Making the Grade in China, Part 2

I have decided to compile the China posts into a book and then decided to be as inclusive as possible, adding other things I’ve written and published about my life in China in the 1980s. 

When I came back from the Peoples Republic of China in 1984, I had a lot to say. A magazine — the EastWest Journal, long defunct, published my article about teaching in China.

SO — I found the magazine in the garage in a bin and started typing the article into my lap top. Yeah. It was typed on my Smith-Corona back in the day. 

Here’s Part Two. Part 1 can be found here


It is very difficult for a teacher to get a class of Chinese students to participate in class discussion. A Chinese student will seldom volunteer an answer to a question. Chinese teachers prepare seating charts and call on each student, one by one. The Chinese perspective is that if someone voluntarily speaks out in class, he or she is “putting him/herself forward.” This is offensive, not only to Communist ideals but to Confucian ideals. It was not li (the Confusion word for “dignified;” the proper behavior for an educated person) to behave in that way. Confucianism also stressed obedience to teachers. The student so single dout has no choice but to obey the teacher, stand, and give the proper response. Even if the answer is very brilliant, the student is not putting himself about his peers. 

I had seven classes and five of them became comfortable talking. One class actually felt “liberated” by the new system. Their discussions began before I arrived in the classroom. Another class in the same grade (seniors) never spoke unless they had to, but their written work was always excellent. On paper each of them could freely express themselves to only me. The monitor of the class explained, “You will have a hard job getting them to talk. They’ve been silent for four years now.” That was so funny to me and to the class that we all laughed. From then on, I just looked forward to their essays. 

There is Confucian residue in the way students answer questions. Even the Cultural Revolution could not eradicate “old customs” completely. Related to the “not-putting-oneself-forward” theory of learning is what we call plagiarism. How can a simple college student improve upon the thoughts of a famous critic? Chinese academia can resemble the practice of law. Students find the “precedent setting” criticism and then “copy the language.” When I marked the first mid-term I gave the seniors, I discovered that more than half had “used” the language from the book. What wasn’t in the book, they found in the department reading room and copied from a larger critical anthology. I couldn’t flunk everyone, especially since it looked like I was the one out in left field. From then on, I just gave questions no book could help them answer. I gave them examinations that made them answer from their own imaginations, thoughts, understanding.


One great treat for the English teacher in China is that students are familiar with poetry and like it very much. There is little need to do a pitch on the wonders of beautiful language. In fact, English expressions are not beautiful enough for Chinese. They want our language to do what theirs does; they want the beautiful poetic allusion, the two words capturing forever the unwordable moment. They might also like words that resemble objects to bring the beauty home on a visual level. I emphasized poetry with all my classes because poetry takes advantage of all the attributes of words — sound, picture, and meaning. 

Traditionally the most important class in language learning in China is “Intensive Reading” which might more accurately be called “Intensive Dictionary.” Students find the meaning of the “whole” by tearing it apart, using the dictionary to find the literal meaning for each word — echoes of Confucius who said that an educated man could evaluate the whole piece of cloth by looking at a swatch. Intensive reading is a slow, laborious way of reading and between the printed word and the dictionary most of the spirit of the original work is lost. A poem becomes a fractured painting that has been taped back together, with colors missing. 

To combat this, I gave them poems with comprehension questions like, “What color is war?” I wanted to appeal to their intuitions, not their dictionaries. I wanted them to respond to works written in English with more than their knowledge of the alphabet. They read Chinese poetry with all their hearts. I wanted them to learn that English poetry requires the same involvement for its beauty to emerge.

One of my experiments was to have the students write Haiku or five-line stanzas (Tangkas) in English. I showed them how easy it was by explaining the rules and then writing one on the blackboard on a topic they chose. It had been raining for four months so, inevitably, the y told me to write about rain. The tight forms were familiar to them, but they had not known that English words could be used in nearly the same way as Chinese words. They were surprised to learn that Chinese poetic forms had influenced twentieth century English poetry. But, best of all, they wrote beautiful poems. 

I Always Remember
One night, with no stars,
we sat in the unstirred darkness,
heard crickets sing. — Lucy

Oh Love
Oh Love
cried love-bound soul
like the beautiful cloud
tempting, hopeful, fantastic, yet
remote. — Susie

The moon shimmering
on the still lake…a fish stirs
becomes fragments. — Cora

For the first time I
Begin, with fast-beating heart
here lies a poem. — Violet

(Lucy, Susie, Cora and Violet are the English names chosen by my students to use in my class)

Making the Grade in China, Part 1

I have decided to compile the China posts into a book and then decided to be as inclusive as possible, adding other things I’ve written and published about my life in China in the 1980s. 

When I came back from the Peoples Republic of China in 1984, I had a lot to say. A magazine — the EastWest Journal, long defunct, published my article about teaching in China.

SO — I found the magazine in the garage in a bin and started typing the article into my lap top. Yeah. It was typed on my Smith-Corona back in the day. ❤

Here’s Part One.


Originally published in East/West Journal April, 1985

One winter a few years ago my thesis advisor spent two weeks in Beijing and Shanghai. During supper one night he told me wonderful stories about the bleakness, poverty, hardship and gloomy, Victorian architecture of what he called “Dicken’s China.” After talking with him I was very curious to see for myself how China was recovering from the wounds of thirty years of revolution. I sent letters to several Chinese universities applying for a job as a “Foreign Expert” in English. A year later, I received a letter stamped with an exotic registration seal from South China Teachers University in Guangzhou (Canton). They wanted me to come that September. Was I still interested in teaching in China? My boyfriend was less than thrilled so I asked him to marry me and we went together to Guangzhou where we both taught English to Chinese university students. 

