Everyone who encounters China comes with their own preconceptions; although my generation, which came to its political and geographical consciousness at the time of the Korean War, hearing reports of waves of Chinese soldiers charging at the American troops, and reading even in the comic strips such as Steve Canyon, of Chinese pilots in MIG-15’s yelling “Yankee dog, you die!” as they fired at Steve and his American Sabre jet.
It was around that time, in the 1950s when things like the “Great Leap Forward” was going on that I recollect seeing the movie, The Good Earth. I don’t know whether I understood at that time, that the lead actors, Paul Muni and Louise Rainer were actually East European Jews playing in what I later learned was referred to as “yellow face.” I actually thought Chinese spoke pidgin English that way. I don’t think I was as fooled by Sidney Tolar, an actor of Scandinavian extraction, who played Charlie Chan with his eyes taped up and uttering so-called “Chinese sayings” that sounded like they were extracted from fortune cookies.
DRAFT of CHAPTER 1: © 2013, James A. Clapp, Ph.D.
I CHINA HANDS
After I had made several trips to China in different capacities an Asian friend commented that I was getting to be a “China Hand.” There was more flattery than veracity in that compliment. Beyond a very abbreviated lexicon of words and phrases in Mandarin and Cantonese that are a long way from the conversational, I am illiterate in spoken Chinese and more so in written Chinese. Much as I would like to be regarded as a zhonguotong (lit., “China expert”), I have never lived in the People’s Republic of China, been employed there, or served as a Foreign Service officer or correspondent, all the usual avenues of experience that form the resumes of those who have earned the right to be called a “China Hand.” But at least I have learned what it takes, and so it seems an apt way to begin my own view of China by considering those who have blazed the trails through the soi-disant Middle Kingdom.
Like American cowboys who perfected the ways of wrangling cattle and came to be called “cowhands,” the term “China Hand” originally referred to 19th-century Western tai pans who wrangled their way into China by forcing the opening of treaty ports to establish trade, but it evolved to refer to anyone with expert knowledge of the language, culture, and people of China. In 1930s and 40s the term “China Hands” came to refer especially to American diplomats, journalists, and soldiers who were known for their knowledge of China and influence on American policy in the years surrounding WWII.
But before there was even a name for them there were China Hands. If not the first, surely the best known was Marco Polo. In my younger years I read Polo’s account, reputedly dictated years after his travel and during a spell he spent as an inmate in a Genovese prison. That account is often regarded as highly embroidered or having acquired a number of fictional elements in the intervening years. According to Fra Jacopo D’Acqui, Polo’s contemporary and his first biographer, “When Marco Polo lay on his deathbed, his priest, his friends and relations clustered around him to plead that he at last renounce the countless lies he had related as his true adventures, so his soul would go cleansed to heaven. The old man raised up, roundly damned them all and declared, ‘I have not told the half of what I saw and did!’”
There were not that many at the time to fact check Polo, leaving plenty of grist for subsequent authors of his adventures for their own fictional embroideries. Such was The Journeyer, an epic tome by Gary Jennings (1984) that filled in good bit of the interstices with sex, violence and exoticism, no doubt adding to what had already grown to be a substantial body of lore that Asian women new sensual secrets that were an irresistible magnet to Western men (a good deal more on that later). But since it does not appear that Jennings ever went to China, and probably invented even more than Polo himself, he does not merit the China Hand appellation. Still, Polo himself probably would have approved of the account since an Italian saying states, “se non é vero, ma é ben trovato” (loosely, “so what if it’s not true, at least it’s a good story”).
Most people have some knowledge of the fundamental elements of the Marco Polo adventures to Cathay, even if they come away with the apocryphal story that it was his return to Italy with Chinese noodles that became what we know of today as Italian “pasta.” (There will be more on that when we speak of food.) Fewer will know about Father Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit intellectual and missionary who arrived in China three centuries later, trading on a rather different commodity from his predecessor and fellow countryman.
A China Hand Worth Remembering
Educated at Rome’s La Sapienza, Matteo Ricci was, as were many Jesuits of his time, a man who combined “street smarts” with high native intelligence. A missionary needed those attributes, a strong constitution, and a healthy dose of luck, to go off scavenging souls in Asia in the middle of the 16th Century. My own street smarts didn’t serve me that well when I was in Beijing. When I finally found the first Catholic church that Ricci founded around 1577 in Beijing I was in near need of heavenly assistance myself, and oxygen, from plowing through the city’s three-pack-a-day pollution. At the time I was persuaded by what I had read that the Chinese had put one over on the clever Italian Jesuit; they sold him a former execution ground, hence cursed real estate, on which to build his catholic church. They must have been laughing up their Ming Dynasty sleeves at the evil spirits rising out of the ground to do battle with Catholic angels and saints. Feeling as I do about missionaries and evangelists, I rather like that mental image.
