been sleeping in the passenger seat of his cycle sat upright. A pair of magpies perched on a compound wall screeched. Jensen returned to the pedicab. He knew the stalking dogs would return. Once he might have done more to help the woman, but he had learned to constrain his compassion and rage at what he witnessed on the streets. Giving of alms was the Taoist way. But doing more to rescue a beggar would mean, by Chinese custom, accepting responsibility for the creature's survival. As the war closed in on Peking, the spectacle of starving refugees dying on the streets was so common as to hardly engage the curiosity of the passerby.     Ying turned south on Hatamen Street, bypassing the Imperial City. Beyond the southern wall, low-hanging clouds were taking on a pink glow, reflecting the lights of Peking's Outer City, the old Chinese quarter. Jensen leaned back, arms folded, eyes half closed, his thoughts tumbling. Everything had come unhinged. The outraged director denouncing him as a violator of Christian trust, ordering him out of the Language School. He'd been reckless. This last affair, the wild night in the school. Someone hearing, someone seeing as he groped, dulled by the Mongol wine, along the corridor wall to the room of the woman from Taiyuan; her strange lusts and cries. This, after those other nights, when, weary of poring over Taoist scriptures, he had ventured into the Chinese wine shops with Chi, his Chinese drinking companion, or made the rounds of company houses with the French lieutenant. The bribes paid the gatekeepers hadn't been enough to cloak his returns after the city curfew. Indeed, the director had already warned him, especially after that one night when the Chinese gendarmes had hauled him back after curfew and threatened severe action against the school.     But in a sense, leaving was a relief after the confining months. Perhaps, unconsciously, he had invited expulsion. But what would the Smith people do when they learned he'd lost his cover as a scholar? The school was supposed to be his safehouse when the Communists occupied the city. Now that he'd botched his mission, would they spirit him out of China? Or dispose of him? Smith had warned that he would be removed if he bolted or was stripped of his cover. Until now he had abided by his contract. And he would never betray their plan. No! Whatever the risk, he would not leave Peking. To leave would mean giving up the work on his book; the search for the essence of the universal Tao ... the Way ... grasping the wisdom of Chuang Tzu and Lao Tsu. If they came for him, they wouldn't find him pliant. But for now he must find a place to live, to take shelter. Wang Li would help.     Ying pedaled the pedicab through the towering Front Gate, which led into the Chinese City. Jensen glanced at his watch. He was too early for his appointment with Wang Li. "Ying," he called out, "take me first to the Wine Shop of the Three Parrots."     The pedicab rolled through bustling marketplaces and crooked hutungs. Jensen looked about him relishing as always the myriad sensations of the city's irrepressible life. Nor did he shrink from the stench of the refuse-filled gutters or the acrid fumes of the coal lumps smoldering in the open stoves of the clamoring sidewalk food peddlers. The crowds were swelled by refugees from the countryside and by disheveled stragglers from the defeated Nationalist armies in the north. The traffic was a clutter of rickshas, two-wheeled wooden carts, overburdened donkeys and camels, and American-made trucks of the Nationalist garrison. Polished limousines of government officials and the foreign consulates nosed through the tangled traffic, their haughty Chinese chauffeurs sounding their horns incessantly.     Shouting for pedestrians to clear the way, Ying drew up before the Wine Shop of the Three Parrots. "Come for me in two hours at the shop of Wang Li," Jensen said. Ying saluted and pedaled off. Jensen entered the tiny wine stall, sat on a wooden stool, and ordered a flask of shaohsing , the hot yellow wine, patiently returning the smiles of the Chinese customers who stole shy glances at him. He tossed back several cups of the wine and thought about what Chi had asked him to do.     Chi was a second-year medical student at Yenching, the university on the outskirts of Peking. Jensen had met him in the U.S. Information Library. A moon-faced Cantonese, son of a wealthy rice merchant, Chi had been a rollicking companion, and the two spent many nights over cups of shaohsing discussing philosophy and politics. Chi joked that Jensen was a reincarnation of Hsi Kang, a third-century Taoist poet seven foot eight inches in height, who composed verses during drinking bouts with his friends in the fabled Club of the Bamboo Grove. Jensen conceded only that he shared Hsi Kang's addiction to wine. More often, brooding over his entanglement with the Smith people, he thought he was failing, like Hsi Kang, to heed the cautions of the Taoist sage, Chuang Tzu, against being drawn into the affairs of rulers. Might he suffer Hsi Kang's fate? Although innocent of any offense against the people, Hsi Kang was accused of treason and executed by the Emperor. The poet went to his execution strumming his lute.     