Before we left, we tried to prepare ourselves — we had heard stories about isolation and loneliness. In some Chinese cities foreign teachers are prevented from having out-of-class contact with students and colleagues. We had also heard of how foreign teacherswere watched in their movements around their “home town” and restricted to organized outings. 

All of this is a plausible version of life for a foreign teacher in China, but it was not true for us in Guangzhou. We spent nearly every evening of our year with students or Chinese friends and had no restrictions on where we went in the city. At the time we left, faculty colleagues said they thought we had seen parts of the city they hadn’t. 

However, problems did arise with my classroom expectations. China and the United States approach educational theory from totally different perspectives. China is trying to solve an immense, fundamental illiteracy problem. In 1949 approximately nine out of every ten adults could not read or write. China is also trying to give its people a uniform spoken language, Mandarin Chinese. Once the language of the intelligentsia, it is now called Putungwah — People’s Speech. 

With such basic problems to overcome in educating its vast population, China’s first solution is the training of teachers. Our university prepared teachers in the “key” disciplines — physics, mathematics, politics, physical education and foreign languages, primarily English and Japanese. China believes that English will propel the nation into the twentieth century. What they are doing would probably make perfect sense to anyone; it is how theyare doing it that may be difficult for an American teacher to understand. China’s education needs demand an education assembly line. 

After getting out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to the sounds of marching music and a Beijing accent counting, “yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, chi, BA,” over the loudspeaker, providing a beat for morning esercises, students eat a simple breakfast of baozi (steamed bread) and tea. Then they go to their classroom where they share a backless bench with a comrade. Standing outside a classroom while a Chinese teacher conducts an English class, you hear sixty voices repeating in unison —a modern version of the eighteenth century “blab” schools where attentiveness was measured by the level of noise. This process is refined in the language labs which are beginning to appear throughout China as a technological relief for the ears.

Like their American counterparts, for most Chinese today college and university are routes to a decent job. In China jobs are assigned, usually for life. My students knew that most of them would probably become middle school teachers. Their response to this fate was often like that of a trained ballerina told that she would spend the rest of her life trampling grapes.

Students work for grades because their job assignments, good or bad, depend largely on their marks — and their Marx. Teaching is considered the crux of China’s moderniztion process and central to this is the education of the peasants in the interior regions of China. No one wants to live in rural China where living conditions are very hard, food is poor and scarce, fuel is hard to find and the pay is very bad. Good grades help insure a good assignment, as does a good reputation for correctness in behavior and attitude. All of the American literature and analysisof poetry I gave my students had little relevance to their futures. I knew it, too, but once in a while a student would tell me, “We don’t really need literature. The “Heads” make us study it. We won’t use it as middle school teachers.” The best assignments were positions as young teachers at the various colleges in the province, ideally in Guangzhou. Next best, a local middle school, next best, to return to one’s home town to teach; last, a job in the countryside.

When the time for final English assignments (called theses) came at the end of the year, the tension in the senior class was palpable. I let them off early because I expected to have many theses to mark, and I knew what work the students had left to do. Many were finding alternatives to the middle school job. Some were hoping to remain at South China Teacher’s University as “young teachers.” When it was all over and the students prepared to disperse to their various exiles, one girl came to our apartment for a talk. “There is the end of my wonderful literature,” she said. She had been assigned to our university as a young teacher, and she wanted to accept the assignment, but her mother insisted she return to her home town. She had found her daughter a job translating and the government had approved it. 


Wow! I forgot how tiring it was to type from copy — but I only have one page of three columns left. More to follow!

Leaving China and Finding Pearl S. Buck

When our contract had expired, and we were not renewing it, we had to go home. My ex was glad. I was not. I wish I had had the wisdom I have now and had said, “It’s OK, sweet cheeks. We were only in this for a year. File divorce papers when you get back there.” I didn’t do that. I don’t know why, but I went home, too.

Our journey home was in two stages. On the first (because of Chinese custom and good manners) we were accompanied by our former watcher and now my adopted Chinese brother, Xiao Huang. The Heads apologized that they could not come to see us off, but they were very busy and it was expensive. We got to ride in the fancy car, the Hong Chi (Red Flag) to the airport in Guangzhou where we got on our last Aeroflot to Shanghai. The university put us up in Shanghai’s best hotel, a gorgeous art-deco building with all original furniture. Xiao Huang had never experienced anything like that and felt, I think, a little strange. He was also unsure how he would manage to take care of us in a strange city. He had no idea what our abilities were.

We had one day in Shanghai to sight-see. The first thing I did was buy a map in the hotel gift/book shop. The map was in Chinese, but I was used to that after a year. We met Xiao Huang at breakfast the next morning, and he expressed his concern. “How will be get around, Ma Sa? I don’t know this city.”

I pulled out the map and my Fodor’s and said, “No problem.”

“How can you read this map?” Xiao Huang asked, amazed.

“It’s pretty easy. We’re here,” I marked the spot on the map where our hotel was. “And there are many things to see around here.” I showed him the guide book. Ultimately, we showed Xiao Huang around Shanghai.

I cannot “speak” to the changes in Shanghai since 1983. I saw only a small part of this interesting city. I learned more about it after I got back to the United States than I knew when I was there. We did visit the Yu Garden which had been carefully restored in the section of Shanghai that would later be a kind of “old town” for tourists. We bought an abacus that we watched two men make in a shop across the street.

The next morning, Xiao Huang’s big job arrived and that was getting us to the airport and on the plane. China was always changing its rules (to make money) and we’d been told we had a weight limit on our luggage. So we carefully packed, leaving things behind. We each had a footlocker and a backpack as well as the Chinese carpet. When we got to the airport, we were told it wasn’t about weight any more since the plane was almost empty. It was about pieces and we were about to be charged a horrific amount of money for having too many pieces of luggage.

