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China Daily Global / 2020-09 / 16 / Page015

Getting to know you

By Zhao Xu in New York | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-09-16 00:00

As China began to open up in 1979, a clutch of American students descended on its universities to learn about what lay behind the rhetoric of the Cold War, in a country that had emerged from an odyssey and was ready for change.

It was the summer of 1979, and Stephen Allee and Frank Hawke, two US students who had been in China for six months, were traveling on an overnight train as part of their end-of-semester tour around the country.

"A man came over asking where we were from, and then he turned around and announced to the crowd that we were from America," says Allee, who is now associate curator for Chinese painting and calligraphy at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M.Sackler Gallery in Washington.

Two weeks later the two were imbibing moist fresh air on a cloud-wreathed Mount Emei in southwestern China.

"Frank has long legs but I have short ones, so he could climb much faster than I did," Allee says. "Much of the time I was walking by myself, soaking in the poetic beauty, which I first encountered on book pages as a high-school student."

That book, an English translation of ancient Chinese poems, had captured Allee's imagination.

"I tried to extract every ounce of emotional weight from the lines, knowing all the while that the original version must be much more profound. And there was no other way for me to be in touch with this profundity than to start learning Chinese."

While Allee became what he calls a guinea pig in a Chinese study program launched by George Washington University, where his father taught, Hawke, for his part, was also learning about China in his class on international security and arms control at Stanford University, "so that I could be more literate in talking to my father, who was involved in nuclear weapons in the US Air Force".

In the 1980s and 90s, as Allee was poring over inky brushstrokes in the quietude of a museum storage room, Hawke was busy helping US companies get their footing in China, amid a bubbling effervescence that was a product of China's early days of opening-up. That mountain-climbing trek provides the metaphor for the two men: both have charted the landscapes of China-political, economic, cultural and aesthetic-in their own unique ways and at their own pace.

Both belong to a group that has been called "The Beijing Eight". The man who coined that name was John Thomson, who in June 1978 arrived in Beijing from Taiwan, where he had worked for the US Information Agency. He would witness and participate in the hectic activities that led to the normalization of US-China relations.

"They were the first group of US students who were in China for long-term study since 1949," the veteran diplomat says.

"There had been the occasional delegations of US scientists to China after President Nixon's visit in February 1972, but nothing serious. Things happening in those years precluded more meaningful engagement: as Nixon stepped down in 1974 in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, China was still knee deep in the cultural revolution," he says, referring to the political movement from 1967 to 1977 at the beginning of which China's annual college entrance examination was abolished and almost all exchanges with the West ended.

Between 1977 and 1988 Mary Bullock, daughter of a man who grew up in China with his missionary father, was the director of the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People's Republic of China.

"When the CSCPRC was founded in 1966 there was no agreement with China-China at the time was probably opposed to the idea-only agreement among members of American academia who believed exchanges must resume no matter what," Bullock says.

"They didn't know that the cultural revolution was coming, but they set up this organization with a small group of people and non-government money, if only to be prepared when the time was right."

And finally the time was right. On July 7,1978, barely a month after Thomson arrived in Beijing, a US delegation, led by President Jimmy Carter's science adviser Frank Press, met Chinese counterparts.

"For the first time the issue of educational exchanges was being discussed at a high level," Thomson says.

As if to make up for lost time, what unfolded in the ensuing months did so in the manner of lightning fast changes in a time lapse film. On July 10, 1978, Press met China's leader Deng Xiaoping, who had reinstated the country's college entrance exam and reopened its universities the previous year. A Chinese delegation was invited to tour US universities and meet White House officials three months later, in October.

On the last day of that visit, a memorandum of understanding for exchange of students and scholars was signed. The first official document signed by the two countries, it was later added to the normalization agreement as Appendix 1.

On December 26, 1978, five days before China and the US established diplomatic relations, 52 Chinese student-scholars boarded an aircraft at Beijing Capital Airport, where the US students would arrive two months later.

The CSCPRC was charged with selecting students. "All our students had learned about China, and in doing so quite a number of them had spent time in Taiwan or Hong Kong when the Chinese mainland was not accessible," Bullock says. "They knew what they wanted to achieve academically and were determined to make full use of their stay. The first group was a trial group. We increased the number to 50 when we sent out our second group in fall 1979. There were many more students and scholars who wanted to go."