But on reading Jonathan Spence’s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (1985) a fascinating account of the adventures of the Jesuits in Asia, I am not so sure. Spence, a China Hand who has a knack for going after the “story” in his historical books on China, relates that Ricci might well have known he could get the land for the church cheap, as he did when he purchased supposedly “haunted” houses for his missionaries in other Chinese cities. It would not have been improper for a Jesuit of the time to rank good business up there with spiritual concerns. Blending secular matters with his mission, and maybe turning the tables on authorities out to make a fool of him, would not have been out of character for Ricci.
Ricci arrived in China after periods of adjustment in India and Macao. He brought with him a gimmick to amaze and ingratiate himself with the locals and their overlords. Well before sixty-gigabyte hard drives people in both the East and the West had to make do with personal memory. The Chinese in particular, with thousands of written characters to learn and remember in their quasi-ideographic script, were especially interested in “memory systems.” Ricci had devised one, an associational method (to simplify it) of placing “people” in various rooms of an imaginary mansion, that worked well enough for him; he could recite long passages from memory. But where Ricci really got clever about teaching his method to the Chinese was his use of passages from the New Testament for mnemonic exercises. What better way of getting the infidels to engage Christian lore and liturgy than to practice committing it to memory. Before they knew it, the Chinese were “remembering” Christ walking on water, his “virgin” birth, and his crucifixion.
Though Ricci made a share of converts, the Chinese didn’t always accept Christianity uncritically. There is always the problem of the authenticity of the faith of converts who have been won over, as it were, by the subterfuge of retention methods or by commodities such as clocks (one of the few commodities the Chinese thought worthy of interest from the West). In particular, the Chinese thought the image of the crucified Christ as gory and a rather odd way of representing a deity. Why advertise your god as a victim, they wondered. And the Chinese were disposed to see Christianity as worthy of adoption because they approached their own gods in the posture of supplicants; so, if the Christians could offer a god that might be better at granting longevity, happiness and wealth, it made sense to convert. To the Chinese the operative dictum would be “Ask not what you can do for your deity; ask what your deity can do for you.”
Of all missionaries, the Jesuits were probably best prepared to deal with such concerns. Part of their rigorous ratio studiourm of theology, mathematics, classical literature, and science was their training in methods of “disputation.” As students they were put through a regime that sharpened their argumentative abilities, to counter and parry arguments, expose heretical holdings, and generally make an opponent feel that he has encountered a rhetorical “black belt.” And a well-prepared Jesuit might be capable of holding his own in several languages. Small wonder then, that these determined prelates in their black soutaines were often regarded, even by their co-religionists, as formidable, if not dangerous. That “SJ” (Society of Jesus) suffix to their names seemed to some to reflect the military background of their founder, Ignatius Loyola.
Ricci’s lifetime coincided with the period of the application of part of the nasty and ugly underbelly of the Roman Catholic Church—the Inquisition. Moreover, the Jesuit hierarchy hailed from Portugal and Spain, where the Inquisition, owing to the presence in those parts of large numbers of Jews and Muslims, was especially virulent. The “heretic” hunt had even gotten to Goa, when Ricci was there, and inquisitors were npreying upon and praying over a large number of Spanish-expelled Jews that had settled there. To his credit Ricci protested to the Jesuit hierarchy about their treatment by the Church. Ricci and the Jesuits of the Asian missions seemed to be more preoccupied with the locals than with hunting down huihui (as the Chinese referred to Muslims) or the perfidia judaica. Indeed, some of Ricci’s colleagues were themselves conversos (baptized Jews who were, at least nominally, Christians). The Jesuits were always prowling to recruit the most intelligent men into their order, whatever their race or prior faith.
Ricci himself was not only intelligent, but also possessed of the social refinements and skills and interpersonal charms that made him the consummate China hand. No less a contemporary than the late Ming writer and philosopher, Li Zhi, wrote of him in a letter to a friend:
Ricci has read all our classics. He speaks our language to perfection, writes our characters and knows how to conform to our social usages. He is a truly remarkable man. He is utterly refined, but his appearance is of great simplicity. In the middle of a noisy and boisterous gathering of people where everyone is shouting and arguing, he maintains an imperturbable composure. He is the most extraordinary man I ever met. Other people either are too rigid or too lax; either they wish to make a display of their wit, or they are dull—they are all his inferiors.
Yet, even with such high praise there lingered that residue of suspicion, a cautious reservation of the motivations of a man of such abilities.
However, I still do not understand why he came to China. I really cannot believe that he would actually want to substitute his own doctrine for the Confucian teachings. This would be too absurd! He must have some other purpose.
Matteo Ricci died, age 58, on May 8, 1610, in bed, probably of overwork from becoming an unofficial tutor for Chinese preparing for the jinshi. He had published several books, a dictionary, and religious tracts. By Spence’s account he was probably spiritual, but not to the point that it interfered much with his earthly pursuits. A good mind needs constant challenge, and like a good Jesuit missionary he wondered mostly about the world he was in and seemed to leave the other stuff to his God. I like very much something he wrote that indicates that secular ideas had a hold on his interest.