There was a solution. Giant string bags. We bought two, big enough to hold each of our footlockers and backpacks and the rug went in my string bag. Seriously. These string bags could hold four people. Ha. We each had one piece of luggage.

We said goodbye to Xiao Huang, who desperately wanted to come to America, a scheme I was determined to work out for him (I did). I cried. I felt like my heart was being pulled out of my chest as I boarded the brand new 747. My ex was happy.

The plane had only eleven passengers. Imagine! We stretched out on the leather seats, slept (and wept) across the Pacific and woke up in San Francisco.

As I’ve written these posts about my life in China I have learned a lot about how China changed me. Some of these posts have made me cry nostalgic tears, others tears of regret. How one could love a place that is so alien and so absolutely in contradiction to ones philosophical beliefs is still amazing to me. I was homesick for China for at least five years after my return. I recognized how little I knew about the place I had been and immersed myself in Chinese history and, most wonderful, Chinese fiction.

Dr. Richardson, my thesis advisor, who’d asked me why I wanted to go to “Dicken’s China” had returned himself because my letters to him from China were so enthusiastic. His second visit was much better. He suggested I write a book about Pearl S. Buck. He had no idea what direction I could take, but I soon found her perception of herself as a writer in the Chinese tradition, not the American tradition. That was interesting (still is).

I haunted the San Diego library and used bookstores and bought and checked out everything written by her. I had friends in China send me books written by Pearl Buck’s peers. I actually did write this book. The project led me to larceny, too. I stole Pearl S. Bucks Nobel Prize speech from the San Diego Library. I justified my theft by the fact that the book had not been checked out in twenty years and it meant something to me.

I even went to see her house in Pennsylvania. From her office, she could look out on a Chinese garden she had built. Faded Chinese carpets covered the floor. Pearl Buck missed China all her life.

I did not know then that her house was only a few miles from my ancestors’ homestead. I knew nothing then about the Schneebelis. I had not been to Zürich or to Italy. I had not taught very much yet. I was still on the edge of the nest, flapping my wings. If I had not come home from China, other precious things in my life and treasures in my memory would not exist now.

Goethe wrote in the prologue to Faust, Part I, that life is a labyrinth of error. (Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf) It was a metaphor that he used often. Nothing I’ve read has resounded so clearly with me as that line.

P.S. Thanks for reading all these stories. It’s been an intense experience writing them. ❤

Stopping Traffic

We’d been told that people would stare at us in China. I expected people to really notice my tall, blue-eyed ex, but no one told me I would stop traffic.

It happened a lot. In Guangzhou, where there was only a handful of non-Asian foreigners, I expected it. The most notable moment came as my ex and I were attempting to get off Bus 22 to change to a tram. As we headed to the back door of the double bus, the doors opened. It was incredibly annoying that people getting on the bus NEVER waited for people to get off the bus. “Personal space” was a non-existent element in Chinese society. People pushed and shoved all the time and we were finally prepared to fight our way off any bus we were on. But that day…

Usually it was a stream of people getting on and a stream of people getting off and we just maneuvered through this like streams converging or diverging or waves or something. But one day an old woman from the countryside happened to look up and see me. She saw my eyes.

OK, I was younger and my hair was reddish brown, but you can still maybe get the idea that they are pea-soup green. The old woman stopped, pointed, yelled, in Cantonese, “Like a cat!” She looked frightened and froze where she stood.

My ex was outside the bus and I was in and the bus driver closed the door. SO… I got off at the next stop and walked back.

The funniest was in Shanghai. In our ONE day there I managed to create a disturbance that attracted the police. We were walking in a neighborhood. The day was sweltering hot. No sane Shanghainese was going to stay in a tiny, dark, airless apartment. They had all pulled out their folding chairs, set up their charcoal stoves for tea and dinner, sat in the comparative cool (compared to Hell) fanning themselves, talking, laughing, spitting, cooking living life on the sidewalk and into the street, leaving a lane for bicycles. As we walked by, someone noticed my eyes. I heard it again, this time in Shanghainese, “Like a cat!” EVERYONE stood up and came over to look at me. Traffic couldn’t move through the intersection.

The cops broke up the “riot” and told us to move along. We went back to our hotel, surprised that in Shanghai, which was once a very cosmopolitan city, and even then had far more foreigners than did Guangzhou, that no one seemed to have seen green eyes before.

Which makes me think of racism. I had some negative experiences, too, in China. After I got used to the idea that I wasn’t completely human in the minds of most of the people I met or saw on the street, I didn’t care any more. It wasn’t my “white privilege;” it was just the realization that I was a very unusual sight. There were times when we were pushed, shoved, called names. One night rocks were thrown at us as we waited for a tram. Lots of things happened that said, “Yankee, go home.” I had paperwork that said I was Chinese and I had a job, in case anything happened, I had a legal identity. There was nothing I could do about my appearance or the fact that, for some Chinese, the devil has my coloring. “Gingers” don’t get a very good rap in any culture and it’s only slightly better for little white-haired ladies. 🙂

Hainan Island, Part One, the Journey

Haikou City. Posters for sale, used for decorating the house for New Years

The most remote and exotic phrase of my growing up years was “The Gulf of Tonkin.” It was also a little scary. I grew up during the Cold War and during the Vietnam “Conflict.” The way Huntley and Brinkley said, “Gulf of Tonkin” was enough to send chills up anyone’s spine. But…

There I was. I’ve always studied geography on a “need to know basis,” when place names and boundaries had some kind of context for me, so there I was, looking at a map and seeing that very soon I’d be near the Gulf of Tonkin on my way to Hainan Island for Spring Festival aka Chinese New Year at my friend’s ancestral village, Fu Family Village, All Beauty.