On Allee's 28th birthday, Feb 22, he, having been told to "stay away from arguments about political systems and represent the United States proudly", left Seattle for Tokyo. (There were still no direct flights between China and the US.) There he spent the night at the airport and met seven other students, including Hawke, who had flown in from various other US cities. Together they completed the last leg of their journey to Beijing on February 23. While the rest of the students were part of the CSCPRC program, Frank came as the result of a separate arrangement between the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Stanford University.

The students were eventually sent to one of three destinations-Peking University in Beijing, Nanjing University in the historic city of Nanjing in Jiangsu province, and Fudan University in Shanghai.

Thomas Gold, a sociology student from Harvard, went to Fudan, only to discover that there were just two courses of study open to foreign students: Chinese literature and history.

While dedicating himself to studying modern Chinese literature, Gold found himself unknowingly stepping into his familiar territory of social studies when he started to talk to people who congregated in People's Square, not far from the city's famous Bund.

"They were zhi qing," Gold says, citing a term meaning "youths with knowledge", which applied to young men and women sent to the countryside to be "re-educated "during the cultural revolution. Now, these young people, thousands of them, were back in the cities, most having missed their only chance at gaining knowledge in an institution of higher learning.

Gold, who met many Chinese intellectuals at Fudan, said he was impressed as much by the travails they had endured as by their optimism.

"The waste of talent incurred by the cultural revolution was huge. But on the other side, many people were very optimistic about China's modernization and opening-up. Many of them were in their 50s, 60s or even 70s, and their knowledge was sometimes out of date. But they were willing to try, to do whatever the situation would allow them to do to contribute to their country."

Madelyn Ross, who arrived at Fudan in August 1979 to study contemporary Chinese literature and to teach English, calls it "a time of recovery for Chinese and of discovery for Americans in China".

Ross, associate director of China Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, first became interested in China while seeing coverage of Nixon's landmark visit on television.

"By that time I had already studied French and Spanish. Hearing Chinese on the soundtrack, I thought how interesting it would be to study a language so different from the Romance languages. China looked amazing, fascinating, unlike anything I knew."

But on a sultry summer night seven years later she was lying in a student dormitory in Fudan, homesick, jet-lagged and questioning the wisdom of her decision to be there, realized with a new agreement between Princeton and Fudan.

"My room was right next to the bathroom, the old squat kind with one long trough, in which there would be a whoosh of water coming down every 30 minutes or so to wash everything away. All night long I listened to that sound and counted the flushes like counting sheep."

Timely comfort was provided by Professor Tan Jiazhen, then a vice president of Fudan known today for laying the foundation of genetic research in China. Tan, a California Institute of Technology graduate of the 1930s, took Ross to a small out-of-the-way campus shop selling ice cream.

"That cheered me up a lot," says Ross who, with the beginning of a new semester and the return of students and teachers in September, was finally able to make friends and have fun.

While learning "sword dancing" in her favorite tai chi class, Ross, with a minor in modern dance from Princeton, presided over a little disco training class for Chinese who wanted to learn about something that was all the rage in the US.

In her English conversation class, Ross asked students to hold mock presidential election debates, at a time when Carter was running for re-election against Ronald Reagan, a former governor of California.

Yet nothing could compare with the moment when Ross sat face to face with Ding Ling, one of China's best-known female writers of the 20th century, in the latter's Beijing home in the summer of 1980.

"Ding Ling's writing from the 1940s was the subject of my undergraduate research at Princeton. All the time I thought she was dead-there had been no news about her for some twenty years-until one day in early 1979, before I left for China, my thesis adviser at Princeton gave me an article from a Chinese newspaper saying that she was back in Beijing.

"Accused of being a rightist, she had experienced her own share of pain and pathos, away from public view. But the Ding Ling I met was gentle, warm and gracious, not bitter. Meeting her was a privilege I could never have imagined."

Meanwhile, at Nanjing University Allee was enjoying another privilege, that of having one-on-one tutoring with a very knowledgeable professor of ancient Chinese literature.

"That's because there weren't any other foreign students who were studying that level of classical Chinese," Allee says.

In his dormitory the two pored over a woodblock print copy of Wenxuan (Selection of Refined Literature), complied between 520 and 530 by Xiao Tong, a royal prince, in the city of Jiankang, modern-day Nanjing.