It often happens that those who live at a later time are unable to grasp the point at which the great undertakings or actions of this world had their origin. And I, constantly seeking the reason for this phenomenon, could find no other answer than this, namely that all things (including those that come at last to triumph mightily) are at their beginnings so small and faint in outline that one cannot easily convince oneself that from them will grow matters of great moment.
Ricci might have been referring to a crucifixion the Romans conducted on a Jewish troublemaker in Judea around 34 CE. But like a good Jesuit teacher, he lets us form our own conclusions. There is a smattering of yin/yang in Ricci’s take on things—what we might expect from an authentic China Hand.
Ricci probably was not the first Catholic missionary lured to the Far East, and he was hardly the last Christian evangelist to salivate over the millions of potential converts while functioning as a vanguard for more secular and commercial interests to follow. It should be noted that not all the Jesuits were interested in China owing to fervent evangelism. Probably qualifying as a China Hand from his twenty-three years there French Jesuit Pierre Teillard de Chardin, was a paleontologist and geologist wrote his major work The Phenomenon of Man during that time. In the 1920s Teillard de Chardin journeyed to the northwest of China with Emile Licent and, in addition to important discoveries in geology and archeology, worked for a long period with the multinational group at Zhoukoudian excavating the “Peking Man” site.
Perhaps the most recent chapter in this survey of “Jesuit Oriental Adventures” is that of Laszlo Ladany, S.J., a Hungarian lawyer, Chinese scholar, who spent the 1940’s in Shanghai and North China and decamped for Hong Kong in 1949 where he started China News Analysis, a weekly summary of Chinese media and party documents. Ladany’s reports were required reading in all international intelligence services as a source for fact checking. He was an authority on the origins of the Chinese Communist Party and his curiously-titled book, The Communist Party of China and Marxism, 1921-1985: A Self Portrait, refers to his use of documents from the Chinese Communist Party, and his reading of its official publications as only a a fluent Chinese reader is capable. Ladany died in 1990, but he probably is not the last of the Jesuit China Hands.
One way of falling in love with China is first to fall in love with a Chinese woman. That is how it happened to Englishman Joseph Needham (1900-1995). It can happen in reverse order as well, though neither method is requisite, and one can fall in love with one without the other. It is not likely that many will emulate to romance of Needham with China, or with the woman who introduced him to her country, Gwei-djen. This is not a story of a very commonplace love affair, or a very commonplace lover, either.
Mostly it is about Needham’s love affair with China, and not because the Chinese woman in this case, a brilliant young biochemist from Nanjing who was Needham’s mistress in a open marriage he maintained with his compliant wife, Dorothy, also a highly-regarded scientist. Needham himself was a renowned chemist possessed with a spongy mind and near photographic memory that allowed him to soak up languages (French, German, Latin and Greek, in addition to Chinese) as well as huge chunks of scientific and technological information. He was also a zealous socialist, a nudist, Morris dancer and a bit of a womanizer. Intellectual brilliance not only often comes with such eccentricities, but also often exonerates them.
It is the hunger Needham had for facts and information about China’s scientific and technological past that took him there in a somewhat vague “diplomatic” capacity in the years just before the revolution when he was attached to the British embassy in Chongqing as head of a new body called the Sino-British Scientific Cooperation Office. If that doesn’t sound like a MI-6 cover then John LeCarre is a Harlequin Romance author. Needham did meet Mao and became quite friendly with Zhou En-lai. Yet, in his later years he did get in a bit of a political tangle that proved diplomacy was not among his many gifts.
But in his China years Needham seemed too busy with his quest to spy all that much. His obsession and mission was to try to keep Chinese scientists working with modern equipment, which he was instrumental in supplying to universities and laboratories, and in collecting any and all information about Chinese scientific and technological achievements for what would eventually become, under mostly his authorship, the most complete encyclopedic record of such accomplishments in existence. He sent tons of information back to Cambridge for later fodder for his multi-volume magnus opus, Science and Civilization in China.
Needham believed that the West did not fully appreciate the extent of Chinese scientific and technological contributions over its long history and that, indeed, some of China’s achievements had been appropriated by the West. There are some surprises for those of us who have been brought up in the Eurocentric historical tradition. That tradition gives the Chinese credit for gunpowder (9th C AD), paper (300 BC), kites (4th C AD) and the spinning of silk (2850 BC), but there are numerous other inventions and discoveries that Needham’s intrepid research and travels have brought to light.
It was in San Francisco’s Chinatown that the French traveler and writer, Victor Segalen, acquired his fascination with China. Segalen, a naval doctor was stranded in San Franciscio with his own attack of typhoid in 1902. He was en route to a medical position in Tahiti, but China had already so enchanted him that he purchased a Chinese writing set. He didn’t manage to get there until 1909, but he had already studied Chinese for four year and had immersed himself in Chinese poetry and archaeology. The physician wrote a novel soon after, a long poem about Tibet, and essays on exoticism and Chinese art.
