Katie Letcher Lyle

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Good-bye to Old Peking

© Ohio University Press, 1997

Good-bye to Old Peking


My mother and father lived in China from early 1937 until the late summer of 1939, during remarkable times. They were aware of the threat of evil building in the world and understood that they were experiencing a rapidly changing culture. While they were there, my father wrote home every few days to his parents and other relatives in Lexington, Virginia. These letters comprise an account of my parents’ experiences in Asia, everything from their quotidian lives to my father’s fears for the future of his own country.

John Seymour Letcher was a career Marine, a 1924 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). He later attended Washington and Lee University Law School, leaving before he graduated to join the Marine Corps in the spring of 1927. In 1934, he was assigned to Quantico, Virginia, where he met my mother, Elizabeth Worthington Marston, the oldest daughter of his commanding officer there, Colonel John Marston VII.1 Subsequently Letcher was assigned to Fort Sill, whence he carried on a courtship with my mother primarily by mail. He returned to Quantico at the end of the summer of 1936, and on October 28 of that year, my parents were married at St. Alban’s Church in Washington, D.C. Captain and Mrs. Letcher took a honeymoon cruise to Haiti and Nicaragua, where my mother’s family had been stationed during her childhood and where my father had earlier seen duty, winning a Navy Cross in 1978 and the Medallo de Merito for bravery.

Before Christmas of 1936, the Letchers were ordered to Peking, where my mother’s parents had also arranged to be stationed. The Letchers and the Marstons returned to the United States in September of 1939, just weeks after Hitler invaded Poland and launched World War II in Europe. The letters, with a few earlier ones to describe their beginning, are from this period.

Assigned as the commanding officer of Company B, Marine Detachment, at the American embassy in Peking, my father details in his letters the military duties, the off-hours pastimes, the opportunities for acquisitive Americans, and the intoxicating social schedule of the foreign officials who served in Peking and moved in its exotic circles. Much later in his life, reflecting on their China sojourn, he wrote:

When we left the ship and boarded the railroad train that would take us the last two hundred miles to Peking, we stepped into another world in which we lived for the next two and a half years. It was China as it will never be again, with the standing and prestige of the white races, which had been established with the victories of the Opium War and the Boxer Rebellion, givng them prerogatives and privileges and a lordly way of life that was looked upon by them, as well as by the Chinese, as a natural order of existence.2

The letters describe a place and time alien to the ordinary American—a land, in the words of Charles Finney, a veteran of the U.S. Fifteenth Infantry Regiment, “. . . of tiled walls and jeweled pagodas where almond-eyed men with pigtails wore womanish gowns, drank tea, ate rice, smoked opium, and wielded beheading knives.”3

Letcher’s duties in the foreign Legation Quarter of Peking—like those of his American colleagues and those of other nationalities—were apparently light.4 Finney reports a conversation between two enlisted men, one returning from, one leaving for China in the late twenties:

“Yes, but what's it like?”

“It stinks. Everything in China stinks.”

“Yes, but how about the duty—is it hard?”

“There ain’t any duty to speak of. You drill in the mornings and get the afternoons off You catch guard every nine days. But you don’t do any fatigue, and you don’t do any KP; you hire coolies to do it for you. You don’t make your own bed; you don’t shine your own shoes; you don’t fill your own canteen; you don’t shave yourself; the Chink coolies do it for you. You get waited on hand and foot.”

“How come you left?”

“It ain’t a white man’s country.” 5

For commissioned officers, life was, if possible, even easier. My father seldom worked for more than half a day, and his duties primarily involved drilling, target practice, and athletic events designed to keep the troops occupied and in good physical shape. According to my father, alcoholism and venereal disease were the chief problems among troops in Asia, where cheap liquor and compliant prostitutes abounded. He felt that, to occupy the troops, athletics were as important as military training, though he later admitted that the target-shooting they did at such length bore no resemblance whatever to real military combat and was, therefore, time, energy, and ammunition misspent.

To the Chinese, the Americans were, as protectors of China and of American interests, analogous to a police force: the higher the visibility, the less real work needed to be done. All it takes is one strolling policeman to insure citizens’ compliance with laws within a large area or one parked police car to slow traffic to legal speed limits for miles. Thus, the troops did not have to do any real defending; the mere visible presence of the American military protected our interests there. In the event of disorder or emergency, they would have been responsible for bringing in and protecting embassy personnel, missionaries, tourists, and other American nationals. That my father was extremely cynical about the effectiveness of Christian missionaries in China (and everywhere else) did not interfere with his dedication to his duty. As the commander of the San Pablo gunboat said in The Sand Pebbles, a film about China end Japan in the twenties, “Our mission is to save American lives—even if they are damn fools.” As a record of the daily life of a U.S. Marine captain in the foreign military service, this collection of letters is valuable.