"It was not a modern book at all and had no punctuation, so that was the best training for me," says Allee, who was able to continue his study in a one-on-one fashion years later, when he joined the Freer Gallery of Art & Arthur M.Sackler Gallery in 1988.

"The senior curator of Chinese painting and calligraphy was originally from Shanghai. He wanted me because of my background in classical Chinese. Texts are an integral part of ancient Chinese painting, which I knew little about at the time. So he took me to the museum storage and explained everything to me, step by step, over the next seven years."

At Nanjing University a surreal moment came when Allee watched Elizabeth Wichmann, "the token art student" as she calls herself, rehearsing for her jingju (Peking Opera) performance. Wichmann, who arrived in the autumn of 1979, was among the second group of 50 students and academics the CSCPRC sent to China.

"The texture of life in China was completely different then," says Wichmann, who remembers waiting in line for a couple of days outside a telegram office to make a phone call to her dissertation adviser at the University of Hawaii, where she had studied Asian theater.

"We just camped out during the night, like what people did at rock concerts. When it was finally my turn, my heart raced: what if my professor wasn't by his phone? Luckily enough for me he was."

Wichmann was later taken on by Shen Xiaomei, a disciple of the jingju maestro Mei Lanfang who traveled and performed in 1930 in a number of US cities including Honolulu, Hawaii, where his recordings became wildly popular. Wichmann had become the first person to come under Shen's tutelage as an adult. Fascinated by the sound aspect of jingju, Wichmann, with the help of her Chinese academic adviser, a staunch supporter of hers, tried to get her intonations right by listening to and then reciting children's stories. The two also compiled an English-Chinese glossary of traditional Chinese theatrical language.

However, Wichmann was not the only one grappling with the language. Lynda Bell, one of the Beijing Eight who also studied at Nanjing University, struggled as she tried to understand her interviewees, peasant women in Nanjing and its surrounding areas, including Wuxi.

"People were very hospitable; they literally grabbed me and took me into their houses," says Bell, who was always ready to jump off her bike and talk.

"But the many variations of Mandarin spoken by the locals meant that while they could understand me, I couldn't understand them.

"Among people studying modern China at the time, there was great interest in how peasants had experienced life prior to the Communist revolution, and how that life had conditioned them to participate in the revolutionary process. That interest also lay at the root of my research."

To fulfill that interest "had not always been easy for our Chinese host", Bullock says. Apart from the technical issues-Bell did have a Chinese assistant on most trips to do oral translation for her between Mandarin and the local dialect-the idea of having foreigners doing field research and enjoying relatively free access would have been unthinkable a mere year earlier.

Elsewhere, Hawke, Allee's road pal and Stanford University graduate, had ventured far beyond the campus of Peking University, in an effort to feed his own interest, and himself.

"The late 1970s and early 80s was a time of intellectual flourishing, evidenced by the great number of literary and academic journals that were newly available at the time," says Hawke, who every week would take a bus from the university to a big post office in central Beijing to browse through the new publications before buying 10 to 15 of them, mostly on political economy, business and management.

"Before heading back with my big bundle, I would go to the nearby Hong Bin Lou Restaurant and eat boiled sliced lamb from a partitioned 10-person communal hot pot. That means there could be 10 strangers at the table, all eating from their own partitions."

So at a time when Bell, who also spent some time in Beijing before going to Nanjing, was surviving on "porridge and pickles" in a student canteen, Hawke was trying to see through the mutton-scented haze and start up a conversation with his fellow diners.

"Usually, the restaurant workers would ask me for ration coupons, once required for everything one needed to buy, from a bicycle to a bottle of cooking oil. I reacted as if I didn't know what they were talking about and in the end they always said never mind and accepted my money. Of the coupons I saved, I gave them all to my Chinese friends."

And friends he certainly had made among the university's Chinese students, whom Hawke described as "the cream of the crop".Some of them told their stories to Hawke so many times, "to the point that I could almost tell their stories for them".

There was a yearning to share and a reluctance to let those memories go, if only because they had been the source of so much personal travail. Yet the memories, like the coupons, were fast becoming history. In the summer of 1980, by which time Hawke had already finished his study and had taught economics to undergraduate students at Peking University for a semester, change was in the air.

"Reading newspapers and talking with business people, I realized that they were getting to all the cool meetings where they met with decision-makers such as the mayor and vice-mayors of Beijing," Hawke says.