But we know Segalen today mostly for his classic, René Leys, which was first published in 1922, set in Peking (Pei-ping as he called it) in the waning days of the Qing dynasty. It is an allegorical and stylistically-complex account of the spiritual adventure of a Westerner in which his tutor, René within the Forbidden City. Segalen based Leys on an acquaintance, Maurice Roy, who had cultivated Chinese nobles, secret agents and court eunuchs, creating a world of multiple and ambiguous identities where nothing, and nobody, is quite what it seems. The mysterious and cloistered world of the Forbidden City becomes a metaphor for China itself and Segalen’s narrative concludes with the fall of the Manchu Dynasty, an event coincident with the death of René Leys. Segalen himself died mysteriously in a forest in Brittany in 1919, aged forty-one. He never lived to see the rise of Mao. The Chinese world he inhabited and re-created through the eyes of his character and his own experience remain fixed in a period that has since been magnificently brought to the screen in Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor.
Segalen elaborated rather than unraveled the mysteries of China that fascinated him. He would leave questions that subsequent literary China Hands would entertain. He pondered: “Could a Manchu woman be loved by a European, i.e. myself—yes or no? And could she in turn lavish upon that European the usual attentions that are traditionally known by the name of ‘love’ (in the poverty of our reputedly rich language)? I despair of ever knowing.”
But there were other mysteries, just over the walls of the Forbidden City, one involving another China Hand, and his daughter. Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner, the son of well-off English world travelers took his exams for a Far Eastern cadetship with the Foreign Office and was posted to Peking for two years in the 1880s as a student interpreter. It was a period that the Chinese might have called “interesting times”; there had recently been the Taiping rebellion, self-anointed Christ brother Hung Hsu-chuan’s attempt to overthrow the Qing Dynasty, or had been the great drought and famine in northern China in the 1870s, and then of course the Opium Wars that concluded with the sacking and looting of Peking. When Warner arrived Europeans had already established legation quarters settled by diplomats, trade officials and missionaries. They were “yang guizi” (foreign devils) and called such in the streets of a city that was remote, bizarre and dangerous outside of the European enclave. Walls, gates, and haunted places, segmented the teeming, sprawling imperial city into the “Tartar city,” Forbidden City, Chinese City, Legation Quarter, interspersed with temples and the tight, dense compounds called hutongs. Werner loved it; he had found his place.
The China Hand in the making quickly moved his way up the diplomatic ladder with higher postings in the Peking legation, a year in Canton, a couple more internships in Macau, before a return to acquire a law degree in London. He was quickly back China with postings at a variety of remote cities, including a four-year appointment as consul at Kiukiang. Now aged forty-five, and a full-fledged China Hand he decided to marry. She was Gladys Nina Raven Shaw, the daughter of a British military officer who had served in the empire’s conquered territories in the Asian subcontinent, and she was half his age. Gladys was accomplished at sports, music, well-educated, and attractive. She was apparently a good fit for Werner, settling into a rented four-story house near the Ch’ienmen Gate from which she liked to venture to explore her new environs.
Werner might have remained a lesser figure in the history of Peking at that time were it not, as it is often the case, that he was visited by tragedy. By 1937 things were much different. The childless Werners had adopted a young Western girl from a Catholic orphanage after several childless years. They knew nothing of the child’s parentage, or her birthdate; they named her Pamela. But Gladys would have only a short time being a mother, taking sick and dying in 1922 at age thirty-five. This left the grieving Werner to raise his five-year-old daughter as a widower. He never remarried and threw himself more deeply into his studies and writings about Chinese language, history and culture. Pamela grew up independent-minded. Educated at a boarding school and Tientsien, she returned to Peking where she boldly plunged into its nightlife that was composed of cafés, clubs, brothels and opium dens, people do with Russians, Europeans, and spies for the Japanese army preparing to invade the city.
It was not the death of Gladys that was the tragedy, but the brutally-mangled body of Pamela in a ditch near the Fox Tower close by the wall of the Tartar City. It is not the purpose here to recount the story of the long search for the answer to who murdered of Pamela Werner and why, a mystery that involves the devoted and irrepressible efforts of her China Hand father. That story has been refreshed and retold in a manner that returns us to a Beijing that exists only in history and mystery.
There were probably other China Hands who were given or took Chinese names, but none were awarded Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes for Literature as well. Sai Zhenzhu, nee Pearl Sydenstricker Buck, daughter of missionary parents wrote The Good Earth in 1931 when China was still such terra incognita to virtually all Occidentals. Five years later when casting was done for the movie version the lead “Chinese” characters were played by a Hungarian Jew and an Austrian actress who delivered breathy lines more like Marlena Deitrich than a peasant woman from Anhui.
