From Our Pages: “It Cannot Be Conceived.”
American idealists in two Chinese revolutions, Cultural and capitalist.
By Julie Anderson
In June of 1966, when high school and college students in Beijing began, in the Chinese phrase, “making revolution” — beating teachers and forcing them to crawl on burning cinders, drink insecticide, wear dunce caps, and beg for mercy–the government responded by sending the small foreign community in Beijing off to Beidaihe, China’s exclusive seaside resort 175 miles east of the capital.
The foreigners had no idea what was happening in Beijing’s schools, and the mood on the six-hour train ride to Beidaihe was festive. According to the American couple David and Nancy Milton, who wrote about the trip in a memoir called The Wind Will Not Subside: Years in Revolutionary China 1965–1969, “straw hats, fishing poles, and oiled paper umbrellas filled the overhead racks, and baskets of every description overflowed with swimming suits, knitting, and the paperback detective stories beloved by the Beijing foreign community.”
During that summer, the events in Beijing seemed distant and dreamlike to the expatriates. Only one event made an impression on them as they relaxed on Beidaihe’s warm yellow sands: Mao Zedong’s historic swim, at the age of seventy-three, down the Yangtze River on July 16 of that year. For the Chinese, this symbolic event heralded the return of Mao Zedong to power, the beginning of his emergence as a god. For the foreigners in Beidaihe, it was — at least, initially — far simpler than that. Mao’s swim gave them permission to relax and enjoy time spent splashing around in the sea.
Only one event made an impression on them as they relaxed on Beidaihe’s warm yellow sands: Mao Zedong’s historic swim, at the age of seventy-three, down the Yangtze River on July 16 of that year.
Growing up in the second half of the century, I had always assumed China was completely closed off to foreigners during the Cultural Revolution. Then one day in graduate school, Frederic Wakeman, the late and eminent professor of Chinese history, overturned that assumption with a simple anecdote. A British friend of his had recently traveled to China and shocked a cabdriver when he hopped into a taxi and explained where he wanted to go — in perfect Beijing street slang. The cabbie was so taken aback that at first he was unable to speak, let alone drive: How could this waiguoren, this outsider, be talking like someone who grew up in the alleyways of Beijing?
Listening to Dr. Wakeman, I wondered the same thing.
As it turns out, the British man did grow up in the alleyways of Beijing. He’d been born in China to devout Communists, then, in the mid-sixties, when the Cultural Revolution turned anti-foreign and his parents were arrested, he’d spent the rest of his teenaged years with his brothers, living unsupervised on the outskirts of the city. At least in his speech, he was as Chinese as he was English.
The expats moved to China to participate in one of the greatest social experiments in the history of humankind.
Over the years, this story has stayed with me and made me wonder about those foreign Communists who didn’t observe the Cultural Revolution from afar but actually lived through it. What was it like for them? They moved to China to participate in one of the greatest social experiments in the history of humankind: the remaking of a vast country from a tradition-bound, feudal state into an egalitarian, Communist utopia. I almost envy their sheer messianic fervor — how wonderful to devote your life to some larger cause! And yet, the Cultural Revolution turned out to be one of the biggest disasters of the twentieth century.
* * *
In 1991, two years out of college, I set off on my own journey to China, to teach English at a small university called Beifang Gongye Daxue (North China Institute of Technology), on the outskirts of Beijing. Unlike the idealistic foreigners of twenty-five years earlier, however, I didn’t want to be a Communist; I was too jaded and cynical a child of the 1980s for that (think Yuppies, Wall Street, Reaganomics, Madonna). It’s more like I was curious to see this dying world whose goals, as I understood them — free health care, education, food — I admired. I mean, who doesn’t want to eradicate poverty and make sure everyone has a shot at a decent life?
It sounded good to me in principle, even if I already knew that Communism hadn’t turned out terribly well in practice worldwide. The democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Glasnost — all of this had happened just a couple years earlier. Still, like those earlier foreigners, I yearned for a better place, a better life, a better version of myself, and though I didn’t want to admit it, some small part of me hoped that maybe, just maybe, I’d find this in China — even though I knew the dream was flawed.
I yearned for a better place, a better life, a better version of myself … just maybe, I’d find this in China.
