Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


China 1980, China 1990

By Barbara De MilleBarbara De Mille, a teacher of writing and literature, lives in Rensselaerville, N.Y. / May 21, 1990



AS those furry pandas President Nixon accepted in the '70s for the National Zoo seemed harmless and cuddly, so did the Chinese administrators who hired my husband and me to teach at Jinan University in Guangzhou seem entirely open and benign. The year was 1980. The Cultural Revolution was over. China was inviting the West. Of course we read all the books and articles about China that we could find before accepting the job. A few friends had been there on three-week tours, corralled in hotels for foreign guests - where the nonofficial Chinese were forbidden to go - and taken on swift and somewhat exhausting rounds of visits to famous places. To stray from the formal itinerary into a mud-floored housing unit was to incur the firm displeasure of one's interpreter from China Travel Service. Yet these visitors to China returned with nothing but glowing praise: the food, the friendly Chinese.

Skip to next paragraph

The books we read about China explained the Cultural Revolution as an invigorating reorganization of Chinese social and political life during which the high mingled joyfully with the low. Professors planted crops, barefoot doctors ministered in remote villages, and water buffalos grazed on university playing fields. These books also pictured smiling kids, a clean-swept Huangzhou alley, and rosy piles of produce in a Nanjing market.

The graduate students to whom I taught American literature that year had been forced during the Cultural Revolution to live in the countryside, helping farmers who resented their inexperience and the extra mouths to feed. An old vice-president of our university had been severely beaten by the Red Guard on the steps of our administration building when the army came to occupy the school.

My graduate students and Chinese colleagues took most of the year to feel comfortable enough with me to come to a party, afraid, as they had reasonable right to be, that in the next Cultural Revolution-cum-purge they would be cited for associating with Western decadents.

(During the Cultural Revolution, even traffic lights were condemned as Western decadence and removed. In 1980, they had not been restored and drivers still dashed like kamikaze pilots through city intersections, not daring to look to right or left.)

The children were adorable. The photographic fruit and vegetables were to be found only in the hotel for foreign guests - locals excluded there in much the same way as the British embassy in pre-liberation Shanghai displayed an infamous sign forbidding dogs and Chinese. Those books signed with Western author's names and extolling official Chinese benevolence and prosperity had, we found, been written by the China Travel Service.

This is not to say that the Chinese officials were not kind. If we didn't persist in inviting Chinese friends who had been forbidden to visit us; if we didn't persist in mentioning the university student sentenced to 13 years for displaying a political poster; if we didn't persist in asking why the young mother who boiled our water and mopped our floors was afraid to take a gift of cotton cloth from us; if we chose not to ask why the police had tied that worker's hands behind his back with a stiff, rough rope.

These conditions met, we had the best of food, accommodations, salaries, and entertainment that our university could provide. We traveled with interpreter and guide, subsidized by the Bureau of Foreign Experts.

So why did I live and work for that entire academic year under a heavy cloud of unease? And why was I angry much of the time? I attribute some of that anger to constant frustration with language - we spoke to non-English-speaking Chinese through our interpreter - and constant frustration with bureaucracy. The Chinese invented bureaucracy.

But the chief reason for my anger was immersion in a world without human rights. If my rights were impugned almost daily in small matters, from needing a permit to leave the city to being forbidden to show films on short stories to my class, my Chinese friends and colleagues lived in a constant miasma of fear.

The effect upon their teaching was to reduce their classes to an inert repetition of dull ideas and facts that were safe - unlikely to encourage questions and ideas. Their tight-lipped stoicism reminded me often of the manager in Conrad's ``Heart of Darkness,'' who survived by ``originating nothing.''

My Western colleagues returned with me from China praising all that was different and Chinese. I returned angry, questioning myself, and shaken at my glimpse of evil. A life lived without the human rights we Americans assume as our birthright is a life of continual, low-grade fear that infects spontaneity and teaches lies as the food of survival.

We returned to the US in 1981 with a sense of China as a violence barely controlled, a violence that finally exploded in June 1989. The brutality we knew too well was made manifest in the blood of Tiananmen Square. Those in the Western world who hold to the innocence of China assist the massacre. Wanting to believe in those official assurances that the ``people,'' in whose name the Chinese Republic is established, support martial law and murder, they also choose not to see that the panda has, and never hesitates to use, its claws.