"I wanted to be one of them."

These days Hawke has on his office desk in Beijing a framed 1984 photo showing him interpreting for the Chairman of American Motors, who met Chen Muhua, the then Chinese Minister of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation.

The occasion was the signing of a joint-venture contract between American Motors and Beijing Auto Works, a first for the Chinese automotive industry. Hawke, as part of a young company facilitating the entry of US businesses into the emerging Chinese market, had been working for this moment for five years.

"We had the most exciting time between 1980 and 1987," Hawke says. "China hadn't developed its own laws on foreign capital and joint ventures. Everything we did, we did it from scratch."

After many years' involvement with foreign businesses in China, Hawke became the China director for the Stanford Graduate School of Business, a position he held until recently. With his office in the Stanford Center at Peking University, the job allowed him to continue a common legacy of the two universities, of which he was a considerable beneficiary.

And it may not be a pure coincidence that his life's trajectory somehow reflects that of Ross, who, after working for the US-China Business Council in the 1980s and early 90s, returned to the field of education, responsible now for joint programs run by Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and its partners in China, including Nanjing University and Tsinghua University.

"Many young people, including several of my neighbors, are eager to study in China," Ross says.

In 1986 David Lampton, a political scientist who first studied China at Stanford in the mid-60s, directed a study titled A Relationship Restored-Trends in US-China Educational Exchanges, 1978-1984, which The Wall Street Journal has described as "the first comprehensive analysis" of its kind.

According to the study, in 1979, 62 students and scholars were sent to China by the CSCPRC, and another 36, including Hawke and Ross, went as a result of intercollegiate programs between a US university and a Chinese university. While the CSCPRC figure remained about the same (54) for 1980, in that year the intercollegiate figure was nearly five times what it had been the year before (179) and stayed high in ensuing years.

"When Deng Xiaoping spoke to Frank Press in 1978, the CSCPRC was organized and had money from both the public and private sectors, while the US universities were not fully aware of what was happening," Lampton says.

"That was why the CSCPRC was one step ahead of them. But once normalization happened, the private sector rapidly cut in, overtaking those with governmental background. Now the CSCPRC basically doesn't exist and the whole relationship is essentially private.

"And these universities are currently fighting a lot of what's happening in Washington."

In July the US Government rescinded a policy that would have required international students to take at least some in-person coursework to remain in the US, in response to a lawsuit by Harvard and MIT.

"If I wanted to find out how a commune worked, what is a barefoot doctor and how was medicine and health care provided in villages, I had to talk to Chinese," says Lampton, who first visited China in October 1976, a month after Chairman Mao Zedong died.

"But where could I talk to them? Until 1979, the answer was either in Taiwan, where people left the mainland in 1949 and didn't really know much about the situation there, or Hong Kong, where its Cantonese-speaking population were mostly from the southernmost Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Fujian. In either place it's impossible to see China in its diversity and authenticity.

"So when China finally opened, people jumped at the opportunity."

While early Chinese students to the US were overwhelmingly focused on science and technology, their counterparts in China mainly pursued study in areas of the liberal arts-history and literature, anthropology and sociology for example, he says.

The phenomenon had huge implications as these people "all went into a field to try to shape the future of US-China relations".

One place to do so is inside classrooms. Both Bell and Gold became professors at the University of California, lecturing to US students as well as Chinese students who, interested in another perspective, have increasingly got themselves enrolled in Asian study programs over the past decade. Gold, chair of the university's Center for Chinese Studies, was also the founding director of the Berkeley China Initiative.

Between 2011 and 2013, while representing the University of California in China at the UC Center at Peking University, Thomson organized an informal group of directors of American study abroad programs in China, using the mailing list he first started to put together in 1979 when he was responsible for providing information to US students and educators who were interested.

According to Thomson, who studied Chinese in the mid-60s, the biggest governmental support to foreign-language study, especially the study of Russian and Chinese, came after the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957.

"Congress passed a law, the National Defense Education Act, which provided funding to the National Defense Foreign Language Fellowships, for the study of our enemies," he says.

Lampton, a student demonstrator from the Vietnam War era, offered his own reflection.

