Beijing, 19 December 2012
It was an official dinner like so many I attend, perhaps more significant than most since it was with our main partner in China. I sat to the right of the banquet’s host, in the position of honour. As usual, I checked nervously what alcohol would be served; it’s either red wine – good – or “Chinese wine”, aka Maotai or Baizhou, which is actually an extremely strong, sickly tasting liquor – very bad; the Chinese profess to love it, I refer to it outside of Chinese earshot as biofuel. Luckily, it was wine; I could relax. We started with the usual speech by the host and then moved to the first of the toasts. My host and I clinked glasses and bottomed-up, before turning to those around us to toast, our glasses having miraculously refilled in the meantime. The Lazy Mary began to turn as we picked at the various delicacies before us and as more arrived. The host got up and began to toast those at other tables, others got up and toasted the host, and me, and everyone else. I was soon standing up and sitting down like a yo-yo as the various guests arrived thick and fast and made me little speeches to which I had to find a suitable response. As usual, I was beginning to run out of platitudes, and when I found myself saying sillier and sillier things I knew it was time for me to escape and do my rounds of the other tables.
One thing was different at this banquet. The host had invited younger members of his staff with a musical skill to show it off. So we had players of the traditional Chinese flute, of the traditional Chinese violin, and of the guitar strutting their stuff. We also had a singer who sang in the operatic mode O sole mio and some Austrian yodeling song set to Chinese words – the last was a surreal interlude. Initially, we listened appreciatively, but as the guests moved around, toasting with all and sundry and chatting ever more animatedly in small clusters, the players were reduced to background musack. Then, uncharacteristically, the host called us to order and invited us to sit down. Two children took to the floor, the son and daughter of staff members, and they began to sing. It was in that moment that I understood why angels must be children. There is a purity, a crystalline clarity, a simplicity, in a child’s voice as it soars into the upper registers and floats above your head that can bring a hushed, attentive silence to even the most unruly crowd, and will always fill my heart with an intimation of the divine.