As a part of this watchdog force, my father held ambivalent attitudes about both the Chinese and the Japanese: the Chinese he admired as efficient, economical, and hardworking, and he much appreciated their filial piety as their highest earthly duty; yet he condemned them for their perceived rascality and lack of morality. He thought they would take and take and take, and had no charity. The Japanese he detested for their aggressiveness—in this case toward China—and because they were “making opium addicts out of the Chinese.” Still he admired their military organization, their shrewdness, their drive and efficiency, and—as he put it once, after the war—their “hearts.”

The Letchers, like the other foreigners, could fairly be accused of insensitivity toward the Chinese; certainly they shared the prejudices of their countrymen of that time. On the other hand, my parents’ servants were treated well, and the young visitors found much to admire in the Chinese.

Daddy repeatedly urged his parents to visit, writing, “Never again will we be in such an interesting place or so well equipped with our horde of servants....“

Curious about everything and aware that never again would such lovely things be available for such low prices, both my parents combed the shops and haunted the fairs. My father became quite an authority on certain kinds of Chinese antiques, specifically the embroidered squares that officials wore by way of identification, which he called “putzes,” (p’u-tzu, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Both my parents studied Mandarin, the dialect of Peking, and spoke it a little. (I was born in May of 1938, and they said I spent so much time with my amah [nurse] that I understood Mandarin better than English as a baby.) My father especially was a keen observer of all that he saw, and endlessly fascinated with the foreign world in which he and my mother found themselves. He lost no opportunity to sightsee locally and to travel to remote and even dangerous areas of China, and he described and commented upon all that he saw. He had a clear eye for detail, an adamant honesty, and a great respect for things that he felt were difficult, skillful, very ancient, or especially intricate. He and my mother both were interested in and impressed by good food (although afterward my mother detested Chinese food until the day she died), and described in detail what they ate in that extraordinary country for more than two years. Nothing ever interrupted a meal.

Apparently Daddy had no problem getting away from duty for days at a time. He was an avid hunter and would pass up no opportunity to go after any prey. Nothing daunted him: not wet clodhes nor Arctic temperatures, not the absence of the hoped-for game nor being briefly lost in the Gobi Desert, not even having to subsist on raw boar fat. He would think up scheme after scheme to bag his game. Thus, these letters are a record of one man’s obsession and how he pursued it.

Daddy was always interested in history and politics, so his observations on the coming to power of Hitler and his predictions about the Japanese and the probable future directions of the United States are interesting. He was a natural critic, never in his life reluctant to express his beliefs about a thing. Of the Japanese, he wrote, “Twenty years from now they will probably take Alaska and Hawaii from us, maybe California and [the] West Coast of Canada and Mexico also until the Pacific Ocean will be a Japanese lake....”

My mother, I think, eventually tired of all the servants underfoot. By the end of their stint, both my parents were critical of China and its people, and ready to come home. Their attitude about the possibility of war and about the war going on around them is curious. They seemed inconvenienced and sometimes irritated by it but never afraid, though the Japanese “detaining” of foreign officers occurred commonly during their stay, and there were many isolated attacks on foreign nationals in China reported in American newspapers at the time. I think my father would be both chagrined and justified to know how many of our brightest students in America today are of Asian origin, particularly Japanese.

The letters have a decorous tone, reminding us that the late thirties were not far from the Victorian era. My father’s writing has a quality I would call cinematic. He sensed when to back away from an action and describe the scenery; he had an ear for amusing dialogue; often he would relate the history of some place he was visiting, frequently drawing morals from what he saw. He knew how to describe a thing so that the reader could “see” it also. His metaphors are apt and striking: the bare mountains northwest of Peking show “great thumbs of stone” sticking up. He describes “long waving strings of geese” flying against a sunset. His writing skill is a tribute to his public schooling in Lexington, Virginia, in the first and second decades of the twentieth century, for at Virginia Military Institute he studied engineering and, after that, law.

