Six years ago Richard Nixon paid his first visit to the People’s Republic of China. His handshake with Mao Tsetung—the two men profiled by the photographer’s flashbulb against the door of the Chairman’s book-lined study—set the seal on a new era in Sino-American relations.1 In 1960, during his televised debates with John F. Kennedy, Nixon had warned his “fellow Americans” that China’s appetite for global conquest was insatiable.

What do the Chinese Communists want? They don’t want just Quemoy and Matsu. They don’t want just Formosa. They want the world.

Now, almost overnight, an entirely different message was to be broadcast to the American public. While the Sino-US joint communiqué called in carefully chosen words for the “normalization” (cheng-ch’ang-hua) of diplomatic relations and for the development of scholarly and cultural exchanges, the television images that were flashed by satellite to America transmogrified the Chinese hordes that had in “human waves” overwhelmed MacArthur’s troops into a friendly population of hard-working peasants, cheerful schoolchildren, and benign officials all eager to improve their own relations with the people of the United States.

As opportunities for travel to China expanded in the months and years after the Nixon visit, this new beneficent image of the Chinese was reinforced even more. Celebrities accompanied by camera crews reported back on prime television time about the congeniality of the Chinese, praising their orderly civic devotion, their public-spirited commitment to collective welfare, and their extraordinary sexual and social egalitarianism. Our own kind of social idealism was almost instantly projected upon the Chinese, exotic though they remained,2 by delegations of loosely categorized “friends of China.”

During that honeymoon period of Sinophilia many Chinese specialists in the United States felt, I think, profoundly uneasy. Partly this may have been because of their fear that somehow the pendulum of American opinion had swung too far in the direction of idealization. For over twenty years most Americans had thought of China as an implacable communist enemy—a “Slavic Manchukuo,” as Dean Rusk once put it. The public image of China was altogether portrayed in lurid primary colors: a red nation of blue ants programmed to sweep over the world like a yellow peril. Most American specialists on Chinese affairs had tried to correct this distorted caricature, or at least shade it more subtly, but progress had been slow. It was with just a touch of proprietary envy, then, that Sinologists watched television commentators throw China open to the public and in a matter of days knock down stereotypes that academics had combated for years. But how could the Chinese ever live up to the new images that were emerging during this period of adulation? And when the public discovered that China was not a social paradise, would Americans, in jilted disappointment, resort again to those earlier demonic caricatures?

For there was no question but that the surface of Chinese society was going to be sharply disturbed during the succession crisis that was sure to erupt when Mao Tse-tung died. Even the least sensitive US China specialists who visited the People’s Republic in 1973-1976 were quickly made aware of the deep divisions that existed just behind the unified façades of “open-door” universities, model rural communes, and nominally productive factories. But while Sinologists did not want to pretend that the sum total of life in the People’s Republic could be found in the pages of China Reconstructs, neither did many—after such a long period of obscurantism—especially relish tearing down that façade for the American public.

Outsiders of Chinese descent had an even more difficult time, I imagine, deciding how to describe the conditions they witnessed. As ethnic Chinese, they were granted deeper glimpses of the inner workings of Chinese society. At the same time, their cultural background made them all the more reluctant to place the People’s Republic in a bad light. If they were sympathetic with the major goals of social improvement of the regime (and impressed with the steps already taken to reach these goals), then they mainly preferred to remain silent about the defects marring this revolutionary society.

There were, of course, insiders who described the darker side of Chinese life during this period. Some, like the subject of Red Guard,3 Dai Siao-ai, reflected the frustration of idealistic Chinese high school students who had been disappointed by the outcome of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution which broke out in 1966. But the perspective of such accounts was quite narrow, and one longed for a more mature account of life within China; one anticipated at some time, perhaps quite far in the future, a truly sensitive insider’s voice.

That voice is now to be heard in Chen Jo-hsi’s The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.4 Chen Johsi, who was born on Taiwan in 1938, was educated at the prestigious National University in Taipei, where she was encouraged by leading members of the “modern literature” (hsien-tai wenhsueh) movement like Yeh Ch’ing-ping and the late Hsia Chi-an to publish a collection of short stories called Spirit Calling (Shou hun). After graduating from the Foreign Languages Department in 1961, Chen Jo-hsi came to the United States to study, first at Mount Holyoke, then after 1963 at Johns Hopkins where she became engaged to Tuan Shih-yao, who was working toward a PhD in fluid mechanics.