Buck was born in West Virginia in 1892, but almost immediately brought to China with her parents on their Presbyterian mission. She learned her fluent Mandarin Chinese and local dialects as a child, not returning to the U.S. until 1911, to attend college. One wonders if James Michener based his character in Hawaii, missionary Abner Hale, on Buck’s father. Abselom Sydenstricker was a lanky, rigid Christian fundamentalist who didn’t seem to mind an ascetic existence (or subjecting his family to it) if there was the faintest chance of snatching a Chinese soul for his church. He apparently wasn’t much of a father to Pearl and her younger sister. Pearl was closest to her mother and her amah. Despite the deprivations of a childhood in a village backwater in Ahui, Pearl grew up loving all things Chinese
There have been several biographies of Buck and writer Anchee Min apparently gleaned details about Pearl’s girlhood friendship with a Chinese, called “Willow,” through which we see a young Western girl growing up thoroughly immersed in the local culture, and through incidents such as when the two girls trick a highly superstitious war lord into believing that if he executes Willow’s father he will incur some terrible wrath of the gods.
These were turbulent times in China. The Manchu Dynasty, which had provided some central stability since the mid-17th C was on its way out with the abdication of the last emperor, Pu Yi. The republic that followed was short-lived when founder Sun Yat-sen died and China collapsed into a period of warring warlords.
Pearl Buck grew up to become a true China Hand at a time when most of the world knew China through Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu. Before she became America’s first female Nobel laureate for literature few seemed to know or care about the condition of the Chinese peasant. China Hands like Harold Issacs, Agnes Smedley, Edgar Snow, Theodore White, discussed below, write and reported about the turbulent years from the republic to the Communist were the only other real experts on that period, yet were ignored and shunned by the U.S. government when they returned because they were “tainted” by their contact with the communists.
By some accounts Pearl Buck should not have been a problem for the communists. While her father was a missionary she was not. The man she had married, Lossing Buck was an agronomist who worked in helping farmers increase their yields. Both she (teaching literature) and her husband had taught at Nanking University. But the new order had no use for western intellectuals whose presence might make China still appear “backward.”
In 1933, John Lossing Buck took the family to Ithaca take a doctorate at Cornell. At that time Pearl addressed a luncheon of Presbyterian women at the Astor Hotel in New York City on the title “Is There a Case for the Foreign Missionary?” Her answer was hardly one of evangelistic fervor, saying that, while she welcomed Chinese becoming Christians, China did not need an institutional church dominated by missionaries who were too often ignorant of China and arrogant in their attempts to intervene in secular matters. Pearl was forced to resign her position with the Presbyterian Board and, in 1934, she left China, never to return. It ended her marriage as well; John Lossing Buck remained there and later remarried.
At least according to Anchee Min’s account, Pearl hankered to return. That chance might have come in the early 1970’s when Buck was a world-wide celebrated author and humanitarian. When President Richard Nixon went to China in 1972 Buck was supposed to go along, but a jealous Madame Mao had made the author and China Hand an enemy and prevented it. Buck was saddened by the snub, but in retrospect, her presence would have given some luster to a meeting between a butcher like Mao and a war criminal like Henry Kissinger.
These days there are many good Chinese writers who are producing fiction based on the common people. They are all in the debt of Pearl Buck who was the first to consider the lives of the peasants of China, long seen as unworthy of literary attention, as interesting and meaningful. The Good Earth, Buck’s most famous book, is a story of the humility and courage of the Chinese peasant. One can also detect in their resilience against drought, plagues of locusts, greedy landlords, and political instability, the lineaments of the society that may soon boast the world’s largest economy.
But China was moving on to a period that was consonant with my own. The civil war and WWII were over, Soong Mei-ling was running around charming American politicians to keep her husband’s island bolt-hole safe, and “foreign devils” went from dodging warlords and the Japanese, to trying to find an accommodation with China’s new “Great Helmsman.” That is part of what makes David Kidd’s Peking Story so interesting. There is the title—Peking—and the cover photo, a black and white of the author in his early twenties, epicene, self-possessed, staring confidently back at the camera, and unfiltered cigarette dangling from his fingers. Kidd writes from an era I could only imagine. His years in Peking, from 1946 to 1951 were transformative for both him and the city, which is why he could subtitle his account “the last days of old China.”
Kidd was a student of Chinese culture, reasonably fluent in Mandarin and, given that his book dedication is to the American Ambassador to China, he appears to have been well-connected. That guangxi may be how he ended up living in the mansion of a wealthy traditional family. His memoir opens with preparations to marry Aimeé Yu, one of the daughters of the pater familias. But the old man dies just as they are married, and the decorum of mourning erases their honeymoon. Had they not been required by the American authorities to find some sort of cleric to officiate they could have married according to Chinese custom, wherein a marriage “letter” was prepared and “chopped” by the newlyweds and witnesses. Divorce, should it become necessary is achieved simply by tearing up the letter. Kidd’s time there truly was in the twilight of the “old China.”
The reader gets the feeling of being on the edge of changes that are both molecular and molar. The 101-room mansion, filled with children, spinster aunts that chain-smoke cigarettes and play mahjong, surrounded by immensely valuable antiques, seems an anachronism more befitting a medieval seigneur in some rural town rather than an urban residence. But in 1946 sprawling Beijing still contained residue of the past beyond the Forbidden City.
