The clash of two cultures in prerevolutionary Peking

On a warm July evening in 1937, nine-year-old Katherine Yang and her father attended the Peking opera. This was the first time the young girl had seen such a lavish performance, and she was transfixed with the colorful spectacle.

The spell was broken before the second opera of the evening began when a man in street clothes stepped on stage to make an announcement: Japanese troops were advancing on the city.

The Japanese invasion of Peking was one of the most traumatic events in Katherine Yang Wei's childhood, as described in ''Second Daughter: Growing up in China, 1930-1949'' (Little, Brown & Co., Boston, $16.95). Written with the assistance of novelist Terry Quinn, Mrs. Wei's book gives a vivid, highly personal account of her upbringing in the war-torn years preceding the communist takeover in 1949.

''Those years you try to un-dramatize,'' Mrs. Wei said during a visit to Boston. Animated and gracious, she describes her life and views on Chinese and American cultures with the same unflinching candor displayed throughout her book. Despite the fact that she was born a second daughter instead of a much-desired son, her vivacity and high-spirited nature have remained unquenched by her lifelong struggle to prove herself a worthy individual in the eyes of her strong-willed mother.

As an American businesswoman, Mrs. Wei negotiates high-level trade agreements between the United States and China. She is also an international bridge champion and has partnered Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping and Deputy Prime Minister Wan Li at the bridge table. She has made 12 trips to China since 1981.

''For 32 years I shut out China, but when I went back (in 1981) I realized hardly anything had been written by a Chinese about the time from 1930 to 1949, '' she says. ''I decided I would do a truthful account of this period. It was something I wanted to share with Americans who treated me so well as an immigrant. I wanted Americans to have an understanding of the Chinese, person to person.''

In ''Second Daughter'' Mrs. Wei describes her unusually Western upbringing as a young child in prerevolutionary Peking.

She and her three sisters grew up on the Yenching University campus, where her father was a respected sociology professor. Her flamboyant mother went to extraordinary lengths to establish an Americanized household in furnishings, meals, and music. Her parents often entertained scholars, European and American diplomats, and members of of the Nationalist Republic political party.

When the Japanese declared war on China in 1937, Katherine and her family fled from Peking to her paternal grandfather's estate in Hunan. There they were plunged into a feudal Chinese life style with its complexity of ancient customs. Katherine became her grandfather's favorite and was called upon to assist him by preparing his opium pipe.

''I had more of a culture shock when I arrived in Hunan than when I arrived in America,'' says Mrs. Wei. ''I brought up my children to be anti-drug because I saw what opium did to my grandfather.''

Life as she experienced it in Hunan doesn't exist anymore. ''It was terrible to see concubines in their 20s with three-inch bound feet,'' she says. ''It was really a male chauvinistic way to keep women as useless sex objects. I was glad to see that part of Chinese culture go.''

After six years in Hunan, the family led a dismal existence as refugees in Chungking before seeking a new life in Shanghai. Just before the Chinese borders closed in 1949, Mrs. Wei left China to get a nursing degree in the United States.

She fully intended to return after completing her education, but ''when the communists took over I decided I wouldn't be comfortable living under that regime,'' she says.

After earning an advanced degree in nursing at Columbia University, she married a man she had originally met in Shanghai who was also in the United States. At a time when most women stayed at home, she pursued her career while raising their three children.

As much as Mrs. Wei loves her adopted country, she has encouraged her children to remember their Asian roots. ''I always told them you have to be proud of your heritage rather than to say, 'Too bad I'm not Caucasian,' '' she says.

Her second husband, C. C. Wei, is the owner of a Houston-based shipping firm. Mrs. Wei serves as senior vice-president of the China division.

''American businesses have the wrong notion that Chinese executives prefer to deal with men,'' Mrs. Wei says. ''I think sending women might be more effective. China has made great strides toward recognizing woman's position as an executive. There are many women in the ministry (government) and at high business levels.

''As business people, the Chinese are backward, but they have their pride,'' she continues. ''American business executives have a tendency to come in with the attitude 'We'll show you what to do.' Women might have more sensitivity to their feelings. China as a colonial state is gone, and the Chinese want to be respected as equals.''

In her own business dealings, Mrs. Wei helped to negotiate a trade agreement in 1982 with the Chinese that resulted in the first bulk shipment of US grain to China since 1949. Most recently she met with top Chinese officials to conclude an agreement to build the first modern office skyscraper in Shanghai. In this latest venture, she notes, she is negotiating with a Chinese woman executive and works with a female Chinese lawyer.

As a woman executive, Mrs. Wei sometimes finds it difficult to give orders to men. But she says, ''I feel it is always good to deal with the issue at face value - to say it as it is. I never ask anyone to do something I would not do.''

She has also found that as a woman it takes special effort to establish professional credibility and authority. This was particularly challenging when she was drafted into her present job in her husband's firm.

''I had to prove I got my job because of my merit,'' she says. ''You always have to prove the point because you are a woman. I think things will get a lot better, but now it is still difficult. One day, when there is no such word as feminist, we'll know we've arrived.''

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