During the next few years, a period which coincided with the beginning of direct American military involvement in Vietnam, the two of them, now married, became ardent Maoists. This political conversion was not at all uncommon then, especially for young Chinese graduate students who had been fed a steady diet of anticommunist propaganda in Taiwan, only to learn in the United States of the considerable accomplishments of the People’s Republic of China. Taught in their high school textbooks on Taiwan of the humiliations which China had suffered at the hands of Western imperialists in the nineteenth century and of the Japanese in the twentieth century, intellectuals like Chen Johsi could see that under the leadership of Chairman Mao and the Communist Party the Chinese people had at last “stood on their own feet.”

Their identification with the People’s Republic, therefore, was both militantly nationalist and radically socialist, both politically patriotic and socially idealistic. Professor C.T. Hsia, who teaches Chinese literature at Columbia and knew Chen Jo-hsi and her husband then, has said of them during this period that “in the mutual attachment of youth, they were intoxicated with what seemed to be an extraordinarily noble and self-sacrificing idealism, and this faith was absolutely unshakable.”5 Chen herself has remarked, “We worshipped Chairman Mao then. My husband and I used to read to each other at night from Chairman Mao’s poems and then put his book under our pillows before going to sleep.”6

In 1966, Chen Jo-hsi and her husband, who had by then earned his doctorate, decided to leave the United States for the People’s Republic of China. Their decision to “repatriate” (hui-kuei) to the “fatherland” (tsu-kuo) may have been motivated partly by the knowledge that Chen Jo-hsi was pregnant. In one of her short stories, Chen writes that:

To start with, my husband had not wanted our child to be born in a foreign country, so we had rushed back to China so he could be born here. And even before he was born his school name had already been chosen: Wei-tung—Defend Mao Tse-tung. When he was but a few months old we were lifting him up to look at Chairman Mao’s portrait so that he’d recognize it as he grew up. He would laugh at the sight of his picture, and kick his legs and wave his arms.

Whether or not this was literally true for Chen Jo-hsi herself, she did give birth to a son shortly after reaching China in October, 1966, just as the Cultural Revolution was breaking out all over the country.

For the next two years Chen and her family remained in the Peking Hotel, doing little more than read wall posters, attend meetings to denounce Mayor P’eng Chen, and watch Red Guards march purged leaders like Marshal P’eng The-huai (“arms bound and eyes bulging out under a dunce’s cap”) down the main shopping street of Wang-fuching. The unit that was in charge of overseas Chinese repatriates was in the meantime taken over by militant cultural revolutionaries who “were somewhat antiforeign” as well as rather cavalier about academic specialization. When the time came to assign Chen’s husband, Tuan Shih-yao, to a post, the Red Guard cadre brushed aside his requests to teach or do research on fluid mechanics and instead ordered him to report for work at a waterworks institute in Nanking. After all, they said, water was a fluid, wasn’t it?7

In February, 1969, Chen Jo-hsi and her husband reported for work at the East China Hydraulic Engineering College (Hua-tung shui-li yuan) in Nanking only to find that this school, like every other institution of higher learning in China, had been shut down by the Red Guards. After three months digging coal, Tuan Shih-yao was transferred to northern Kiangsu to undergo “reform through labor” on a May Seventh collective farm.8 One of Chen Jo-hsi’s stories, “Night Duty,” is about that experience, and the chief character, a repatriated mathematician named Liu Hsiang-tung, is a thinly disguised representation of her husband.

For Liu Hsiang-tung the experience of labor reform was devastating. When, in the story, Liu first arrived at the May Seventh School he had been profoundly stirred by the testimonials given by the previous “class.”


At the earlier meeting he had listened to the previous group of teachers get up and expound emotionally on the effects of their having joined in the reeducation process under the poor, lower, and middle peasants in northern Kiangsu province. They had waxed enthusiastic about how their views of life had changed and how their convictions had completely turned around. For them it had been a rebirth. Some teachers had even wept profusely, and he himself had been so moved by what he heard that he clenched his hands into tight fists and his palms were wet with perspiration.