But not for long. Soon Red troops are being quartered in the house’s courtyards and the eventual control mechanisms of the new order begin to clamp down on the old way of life. There are the little details that only the experience of a China Hand could provide. For example, the Communists considered dogs to be a waste of precious food (or food themselves?), and dogs soon began to disappear. There was also an explanation for those photos I remember of people sweeping the streets of Gobi dust that was a task that was meted out as a punishment for minor infractions.
Kidd and his wife decamped for America before things got worse. They eventually separated and he returned alone after the Cultural Revolution was over to see if he could locate some of his in-laws. The old mansion and its antiques were gone and the family dead and/or scattered into crowded and mean accommodations. He did locate a few relatives, one, and aged “aunt” who told him about “Bloody August,” a month at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution that was never reported in the West, during which red Guards hauled thousands of people out of their homes and beat them to death with clubs. As a lo wai (foreigner), Kidd would almost certainly have been a victim, China Hand, or not.
David Kidd could have crossed paths with another American in the years immediately after WWII. E.B. Sledge came from quite different circumstances. Instead of being immediately sent home after bloody combat at Peleliu and Okinawa, Sledge was assigned to be a China Marine , with rather ambiguous duty in Peking in 1946. Possession of Peking was being contested by the Kuomintang and the Communists, and there were still Americans in the city who might need protection. American sentiments were, of course, slanted toward the Nationalists. There were still Japanese around, although they had surrendered. The last thing Sledge’s First Marine Division wanted was to become a casualty of the reinvigorated Chinese family spat.
Determined to make the best of a difficult situation Sledge befriended their barrack houseboy and got him to teach him some Mandarin. He made forays into the city, observing the people and their customs and visited parks, monuments and the Forbidden City. Sledge was no social anthropologist, and he had been fighting Asians in the South Pacific, but he combined a certain American Southern gentility with a realism about his circumstances. Like David Kidd, he too became involved with an educated Chinese family. The Soongs (not the famous Soongs who were intimately connected with political power in China ) were what could be regarded as an upper middle class family; the father, Y.K Soong, was a physician and both wife and daughter were educated. The family had also “adopted” a former Japanese prisoner of war, a Belgian Catholic priest, Fr. Marcel von Hemelryjck, who was fluent in Chinese as well as Russian, French and Japanese. Sledge communicated with the family, who spoke French, through the priest, at dinners and social occasions at the Soong home. “Meeting the Soong family and Father Marcel was one of the happiest events of my entire life,” he wrote, but though he corresponded with the Soongs and Fr. Marcel after he returned to the states Sledge never heard from the Soongs after the Communist takeover of Peking (Fr. Marcel has relocated to a Catholic university in America. Not long after he passed away). Had circumstances been different, Sledge might have gone from being a “China Marine” to a full-fledged China Hand.
The Journalists of “Interesting Times”
Many of those who became the China Hands whom we know best went there when they were young and most were journalists. Most learned the language, some very well, and almost all had a sense that China—in the period of 1905 to 1949—was a place that would not only make their careers or fortunes, but could remake the world. Things turned out somewhat differently than some of their predictions, but some predictions may need a little more time.
Their names are fading into the mist of China’s history in the first half of the 20th Century; names like Vincent Sheean, Harold Issacs, Agnes Smedley, Edgar Snow, Theodore White, and Christopher Rand. We know their feelings and observations because they wrote reporters for Life, The Christian Science Monitor, The Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, and The New York Herald, among many others, during a time when such publications were the West’s window to are the death of the Manchu Dynasty, the Republic, the Japanese invasion, and the civil war between the Communists and the Kuomintang, enough tumultuous history for several nations in so short a span of time.
It was the Peter Rand’s desire to know more about his father that resulted in his book, China Hands (1995). Christopher Rand, a journalist, spent almost all of his life away from his family, indulging in, as was characteristic of many China hands, their attraction to China and their love for travel, politics, booze, and consorting with the personalities and power of Chiang Kai-shek, Gen. “Vinegar” Joe Stillwell, Madame Sun Yat-sen, Zhou En-lai, and Mao Zedong.
Then the era of the journalistic China Hands came to an abrupt halt in 1949 when the Communists sealed their victory over Chiang’s KMT, which retreated to Taiwan with as much loot as they could carry. China hands Edgar Snow, Agnes Smedley, and Harold Issacs, among others, had spent years cultivating contacts and friendships while residing in mountain caves alongside Mao, Lin Biao, Chu Teh and Zhou En-lai; but suddenly they were no longer welcome among the victors. This was not because of their reporting; Smedley was herself a communist, and Snow wrote admiringly of the reds. But they became collateral damage in the complex politics of it all. Many of them had been out-posted in Chungking (Chongqing) during the Japanese occupation, when it was the KMT’s “capitol.” Most China Hands knew that Chiang and the KMT were thieves and scoundrels. Stillwell hated Chiang outwardly, leading to Stilwell being pulled from the Chinese theater even though he was fluent in Mandarin and knew the Chinese culture intimately. Other China Hands worked for stridently anti-communist publishers, such as Henry Luce (Life and Time), and had to tow the line.