To get there, we took a ship down the Pearl River, through the estuary at the mouth leading into the South China Sea.

Permission to visit Hainan was hard to get, but because we were going with close friends who’d invited us and I could speak Mandarin, the provincial government gave us the OK. Because we were traveling with Chinese and had Chinese ID cards, we were ipso facto Chinese. We bunked in the bottom of the boat with the other Chinese passengers. A foreign expert in French — from Switzerland — was traveling in one of the upper deck cabins as a foreigner. It was a hard night, with a neon light shining in my face on the upper bunk, but so what? It was a real adventure.

The Old Mother, with whom we traveled, was criticized by some other passengers for traveling with foreigners. She just replied that we weren’t foreigners. Jim was her son and we’d just been studying in America for a long time. It was her way of saying, “Shut up,” but it also made the point that we were her family. ❤ In China, you don’t mess with a person’s family.

From Guangzhou to Haikou

The ship crossed the South China Sea overnight and when the next afternoon came we were in Hainan’s major city of Haikou — Sea Mouth. It was a bustling, dirty, confused and confusing city with the most filthy toilet I’ve ever seen in my life. “What can you do with countryside people?” said my friend, Zhu.

Second leg of the journey, Haikou to Wengchang…

Travel in rural China in those days was nothing like it is now. It was a system of pre-arranged hitchhiking and luck. I had not understood the numerous cartons of cigarettes and cans of pineapple that we traveled with, but as soon as we started our journey, I understood. Guangxi, payment/bribes.

The first night we were supposed to stay with friends of my friends, but they had consulted the I-Ching and it had told them that entertaining strangers at this time “would not further” so they turned us away, with ferocity, apologies and the banging of a drum. We’d hitched (paying for our rides with cigarettes) a few miles out of Haikou.

“Superstition. I’m sorry Jim and Martha,” said our friends. I was bewildered. It took some study once I had returned to the US to understand what had happened. My friend had another possible sleeping place in mind and we went to the house of her old high school teacher. “Sure,” she said. It happened the dormitories — faculty dormitories — were largely empty, too, so we bunked up in some unknown teacher’s room.

That’s when my difficulties began.

I was seasick.

Seasickness happens to some people when they’re in motion. Mine hit me when the ship had docked. I learned later — when we’d arrived at our destination, a village of fishermen — that my nausea and vertigo, constant “companions” when I was on Hainan — were common. They joked, “You need to get on another boat!” I was sick the whole week I was on Hainan but, thanks to my great doctor in Denver (who’d removed my appendix the preceding July) I had anti-nausea suppositories.

I could write an entire post on toilets in China and seven-eighths of that would be toilets on Hainan. It’s enough to say that we went back in time from late 20th century Chinese toilets (Guangzhou). Our first night in Hainan, at the high school outside of Haikou, we had the toilet equivalent of Roman times. From there we descended to early human history in the village of All Beauty. And now, I will do as my grandfather and “draw a veil of silence” over the subject.

The next day we were back on the road. We stood beside the “highway” with our stash of cigarettes and canned goods and waited for a van that was supposed to pick us up. The van came, we got in and had a ride to our first destination, the town of Wenchang. There we would (hopefully) get a ride to the village of All Beauty. But no one was certain about that.

Today Wenchang is a city, and it is also the location from which the Chinese have launched rockets carrying satellites. In 1983, my friends and I stood beside the main road with our luggage and our guangxi, hoping for a ride to the next place. After a while, I understood that the rides came through a system I dubbed “the brother-in-law” system. A person gave us a ride and told a family member about our needing another ride. There were no phones. There was no form of communication except direct speech between classmates and family members, something like, “Foreigners with cigarettes and pineapple will be waiting beside the main road outside Wenchang. They need a ride to All Beauty. They have permission so it’s all-right.”

Hainan was an American outpost during the Anti-Japanese war, but it was very rare for any Hainanese to see white people. Most of the foreigners in their experience had been Asian. There we were, my tall, bearded, blue-eyed husband and me, reddish brown hair and green eyes, with our two young Chinese friends and the indomitable Old Mother. We were an attraction.

Old women came up to us and looked us. Some tried to rub the freckles from my arms with spit and pressure. Others stared into my green eyes. Others touched Jim’s beard. My friends were embarrassed and angered by this, but it was OK with me. I was in China. I felt all the curiosity these villagers were displaying. My friend Zhu yelled at them to go away, but I said, “It’s OK. I don’t mind.”

“You should mind,” she said. “They’re ignorant, superstitious people.”

“Yeah but they’ll be less ignorant when they finish examining us,” I thought. I understood by then that, for some people, our very humanity was suspect. This was beyond curiosity. This was international relations.

Then came one of the most profoundly beautiful moments of my time in China, of my life. A young man — maybe 18 — came up to us. His face was shaking in nervousness. He gently made his way through the crowd of black-clad grandmothers. He looked at Jim then looked at me.

“Are you Americans?” he asked in English.

Everyone in the crowd looked at him in total surprise.

“Yes,” I said.

He looked at me in joyful astonishment. His nervousness vanished. He smiled. His eyes sparkled.

“Where did you learn English?” I asked.

“I listen to Voice of America. Welcome to my country!” he took my hand and shook it, then Jim’s hand before he turned and walked away, a spring in his step. I am sure he had never tried out his English before and was thrilled to learn that it actually WORKED.

To be continued…

Subversive English Teacher?

Out of the thousands of slides my ex and I took while we were in China, only about 400 remain, and out of those, 300 were scannable. As I went through them, doing the tedious mechanical business of trying to get them centered in the frame, then uploaded, then (somewhat) refined with the photo software on my lap top, I expected to have a more intense emotional reaction. My year as a Foreign Expert in English was the experience of a lifetime. But I often thought, looking at a scene, “There are better photos of that on the Internet.”

