Americans in China: Encounters with the People’s Republic — An Interview with Terry Lautz

Cover of Americans in China: Encounters with the People's Republic, by Terry Lautz

When historian and lifetime AAS member Terry Lautz arrived in mainland China for the first time in December 1978, he visited a country that had been slowly mending ties with the United States after a rift of more than two decades. By the time he departed the mainland three weeks later, Sino-American relations had undergone a momentous shift: Lautz’s trip had coincided with President Carter’s announcement that the United States would establish “normalized” relations with the People’s Republic on January 1, 1979. This pivot ushered in a new—though still often fraught—era of contact and exchange between the countries.

Lautz’s 1978 trip straddled the move from unofficial to official American recognition of the PRC, but as he makes clear in his recent book, Americans in China: Encounters with the People’s Republic (Oxford University Press, 2022), there was never a time when contact entirely ceased. Even in the depths of the Cold War, Sino-American ties were maintained by individuals, and it is that people-to-people engagement that Lautz highlights in this volume with profiles of thirteen Americans whose life and work have intersected with various aspects of the U.S.-China relationship. Those personal connections ensured that links between the countries could always be restored, even when high politics caused a breakdown in formal diplomatic relations. Across the ups and downs of more than seventy years, Lautz’s book tells personal stories to illustrate how “America’s bond with China is volatile, unpredictable, and complex”—and also unable to be broken, even when it frays.

After reading Americans in China, I interviewed Terry Lautz by email to learn more about his work.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham: Your previous book was a focused look at the life of John Birch, an American missionary who fought in China during World War II prior to his death in 1945. How did you move from writing one extended biography to a book that contains thirteen short profiles?

Terry Lautz: It was actually the other way around! During a fellowship at the Wilson Center, I was planning to write short biographies of Americans who had lived and worked in China when I stumbled on the unlikely story of John Birch. How did a missionary-turned-soldier in China become the namesake for the right-wing, anti-communist John Birch Society? Researching and writing his story was a fascinating five-year detour before I returned to the profiles featured in Americans in China.

MEC: As you explain in the introduction to Americans in China, the topic and format parallel those of To Change China, by Jonathan Spence, while you also note some of the shortcomings of that book. In what ways did you regard To Change China as a model for your work, and in what ways did you develop your own approach and style?

TL: Jonathan Spence was a brilliant scholar and a masterful writer who brought Chinese history to life through stories centered around people. I had always admired To Change China: Western Advisers to China for this reason and because it shed light on Sino-Western interactions from multiple perspectives. Americans in China picks up pretty much where Spence left off with the advent of the PRC. My approach was different because Westerners were suddenly confronted by a united Chinese nation that was no longer beholden to outsiders—although the Soviet Union had tremendous influence during the 1950s. So the key question for me was not how Westerners sought to “change China” but how they were changed by an anti-imperialist Communist China. My approach was also different because I wanted to include women and Chinese Americans; Spence wrote only about white men.

MEC: As I read Americans in China, I kept thinking that it would be an excellent book to use or excerpt in an undergraduate course. The life stories you tell are compelling and illustrative of major moments in U.S.-China relations over the past seven decades, and I can imagine students really connecting with them. If you had to recommend only one or two chapters to use in course materials, which ones would you suggest, and why?

TL: If I could only choose two chapters, I’d contrast Joan Hinton and Sid Engst with Elizabeth Perry. Hinton, a nuclear physicist, and Engst, a dairy farmer, were both in China when the Communists came to power in 1949. They married, became devout Maoists, and stayed in the PRC for the rest of their lives. I wanted to know how they became true believers and why they stayed that way even after the horrors of the Great Famine and Cultural Revolution.

Elizabeth Perry was born in China, where her parents were missionaries, and grew up in Japan. She teaches Chinese politics at Harvard and is a former AAS president. In her youth, she idealized the Chinese revolution but was disenchanted when she finally was able to see China with her own eyes as a visiting scholar at Nanjing University in 1979. Her story led me to ask why she and others romanticized the Chinese Communists only later to be disillusioned. These two chapters reflect the bipolar thinking that has characterized American responses to the PRC.   

MEC: I expect that one of the most difficult aspects of writing a book like this one is selecting the figures to include and deciding who will be left out. Which profile was the most difficult to develop? Were there any people you wanted to profile but couldn’t get enough material on? Is there a person or group not represented in the book that you would have liked to include?

TL: After consulting with a number of friends and colleagues, I selected people whose stories represented some of the key themes in Sino-American relations: politics, diplomacy, science, law, business, culture, journalism, scholarship, human rights. All of them had spent significant time in China, which ruled out some influential figures like Michel Oksenberg. Among many others, I considered the architect I.M. Pei and the missile scientist Qian Xuesen, but their stories were already quite well known.

Perhaps the most difficult but interesting chapter was writing about two of the twenty-one American Korean War POWs who voluntarily went to “Red” China when the war ended. Their largely unknown stories highlighted the ideological confrontation between China and the United States—which is still very much with us today. One of the men I wrote about, Clarence Adams, was an African American who wanted to escape U.S. racism and accepted the idea that the Communist system was superior. He went to Wuhan University, married a Chinese woman, had two children, and worked at the Foreign Languages Press. So he had more opportunities in China than would have been possible in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

I would have liked to include profiles from a younger generation of Americans who have experienced a more prosperous, cosmopolitan, and confident PRC. I did write, in my introduction, about the long-forgotten story of a American youth group that visited China in 1957, defying the opposition of the U.S. government. Their meeting with Zhou Enlai, singing “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More,” is featured on the cover of Americans in China.

MEC: In an email to me, you mentioned that you’re now working on a follow-up volume to Americans in China. What can you tell #AsiaNow readers about that book?

TL: Deborah Davis, emerita professor of sociology at Yale, and I are co-editing a sequel to Americans in China that will present profiles of individual Chinese who have lived and worked in the United States and then have returned to the PRC. We’ve enlisted authors to write about diplomacy, education, civil society, business, science, sports, music, culture, and American studies. Chinese Encounters with America, our working title, asks why Chinese citizens came to the United States, what they discovered, and in what ways their experiences changed the trajectories of their lives.

MEC: In addition to your next book project, what else is occupying your time and attention these days?

TL: I’m enjoying my affiliations as a Fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), an advisor to the Public Intellectuals Program of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations—where you and I first met—and the advisory council of ASIANetwork consortium of liberal arts colleges.

MEC: Terry, congratulations on the publication of Americans in China, and thank you so much for sharing it with #AsiaNow!

TL: Thank you for this opportunity, Maura.