Turning Red and its Perils
Yet there were China hands who took their relationship to China to the next level. Influenced by their own leftist political ideology, there were some who might be regarded as “ red converts.” Two fascinating Americans who fall into this category are Sidney Rittenberg and Anna Louise Strong, who both had been involved in labor movements in the United States and fell in thrall of the Chinese Communists. Rittenberg’s passage was by way of the U.S. Army in which the labor activist from South Carolina learned Mandarin and was shipped off to Kunming in 1945 as WWII had just concluded and China was turning on itself in civil war. The US had been helping China fight off the Japanese who were now vanquished and gone, and so would most of the Americans.
But Sidney Rittenberg remained behind. Some of the Americans would remain a presence in China, presumably to establish a relationship with whatever government would emerge from the chaos. They had been allies to both the KMT and the Communists against the Japanese, but now the choice would be made to make alliance with Chiang Kai-shek and his forces which head been the recipient of the best and the bulk of American military aid. Both sides were now competing for the left over weapons of the Japanese and eventually they claim to be the legitimate government of China. Rittenberg began his tenure with the KMT but eventually, both physically and ideologically, made his way to the other side. It was the beginning of a fascinating thirty-five year tenure in China during which he would on the friendship of Zhou En-lai, become a broadcaster for the Communist Party, be twice accused as a spy and jailed for a total of sixteen years, emerge to become one of the only Western members of the Chinese Communist Party, become a translator of the works of Mao Zedong into English, marry a Chinese coworker who would become his wife of over fifty years and mother of his four children and who would eventually repatriate to the US with him where, at this writing, the nonagenarian remains active as a respected sinologist, consultant and professor.
While Rittenberg’s leftism seems to have owed something to his Jewish heritage, Anna Louise Strong’s grew from the social gospels of her Congregationalist missionary father. She was exceptionally bright, good a languages and eventually earned a Ph.D. on Philosophy from the University of Chicago. But she was also driven by her allegiance to leftist causes related to worker’s rights, poverty and education and political activism toward their progressive reform and was friends with other American reformers such as Lincoln Steffens. It was on his advice that she traveled to Poland and Russia in 1921 as a correspondent for the American Friends Service Committee. Thus began a prolific journalistic career that bridged the Communist revolutions in Russia and China involving direct contact with many of their notables (Leon Trotsky contributed a preface to her 1924 book, The First Time in History). Near the end of the 1920s she was off to China and, although she might be disqualified as a complete “China hand” because she did not speak Chinese, she soon became friends with Soong Ching-ling, the widow of Sun Yat-sen, and Zhou En-lai, both of whom spoke English. Typically, she turned these travels and encounters to books: China’s Millions (1928), Red Star in Samarkand (1929).
Although she was in her sixties when Rittenberg met up with her in Yannan and was assigned to assist her in there interviews with Mao for a biography of him, Strong was still a force in leftist international movements. She encouraged the Chinese to form friendly relations with the U.S. rather than exclusively with Russia. Still, both Rittenberg and Strong were accused as spies by the Chinese, the former doing several years in prison as a result. However, the both of them remained committed to the Chinese Communist cause; Rittenberg set aside his prison sentences and worked his way back into the good graces of the Party; Strong went back to the USSR in 1959, but later returned to China and settled there permanently. She maintained friendly relations with Zhou En-Lai and Mao until her death in 1970. She was buried with full honors in the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery in Beijing. Rittenberg left China after thirty-five years, sixteen of them spent in prison.
But the main factor affecting the ousters and accusations of espionage from the inner circles of China’s new rulers in 1949 was that the United States had made its choice to back Chiang. China’s door pretty much slammed to western reportage and remained shut for nearly twenty-four years. The China Hands were “without a country” and, with the rise of McCarthyism in the U.S., and because of their years in China and their closeness with the reds, they were “purged” at home as well. A half-century of gathering political and cultural intelligence on the world’s largest nation was all but shunted aside until—and, ironically, it was Edgar Snow who first brought the overture to Nixon—a rapprochement was opened in 1972.
Since Deng Xiao-ping’s further opening of China to the investment and ways of the West in 1978, the country has changed with breathtaking pace. With the economically disastrous “great leaps” and Cultural Revolution of Mao behind them the Chinese launched into a sustained period of giddy growth and profound social, if not political (as Tiananmen Square demonstrated) transformation chronicled by a new breed of journalist China Hands like Robin Lane Fox, Orville Schell, Nicholas Kristoff and Simon Leys, among others. China’s periods of famine, wars and revolutions seem to be fading into the tapestry of its long history, along with the bold exploits and words of those China Hands who witnessed and chronicled its most “interesting times” for the rest of us.
Foreign Babe China Hand
What I like about Yang Niu Zai Beijing is that it is one of those accounts by a China Hand that revels in the nuance of China and its language. Seemingly unlikely zhonguotong Rachel DeWoskin notes that the title—more about that in a moment—is Yang Niu, not Yang Nu. The latter would be “Foreign Girls,” but Niu is a girl who is a “babe.” A slight change in tone with a lot of difference in meaning.
