Blending literature and Chinese law - with a Brooklyn accent

Sidney Shapiro has an unlikely dual identity: Brooklyn-born Jew and Chinese citizen. Now in retirement from his job at the Foreign Languages Press in Peking after 40 years in China, Mr. Shapiro is touring the United States with his wife, Phoenix, a well-known actress and cultural adviser to the government. They are visiting family and friends and looking for a publisher for his most recent book, ``The Law and Lore of Chinese Criminal Justice,'' a literary treatment of criminal-justice themes.

Shapiro has translated more than a dozen Chinese novels into English, including the classic work ``The Water Margin,'' and several years ago compiled a book called ``The Jews in Old China.'' His own strong character, nourished by his childhood in America, has fostered a degree of distance from the maelstrom of Chinese life and politics. ``I am not a communist, nor a member of the Chinese Communist Party. But I agree with a number of their major principles,'' he said in a recent interview in Chicago.

The move toward Chinese citizenship in 1963 was less an ideological commitment to Chinese socialism than the result of unusual circumstances in his own life. He is a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee, which acts as ``gadfly'' critic to the National People's Congress.

In his 70s, with a slight paunch and little erosion of his New York accent, Shapiro would not look out of place at a coffee klatch in his native Flatbush. An unusual blend of two cultures, Shapiro's earthy New York accent belies the fluent Chinese he speaks with his wife. He avoids discussing matters of state, a typically Chinese trait, yet he talks easily about his own life in a direct manner more American than Chinese.

Armed with a law degree after World War II, Shapiro was not tempted by Wall Street practice. Soon after graduating from Yale, he received a government grant to study Chinese and hopped a freighter to China. After trying to sell surplus clothes, and writing for Variety magazine, he joined a corporate law firm in Shanghai to pay his bills. He never became actively political.

But through his soon-to-be-wife, the editor of a left-wing journal, he became familiar with the anti-Chiang Kai-shek underground, many of whom were Communists. After a failed attempt to visit Mao Tse-tung in his Yenan outpost, Shapiro and Phoenix settled in Peking. The dramatic change of regime in 1949 provided Phoenix with a job as editor of the journal Peking Literature and Art. Shapiro began translating a novel called ``Daughters and Sons.'' A Chinese official spotted him at his task and so began his long career with the Foreign Languages Press.

The turmoil of the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution, when the country's educated youth followed Mao's dictum to reinstill revolutionary fervor into China, was difficult for Shapiro. His wife was under house arrest for more than four years. According to Shapiro, those in the theater who were aware of the sordid past of Mao's wife Jiang Qing, the ringleader of the ``gang of four'' who controlled the country, were silenced because they threatened her growing power.

But Shapiro was too valuable as a translator to be dismissed. ``My personal suffering was more intellectual than physical. I did find it rather distressing to see so much of the bilge [the Chinese] were putting out over the world, such as an attack on Shakespeare for being revisionist,'' he said.

In his autobiography, ``An American in China,'' Shapiro explains how his life meshed with the grand events of China's postrevolutionary history. Published in 1979, it contains little criticism of China's leaders or policies, which sometimes leads him to interpretations at variance with those of Western scholars. For example, the Great Leap Forward - a two-year drive by Mao to quickly communize, industrialize, and modernize the entire country in the late 1950s - foundered because of extensive flooding and policies too radical for the slow-moving nation, according to some scholars. Shapiro attributes most of the problems to betrayal by the Soviet Union that resulted in the 1960 Sino-Soviet split. He spices his analyses with curiously Chinese references to Khrushchev as ``Wild Nicky.''

In person, Shapiro does not ``bend with the wind'' to avoid controversy, but he mutes his responses. He sidestepped a radio interviewer's question about the undermining of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms by conservative members of the government, but commented, ``You can't bring reform with the assistance of just one individual. You need the support of the Chinese Communist Party, the government, and the population. The farmers and peasants vote with their feet. You can issue all sorts of edicts and the peasants will go along or not as they see fit.''

Shapiro's book on law grew out of conversations with friends about the Chinese legal system. He noticed that in China, law does not rely as heavily on case studies as it does in the West. But buried within the thousands of years of Chinese culture are poignant stories concerning criminal justice. The book includes tales of murder and passion - legal case studies in literary form.

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