In 1983, photos of the Forbidden City were unusual. Now?

In 1989 I was living in San Diego. When there were protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and people were killed, my Aunt Martha called me from Denver and said, “Are you happy with what you’ve done?” I laughed, but soon I realized she wasn’t kidding. I could imagine her all in a lather, her right forefinger raised in the air, prepared to deliver one of her incomparable stentorian remonstrances.

“I just taught English, Aunt Martha.”

“But look at what’s happening in Peking!!! You should have left China alone!”

I loved my aunt for thinking the little person that I am had that kind of power.

I thought of my little anthology of American literature and its possibilities as a subversive text. I thought of arguments I’d had with graduate students over the individualism (selfishness) expressed Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” I thought of the city-wide lecture I’d given on the lost generation. “We’re a lost generation, teacher,” said one of my graduate students. “All of us.” When I asked them what they meant they explained that they were going to university only to have to return to their villages. Neither they nor I could know that by the time they were my age NOW (they were my age then) China would have launched stuff into space or that Guangzhou would have hosted the Asian Games. Their villages (most were in Guangdong) would be filled with skyscrapers. Electricity wouldn’t be “iffy” there would be consumer goods for everyone. None of them knew that some would come to America to live forever. Others would come to study and they would return to China. They couldn’t know that their one child would probably study abroad.

While my Aunt Martha overestimated the power of my classroom lectures, she was right in a way. During Mao’s “reign” China remained closed. When it opened to more foreigners, China changed and could never go back. That the young people took to the streets to protest China’s economic policies, only to learn that the iron fist remained clenched, was sad, but, to me, not surprising. Neither Rome nor Modern China could be built in a day.

Last night I woke up realizing that the slides are just a “shard” of a huge adventure that isn’t bound by time and that in a very small way, I became part of the history of China, far more than I am a part of the history of my own country.


* The featured photo is a shard of Anasazi pottery a friend of mine picked up near her home in Arizona. She left it for me, a small gift. I found it on my desk at San Diego State atop a stack of papers-to-grade. Once upon a time, this shard was a shallow bowl, I think, from the way the painted surface is concave and the top edge is finished. Someone took a lot of time to dig the clay, prepare the clay, mold the pot, grind the pigment and paint it onto the surface before firing it.

Thoughts on Totalitarianism (and Chairman Mao)

“Our Party enjoys the greatest prestige, unshakable prestige, among the people. Our Party represents the highest interests of the proletariat and the broad masses of the working people, and its relationship with the masses of the people is, as Chairman Mao says, like that between fish and Water.”

The Great Socialist Cultural Revolution

This little book came to me on Christmas Eve, 1982, slid under my door with a Christmas card and an assortment of Mao Buttons. It was not signed but I knew where it came from. It was a gift from Teacher Hu, a high school English teacher in the nearby village of Liede, a man from Hainan Island who was a good friend and former teacher of my best two Chinese friends. He was also the man to whom I had given my Bible. You can read that story here, and if you have enjoyed my stories of China, I think you would enjoy that post. I had invited him and his wife to our Christmas Eve party, but I did not expect him to come. What had happened between us was certainly not as secret as we imagined it had been.

Most Americans should be grateful that they have never lived under a totalitarian regime. I have, and while the iron fist of the Party never came down on me, I knew plenty of people who had suffered from it. Even during my year in China, there were students who were consistently being pulled out of class or denied privileges and sent to extra “political study.”

Every Thursday there was college-wide political study which meant Jim and I had the afternoon off. If anything came up during that meeting, we would learn about it one way or the other. There was the moment when a Chinese tennis player, Hu Na, defected to the US, and for a week our students and friends were forbidden to talk to us.

Mr. Hu had served with the US Army on Hainan Island during the war against the Japanese. He became an interpreter because of his linguistic abilities. He was one of the few people I met in China who spoke English with an American accent. His having contact with Americans led to him being imprisoned in a Tiger Pit for several years during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. His wife was similarly imprisoned and, at some point during this nightmare, she killed herself.

Many people killed themselves during the Cultural Revolution, so many that people I met who were older than I by at least ten years frequently spoke of someone who had “gotten the suicide” the way you might get a cold.

Generally speaking, the Cultural Revolution was, “… a sociopolitical movement in China from 1966 until 1976.” And it sounded great, but, in real life it was a trap for squelching any remaining dissent on the part of the Chinese people.

Mao was a true hero. During WW II his leadership did a great deal to defeat the Japanese, far more than did the leadership of President Chiang Kai Shek and the Republican army with whom the US had allied. Mao understood the people, was one of the people, and still embodied many of the “virtues” people expected in an dictator, oops, leader. For one thing, he could write poetry. IMO it’s not great, but it’s legit. “Snow” is his most famous poem.

North country scene: 
A hundred leagues locked in ice, 
A thousand leagues of whirling snow. 
Both sides of the Great Wall 
One single white immensity. 
The Yellow River’s swift current 
Is stilled from end to end. 
The mountains dance like silver snakes 
And the highlands* charge like wax-hued elephants, 
Vying with heaven in stature. 
On a fine day, the land, 
Clad in white, adorned in red, 
Grows more enchanting.

This land so rich in beauty 
Has made countless heroes bow in homage. 
But alas! Chin Shih-huang and Han Wu-ti 
Were lacking in literary grace, 
And Tang Tai-tsung and Sung Tai-tsu 
Had little poetry in their souls; 
And Genghis Khan, 
Proud Son of Heaven for a day, 
Knew only shooting eagles, bow outstretched 
All are past and gone! 
For truly great men 
Look to this age alone. 