Accordingly, that August, I left New York City and found myself in a nearly deserted airport somewhere outside of Beijing. The airport was tiny — about half the size of one of the terminals at JFK — and reeked of ammonia and old cigarettes. I kept looking around for more of it, as if, somewhere, another ten terminals existed that I had somehow managed to miss. How could this be the airport of a major world capital? Instead of people, the noise of cicadas filled the place; their insectile hum would rise to a deafening pitch then recede, only to start over again a few minutes later.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a gaunt man of thirty dashed toward me and grabbed my hand in an enthusiastic handshake that lasted several seconds. He wore a cheap black polyester suit with a white button-down shirt, and he had thinning hair and a smile that managed to be both goofy and arrogant. He introduced himself as Mr. Wu and explained to me that he was the waiban of Beifang Gongda, which basically meant that his job was ensuring that the six foreigners on campus — four Japanese and two Americans — were happy.
Outside the airport, in Beijing’s damp, fierce August heat, a black sedan waited for us. The sedan, with its white-walled tires, chrome trim, and tail fins, looked straight out of the 1950s. Lace curtains covered the windows but I peeked out occasionally as Mr. Wu rattled on, eager to practice his English. This turned out to consist of an astonishing string of proverbs and clichés.
“Your plane was a little late,” he said, “but better late than never. At any rate, you will have plenty of time to adjust to life in China. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day!”
Mr. Wu beamed at me to assess the effect his words were having.
I smiled back politely, wondering how long it had taken him to memorize these silly phrases. I didn’t yet understand that one of the marks of an educated person in China is a mastery of chengyu — idioms and allusions — liberally sprinkled into speech. (In fact, they’re so important a part of Chinese education that there are, to this day, chengyu competitions and even TV game shows.)
In Chinese, there’s an expression: Bu ke si yi — “It cannot be conceived.” In other words, it was beautiful beyond imagining.
Satisfied with my reaction, Mr. Wu continued. “It has been raining cats and dogs here. As you know, when it rains, it pours! But now the rain has stopped and I am on cloud nine.”
I nodded and continued my furtive peeks out the window. Where were the tall buildings and lively streets of a world capital? The billboards? The souvenir shops and boutiques and nightclubs? Where on earth were the crowds of people?
All I saw when I looked out were dusty lanes and high-grown green fields. On the road, we passed industrial-sized trucks with mammoth wheels, donkey carts piled with hay or watermelons, whole families — two parents, a grandparent, one child — perched atop a single bicycle, but pretty much no cars. Shit, I thought, does Communism seriously mean we’re back in the Dark Ages?
Farther along, gray brick walls and small roadside restaurants appeared, the number of bicycles increased, and the streets widened. A handful of tall buildings appeared on the horizon. Then, all at once, the road cracked open into an enormous square plaza, concrete acreage spreading on and on for what seemed like miles. On one side of us stood a line of flagpoles with giant speakers. On the other loomed ancient buildings — blood red with upturned eaves — and from the middle of the grandest building hung that famous portrait of Mao Zedong with his secretive Mona Lisa smile and those eyes that followed you everywhere.
“Tiananmen Square!” Mr. Wu cried. “We are now in the very center of the city!”
With a jolt, I realized we were passing the very place where the massacre of hundreds, maybe thousands, of students had taken place just two years earlier, in the spring of 1989. The students had been peacefully protesting the Chinese government, demanding greater freedom of speech and more government accountability. In response, the Communist Party had sent soldiers into the square (whose name translates, ironically, to the “Gate of Heavenly Peace”) to gun them down.
Now, though, any trace of the massacre had disappeared. Instead, the square was filled with what looked like Chinese tourists milling around, smiling and taking photos. I couldn’t reconcile the scene in front of my eyes with what had happened not long before. One image from televised news especially kept running through my head: that of an unknown man holding shopping bags in either hand, a man who’d singlehandedly stopped a line of tanks on the very street where we were now driving, right next to the square.
“Yes,” Mr. Wu continued, mistaking my horror for awe. “It is a sight for sore eyes.”