There was one more factor that I believe may have influenced his writing: my father’s mother was legally blind and virtually housebound. (She didn’t even attend her only child’s wedding, less than two hundred miles from her home.) My father may well have seen it as his duty to describe all that he saw and did to his mother, Katie Paul Letcher, who was beset by various frailties in addition to an almost total lack of vision caused by macular deterioration and ailing to the extent chat she hardly ever ventured out. John Seymour Letcher was her only living son (two other sons born before him had died: one at eighteen months, one at fifteen years), and my father must have known that his letters provided a vital degree of whatever excitement there was to be in her life. She kept every letter she ever got from him and passed them around to relatives, as is evidenced from the notations on the envelopes. He kept only one letter she wrote to him—a note, really—in scrawly writing an inch high. It was a birthday card upon his thirty-fifth birthday in November of 1938, and it read: “Buzz: to the apple of my eye and the idol of my heart. Love, Mother.” Buzz was his nickname from babyhood and the signature that he used on all of his letters home.

From the time he left home in 1927, my father wrote to his mother at least once a week through his retirement and return to Lexington, and until her death, all of which occurred in 1947. He normally addressed his letters to her, though they were obviously intended for both parents. The few letters he addressed solely to his father, Greenlee Davidson Letcher (“Cap’n” Letcher, whom he addressed as “Pop”), in those years had to do with his will, providing for his family in the not unlikely event of his death in the South Pacific, and business matters, such as buying stock or land in the county. Not surprisingly, the number of letters to his father escalated and their tone intensified toward the end of World War II.

Letcher’s impulse to chronicle his Peking experience was related to his interest in history. It was important to record exactly how the approach to the Peking Summer Palace looked and what spending the night in a Russian game hunter’s sod house in Manchukuo was like. He entrusted three diaries of trips away from Peking to his mother, including them in letters. Unfortunately, only one has survived, and it is included in this volume as a part of the narrative.

My father later wrote and self-published two books: One Marine’s Story and Only Yesterday in Lexington, Virginia. The first was about his twenty-year military career, and the second was a memoir about his childhood; both still sell in local bookstores. In addition, he wrote a novel about his early Marine Corps adventures in Nicaragua, which I never heard him mention but found complete, in his hand, with some correspondence from editors at major American publishers. It was not published.

Quantico, Virginia

I3 December 1936

Dearest Mother:

Just as we get settled in our quarters . . ., Captain Uhlig out at Peking develops tuberculosis and so we are ordered out to China three months before we expected to go....’ Still once we get there I know we will like it with the Griffiths and the Luckeys there.2

We will sail from San Francisco on the Transport Henderson on January 14th.... The reason I was ordered out there was that all the other officers who were slated to go to Peiping are in the schools and can’t go until June and our battalion is the only battalion not going on the maneuvers. The trip across country and on the ship won’t be as nice as it would be in the spring but Peiping will probably be a better place for duty than Shanghai. Colonel Marston expects to come out to Peiping in April as commanding officer. I don't much like the idea of being under my father-in-law but if it doesn’t work all right I can get shifted down to Shanghai I’m sure....


*“Buzz” was Captain Letcher’s nickname from boyhood. The signature has been deleted from all subsequent letters in this collection.

Marine Detachment

American Embassy Peiping, China 27

March 19373

Dearest Mother:

Betty wrote to you a few days ago and told you all our troubles so I won’t dwell on them in this letter.4 It certainly was too bad it had to happen, but she is all right again now and we will move into our apartment tomorrow which should make living here much pleasanter. For the past week our host of servants have been muddling around trying to make the place as presentable as possible and have somewhat succeeded,5 but it still looks pretty bare without any rugs or drapes. I have been going out with my rickshaw boy nearly every afternoon buying furniture for the place. We will have to use dishes of coolie china and stuff from an officers mess chest because our dishes haven’t yet arrived, but it shouldn’t be very long now before they get here.

While Betty was sick I explored . . . the city for an hour or so every afternoon looking for things we needed for the house. It is really very fascinating here to visit the fairs and markets and the different streets such as Old Furniture Street, Jade Street, Brass Street, Flower Street, Big Embroidery Street, Little Embroidery Street, Lantern Street and others like them. The Fairs are really wonderful. Everything you can conceive of to buy, Canary birds, bowls of goldfish, wax fruits for table decorations, so perfect that you can’t tell them from real fruits, merchants in their stalls who sing about the gowns they are trying to sell as they pick one up from a pile and throw it on another all day long. Pile them up and then unpile them and sing all the while at the top of their voices. Geese, whose feathers are dyed pink, to be used in weddings. Traveling bands of players putting on skits, stalls of glassware, vases, foods of all kinds, utensils of brass, copper and iron, stalls devoted to nothing but second hand goods, where every merchant tries to sell you a Ming [I368-I644] vase or rather I suspect a reputed Ming vase. They ask always ten times the price and a lot of chaffering and bargaining is required for every purchase.6 They are good people though and enjoy life as much as any people I’ve ever seen. They are almost always smiling and pleasant and have no objections whatever to letting you look and look and never buy anything.