But on the farm, working in the flat endless fields or engaging in listless discussions of The State and Revolution during the campaign against Lin Piao, Liu Hsiang-tung felt himself growing weak and lifeless.

In truth, he could not say when this feeling of helplessness had set in, but it was certainly intensifying as the days passed. He could not help being surprised that within a year of his return to the fatherland his state of mind should have undergone such a great change. He seemed to be getting old before his time. How long was it since he and some close friends, all determined idealists, had stood facing the icy cliffs of the Grand Tetons and recited Chairman Mao’s poem “Snow”? Loudly and clearly they had sung the words, “For men of talent the time is now.” Where had this proud, brave spirit disappeared to?

Liu Hsiang-tung was also disheartened by the debasement suffered by some of the intellectuals he met at the May Seventh School. Lao Fu, for instance, had been a promising senior lecturer at Central University before the Cultural Revolution began. Now, after being anonymously denounced and jailed without cause, Lao Fu passed his days on the farm punching small kerosene stoves out of old tin cans and occasionally reminiscing about his life before he had lost his job and had been sentenced to labor reform.

“I used to love books. Aside from the books of my trade, I especially loved literature and history. My father had studied literature and left me a great many books. Then since I was an avid book-buyer myself, I collected some eight or nine hundred volumes. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, during the tearing down of the ‘four olds’—old culture, old customs, old habits and old thoughts—I burned all my old copies of the traditional books. Afterward, as the new writers started to fall, one by one, I didn’t have the time to sort them out, so I just borrowed a wooden cart and took the whole lot to the garbage station and sold them as waste paper for four cents a catty. Since then, except for Mao’s Selections, I haven’t bought a single book.”

Statements like that left Liu Hsiang-tung speechless.

Hsiang-tung couldn’t say a word. A picture he had often seen in TV documentaries flashed across his mind: Chairman Mao receiving foreign visitors, and behind him bookcases filled with books, all valuable treasures…. “Why do I read books?” he suddenly asked himself. If Chairman Mao is the only one left in the entire country who reads and collects books, then what sort of future is there for Chinese culture? And what has the Cultural Revolution done to culture? A whole string of questions crowded his mind, until his head felt like bursting, while his heart felt empty.

Thus, when the time came for Liu Hsiang-tung to describe his own ideological rebirth to the next “class” of new arrivals at the May Seventh School, he knew that “he could not be like the others—emotional, eloquent, singing praises, just like players in a splendid drama.” Instead, Liu volunteered to serve on night duty and left the shamming to others.

Chen Jo-hsi’s husband, Tuan Shihyao, may also have found it increasingly difficult to feign enthusiasm at similar meetings in his own May Seventh School in northern Kiangsu. While Tuan wrestled with his own disillusionment, Chen Jo-hsi, who by then was pregnant again, remained with her little son at the Hydraulic Engineering College in Nanking, helping take care of the more than thirty children whose parents were undergoing labor reform elsewhere. Like everyone else around her, Chen Jo-hsi became deeply involved in the mass campaigns, one after the other, that marked the rhythm of the Cultural Revolution. First came the Loyalty Campaign (Chung-tzu hua yün-tung) of 1969, dedicated to the cult of Chairman Mao.

I went out for four hours every night after a full day’s work to take my turn at embroidering the huge portrait of Chairman Mao. In response to the call from the rebel faction, every wall in our home, except in the kitchen and the toilet, was plastered with Chairman Mao’s portraits, poetry, calligraphy, and the like. It was not until his wife, Chiang Ch’ing, began to feel that all of this was too vulgar and gave the order to stop, that we took them all down.

The following year Chen Jo-hsi participated in the I-ta san-fan (One Attack and Three Antis) campaign against counterrevolutionaries, corruption, waste, and opportunism. That campaign was in full swing when suddenly, “on orders from above,” yet another campaign was newly launched against the mysterious May Sixteenth Group, an organization of ultra-leftists supposedly allied with Chiang Ch’ing against Chou En-lai.9 Nanking was said to be the main base of the group, which had supposedly infiltrated the People’s Liberation Army, so that the purge conducted by the Nanking military commander, General Hsu Shih-yu, was particularly severe. Military propaganda teams took over all educational institutions, including the Hydraulic Engineering College, where hundreds of people fell under suspicion of belonging to the shadowy counterrevolutionary organization.