"During the Cold War there were two big wars involving the United States-the Korean and the Vietnam War-and both had to do as much with China as us not understanding either China or the rest of Asia. You either believe knowledge is good or you don't. I happen to think that in general knowledge is a good thing. Trying to impede the flow of that knowledge is not in our long-term interest."

Hawke, the son of a "cold warrior", to use his own words, believes that his ability to go to China was "an outcome of the evolution of that view of China as the adversary".

"It was really the desire to raise my kids in China to be bilingual and bicultural that kept me there for 40 years," says Hawke, whose wife is Chinese.

In 1980 Wichmann found her picture "on the cover of everything", after she performed jingju in Nanjing, the very first foreigner to do so on a stage of the People's Republic of China. Cast in the lead role of Yang Yuhuan, an 8th-century royal concubine known for her beauty and tragic love, Wichmann was seen in an old picture in elaborate headdresses, heavy with sparkling jewels and quivering faux pearls. Locks of hair were made to cling to her forehead and framed her deeply rouged young face. Under the dim backstage light she peered intently into the desk mirror, transfixed and transported by her own reflection.

Since then Wichmann, now a theater professor at the University of Hawaii, has translated and directed nine jingju performances, in English.

"Following the same vowels and lyrical structures allows me to retain the original flavor of the art and to pass on to my students the experience I had learning from Chinese artists."

Divergent paths though they may have followed, Wichmann shared a lot with Gold, Hawke and all the others of their groups. For one, their talks were interspersed with Chinese terms so typical of the era. And they seem to have locked up every detail in their mind's safe box: while two figures that Gold strongly retains are 55 and 93, the numbers of the buses that could take him to Fudan, Hawke recalls 25 and 26, the numbers of the buildings that US students moved into at Peking University.

Hawke also remembers stripping the strings of string beans at the university canteen, which he did visit when he was not eating hotpot.

"When we arrived for a meal there would be a pile of unstrung beans in the center of the table. Whoever was eating at that table had to string all of the beans before they could line up to get their food."

Looking back, Lampton says: "Some people in the United States now criticize our generation, saying that we thought China over time would evolve politically, and that China hasn't and therefore we failed. I think that's wrong on almost all fronts, for China itself has evolved. China is very different from the China I went to in 1976."

"My generation is satisfied with what it learned and contributed."

About 3 pm on Feb 23, 1979, the plane carrying the Beijing Eight touched down at a snow-blanketed Beijing Capital Airport. Together with the Chinese hosts, Thomson was there to welcome them.

Before leaving the airport, the students took a group picture in front of their bus. Standing on the far left of the first row is Allee, with long hair that would certainly have attracted attention in those days. Hawke is at the back, sporting a cowboy hat and a mustache, ready to explore his new frontier. Front center in red trousers is Bell, holding her down jacket and a mossy-green school bag not unlike those carried in those days by her young Chinese counterparts. At the back on her right is Gold, with a broad smile, beams of afternoon sunlight reflected on his glasses. Spring Festival, during which the Chinese mark the coming of Spring and a new year, had been celebrated not long before.

"To learn about China and to facilitate that learning process for others-that's part of what we've committed our lives to doing," Gold says.

"We saw ourselves as pioneers."


In Spring 1979 Frank Hawke and some other foreign students spent a day working in the fields in suburban Beijing. CHINA DAILY



Elizabeth Wichmann dressed up for her role in Nanjing in 1979. CHINA DAILY



The eight US students who arrived in Beijing on Feb 23, 1979 are seen in this group portrait with their Chinese hosts. CHINA DAILY



Lynda Bell's Nanjing University swimming pass in 1979. CHINA DAILY



Thomas Gold on the campus of Fudan University in 1979. CHINA DAILY



Together with Frank Hawke, Steven Allee traveled through western and southern China in the summer of 1979. Here Allee was taking a break and drawing a crowd in a park in Taiyuan, Shanxi province. CHINA DAILY



John Thomson (top right) with his staff of the Press and Cultural Section of the US embassy in Beijing in 1979. CHINA DAILY



Mary Bullock, director of the CSCPRC between 1977 and 1988, became the first executive vice chancellor of Duke Kunshan University in Suzhou in 2012. CHINA DAILY



Madelyn Ross at the Great Wall in 1979. CHINA DAILY



David Lampton, who directed the study A Relationship Restored-Trends in US-China Educational Exchanges, 1978-1984. CHINA DAILY



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