A few minutes later, we were past the square, surrounded again by fields and hills rising gently to the west, just beginning to be touched by the fall colors for which Beijing is so famous: fiery reds, brilliant oranges, imperial yellows. It was beautiful. Totally, unequivocally beautiful. In Chinese, there’s an expression for this: Bu ke si yi — “It cannot be conceived.” In other words, it was beautiful beyond imagining.
* * *
At the height of the Cultural Revolution, Beijing’s foreign community was quite small. China’s historical distrust of foreigners had re-emerged and the country began closing its doors. Most journalists, businesspeople, and teachers were booted out or fled. Only the hardcore idealists remained in strength. Some members of this community had moved there recently, like the Miltons, who brought their three sons and taught English at the Beijing First Foreign Languages Institute. Others, like Israel Epstein, had lived nearly their entire lives in China (he’d left Poland in 1915 as a baby, when his parents fled anti-Semitism). Yet others had run from McCarthyism, like Frank Coe, Secretary of the International Monetary Fund, or from homophobia in places as far afield as New Zealand. Most dramatically of all, Joan Hinton, former protégée of Enrico Fermi, left the United States forever after the bombs she’d helped create were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. She renounced everything to do with the United States and became, of all things, a dairy farmer, raising her blond, blue-eyed children to speak only Chinese, since she considered English an imperialist language.
But of all the foreigners who lived in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, perhaps the most fascinating was a man named Sidney Rittenberg, who recorded his experiences in a memoir, The Man Who Stayed Behind. Rittenberg went to China as a translator for the U.S. Army in World War II and remained there. Like other left-leaning foreigners who’d moved to China, Rittenberg was dazzled by Mao, sure of the rightness of Communism, and willing to overlook its “flaws” — even his own imprisonment in 1949 under false charges of spying. Interrogated, tortured, drugged to such a point that he once regained consciousness to find himself eating his own feces, he managed not to go completely crazy by convincing himself that his jailors were correct and that he was the one in the wrong. According to his memoir, by the time he was released, he had grown even more committed to Communism, grateful to his captors for giving him the chance to lose his Western individualism and transform himself into a true adherent to the cause.
Rittenberg came as close to achieving a real understanding of the country as any foreigner could. Incredibly, the Communist Party even made him a full member.
Unlike other members of the foreign community who believed they should stay out of Chinese affairs, Rittenberg belonged — even after that terrible incarceration — to a small group of Westerners who became completely immersed in the Cultural Revolution, considering it the opportunity they had been looking for to make the country stronger and better than ever He spoke Mandarin with astonishing fluency. Thanks to his linguistic talents, his total commitment to Communism, and to having a Chinese wife, Yulin, and children, he came as close to achieving a real understanding of the country as any foreigner could. Incredibly, the Communist Party even made him a full member, a rare distinction even among native Chinese.
Rittenberg spent more and more time “making revolution,” which meant attending “struggle sessions” in which colleagues verbally and sometimes physically abused each other, to purge all “reactionary” thought.
His involvement escalated from there. To his wife’s great chagrin, Rittenberg gave away their prized collection of antique furniture and spent more and more time “making revolution,” which in this case meant attending so-called “struggle sessions” in which colleagues verbally and sometimes physically abused each other, to purge all “reactionary” thought. Rittenberg also wrote self-criticisms and gave numerous talks on the Red Guard lecture circuit. Incredibly, he rose to become the number-one man at the government’s Broadcast Administration.
As a result of his expertise and insider status, other foreigners relied on him for information about what was going on. Rittenberg relished his ability not only to gain access to information but also to interpret it correctly. He became the star of the foreign community and was widely respected by the highest Party officials. Premier Zhou Enlai, during an opera performance, once overheard Rittenberg’s small daughters complaining that “Uncle Zhou” was blocking their view of the stage. As Rittenberg and his wife frantically tried to quiet the children, Zhou reached around, lifted first one child and then the other over the seat, and balanced them on his lap for the rest of the performance. The girls were delighted.
For all intents and purposes, “the man who stayed behind” could consider himself a true Chinese Communist, part of the group that was changing the world.
All this changed in February 1968, on what Rittenberg described as the coldest night he could remember, when two members of the Broadcast Administration Security Department arrived to escort him into the back of a black sedan. Rittenberg was shaken. Over the previous few months, his position at work had grown increasingly tenuous as anti-foreign sentiment escalated in Beijing. And as the most celebrated and vocal foreigner in the city, he was an obvious target. He knew that if the sedan went straight at the Xidan crossing, he would simply be discussing work opportunities with colleagues; if it turned left, he was going to prison.