If the subject of Mao, Chiang Kai Shek and the US in WW II interests you, Barbara Tuchman wrote a great book about that moment in Chinese history in Stillwell and the American Experience in China.

After the war — both the Anti-Japanese war and the civil war against the Nationalist forces, with Chiang Kai Shek gone to Taiwan, Mao had to consolidate his power. To my knowledge, he didn’t have any problem doing this, but then, how would I know? He started up various movements. At first he followed the Soviet idea of Five-year Plans. The first was successful, so he came up with his own. There was the movement to eradicate sparrows (they eat grain, you know) which led to famine (imagine!). In 1957 he came up with the Thousand Flowers Movement with its beautiful slogan, “Let a thousand flowers bloom, a hundred thoughts contend.” Some historians now think it was a ploy to trap dissidents. I tend to agree.

In 1958 he began “The Great Leap Forward,” (website with a good description and amazing posters) described to me by Chinese colleagues as, “When we all made steel in our backyard.” This was also the moment in which villages were converted to communes, and in cities, factories and neighborhoods were divided into “work units” which facilitated spying on your neighbor and reporting back to the cadres via China’s ubiquitous gossip system. Mao’s last desperate attempt to retain total power was The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution which lasted from 1966 to 1976.

I’m not an expert on the Cultural Revolution, but what I do know is that it fostered ignorance, led to the persecution of intellectuals, anyone who’d traveled abroad — especially to America, anyone who spoke English, and, of course, anyone who criticized the government. It was a youth movement that seems to have harnessed the zeitgeist, “youth is truth,” that was happening all over the world. It was taught that the only knowledge anyone needed was in the Little Red Book — the Thoughts of Chairman Mao.

It’s superficial objective was the elimination of the “Four Olds” — old ideas, old habits, old customs, old culture. Essentially, everything about China before that particular moment in Chinese history. In some ways it reminds me of the Protestant Reformation (and the Roman Catholic counter-reformation), down to the destruction of icons and the execution of dissenters.

Propaganda was disseminated in every possible way — big character posters, loudspeakers on trucks and the commercial media as well as in the classroom. When I first studied Chinese I learned to say to my students, “Ni hao tóngzhìmen” or “hello comrades.” Later I was told to say “tongxuemen” or students. I never said either. I spoke to my students in English. 😉

Many of China’s great writers and artists — patriotic Chinese — were imprisoned, forced to write confessions, hounded publicly, driven to suicide or killed outright. Among them was Lao She, a writer I happen to love. His love of China shines in every word he wrote (and I’ve read everything that’s been translated to English). One of his novels, Camel Xiangtse, was translated to English soon after it came out in the late 1930s. It became a bestseller. It’s known as Rickshaw Boy.

All translations published in China. “Teahouse” is a beautiful play that tells the story on an old-fashioned Chinese story-teller amid the rapid changes in Chinese society in the early/mid 20th century.

It’s true that Lao She criticized Communism in his satirical, science fiction novel, Cat Country (the word for cat in Chinese is “mao”) that gently points out the problems of “Everybody Shareskyism” and its intrinsic conflict with traditional Chinese Culture, and he never joined the Party, but, at the same time, he frequently expressed support for Mao and the actions of the Chinese Communist Party.

For a short time Lao She lived in America. His friend, Pearl S. Buck, brought him over for his own safety. He was never at home anywhere but Beijing, so he returned. Perhaps his having lived in America is part of the reason for his treatment during the height of the Cultural Revolution. A good article about what happened to Lao She is here in the South China Morning Post, “The Mystery of Lao She.”

For a while the Chinese were aware that things had gone awry with their revolution, but until Chairman Mao died, they couldn’t do anything about it. With such a heroic figure in power, who was going to do anything? Mao dies, the Gang of Four powerful party leaders, including Mao’s wife, were accused of crimes against the state (were they guilty? were they scapegoats? I don’t know) Deng Xiao Ping rose to power, Nixon came to call, and it was time for China to rebuild itself.

The most wonderful letter I have ever received. ❤

What I learned about totalitarianism in endless conversations with people during my year in China is that:

  • the people must support it;
  • it cannot co-exist with critical thought;
  • it requires a cult of personality, someone with the larger-than-life image of Chairman Mao;
  • the media must be controlled and free expression of ideas must be suppressed;
  • knowledge is the enemy of totalitarianism;
  • the language of totalitarianism relies on hyperbole and absolutes such as “the greatest” and “the only;”
  • repetition, repetition, repetition, slogans and proverbs serve the ends of totalitarianism;
  • totalitarianism is attractive to desperate people who are looking for a fast solution to their problems.

I also came to understand that communism is not totalitarianism; that is just the only model recent history has offered us.

Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Chairman Mao on the Side of a Building in Haikou City on Hainan Island

Very little of Chairman Mao remained in “my” China. There was only one random Mao picture. It was on a remote and then very poor part of China, Hainan Island.

Hainan is now a developed luxurious place for tourists.

The Great Wall of China

A few weeks ago I read one of those click-bait teasers “The Ten Top Over-Rated Tourist Traps in the World.” On top of the list was The Great Wall of China. Tourist “trap”? Not hardly, yet…

“Every year, more than 10 million people flock to the Great Wall of China, making it one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions. In 2013, 10,720,000 tourists visited the Badaling and Mutianyu areas of the wall.”

I looked through the slide show and saw tourists packed onto the top of the Great Wall at Badaling, and I thought, not for the first time, “I was lucky to be in China when I was.”

Not my Great Wall

To get to the Great Wall in 1983, you had to go to the Summer Palace to buy Tickets. My friend Zhou took us to buy the tickets and told us where to go to catch the tourist bus. Other than us, the tourists were all Chinese. It was an inclusive tour of the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs. The bus wandered up into the mountains around Beijing. We parked and followed the others up to the Wall. The tour was in Chinese but I had my (now ancient) Fodors and we had all read up.