But lately Chi had changed. He was more and more obsessed with politics. He could argue on until the curfew hour, angrily cataloging the misdeeds of the Chiang Kai-shek government and extolling the promised reforms of the Communists. While Jensen understood Chi's frustration at the corruption and repression of Chiang's political party, the Kuomintang, he saw no point in substituting one dictatorship for another. He would never voice his doubts directly, but preferred to debate with Chi in Taoist terms. But then Chi would grow irritable when Jensen quoted from the Taoist sages: The people prosper when ruled by those officials who govern least. Look for salvation in the cultivation of the human spirit . At their last meeting in the wine shop, Jensen had spoken out more directly, shedding the pretense imposed on him by Smith that he appear sympathetic to the Communists. "Accept Mao Tse-tung and you will see the ruin of your culture," Jensen had said. "The Maoists are a reincarnation of the Legalists of two thousand years ago. Yes, the Legalists built the Great Wall, but they also buried philosophers alive."     Chi was furious. "Your Taoist philosophy did not rescue the Chinese people from poverty and war in feudal times. It will do no more for them today. The Way is the means by which gentlemen scholars such as you retreat from the suffering of the people to idle contemplation on the mountaintops."     Jensen mulled over the rebuke for days. Chi was right, he concluded. He was only a spectator to the anguish of the Chinese people. If China descended into chaos, he could always retreat to the comfort of his home in Webster, Missouri. For Chi and his people, there was no escape. Chi had made the hard choice between the Communists and the Nationalists. There was no middle ground ... no democratic party able to silence the guns and feed the people. The Communists were promising more. And here am I, Jensen berated himself, professing love for the Chinese people, yet aloof from their struggle.     Jensen was still feeling the sting of the rebuke when Chi unexpectedly knocked at the door of his room in the Language School. He was accompanied by a woman student, Li-nan, whom Jensen recognized immediately. He had first noticed her in the American Library and, thereafter, looked for her.     Jensen seated his visitors on the narrow cot of his sparsely furnished room. Chi was flushed and agitated, but Li-nan appeared composed with a polite smile and still hands folded in her lap.     "Eric, you know about the attack on the Pei-ta University students?" Chi asked, speaking in Chinese, his voice strained.     "Yes, murderous, murderous." Jensen replied. He'd learned of the clash that afternoon. Gendarmes had assaulted a column of Pei-ta University students as they tried to enter the Imperial City, bearing placards demanding an end to the civil war. When the students broke down the barriers at the Tienanmen the gendarmes charged the column with fixed bayonets. Two students had been killed and a dozen others wounded.     "The day after tomorrow," Chi said, "we are planning a great protest demonstration of Yenching, Pei-ta, and Tsinghua University students at the Temple of Heaven. Eric, we want you to be there. The gendarmes are less likely to bayonet us if foreigners are looking on."     "I'll be there," Eric said quietly. He glanced at Li-nan, who was studying him intently. Jensen had watched her in the library on several occasions moving gracefully amid the student throng, fine ivory features tilted up as she examined the book stacks; watching as her gown folded about her slim body when she reached for a volume. Serene, patrician in manner, she was tall for a Chinese woman, five foot six or seven. In reveries after cups of wine he had imagined himself living with a woman like her, spending soft evenings lolling beside a lotus pool in their Ming garden while contemplating the revelations and mysteries in the verses of Lao Tsu's Tao Te Ching. The very presence of Li-nan brought to mind a verse: The mystery of the valley is female It is the emptiness in woman and the fullness of the Great Mother, The endless source of everything and the generosity of all that is.     Chi reclaimed Jensen's attention. "You are a true friend of China," he said, grasping his hand.     Li-nan smiled at Jensen and rose to leave. But Chi paused. In a whisper, he said to Jensen, "There is something else of even greater importance ... the greatest of importance."     Li-nan became visibly uneasy. She touched Chi's shoulder. "You can discuss that with Mr. Jensen after the demonstration," she said firmly.     Chi glanced at Li-nan and shrugged. "Well then," he said curtly. "Let us meet after the demonstration at the Altar of Heaven in the Temple Park."     Li-nan bowed and extended her hand to Jensen. "Thank you. We are most grateful."     "Until we meet again," Jensen said, bowing as he shook her hand.     Hunched over his porcelain cup in the wine shop, Jensen puzzled over Chi's matter of "greatest importance" and why Li-nan had silenced him. He would go to the demonstration at the Temple of Heaven as he had promised, although he was not persuaded that the presence of foreigners would prevent violence. Chi's demonstration seemed more likely to invite bloodshed. But perhaps he could be of some help, Jensen reasoned, and the prospect of seeing Li-nan enticed him.     As he left the wine stall, Jensen declined the offer of the pot-bellied proprietor to take the waitress, a thin, pigtailed waif, no more than fifteen years of age, to the house in the rear to enjoy her for the night. A cluster of giggling children soon fell in behind him, pointing and shouting "Red foreign devil!" and "See the red monster!" The children gathered round when he paused to buy a bag of hot chestnuts picked from a peddler's caldron. Jensen stooped to give a chestnut to a small boy with his head shaven except for a top knot. Then with a smile he offered his hand. The tot took it shyly and together they walked to the nearby bird shop with the other children trailing behind. In the open shanty shop Jensen inspected the chirping thrushes in cages hanging from the roof beam. He lifted up the tot so that he could inspect a shrieking yellow-crested white cockatoo.     