The sedan turned left.
Rittenberg writes that his only comfort lay in knowing his wife and children were safe at home. As it turned out, he was wrong. Another sedan was coming for them.
* * *
Soon after I arrived in Beijing, I embarked on a book-buying mission for my classes with Kate, the other American teacher, and Mrs. Zhang, our friendly, easygoing English Department head. With her permed hair pulled back into a ponytail, a long-sleeved polyester blouse, and a calf-length poodle skirt, Mrs. Zhang looked more like a girl of the 1950s than a woman of the 1990s. Indeed, virtually everyone on campus seemed to be from the fifties — that is, an exceptionally conservative version of the fifties where no one dared wear sleeveless shirts and women never smoked. What’s more, the campus itself was a bleak, dreary place, all concrete and brick with very little greenery, almost aggressively ugly, built to accord with 1950s Stalinist principles of efficiency and economy.
Mrs. Zhang, our friendly, easygoing English Department head, looked more like a girl of the 1950s than a woman of the 1990s.
I was eager to leave the school and see what I hoped was the more cosmopolitan part of Beijing. Cycling through cabbage fields, then boarding a subway downtown, however, I began to realize that the whole city had a 1950s Stalinist feel to it. It was as if China had taken a few tentative steps toward westernization, then become frozen in place when the Communists took over in ’49.
When we finally arrived in Wangfujing, the busiest shopping district in the city, people bustled about on the sidewalks to the point where you could barely move (Ren shan ren hai, as the Chinese would say, meaning literally “People mountain, people sea”). Despite the crowds, though, the shops themselves were strangely empty, with little to buy except cigarette lighters, fountain pens, Mao pins, and posters of Mao, Marx, Engels, and Stalin. Kate bought herself an Engels poster — she liked his impressive salt-and-pepper beard — but I was too depressed to buy anything except the books we needed for our courses. I couldn’t shake the feeling that in my search for a better world, I had inadvertently condemned myself to a year in a land time had forgotten.
As I adjusted, however, I grew to like the slow pace of the city, the sense that it belonged to an earlier, less frantic era. In my free time, of which I had an abundance, I’d get on my bike and cycle to Pingguoyuan, where I’d make my way onto the jam-packed subway going downtown. Since no trendy stores, restaurants, or clubs existed in Beijing at that time, I went into the heart of the city simply to walk around, particularly in its hutongs. These tiny gray soot-streaked alleyways — too narrow for cars, traversable only by bikes and pedicabs — teemed with life. Right on the pavement, barbers clipped hair, cobblers resoled shoes, bicycle repairmen mended flat tires, and tailors ironed clothes. At the same time, children chased each other through the peddlers’ stalls, old men in faded blue Mao jackets gathered by the curb to show off their caged birds, and old women chattered with neighbors, all the while sweeping their doorsteps with twig brooms.
It was here in the hutongs that I found the China I’d been hoping for. It wasn’t trying to sell itself — or, in fact, sell anything. It didn’t assault you like New York. That was the point: it wasn’t about making money . . . it just was. It was a place where no one seemed to worry about the future: All the people knew they’d be taken care of by the state, that they had an “iron rice bowl,” as it was called. True, this meant they could be as rude to you as they pleased. Ticket agents, for example, often closed the counter right in your face, refusing to sell you a train ticket just because they felt like it. Then again, the women in the post office could knit, drink tea, and have a friendly chat with you without fear of being fired. The man who patched my bicycle tires could take his time and joke while he worked. The peddler selling sweet potatoes made a great living, far better than any university professor.
True, people in China didn’t have much in the way of money or luxuries, but they had, I felt, a tremendous gift: the gift of time. Abundant, luxurious time.
Many days I would wander among the hutongs, imagining what my life would be like if I lived in Beijing permanently, if I didn’t have to think about a career or how to support myself. I’d have time to write! To be a real artist! Though I never said it out loud, I felt secretly envious. True, people in China didn’t have much in the way of money or luxuries, but they had, I felt, a tremendous gift: the gift of time. Abundant, luxurious time.