The Great Wall of China is one of those things people put on their bucket lists. China taught me that my life’s wonderful experiences might not be famous monuments.

But later…

I returned “home” from China wondering where in the world I had been. I really didn’t know.

The building of the Great Wall under the evil first emperor, Qin Shi Huang — was an enormous hardship on the people of China. It was begun in 200 BCE and added to over the centuries, but, ultimately it didn’t work. Some dynasties — such as the Tang — did not add to the wall but attempted to use diplomacy and warfare to keep invaders at bay. Most of today’s Great Wall was built by the last Han Chinese dynasty, the Ming. The last dynasty — which lasted for nearly 300 years — was the Qing dynasty. The Qing were Manchurians, the very people the wall was built to keep out.

Two of China’s most renowned Tang Dynasty (618–907) poets — Li Bai and Tu Fu (8th century CE) — were sometimes exiled to the frontier. Li Bai wrote this poem about fighting at the Great Wall.

The Huns have no trade but battle and carnage; 
They have no fields or ploughlands, 
But only wastes where white bones lie among yellow sands. 
Where the House of Qin built the great wall that was to keep away the Tartars, 
There, in its turn, the House of Han lit beacons of war. 
The beacons are always alight, fighting and marching never stop. 

Men die in the field, slashing sword to sword; 
The horses of the conquered neigh piteously to Heaven. 
Crows and hawks peck for human guts, 
Carry them in their beaks and hang them on the branches of withered trees. 
Captains and soldiers are smeared on the bushes and grass; 
The General schemed in vain.

Tu Fu wrote this about fighting in the deserts of the far western frontier, on the Tibetan/Mongolian plateau:

My lord, have you never been to the ends of Qinghai, 
Where none come to gather bleached bones long dead, 
And the fresh spirits fret, and the old spirits weep, 
And the dark rain is full of their twittering cries?

When I stood on the Great Wall with a bunch of people taking pictures, I just felt numb. It wasn’t until I came home and began to learn where I had been that the Great Wall meant anything to me.

Salaam Aleikum

Among our friends in China were Muslims. Some were Hui Mulims — Han Chinese Mulims — and some were Turkic Muslims from the province of Sinkiang. We spent a lot of time with these people, and it opened a world to us we would not have otherwise seen. I wish I had more photos of that REAL world, but I have what I have.

In the center of the city there was even a Muslim restaurant, the only place in the city where you could be sure to get food that had no pork. The food was delicious — lamb, mostly, but also goat and beef. It also meant the pastries were made with butter not lard. Since baked goods in China were very, very rare, and it was a little hard to swallow (ha, ha, I’m so funny) when they tasted like your mom’s Sunday pork roast, pastries from the stand outside the Muslim restaurant were a treat.

The restaurant had two floors. The top floor was an old bath house and the tables were set up in the shallow green and white tiled tubs that had once been a place for people to soak off the day’s worry. We ate there often. It was always fun.

It was in this restaurant I learned my first words of Arabic which were useful later when I taught students from Saudi Arabia. It was the gathering place for migrant workers and traders from the remote Muslim provinces of China, way out there on the Old Silk Road. One afternoon, after I’d been in China ten months or so, and was used to seeing only Chinese faces, Chinese coloring, I was stunned by the bright green eyes of a Uigur man sitting on the steps of the restaurant. I did what so many Chinese had done to me. I stopped and stared. He grinned, laughed, and pointed at my eyes. I’m sure I blushed, and we both laughed.

One of our students, Ali, was from Sinkiang and he really liked Jim. Ali felt he had more in common with us than with the Han Chinese all around him. From a Muslim perspective the Chinese were dirty. One of the things Ali objected to most strenuously was the way the Chinese would set the well bucket on the ground. “Never do that. The ground is unclean, unclean.” You have to understand that we all were living in a world with wells. Not so much in the city, but definitely in the countryside. He objected to the way the Chinese would spit anywhere. He passionately objected to pork which was kind of a problem with some pig dying publicly every day and all number of pigs wandering the streets of our village.

Ali took us to see the mosque in Guangzhou. It is very old place, though the mosque has been rebuilt several times because of fires. It is famous for the “smooth pagoda” — the single minaret that rises above the Chinese style building and served as a lighthouse when the Pearl River Delta was not as built up with silt as it has been for a long time. It has been rebuilt twice, again because of fire.

At that time, religion was regarded as superstition and the mosque was a tourist attraction as much as a religious place, so there was someone selling tickets to get in, a young Hui Muslim girl. At first she did not want to let Jim and me in, but Ali explained that we were Christians and Christians are followers of Moses and are, therefore, Muslim.

The mosque was a beautiful mixture of Chinese and Arabic aesthetics. It was serene and lovely, a quiet, clean and beautiful island in a crazy, noisy city of bicycle bells, truck horns blaring, people yelling, and endless construction. From that day, a little part of me has been Muslim.

There are legends that one of the earliest Mulim evangelists came to Guangzhou in the 7th century.

“Old Chinese Muslim  manuscripts say the mosque was built in ad 627 by Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas who supposedly came on his first Muslim mission to China in the 620s…” (Wikipedia) 

Personally, I believe the legend. An old Chinese Muslim manuscript has a lot of credibility to me. One of the most beautiful places in Guangzhou was the tomb of Said Waqqas. I read just now that the tomb now welcomes “hordes of visitors” but when I was there, it was little known except among local Muslims. There were two people taking care of it on the day of our visit. They showed us everything — far more than we could understand.