In one of her most dismaying stories, entitled “Jen Hsiu-lan,” Chen Jo-hsi describes the public rallies she attended during this period of terror.

Nanking University had been a model for all the colleges in Nanking, and that was no less true during this campaign. I still remember vividly the first May Sixteenth Confession Meeting sponsored by the university. It was a hot day, and the sun shone fiercely on the more than 20,000 people sitting in the huge, heavily guarded athletic field. One by one the May Sixteenth elements were forced up onto a high platform, where they were publicly accused. They then confessed amid tears and hysterical sobbing, some of them even fainting on the stage. Among the offenders was one who had been collecting incorrect sayings of Mao Tse-tung with the intention of using them for the “usurpation of power” when the time was right. There was a Red Guard who had taken a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf while ransacking the library, and after studying the book thoroughly, he had made it his personal bible. There were also some who had been classmates for years, sharing the same quarters, and even some couples who had been married for over thirty years, who were completely unaware of each other’s membership in this dreaded gang. The audience was badly shaken; I personally was absolutely dazed.

Jen Hsiu-lan, the fictional protagonist of the story, had been the Party Secretary at the Nanking Hydraulic Engineering College. When the narrator (who is clearly Chen Jo-hsi herself) had first arrived at the college she had been thrilled to hear that Jen—an older woman with slightly graying hair and an air of quiet authority—had fought as a guerrilla against the Japanese and the Nationalists. Chen Jo-hsi was therefore dumbfounded to learn now that Jen Hsiu-lan was being denounced as a May Six-teenth element. Some of the other members of the college, however, were not surprised and actually welcomed her arrest:

“She’s an old fox!” Hsia Lao-shih said. “At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution she sided with one group while attacking another, purging many rebel groups in the process. Now when the call is ‘cadres step to the side’ she’s the first to fall. As far as I’m concerned, she’s getting what’s coming to her!”

Detention meant, in effect, being put through a special “study class.” According to Chen Jo-hsi, “the target of each study class was constantly surrounded by five or six people who ‘studied’ together day and night, slept in the same room, ate together, and even went to the toilet together.” In the case of Jen Hsiu-lan, the prisoner was housed in a four-room cottage set apart from the rest of the college.

Three of the rooms were furnished with tables, chairs, and benches. Two of them had evidently been used by the guards for their meetings, as the walls were covered with portraits of Mao Tse-tung and various rousing slogans…. The third room must have been where Jen Hsiu-lan’s thought-reform sessions had taken place, since the walls were all covered with huge black characters and six-inch-long exclamation marks. The slogans exhorted her to “Bow Your Head and Confess!” and “Turn Back to the Shore!” One read “Even in Death There Is No Place to Hide!”

According to Chen Jo-hsi’s short story, the exits from the cottage were barred with timbers, but one day, after managing to go to the toilet alone, Jen Hsiu-lan pried off the bars over the back window and escaped.

The moment the escape was discovered, the entire college was mobilized to search for the missing cadre. Government officials telegraphed the security bureau in Jen Hsiu-lan’s hometown, college representatives watched the docks in case she tried to take a riverboat, and even the young children under Chen Jo-hsi’s supervision were enlisted to beat the bushes on the school grounds. It was not until several days had passed, however, that Jen Hsiu-lan was finally found. While Chen Jo-hsi and her students poked through Jen Hsiu-lan’s few belongings inside the detention house, some of the other children searched the grounds around the cesspit behind the toilet. It was they who found her corpse and called for their teacher to come.

It was little Ming who grabbed my hand and pulled me around the corner of the house to a spot beneath the toilet window. The children were gathered in a tight circle, starting wide-eyed at something. Some of them were covering their noses, while several of the younger ones were hiding behind the others, their hands over their faces in fright. They quickly moved back to let me get a closer look. What I saw was the three-foot-square cesspool solidly filled with some object.

“Jen Hsiu-lan!”

