The relationship between China and the United States is extraordinarily
complex, seemingly made up of equal parts hope, racism, & misunderstanding.
The hope is a product of over a century's worth of Protestant missionaries
trying to bring the Good Word to an enormous population of potential converts
and of millions of Chinese immigrants finding economic opportunity here
in the States. The racism too flows both ways, with each nation's
people believing the other's to be barbarians. The mutual misunderstanding
comes from myriad sources, but probably has its greatest impetus in the
most fundamental difference between the two cultures, the difference which
paradoxically serves as the main attractant and repellent between the two
: American openness and Chinese reserve. In a sense, what each
values in the other is what it has least of itself. The image of
the "Ugly American," though partly a caricature, is also fair to
the extent that it's a product of our inability to keep our opinions, ideas,
and feelings to ourselves. Meanwhile, the competing image of the
"inscrutable Oriental," though freighted with racist overtones, reflects
American inability to understand people who don't "share" as much of themselves
as we do. It's easy to see then that two peoples who are so different
would find each other intriguing. Daughter of China plumbs
these themes, both on a personal and a political level, and, though a little
uneven, serves as a valuable look at one Chinese woman's confrontation
with East and West.
Meihong Xu was raised in the rural village of Lishi. A devoted
Maoist from an early age, even to the point of allowing political suspicions
to color her perceptions of her father and a devoted Aunt, she joined the
People's Liberation Army in 1981 and was chosen to become one of the "twelve
pandas," a dozen young women selected for an elite intelligence unit and
sent for special training at the prestigious Institute for International
Relations in Nanjing. Once there however, she became a disciple of
an at least mildly pro-Western officer, known as "the Coffee General"
for his Western ways, including a preference for coffee over tea.
He hoped to open an institute which would immerse trainees in American
culture and so Meihong was sent in 1988 to the Center for Chinese and American
Studies, a joint venture of Johns Hopkins and Nanjing University.
There, in addition to her studies, she was asked by a friend in the Ministry
of State Security to keep an eye on Larry Engelmann, an American instructor
they suspected of spying.
In accordance with her assignment she cultivated a relationship with
Engelmann, but soon found him too naive and trusting too conceivably be
an intelligence operative. Moreover, his innocence, good humor and
emotional openness was so appealing to her that she found herself becoming
enamored with him. Engelmann, for his part, lonely, unhappy, and
thousands of miles from home, fell in love with her. But their
nascent relationship was abruptly ended when Chinese Intelligence ordered
Engelmann out of the country and arrested and interrogated Xu, apparently
motivated in large part by the desire of certain elements within the government
to use her to get at the Coffee General and other pro-West officials.
Xu ended up being expelled from the PLA and sent back to her village, to
work as a peasant. But she eventually got word to Engelmann in the
States and the remainder of the book details their efforts to get her out
Though the story is billed a romance, there's an awkward unreality to
the relationship between Xu and Engelmann, who seem at times to be in love
with the idea of each other more than with the actual person. But
the political portrait of modern China more than makes up for any weaknesses
in the love angle. Meihong Xu's journey from committed daughter of
the revolution to doubt-filled young adult to San Jose, California makes
for really compelling reading. One of the most unfortunate aspects
of the American-Chinese relationship, and this I think is mostly a product
of latent racism, is that we in the West do not take seriously the
mass murder, repression, and aggression of China's Communist government.
We are all too willing to minimize their crimes, or excuse them altogether,
as an unfortunate byproduct of an understandable nationalist reaction to
decades of Western imperialism.
It would be better for all concerned, but especially for the people
of China, if we in the West understood the reality of life there better.
The best way to develop this understanding is for a dissident literary
tradition to emerge, as it did in the Soviet Union. This has begun
to happen with books like this one, the works of Anchee Min (other than
the unfortunate Becoming
Madame Mao), and other authors like Ha
Jin. Most significantly, Philip
Short's great recent biography of Mao goes a long way to revising the
largely benign view of him, and the recently released Tiananmen
Papers may prove a turning point similar to the publication of Solzhenitsyn's
devastating Gulag Archipelago.
The ultimate value of this book then lies not in its love story, which
is charming enough though ultimately not terribly compelling (to anyone
but the participants); it lies instead in its revelatory portrait of one
young woman's experiences in Red China, a nightmare world no less repressive
and monstrous than the USSR. In this regard it is invaluable and
I recommend it to anyone who still harbors the belief that Maoist China
has been qualitatively different from any of the old Iron Curtain regimes.
The link is a speech transcript of Ross Terrill, who discussed his book on the relationship between the Chinese empire and American foreign policy. The lecture was held at Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs. When you have a moment, please let me know if this is at all possible. Thanks, Vivek