Waving good-bye to the children, Jensen continued along the narrow hutungs toward Wang Li's shop. The bazaar was crowded with frenetic shoppers shouldering up to counters to buy the cheap Shanghai-made watches and cloth. They paid with tall stacks of yuan, whose worth was dwindling daily in the unbridled inflation. In the jade shops, foreigners examined antique pieces and jewelry that could be bought at bargain prices for dollars. From rooms above the shops came the clicking of mah-jongg ivories.     Jensen strode along Jade Street to the antiques shop of Wang Li. Shopkeepers hawking precious stones, silks, and silver bowed as the familiar tall figure passed by. The window of Wang's shop was already shuttered for the night. Jensen pulled the bell cord. The carved teak door opened slowly, and Wang welcomed Jensen with a bow. A tall, slightly stooped man in his seventies, Wang's high cheek bones and arched eyebrows revealed his Manchu blood. He made an imposing figure in his blue brocade gown.     Jensen paused to glance at jade ornaments in a display case before walking to the rear of the shop, where he parted red silken curtains and entered a small room hung with calligraphic scrolls. He seated himself on a brocade-covered sofa, stretching his legs beneath a low redwood table. On the table stood a porcelain tea service and a One Thousand Flower dish filled with sliced oranges and sunflower seeds.     Wang closed the curtains. "Before anything else," he said, his eyes alight. He walked over to the German steel safe in the corner of the room, spun the combination, and returned with an exquisitely sculpted terra-cotta figurine, about eighteen inches high, of a Chinese woman dancer in flowing robes. The statue was very old but still retained patches of red glaze. Wang placed the figurine gently on the table.     "Magnificent," Jensen breathed.     "Well?" said Wang.     Jensen studied the figure closely. "Mortuary pottery, Southern Tang, about the year 900."     "Correct, of course," Wang said, as he picked up the figurine and returned it to the safe.     Jensen smiled. "You have been a good teacher. Is it for sale?"     "No, not yet," Wang said laughing. "Not to the speculators. It deserves a museum. It will go into the vault with the other special things. And how are you progressing with your research?" He offered Jensen a cigarette from a black lacquer box. Reaching inside his gown, Jensen took out a carved ivory cigarette holder, inserted the cigarette, lit it with an army Zippo, and drew heavily.     "I am leaving the Language School," Jensen said quietly.     Wang's eyebrows lifted slightly. He poured green tea into the porcelain cups. "The book? It is finished?"     Jensen sipped his tea. He was unhappy about not being entirely open with Wang, his friend and benefactor. When he entered the Language School he had told Wang his purpose was to do research for his book in the Taoist archives and that the school would be his sanctuary when the Communists occupied Peking. They might accept his residence as a scholar, especially if he offered to become a teacher of English at one of the universities. He had not misled Wang as far as these aspects of his plan were concerned. He simply did not tell Wang everything. He did not tell him of the Smith people. He did not explain that his part-time job in the U.S. Information Library was really a means to engage with left-wing Chinese students, like Chi, who came there hungry for books unobtainable elsewhere.     "No," Jensen said. "I displeased the director. My behavior was not to his liking. I need another place to live."     "As always, my house is yours," Wang said, bowing slightly. He paused, tucking his fine-boned hands into the sleeves of his gown. "It will not be difficult to obtain a residence permit for you in the Chinese City. The palms of the police are always outstretched for squeeze."     "And later?" Jensen asked, looking steadily into Wang's eyes.     "More difficult," Wang said. "The Communists are suspicious. Their radio speaks constantly of American spies. They would want to know why are you living in the Chinese quarter." He hesitated. "They might interrogate your Chinese acquaintances. The Communists may not take bribes like the Kuomintang officials."     Jensen, knowing he had his answer, stubbed out his cigarette and rose. "I understand," he said.     Wang nodded. "Your precious things will be safe. Only you and I know the location of the vault. Return when you can."     As Jensen left the shop, he thought of a last resort. He would go to his friend, the French lieutenant, to ask for shelter. Like all the consular residences, the lieutenant's compound enjoyed diplomatic immunity. The Communists--when they came--might not challenge his presence there. But there was no telling how the Smith people would react. Copyright © 1999 Seymour Topping. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Author's Notep. xi
Part 1 The Temple of Heavenp. 1
Chapter 1

p. 3

Chapter 2

p. 15

Chapter 3

p. 29

Chapter 4

p. 47

Chapter 5

p. 50

Chapter 6

p. 58

Chapter 7

p. 69

Chapter 8

p. 75

Chapter 9

p. 78

Chapter 10

p. 86

Chapter 11

p. 88

Chapter 12

p. 96

Chapter 13

p. 104

Chapter 14

p. 114

Chapter 15

p. 122

Chapter 16

p. 131

Part 2 The Battle of the Huai Haip. 141
Chapter 17

p. 143

Chapter 18

p. 151

Chapter 19

p. 156

Chapter 20

p. 163

Chapter 21

p. 175

Chapter 22

p. 186

Chapter 23

p. 190

Chapter 24

p. 202

Chapter 25

p. 208

Chapter 26

p. 221

Chapter 27

p. 233

Part 3 The Fall of Pekingp. 241
Chapter 28

p. 243

Chapter 29

p. 255

Chapter 30

p. 262

Chapter 31

p. 270

Chapter 32

p. 279

Chapter 33

p. 283

Chapter 34

p. 290