The suicide of Jen Hsiu-lan was denounced in public meetings at the college. For daring to kill herself “in the face of the people,” she was ceremonially expelled from the Communist Party. And then yet another campaign began; yet another complete turnabout occurred. In September 1971, Lin Piao—Mao’s chosen successor—attempted to lead a military coup against the Chairman, and when his plot was exposed, tried to fly to the Soviet Union, crashing in Mongolia. This bizarre incident strengthened Chiang Ch’ing’s hand, provoking a new campaign against what was called the right wing. All the May Sixteenth elements who had confessed before now insisted that they had been tortured by rightists, and as the May Sixteenth elements were pronounced innocent and set free, their former accusers were named followers of Lin Piao and forced to take their place in detention. “The wheel of class struggle rolled on, and very soon May Sixteenth became a historical note in Nanking, a memory of terror touched with absurdity.” But for Chen Jo-hsi the haunting figure of Jen Hsiu-lan—who was neither exonerated nor justified—continued to live as a symbol of the tragic arbitrariness of political struggle during Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution.

In 1972, after giving birth to another boy, Chen Jo-hsi was sent to Shanghai’s Worker’s University (Kung-jen ta-hsueh) to learn how model workers taught English. Then she returned to the Hydraulic Engineering College in Nanking where she was soon rejoined by her husband, who had finally completed his labor reform. Although Tuan Shih-yao may have been disillusioned by the experience of working on a May Seventh farm, he seems to have continued to want to be accepted as a regular Chinese citizen, so that each of his sons, “born and raised under the red flag, would grow up as an accepted member of the eight hundred million people, living a peaceful life without the burden of any previous ideology.” But by now, Tuan Shih-yao was growing terribly afraid that his own personal record might prevent this from happening.

Again and again in these stories of contemporary Chinese life, Chen Jo-hsi reminds her readers of the importance of one’s personal political record and of one’s class background. People born with a good class background10 had enormous social advantages over someone unfortunate enough to have descended from a landlord or one of the other “black” class categories. Yet even the most impeccable class credentials could not save one from harassment if that person had a record of incorrect political behavior. In one of the stories in The Execution of Mayor Yin, Chen Jo-hsi tells how a little girl named Hsiao Hung, whose father was a Party member with an excellent class background, was accused anonymously by a member of her kindergarten class of having said that “Chairman Mao is a rotten egg.” The school authorities were so alarmed by this “reactionary slogan” that they despatched an investigation team that same night to question the youngster at home and solemnly record the interrogation on tape.

Poor Hsiao Hung, only four years old, and already she had all of this recorded against her. The tape would be filed away, and if in the future she did anything out of line it would be brought out to prove that she had been a “reactionary since childhood.”

Repatriates were usually classified simply as students or as intellectuals and so escaped the possible stigma of a “black” class background. In Tuan Shih-yao’s case, however, there was his family’s political record to consider. Tuan’s father had in the past served in the Nationalist Army on Taiwan; and, knowing what he did now, Tuan Shihyao dreaded the day when that information would become known and hence filed as part of his own record, to be used against him and his children whenever they did anything “out of line.” At the same time, he and his wife appear to have felt—and one has to read between the lines of such stories as “Chairman Mao Is a Rotten Egg” to detect this sentiment—that their sons were being changed in ways that they had not foreseen. At one point Chen Jo-hsi writes about the comic books which her son was reading:

I could tell at a glance that they were the usual comic books about catching special agents. I said nothing, although I really didn’t like these children’s books, for they fill the children’s minds with the concept of spies and special agents. In [the child’s] mind there were only two kinds of people in the world: the good ones and the spies. It was as though China had become a nation of spies.

Whether because of Tuan’s immediate fear that his own political record would be ruined by news of his father’s service for the Nationalists, or because of Chen Jo-hsi’s concern for her children, the two of them decided early in 1973 to request to be allowed to leave China. By then Nixon had come and gone and the social controls upon American-trained repatriates had loosened somewhat. Nevertheless, by the mere act of requesting permission to leave, Chen Jo-hsi was regarded by many of her neighbors as being tantamount to a traitor. In fact there was even reason to believe that she and her husband might be arrested. But permission was eventually received, and on November 14, 1973, Chen Jo-hsi and her family left Canton by train, arriving that same day in Kowloon across from the island of Hong Kong.