It was there that I first saw and smelled plumeria blossoms, Ji Dan Hua — Chicken Egg Flowers — they were called, white with yellow centers like chicken eggs. For more than a decade I did not know what they were called in English, but in San Diego I searched everywhere for them. There were many things I encountered in China and knew only in Chinese.

Below is the most beautiful photo I took during my entire year in the People’s Republic of China. Unfortunately, it was taken with Ektachrome which I have learned in this process of scanning slides doesn’t hold up to the vagaries of time, and shifts radically to the blue end of the spectrum. When I first saw it, I was disappointed and a little angry at my ex for loading his camera with experimental film. While I wish I could see the scene again, the whole image is in my memory anyway.

The big white area in front of the woman is a floor covered with fragrant Ji Dan Hua, drying in the sunlight. She’s walking carefully, putting one foot in front of the other so as not to step on a single blossom.

In case you don’t know the flower, here’s a photo.

Ji Dan Hua

One Child Policy

In Guangzhou, I was rich. I earned as much as Deng Xiao Ping, $100 US/month or 500 RMB. It was more than we could spend. We sent Jim’s income home every month to put in the bank against our return.

Our first journey to the bank in Guangzhou was a life-time disturbing adventure. Guangzhou was a few miles from our village of Shipai. When we’d lived in China for a couple of months, and the Heads of our university knew us, and the City gave permission, we went alone, just road our bikes, took the bus, or sometimes came home in a taxi. But in the first month or two of our arrival, until we got permission to buy bicycles (or if our visit were something official) the college arranged a car. It could be a “Mien Bao” (Loaf of Bread) meaning a Toyota van, or a big, black Hong Chi (Red Flag). China made cars back then, not many, and mostly “lorries,” the big Jei Fang (Liberation) trucks. Going to the bank was a big deal. We road in the back of a Hong Chi like diplomats. The car would drop us off near the bank, then take the university Official who was in the front seat to his meeting, and we were supposed to find our way home.

Hong Chi in a museum in Shanghai

The only bank that could send our money to America was on a former business street near Shamian Island. Shamian Island, an island in the Pearl River across a narrow channel from Guangzhou, was once the area to which foreigners were relegated. The main pre-war businesses and banks were along this strand, including this bank, the People’s Bank of China, a tired, smoke-stained, dilapidated Victorian edifice. It was our only journey there. Afterwards, it was simpler to send money home. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but I never saw that bank again.

The car stopped. The “head” with whom we’d shared the ride said something to Xiao Huang, our “watcher” who became my adopted brother. Xiao Huang answered, “Good, good,” in Cantonese and we were off.

Guangzhou had a vibrant, crowded street life, but the streets around the bank were uncharacteristically empty. Today, in my mind’s eye, I think of a solitary dried leaf stopped by a curb on a deserted street. Xiao Huang led us through a hot tangle of paved roads and smoke-stained, Western-style buildings. We turned a corner to find two men, two bicycles and a baby on a largely empty street.

“Come on,” said Xiao Huang, hurrying us.

The older of the two men ran after us and grabbed my arm. He said, in English, “Come with me. I want to show you something.” I had only been in China a month or I would have found that strange, but English was still the most normal language for me to hear anywhere.

“Why?” I asked the old man.

“Come on,” said Xiao Huang.

But I turned and followed the man. A younger man — obviously his son — held a baby on the seat of the bicycle. “You buy?” he asked me.

I argued the ethics of this with him, absurdly, but I could not begin to wrap my head around it.

I still can’t.

“Come on,” said Xiao Huang.

The baby was “marketed” as a boy, but I am sure it was a little girl. The one-child policy was active at the time and strictly enforced, especially in cities.

We turned away and went to the bank. The front door, once elegant polished brass swinging over a mosaic tile floor, was tarnished and dented. The mosaic was broken and dirty. It was nearly impossible to discern the design. There were dim florescent lights hanging from wires above the tellers’ counter. We went to the window Xiao Huang identified as “Foreign Exchange” and, with an abacus, the old man behind the counter told us what our Yuan were worth in American dollars. One hundred Yuan went to my friend to deposit into the First National Bank in Denver. I could not transfer directly to a bank. There was not yet that level of diplomatic relations between the US and the PRC. It would happen while I lived there, but that day, it did not exist.

We were given little pieces of printed rice paper with numbers and Chinese characters. “Don’t throw that away. You will need it when you leave China to prove you earned this money,” said Xiao Huang. You NEVER threw out tiny pieces of printed rice paper. When we left China, we had a drawer filled with them.


The featured photo is a truck with loudspeakers that went through town telling people about the one-child policy, arguing for its importance, advertising where birth control was available, and warning about the consequences. The announcements were made in the favorite female voice in Canton, high-pitched and shrill to American ears.

Back in the USA, a few years later, still homesick for China, I saw a man at the post office in San Diego. I knew he was Chinese. I spoke to him. He was a World Health Organization doctor from Nanjing who was studying at UCSD. It turned out he lived near us, at the Marsten House on the north end of Balboa Park. He was attending school and caring for old Mr. Marsten. We got to be good friends. His mission — besides his course of study, which was oncology — was finding homes for abandoned Chinese girl babies. His hospital in Nanjing took them in and tried to place them with foreigners. He explained that those girls were the lucky ones. The practice of killing infant girl children was old in China. Only boys carried the clan name and girls were mouths to feed, members of some future family.

Female infanticide was one of the customs that progressive Chinese in the early 20th century had fought. Maoism was opposed to it, also, and regarded the female worker as the equal of the male worker. One of the “olds” Maoism sought to eradicate was the family system “old culture,” but the one-child policy brought it back. China paid a price for it — still is — when all the male children reached marriageable age and had no one to marry.

CNA Insider These are the ‘leftover men’ of China, who just want to get married