Excerpt: Opening to China, by Charlotte Furth

Charlotte Furth is Professor Emerita of History at the University of Southern California and previously taught at California State University, Long Beach. She is author of numerous academic articles and books, including A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China’s Medical History, 960-1665 (University of California Press, 1999), for which she received the “Women in Science” award from the History of Science Society. In 2012, the AAS honored Furth with its “Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies” award in recognition of her decades of service to the field.

Furth earned her Ph.D. in Chinese history at Stanford University in 1965—an era when it was virtually impossible for Americans to travel to the People’s Republic. With the establishment of relations between the United States and PRC over the course of the 1970s, Furth and other scholars finally had the opportunity to spend time in the country they studied. She visited the PRC for the first time in 1976 on a two-week delegation trip, then relocated to Beijing for the 1981-82 academic year as a Fulbright Fellow teaching American history at Peking University.

Furth recently published a memoir of her year in Beijing, Opening to China: A Memoir of Normalization, 1981-1982 (Cambria Press). Chairman Mao had been dead for only five years when Furth arrived, and the Cultural Revolution was still a recent—though rarely discussed—period in her students’ past. Deng Xiaoping had called for the country to engage in “reform and opening-up,” but it was far from clear what that meant in practice; the global heavyweight PRC we see today was virtually unimaginable 35 years ago. Opening to China conveys what it was like to encounter the country as it hesitantly found its footing during the early years of the Reform Era. In the excerpt below about her first weeks in the classroom at Peking University, Furth describes getting to know her students and learning to teach the “bourgeois version” of American history they sought.

They sat in orderly rows, both men and women in near-identical olive, navy, or brown trousers and jackets, handwashed and rough dried. It took a very close look to realize that peasant-style Mao jackets were gradually giving way to more citified tailoring. Straight hairstyles still maintained revolutionary decorum while making limited concessions to gender distinction. For older women, the preferred cut was a short bob that covered the ears but did not touch the shoulders; younger ones were permitted pony tails. For males it was a short brush cut, but from their cowlicks and the shaggy fringes crawling about their ears, I guessed that most of them were in the habit of putting off trips to the barber.

In my lecture class on early American history, their daily struggle was to understand and write down everything I said. Pens or pencils scribbling, they hunched over their thin notebooks. No one, it seemed, dared just to listen. When the effort to follow in English was overwhelming, the movement of pen or pencil would stop, and the student would gaze away disheartened. In the first weeks, it was hard to know how much they understood but easy to see the desperation of the effort. When we professors compared notes, we found that most of the questions asked after class were about punctuation, vocabulary, and syntax. They wanted rules of grammar. In vain, it seemed, we urged them to skim over the difficult passages in order to complete homework reading assignments they found impossibly long. At night they toiled away, skimping on sleep, apparently convinced that only a total grasp of each sentence would unlock the key to the next one.

What knowledge in fact did they bring to my classroom? Mr. Ma [a cadre in the Peking University administration] had told us that they were “Worker-Soldier-Peasant” students who needed better training for their profession as college teachers of English. I knew about this experiment in education under the Cultural Revolution. For two years between 1966 and 1968, most high schools and colleges had been closed down as millions of students, organized into Red Guard battalions, followed Mao Zedong’s call to “storm the headquarters” of right wing revisionism in the Party and government. In the summer of 1968, the Maoist leadership put an end to the resulting chaos by dismantling the Red Guards, sending about ten million of them to the countryside to “learn from the workers and peasants” for an indefinite period of time. When schools were reopened in 1970 it was decreed that all students would spend at least two years in the countryside after their terminal middle or high school degrees. The national university examination system was abolished, but universities reopened under new recruitment rules. Following the Party line encouraging “red” over “expert” leadership, the authorities declared that entrance to university would be granted to youth recommended by the humble collectives where they lived and worked. In this way the label “Worker-Soldier-Peasant” student identified a generation shaped by the educational policies of the Cultural Revolution.

When my students in California and I had grappled with this concept, it sounded to us like an affirmative action program for the educationally disadvantaged. But in Beijing something told me that I was not in charge of young people who were being raised above their humble origins as peasant villagers. In fact, it turned out that the vast majority of the students were former sent-down youth—that vast flood of urban teenagers who had been sent to the countryside for re-education. Somehow those in my classes had made their way back to the cities, and to academic institutions which, however crippled, graduated them and were giving them the chance to become university teachers. They had succeeded where less fortunate youth were being left in rural limbo. I also knew that many though by no means all sent-down youth had been caught up in the confrontations between different factions of students calling themselves Red Guards. Were any of my students former Red Guards? I was unlikely to be told and certainly could not ask.

However, there were a few older students who gave the group a more heterogeneous coloration. Perhaps ten were middle-aged women—veteran university teachers of English who had been through the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution and were now being offered something like a mid-career sabbatical. The selection process had also clearly singled out a number from provinces in the interior: Dongbei, (formerly Manchuria), Sichuan, Ningxia, Qinghai, even the far west of Xinjiang. Two—linguistic orphans—had served the revolution as instructors in Russian in the 1950s, and now, aging, redundant, and despondent, were being told to retrain in China’s new language of power, English.

I began the fall semester facing this politely silent group twice a week with my lectures on the colonial period in American history. Each lecture class was an hour and a half, and I put written outlines on the board and tried to remember to speak slowly and distinctly. Back in the United States some colleagues in American history had given me advice on basic textbooks and readings, and I had been stimulated by the then-new social history from below that emphasized colonial-era class, racial, and ethnic cleavages. Accordingly I drew on Gary Nash’s popular monograph, Black, White and Red, and began to highlight the relations of Indian peoples and the white settlers, and the rapid transformations of the social landscape occasioned by slavery. The student response to these themes surprised me.

After about three weeks of waiting alone in the small classroom assigned me for afternoon office hours, I was visited by a group of three young men. They had been following my lectures well enough to offer some criticism. The spokesperson, Xu, was a good-looking, well-built young man with the natural self-confidence that in the United States would have marked a student government leader. “Here in China we are familiar with the Marxist interpretation of American history,” he said. “What we want from you is the bourgeois version.” Then, to soften the sting, the three began to compliment me on my lectures. “You pronounce all your consonants,” they said, and shook their heads over the troubles many had had learning from American Southerners and Australians.

Of course I said there was no one “bourgeois version” of American history, a claim they regarded with polite incomprehension. But in fact this was an “aha” moment for me. I sensed that Xu and his companions were confident that they did not speak simply as individuals, but that their views represented a group consensus. At last I was getting coherent response to my lectures, and one that gave me a real clue about the nature of my audience. Using the Maoist construction which imposed a class identity, progressive or reactionary, on all citizens, I was teaching young “bourgeois intellectuals”! As a native of the advanced industrial and political United States, I was expected to profess the mainstream values of its citizens, and tell the story of American progress uncontaminated by self-critical reflections on American imperfections. I happily switched over from west coast social radical Gary Nash to Harvard University’s A-Team—Bernard Bailyn, David Brion Davis, and their colleagues—who had produced The Great Republic: A History of the American People, used in hundreds of US classrooms. I did not aspire to creativity. My reference copy of Bailyn was a sturdy pony: enlightenment ideology, the British parliamentary model, constitutionalism, and states’ rights. Subsequently my lectures were well received, and as it turned out later, students were able to come up with many critical reflections on American society and history entirely on their own.

This excerpt has been reproduced from Opening to China: A Memoir of Normalization, 1981–1982 by permission of Cambria Press. Copyright restrictions apply. The book can be purchased from Cambria Press or on Amazon.