During the fretful time while Chen Jo-hsi was waiting at the Hydraulic Engineering College for permission to leave Nanking, a cadre had one night under cover of darkness slipped into their rooms in the residence compound. If Chen Jo-hsi did get permission to leave, the cadre said, then he hoped that she would write about what she had experienced in China and express her true feelings. Chen had refused to promise this, and the cadre had left in disappointment. For Chen Jo-hsi had not written anything creative since becoming a Maoist, when she had renounced her earlier work as mere “mannerist art,” and she did not now intend to write about her life in the People’s Republic.

Perhaps this was because of patriotism. “In the final analysis, I am a Chinese,” she has one of her repatriates say in “The Execution of Mayor Yin”: “how I feel is my business, but defending the national image is a moral obligation.” During that train ride to Kowloon Chen Jo-hsi had strengthened this resolve, feeling that the past was bygone and refusing to dwell upon it any more. But living in impersonal Hong Kong and teaching school eight hours a day, she had found herself thinking back again and again to her seven years’ experience of living in the People’s Republic, recalling the friends she had made and feeling that much had been left undone. Gradually she became so overwhelmed by the compulsion to write about those experiences that she finally took up her pen once more and set it to paper.11

The fruits of this determination was the short story, “Mayor Yin” (Yin-hsien-chang), which was published in the Hong Kong monthly Ming Pao in November 1974, a year after she had left the People’s Republic. Written with dramatic economy, the story described a small town in southern Shensi where Red Guards had returned from Peking to lead an attack against the local Party apparatus. To divert attention from himself, the Party Secretary made a scapegoat of the town’s mayor, a former Kuomintang soldier who had joined the Communists during the civil war and who had served the regime loyally ever since. The attacks on Mayor Yin were groundless, but the Red Guards turned his trial into a test of their own zeal and purpose by calling out for Yin’s immediate execution. As the Red Guards invoked Mao’s name, Mayor Yin himself—confused in all but his determination to honor the Chairman—joined in, continuing to shout even after the others’ voices had died down.

“His arms were pinned behind him, and his glasses had fallen off, but his head was high. His face was waxen, and his eyes were staring straight ahead as he shouted over and over: ‘Long live Chairman Mao! Long live Chairman Mao!’ We were all stunned. The only sound was his lone voice.”

And even as the Red Guards dragged Mayor Yin out to the execution ground in a nearby canyon, he continued to call out praises to Chairman Mao.

“They tied Mayor Yin to a wooden stake that had been stuck in among the rocks. As they pointed their rifles at him, he raised his head and shouted again, ‘Long live the Communist Party! Long live Chairman Mao!’ His eyes were bulging as though they would burst from their sockets, and his lips were bleeding from biting them. Everyone was scared out of their wits. How could they open fire on such slogans? They had to stop him from shouting. [One Red Guard] had a large handkerchief, so he went up and stuffed it into his mouth. Then the executioners began to fire. This time there was no shouting, no cheers. No one wanted to go up for a closer look. The body just hung limply from the wooden stake, completely alone.”

The publication of “Mayor Yin” caused a great stir among the Chinese-reading community outside the Chinese mainland. There had been dramatic accounts of Red Guard depredations published before,12 but none carried the impact of this piece—probably because, despite the vividness of the scene just described, the tone of the story was deliberately understated. Chen Jo-hsi managed in “Mayor Yin,” as well as in many of the other stories in this collection, to convey the authenticity of these events precisely because she was able to “keep the narrator cool and passive”: sufficiently detached to be a convincing witness while sympathetic enough to arouse the reader’s involvement.13

As “Mayor Yin” was followed by other publications in 1975 and 1976, Chen Jo-hsi’s appeal as a writer continued to grow. The beautifully written story “Keng Erh in Peking” told of a lonely forty-nine-year-old repatriate, originally from Shanghai, who had returned to China with his American doctoral degree. Unable to adjust completely to life in the new China, Keng Erh is repeatedly forestalled from getting married either because his background or that of his fiancée has become politically suspect. In another short story, “Residency Check,” a vivacious young woman is persecuted by petty minded neighbors and priggish cadres for having an extramarital affair. Both stories showed how private feelings were repeatedly exposed to public meddling.