Yesterday afternoon I took the finished duck boat out for a trial. We put it in a light truck and went out to Marco Polo Bridge and then down the river for a mile or so until we sighted a small flock of wild ducks.7 The river was about two or three hundred yards wide and very muddy. The current was pretty swift. We unloaded the boat and put it into the water quite easily. It only weighs about a hundred pounds. Two of us got in and shoved off from the bank with the idea of drifting down until we were in range of the ducks but the current spun us around and the ducks took flight and presently we ran aground. The water was so muddy that you couldn’t tell how deep it was and what we had believed to be deep water turned out to be in many places only about six inches deep. The boat only drew about six inches of water, but we were continually running aground. Only when we stayed in the main channel could we keep afloat. It was really nice though floating down the river and though most of the ducks seem to have departed we enjoyed about a five mile ride on the swift current. It was a beautiful clear day with the mountains snowcapped and blue up the river and the willow trees along the dikes just beginning to bud and with magpies building nests in every big tree. I’m afraid most of the ducks have gone north now and we won’t be able to do much hunting before next fall. The boat is really a beauty, canvas covered like the ones we used to have on the river at home, but this one is wonderfully well put together. The Chinese carpenters who made it for me did a fine job, used screws everywhere and it only cost me about $IO for lumber, labor, paint, canvas and all. It’s so good that I’m going to bring it back with me or have another made before I come home to bring back if anything happens to this one. It would be fine to have wherever I go for duty if there is any water....8

When you get this your spring will be nearly over. Out here spring is very late and short. We had a heavy snow three days ago and below freezing temperatures are the usual every night occurrence.

People here have been awfully nice to us, with many invitations and sending Betty flowers when she was sick. She got very tired of being in bed and the food at the Hospice doesn’t wear so well. Most of the boarders are Germans and the food is heavy German food. It will be nice to have our cook give us American style food. You see he has always worked for Marine Officers so he will know what Americans eat and how they like it.

All Peiping is preparing to welcome and fleece the tourists who arrive in great droves in the next three weeks from around the world cruise ships. Every hotel room is taken, every little Chinese shop is overflowing with goods to sell at outrageous prices.9

Colonel and Mrs. Pierce sent Betty a check to buy a wedding present $50.00 Chinese so she had us buy two beauteous carved camphor wood chests for $40.10 They are really beauties and I hope they hold up and don't crack like everything made of wood seems to do out here. The dryness of the air does it they say.

I’m writing this while I’m O.D. [Officer of the Day] so I’ll have to stop....

7 April 1937

Dearest Mother:

Once more on guard, and having gotten up before reveille to inspect the sentinels I’ll spend this half hour until reveille to write to you....

Our servants are perfection, especially the cook, who is the best I’ve ever seen, but like all those rascally servants out here they just try to cheat you on every item they buy at market and steal all the food they can. It is a constant battle trying to make them keep expenses anywhere near a sensible level. We’ve enjoyed having a home once more and when you have a good cook there are so many good things to buy and eat out here, game of all kinds and fish and prawns etc. etc.

Colonel and Mrs. Marston arrived day before yesterday and both looked fine....

Spring is coming here and is very pretty with the cherry trees in bloom and green grass coming out of the gray earth. We live about three quarters of a mile from the barracks and I walk to work every morning. I go along the walk on top of the Tartar Wall which runs right behind our house and right behind the Barracks. It’s a pretty walk early in the morning. The wall on top is forty or fifty feet wide with an ancient paved roadway now used for a walk and trees and green grass growing out over the top of the wall, which is not solid stone but stone side walls filled with earth. There are always pigeons flying about and picking up seeds on the ground and you can look out over the Chinese city on one side and the Tartar city on the other with towers and pagodas and whatnot visible over the roof tops of the buildings, and the blue mountains in the distance. 11

I went duck hunting Saturday and had lots of fun, but didn’t get many ducks. This week I hope to go snipe hunting on the rice paddies outside the city. The snipe are migrating now, but last week hadn’t gotten here yet. The reason there is so much game out here I believe is that the Chinese only use old fashioned muzzle loading guns. Even though they hunt all year and have no seasons they still don’t seem to be able to kill much game or diminish the supply appreciably....

The Vandegrifts leave day after tomorrow to return by way of Europe. They have certainly been nice to Betty and me....12

I must stop because its nearly time to go to Reveille....

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