* * *
It was only when Rittenberg saw the red-stained wooden door of his cell with its enormous iron bolt and hasps that he truly realized that he was about to be imprisoned again. He would be held in Qincheng, China’s most notorious high-security prison.
Rittenberg describes his cell as tiny, with a primitive bed propped up on sawhorses, a thin cotton quilt, and a mat. Despite the sub-freezing temperatures, the room had no heat. As meals, he received cabbage soup, steamed cornbread, gruel with salted turnips, rice mixed with pebbles and grit, and a portion of vegetables no bigger than his thumbnail. The shoes they gave him were too small. Just like before, he was placed in solitary confinement and not allowed to talk to other prisoners. This time he was, for some reason — perhaps his status as a foreigner — not physically abused; but the mental abuse was unceasing. His jailors subjected him to endless interrogation sessions, verbal attacks, mind games.
The charges? Although it was never made clear who’d done it, someone had denounced him as a spy.
Rittenberg began rediscovering his faith — if not exactly in America, then at least in the basic principles on which it was founded.
What fascinates me is that, during this period, Rittenberg unconsciously began to adopt a survival strategy opposite to what he used during his first stint in prison. Whereas the first time around, he had tried to squash every vestige of individual personality out of himself, this time he began to whisper under his breath, “I am entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and no one can deprive me of those rights as long as I refuse to give them up.”
In other words, in the heart of Qincheng, symbol of the dark side of his new life, Rittenberg began rediscovering his faith — if not exactly in America, then at least in the basic principles on which it was founded.
* * *
Even in 1991, nothing was what it seemed. My apparently secure and respected position as a university teacher was not so secure after all. Several months into my job at Beifang Gongda, I discovered that Mrs. Zhang, my outwardly affable boss, was warning students not to visit me in my dorm, lest they be corrupted by my wicked Western ways. What’s more, I learned that every class I taught had a spy in it, a student selected by the Party (in this case, Mrs. Zhang) to watch what the American teacher said and how the Chinese students responded.
I learned that every class I taught had a spy in it, a student selected by the Party to watch what the American teacher said and how the Chinese students responded.
The situation didn’t pose any real danger to me — at worst, I risked being kicked out of the country — but if my students said anything against the Party, they could be sent to jobs at factories in the farthest reaches of Qinghai or Gansu Provinces.
For that reason, I never asked my students the questions I was dying to ask about the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square, or what they thought of the future of Communism. And yet, I slowly realized, my students were spirited debaters and their opinions, while couched in allusion, were lively, complicated, and well thought out.
One day, for example, I began our conversation in class innocently enough by asking whether people had the right to put animals in zoos. This quickly became a discussion of human rights: When should the government be allowed to put people in jail? And how should prisoners be treated? As I caught on to what really interested my students, I began to ask carefully worded questions alluding to Chinese citizens and the government: What rights should “children” have in a “family”? When should they defy their “parents’” will?
There was one topic my students had no qualms about discussing explicitly, without the use of metaphors or allusions: the import-export business. While any whiff of political dissent was strictly forbidden, the students were allowed — even encouraged — to talk about business. In fact, import-export was the hot profession to enter, the one attracting the most ambitious young people in the country. Everyone under the age of thirty, it seemed, wanted to buy and sell something, preferably something they could export to America.
America itself, as marketplace and as Ding an sich, was an equally permissible and even more popular topic of discussion. Nearly everyone, young and old, loved talking about it, and when I walked along the streets of Beijing, people would constantly approach me, smiling, eager to practice their English, barraging me with basic phrases such as What is your name? I am very pleased to meet you. Would you like to be my friend?
Everyone under the age of thirty, it seemed, wanted to buy and sell something, preferably something they could export to America.
Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that when it comes to American visual archetypes, I fit the bill pretty well. The attention I got came partly due to being five-eight, thin, and young, with naturally curly blond hair trailing down my back. But while my height and hair color made me stand out, it was when I confirmed that I was American — not French or German or British — that people’s eyes would truly widen with excitement. Does everyone there have a TV and a refrigerator? they demanded to know. Do all Americans have a big house like on Dynasty? (Dynasty was the one American show permitted on Chinese TV, because China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, allegedly loved it. Deng, long an advocate of opening China up to business with the West, no doubt wanted people to be entranced by the materialist fantasy the show depicted.)