In 1976, after Chen Jo-hsi and her family had moved to Vancouver, where they now live, a slightly censored collection of her short stories was published in Taipei under the title Yin hsien-chang (Mayor Yin). With the book’s appearance, Chen was awarded the Sun Yatsen Literary Prize, and even though she did not collect the award herself, the limelight to which her work was exposed in Kuomintang-controlled Taiwan made her a favorite of the anticommunist regime. Chen Jo-hsi did not encourage this development, but there was little that she could do to avoid being classified as a fan-kung tso-chia (anticommunist author), even though so stark a label failed to do justice to her own ambivalent views about China.14 Now that her stories are finally available in English, there is a similar risk that Western readers, avid for an exposé of the “real” China behind all those Potemkin villages that Simon Leys has unveiled,15 will simplify Chen Jo-hsi’s accounts of life in China to the point of deforming them.

The Execution of Mayor Yin certainly does contain an abundance of embarrassments for the China Travel Service, which has done such an excellent job of showing the best side of the People’s Republic to foreign visitors. American readers will be particularly interested in stories like “The Big Fish,” which is about a Nanking dockworker who goes to market to buy some fish for his sick wife on the day that one of the contingents of American newsmen accompanying Richard Nixon is expected to pay a visit to the city. Arriving at the marketplace just off of Drum Tower Circle in downtown Nanking, the old worker sees the fish stalls glistening with large sweet-tasting ch’ing fish. Although he can barely afford to buy one, the worker is so excited by the sight of this usually unobtainable treat that he decides to pay the stallkeeper’s exorbitant price. But then, as he jubilantly steps out of the market with his prize, he is accosted by an officious cadre who forces him to return the fish to the stall and get his money back.

As he stood there, dazed, a bystander came up and said to him, “You don’t seem to know the ropes, do you? Before the foreign visitors have come to look, they won’t sell any of the good things. We’re all waiting until the foreigners have come and gone before we try to buy any of the specials.”

“The Big Fish” is not one of Chen Jo-hsi’s best stories, perhaps because it does seem somewhat contrived. But the situation is not implausible. Last summer I stopped at a large well-stocked food store just off of that same Drum Tower Circle in Nanking in search of a birthday present for a friend. My eye was caught by a stall displaying numerous fancy teas in large tin cans. First I asked for some hard-to-get Lung-ching tea from Hangchow. The women behind the counter said that they didn’t stock that brand. How about some of that, then? I asked, pointing to a large can of tea on the shelves behind the counter. No, they couldn’t sell me that tea either. Then what about that brand? By then, embarrassed by my obstinance, the older of the two clerks pulled the second can off of the shelf and opened it for me. “See? It’s empty.” Are the other cans empty? I asked. “Yes,” she answered, “they are empty too.”

This is not to say that expensive consumer goods are impossible to purchase in China (I got my friend a tin of chocolates instead), but most foreign visitors to the People’s Republic are not only unaware that rationing exists or that the most desirable goods and services are often gotten by “going through the back door” (tsou hou-men); they also often seem oblivious to their hosts’ efforts to construct a different kind of reality for them. Chen Jo-hsi’s revelations will certainly make that kind of blissful ignorance much harder to sustain in the future. In one very amusing account, the repatriated Keng Erh visits Kweilin where he is fortunate enough to get a ticket to ride on one of the crowded tour boats along the eerily beautiful Li River. Their boat is soon passed by another craft bearing foreign guests.

A man and a woman were seated in the prow: the man dark-skinned and with a high nose, looking somewhat Indian; the woman obviously part Asian. There was a ring of people, all dressed like mid-level cadre members, standing around this foreign couple, and a fancy tea service, including watermelon and other snacks, was laid out on the table before them.

Keng Erh recognizes the woman as the boat sweeps past them. She is none other than the celebrated author Han Suyin, who has written and spoken so frequently about China’s accomplishments under Chairman Mao. Not long after the special boat passes them, they come upon it again, drifting without power, and the captain of their own passenger vessel motors over to help make repairs.

The motor on the special boat was soon running again, and it continued on its way. As the distance between the two boats lengthened rapidly, it was obvious that the regular tour boat was not moving at all! The passengers were then informed that their trip was cancelled because the motor had been removed and placed in the foreign visitors’ boat.

The incident may be apocryphal, but if it did occur, my guess would be that the mid-level cadre members said nothing at all to the famous author about the other passengers’ unwitting sacrifice.