The title is from a Chinese television soap opera that DeWoskin was recruited for quite by accident. But the producers felt that she fit the part of an American babe who seduces a handsome Chinese guy away from his virtuous Chinese wife. So Foreign Babes in Beijing is the title of this series of “feel good” television for the Chinese: the Chinese male lead gets a chance to kick the ass of a Western guy (to counter the notion of Chinese guys are wimpy and effeminate), and DeWoskin, covered in make-up, jewelry and big hair, plays Jiexi (Jesse), the American femme fatale, who gets to do semi-nude sex scenes that contrast with the image of traditional, chaste Chinese women.
Rachel DeWoskin, the daughter of an American sinologist professor who took her on trips to China when she was a child, is a Columbia graduate who returned there for five years to do public relations work for American corporations jumping in on the Chinese economic boom of the 1990s. She came to the Jeixi role by happenstance and with only some school acting as experience, but, after the release of the Foreign Babes show, became a celebrity in China. The irony was that she received only eighty dollars an episode while the show was immensely lucrative for the producers.
There is nothing in Foreign Babes of the steamy tell-all about sexually-liberated Chinese that has come out in some books from Chinese authors in Shanghai in recent years. DeWoskin even demurely deals with the description of the “nude” scene she has to do with the male lead. While she is in actuality sort of a “foreign babe” in her personal life, having had some Chinese nanpengyou (boyfriends), and frequenting the clubs and hot spots of Beijing that the Western tourist doesn’t even know exist and, most significantly, getting to appreciate the culture of Beijing and China from the vantage that fluency in Mandarin affords. Despite her main job in public relations (she points out that PR (piyar means, means “asshole” in Mandarin), she moved in the pop culture and bohemian circles that were burgeoning at the time. Among her friends were emerging artists such a Zhou Wen, and Chinese rock star Cui Jian, and budding filmmakers.
Even though it concentrates on Beijing in a specific period, Foreign Babes is one of the best insights into the expat life in China of late. De Woskin is smart and is balanced and respectful, and in many respects remains awed by the complexity of the culture often observing that she feels much more American when she is in China. Her opinions and observations are sharp, measured and insightful. She provides informative explanations of how Chinese view television narratives differently than we do, and what is called “sideways negotiating,” both learned “on the job,” as well as the dynamics of change in the city itself. She seems to relish the mistakes and missteps she makes, and the linguistic and cultural differences that can be very amusing (as when she pointed out seeing a sports jersey celebrating Michael Jordan that read “Chicago Balls”).
Perhaps most interesting are the few pages at the end of her book which are devoted to the events of May 1999, when the U.S. (or NATO) bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, putatively by accident. DeWoskin and her expat friends were deeply affected by the outrage of the Chinese (and equally angry at the American government). But she puts together in a few pages that are an insightful and fair-minded explanation of the affair and its political outfall. DeWoskin since has returned to New York for more academic work, in poetry and translation. But she plans returns to China for more experiences that provide a fresh angle on ourselves as well as a foreign culture.
This brief overview of China Hands has omitted many others, some of renown, but most probably obscure. Others will be relied upon and come up in pages to follow in regard to more specific subjects. As has been remarked upon above, Chinese words and their characters can have multiple meanings. But before leaving the metaphor it is well to remind ourselves that the only actual “China Hands” are those attached to the wrists of Chinese people. That thought brings to mind an incident I call “little China hands” that I do not even need the memory techniques of Fr. Matteo Ricci to recall.
In a hotel in Chongqing some years ago a sore back had me in dire need of a massage to relieve my agony. I phoned the front desk to order a masseur or masseuse (to avoid giving offense I asked for whichever was available) to come to my room. Shortly thereafter I opened my door to a young woman in a warm-up suit and athletic shoes, a bulky equipment bag slung over her shoulder. As I took in her no more than five feet in height and less than one hundred pounds she gazed up at the towering da bi zi with and insouciant fearlessness. After my nihao, I remarked— perhaps not all that wisely or with gender sensitivity—that she seemed rather xiao (little) for a masseuse, but she gave me a little smile and motioned me toward the bed as though she were in charge or had a schedule to keep.
As I stripped to my running shorts she removed her jacket and went to the bathroom to wash her hands. When she returned I was, rather self-consciously, prone across the foot of the bed. I pointed to my lower back while certainly getting tones wrong for the Mandarin for “lower back” I had memorized. She barely acknowledged me as she squeezed some massage oil onto her hands and rubbed them together. Then, with what must surely be the strongest tiny hands in all China she proceeded to nearly kill me for forty-five minutes! How I regretted that xiao comment. How I reached into my reservoir of macho-maleness to keep from surrendering and pleading “enough,” which I did not know in Mandarin. My own hands were trembling when I placed a tip of renminbi in delicate looking hands that I now knew could easily strangle an alligator. But my back felt better. Or was it that everything else hurt now? It was hard to determine. But that’s China; especially hard to determine if you are two fingers and one knuckle short of a China Hand.