One day, when I was bicycling around the hutongs, a middle-aged woman drew her bicycle alongside mine.
“Hallo!” she cried in English. “Are you American?”
Though I delighted in opportunities to talk to people in Chinese, I hated speaking English outside of my official duties at the university. I was trying to immerse myself in the language, after all. I debated ignoring her, then sighed and said yes.
“Oh, wonderful!” she shouted, so overjoyed she practically fell off her bike. “Do you know any American men in Beijing?”
“A few,” I answered, pedaling faster.
In her excitement, she maneuvered her bike so close to mine, we almost collided. “Can you introduce me? I would like a green card to live in your country!”
I glanced over at her. She smiled back — her teeth yellow and slightly crooked, her upturned lips accentuating the wrinkles cut into the grooves along her mouth. She had gray streaks in her hair and a short, thick body. None of the young American men I knew would remotely consider her, not that I would have introduced any of them to her anyway, even if she’d been young and beautiful. Desperation is not an appealing quality.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t help you.”
With that, I pressed harder on the pedals and cycled off. Behind me, I heard her cry, “Wait! Wait!” but I only cycled faster.
I think back on that episode now and wonder — What must it have taken for that woman to come up to me and inquire so boldly about marrying a man for a green card? What circumstances in her life had made her so eager to get out of China that she’d approach a young foreign woman and ask her a question like that? It’s a funny story, yes, but one that has a lot of pathos in the end.
* * *
In 1976, Mao died and the Cultural Revolution ended. Political prisoners were gradually set free as more moderate forces took charge of the country. Rittenberg was released from prison in 1977, nearly ten years after his second arrest, and only then did he learn what had happened to his wife, Yulin, and their children. They’d been imprisoned in a single dark hotel room, under constant surveillance for eight months.
After this horrific experience, the children were freed but subjected to constant abuse by other children who labeled them “spy spawn.” Yulin endured endless beatings and “struggle sessions” at the Broadcast Administration before being sentenced to three years of hard labor in the countryside. During this time, she thought frequently of suicide, but concern for her children stopped her from attempting it. She endured, “eating bitterness” — an expression Mao was fond of using — though she hardly romanticized the term. Far from it, she came to despise everything related to the Cultural Revolution.
When Rittenberg emerged from jail, the government offered him all sorts of incentives to stay in China: a prestigious job, great housing and healthcare, the ability to travel wherever and whenever he wished. These were, most likely, offered as restitution for his wrongful imprisonment, but it’s also true that a man so well versed in both Chinese and American culture was useful to a country now wanting to open up to the West.
Despite these enticements, however, Rittenberg and Yulin no longer wanted to be part of a system that, even if it admitted some of its mistakes, had allowed so many atrocities to occur in the first place. They decided instead to move back to the United States, the place Rittenberg had left thirty-five years earlier, more than half his lifetime ago.
* * *
In the spring of 1992, six months into my stay and soon after Deng Xiaoping supposedly decreed that “to get rich is glorious,” five-star hotels began springing up in Beijing, women started wearing cosmetics, and men donned crisp, up-to-date business suits instead of their old, crumpled polyester pants and shirts. Hutongs were destroyed to make way for franchises and skyscrapers. Going out into the rapidly changing new city, I’d often get lost in my wanderings not because my sense of direction was poor, but because familiar guideposts — hutongs, outdoor markets, old siheyuans with curved cornices and slanting tile roofs — had suddenly disappeared.
By the end of my year, Beijing looked much like New York City, the place I thought I’d left behind. How this transformation had happened — and so quickly — I still have no idea to this day. Mo ming qi miao, as the Chinese say, an idiom that means something like “It’s a mystery.” I only know that by the end of my time in Beijing, I was eating pizza and hanging out in clubs.
I’d often get lost not because my sense of direction was poor, but because familiar guideposts — hutongs, outdoor markets — had suddenly disappeared.