Of all the stories about foreign visitors, “Nixon’s Press Corps” sounds most authentic. According to this firstperson account by Chen Jo-hsi, Nixon’s arrival in China was preceded by three months of cadre-led study in order to explain to the Chinese people why, after twenty years of attacking American imperialism, the Chinese government was now welcoming the president of the United States to its shores. The months of study were also intended to prepare the populace for Nixon’s press corps. Street committees prepared sample questions that American journalists might ask, “so that everyone could practice giving appropriate answers.” The people were also drilled in the proper attitudes to take toward “excess of picture taking,” and residents who were deemed untrustworthy were encouraged to stay inside, out of view, when the newsmen came. This was because of the rumor that during Henry Kissinger’s second visit to China, a woman had “dashed out to accost him with a written complaint as his car was passing along Changan Boulevard” in Peking.

The woman was immediately rushed away by plainclothes police and thrown in jail, and Kissinger apparently did not notice the incident. But even in Nanking where there was only a possibility of a visit by the press corps, there was still the fear that counterrevolutionaries might approach the American journalists. The American-educated narrator of Chen Jo-hsi’s story quickly volunteered not to leave her room when the press corps came, but she refused to obey the cadre who told her sternly that she should also emulate her neighbors and take down the bamboo-and-wire laundry rack that she had painstakingly constructed over her window, because the authorities deemed such makeshift devices unsightly.

Perhaps she refused because of the pettiness of the suggestion, or perhaps because of the contempt for Nixon which she had acquired from a liberal college roommate in America. In any case, the narrator would not remove her rack, and had to suffer the scorn and anger of the neighborhood cadre. As it turned out, all of these preparations proved unnecessary. With the exception of two French reporters who desultorily stopped off for a brief stroll around New Market Square, Nixon’s press corps passed up Nanking in favor of Hangchow. In Chen Jo-hsi’s dormitory family after family began putting up its laundry racks again, but “long after Nixon had left China and arrived back in the United States, the drying racks in our dormitory had still not been completely rebuilt.”

The incident of the laundry rack is plausible because it is so very trivial. Yet it commands our attention because it really does provide a behind-the-scenes account of a great public drama, even though the touring company never actually played on this particular stage. It will strengthen the skepticism of American readers who have already been impressed by Simon Leys’s powerful polemic, Chinese Shadows. Because Leys has written an appreciation of Chen Jo-hsi’s work in the introduction to The Execution of Mayor Yin, an association will inevitably be made between the two of them. It would be unfortunate if this were to lead Chen Jo-hsi’s readers to misconstrue her own intention. It would be too easy, just at a time when American public opinion is swinging away from admiration toward deprecation of China, to see Chen mainly as a writer who is stripping away the mask that covers the face of Big Brother. But, as Leys himself takes pains to point out, that would be a considerable misinterpretation.

Chen Jo-hsi is not writing the kind of political essay that Orwell intended in 1984. Rather, she has felt compelled to write about her seven years in the People’s Republic in order to give expression to the “sufferings and feelings” of the Chinese people.16 In her accounts the people of China transcend its politics, and it is their power of survival that Chen Jo-hsi ultimately celebrates.

I used to think of the Chinese as existing as a matter of course, living with life itself, without having any choice in the matter. It has only been during these past few years that I have come to understand that from the very beginning the Chinese people have been both tragic and resolute, to be cherished just as much as they have to be respected. It doesn’t matter if one is just an ordinary sort of person. In one’s own self that individual crystallizes thousands of years of history and of culture. One has one’s own dignity.17

These are not complex notions, but neither are they altogether unambiguous. Americans who care to look for more than just the dictatorship behind the mask will discover in the core of Chen Jo-hsi’s work a deep tension. She continues to admire the Chinese people’s accomplishments during this quarter-century of revolution. At the same time, however, she cries out against a system which demeans the integrity of the individual’s emotions. The most fundamental lesson that Chen Jo-hsi draws from seven years in China is that politics must not be allowed to take total command. “I can never forget the kind of dread which is created by ‘Giving Prominence to Politics’ (t’u-ch’u cheng-chih) and which has seeped into the very bloodstream of the people. And that is why I choose to write.”18

This Issue

July 20, 1978