Unsurprisingly, my Chinese students greeted each new hotel, business, and franchise with great enthusiasm, lining up for hours before the first McDonald’s opened. This was, in fact, the biggest event that happened in Beijing the whole year I lived there; my students couldn’t wait to get a taste of the West. Nor did their enthusiasm diminish even after they’d eaten Big Macs and declared the huge beef patties and slabs of slimy cheese on them disgusting.
My own reaction to all this change wasn’t entirely negative. Part of me felt relieved to see nightclubs and movie theaters popping up as well as a few hip boutiques; I missed the stimulation and glamor of New York. Another part of me, though, the part that had come seeking a different way of life, couldn’t understand all the excitement about the West, about making money, about the import-export business. Why throw your life away exporting cheap plastic products to America? Surely there was more to life than that?
Don’t go over to this dark side! I wanted to yell. Don’t buy into the crass materialism of the American Dream!
* * *
Initially, Rittenberg’s decision to move back to the U.S. seemed logical to me — after all, why would you stay in a country that had imprisoned you not once but twice? Upon reflection, though, I have come to a rather different conclusion. To emerge from prison at the age of fifty-six and declare yourself wrong, the Party wrong, the Cultural Revolution wrong, in fact, everything you basically believed in wrong, then start again in a country where you haven’t lived for over thirty years — this is the act of man either very desperate or very courageous. Or, perhaps, both.
Possibly even more surprising than his decision to move back to the U.S., though, was his choice of occupation. He didn’t take a job as a translator, teacher, or journalist, professions you might expect him to adopt. Instead, he and Yulin started a consulting business for capitalists hoping to make inroads into China.
With his flawless command of Mandarin and his connections to nearly every top official in the country, Rittenberg was perfectly positioned to make money — and a lot of it — giving advice to American companies on how to do business in China. To date, Rittenberg & Associates has advised some of the world’s biggest corporations, including Levi Strauss, Intel, and Microsoft.
Rittenberg’s specific mission, he claims, has always been the same: “to continue to labor on the bridge of understanding and cooperation between the peoples of America and China” … only now he does so by bringing businesses to China to boost its economy, improve its telecommunications, and create jobs for ordinary people.
Did Rittenberg renounce his early Communist ideals completely? The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to believe the answer is no. Rittenberg, the “man who stayed behind” and then returned home, has written that in the future “more and more people will examine the possibility of a higher form of society, which could offer powerful economic incentives, as does capitalism, but with more fairness, diversity, and freedom.” What’s more, his specific mission, he claims, has always been the same: “to continue to labor on the bridge of understanding and cooperation between the peoples of America and China” … only now he does so by bringing businesses to China to boost its economy, improve its telecommunications, and create jobs for ordinary people.
Perhaps these are the rationalizations of an old man whose entire world has collapsed around him, but I think not. Rather, I think Rittenberg has learned, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and . . . retain the ability to function.” Fitzgerald calls this the mark of a “first-rate intelligence.” I would add that it is the mark of a mature person, one who has made mistakes and learned from them.
Idealization and demonization are really two sides of the same coin.
I, too, have changed over the years, and so has the way I understand China and Beijing. I no longer romanticize the old Communist city I inhabited twenty-five years ago with its poverty and paranoia. Nor do I completely demonize the new capitalist metropolis that came into being before my eyes with its corruption, overconsumption, and disregard for the environment.
Rather, I’ve come to see that idealization and demonization are really two sides of the same coin: both are easy to do when you’re an outsider. Rittenberg did it, I did it, foreigners in China in the 1960s did it. So, too, did my Chinese students, when they fantasized about America in the 1990s.
In the end, of course, the truth is obvious: There’s no place totally wonderful, no place completely terrible. Recognizing this may be the only real freedom we have.
— — — — —
Julie Anderson’s essays and stories have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Writers on the Job, Other Voices, To-Do List Magazine, and Writing From the Inside Out, as well as various anthologies. Her Ph.D. research addressed the element of orality in classical Chinese, Greek, and Roman poetry. She lived in China in the early 1990s.
Follow up with Julie’s Truth Teller Spotlight interview. You’ll find out what she thinks of truth, honesty, and the writing life.
Mark Wyatt, who contributed three photographs to this piece, has been roaming the world and taking street photos for over thirty years. You can see more of his work on various blogs and crowdsourcing venues.
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