Sample text for Legacies : a Chinese mosaic / by Bette Bao Lord.
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Transitions SATURDAY, APRIL 15, 1989 ... Hu Yaobang, former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, dies.
A dear friend who, as I write, is in a Chinese prison once told me this tale:
For want of something to do, a prisoner gleaned from the sweepings of the shop floor tiny bits of glittering wire, which he deposited in a bottle. Years passed. On the day he was freed, there was nothing to take with him to mark the passage of those years except the bottle, and so he carried it away.
Back home, he rose and he ate and he slept at the exact hours the warden had decreed. Too old to work anymore, he spent his days pacing, the exact space of his long confinement--four paces forward, four paces back, four paces forward, four paces back.
For want of something to do, one day he smashed the bottle to count how many tiny bits of glittering wire he had collected. He wept. At his feet lay broken glass, and a clump of wires rusted solid in the shape of a bottle.
I was ready to leave Beijing. My life, after a stay of three and a half years as the wife of America's ambassador to the People's Republic, had become all too much like China, full of contradictions. I worked and did not work. I had changed and I was the same. I had scores of good friends and none at all. I was celebrated and I was suspect. I was an equal partner and not even on the team. I was an insider and an outsider. I was at home and I was exiled. I had never been happier, nor had I been as sad.
Before the bits of my China passage fused beyond examination or shaped me irrevocably, I had to piece together the puzzle. I could not hope to do it in China, where unending activities were routine, where every Chinese had lived a life that tempted me to write a book, where my own life had become too complex and too difficult. I needed solitude and space. I needed to return to America.
My husband, Winston, for his own compelling reasons, had decided the previous summer that he would be resigning as ambassador, though he would remain in the post until a successor had been appointed by the new president, whoever that might be.
On the afternoon of the fifteenth of April, 1989, amidst the preparations for our party to bid farewell to our personal friends, the office called to announce the death of Hu Yaobang. Winston had met the former party secretary, at an intimate dinner in Zhongnanhai, the sanctum where China's revolutionary leaders live like royalty behind high garden walls. I had not.
Out of power since 1987, when he was formally removed from the Party's top post by Deng Xiaoping at the urging of the conservatives, Hu Yaobang was that rarity among Chinese leaders--he was himself. He departed from the text. He succumbed to emotions. He was interested and interesting. A tiny man, shorter even than his mentor Deng, he literally and figuratively seemed to jump about. Sometimes he teetered on the giddy--as when, in the pursuit of hygiene, he advocated that the Chinese chuck their chopsticks and use forks instead. Sometimes he charged into forbidden zones--as when, in the pursuit of rectitude, he attacked corruption at the pinnacle of the Party.
These qualities both endeared him to and alienated him from Chinese, one and the same Chinese. Since the reforms had begun, a decade before, Chinese had been, if anything, ambivalent. They were disgusted by the righteous masks that officials wore to hide their human face, yet they were used to having their leaders look a certain way. From the reign of the first emperor, Qin Shihuang, to the supremacy of Mao, the correct demeanor had been remote, rigid and reticent. These were hardly adjectives to describe Hu.
Knowing of Chinese ambivalence, I did not expect his departure to affect our party that evening or China that spring. I had forgotten that death prettifies. True in any culture, this is especially true in a culture rooted in Confucianism, which accepts form, the more malleable, in lieu of content. To Confucius, the consummate realist, proper conduct, the more knowable, was the measure of man. To ask mere mortals to discipline their thoughts as well as their actions would be asking too much--form would suffice. And so Chinese embraced ritual, the ultimate form. Mourning being the ultimate ritual, Chinese mourned extravagantly. Even in the era of the consummate ideologues, who measured man, above all, by his thoughts, they continued to do so. Thus extravagant mourning, urged by tradition and tolerated by the Party, provided an occasion for students--who sincerely grieved at the passing of the man pushed out of power by the conservatives--to publicly parade their sorrow as well as their concerns for China. The y
oung mourners elected Hu Yaobang their hero, and in death the former party secretary became a champion of democracy ten feet tall.
As usual, many guests arrived at the Residence earlier than asked. This is a Chinese custom, based, as most customs are, on necessity: without one's own car it is difficult to time an entrance. Like many Chinese practices, the early arrival is the opposite of the American custom--being fashionably tardy--and no matter how I advanced dressing, I was often late for our own parties. (Winston resisted being a minute early or late, which is most telling--Chinese adapt, Americans stick to their guns.)
This night was no exception. Though I was downstairs a half hour early, a group of writers was already huddled in the den, which we had dubbed the July Fourth Room because it was seldom used except on that day, when the masses mingled and munched in the garden while the Ambassador and the ranking Chinese guests were sequestered there, formally seated and served--a local tradition that Winston and I detested. Class consciousness was alive and well in this classless society.
As I joined them the writers complimented me on my dress, which was the red gown of an imperial official with the rank of egret, just the right ironic touch for a resignation soiree. Then the debate resumed. To be or not to be a minister was the question bothering the writer from Tianjin, who had heard that he might be offered a post in the Ministry of Culture. Again, that ambivalence. Chinese throughout history aspired to officialdom. It was honored above all occupations, and dubbed the "Ladder to the Clouds." But since Liberation--the first of October, 1949, when Mao Zedong stood on the balcony of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, overlooking Tiananmen Square, to proclaim that the civil war had ended with a Communist victory--working at the Ministry had posed a terrible risk. Few had escaped unscathed. Many had been disgraced or worse. In the People's Republic art was created not for art's sake but to bolster the current Party line, and since that zigged and zagged, what was laudable one day might be criminal the
I advised my old friend to take the job. Better, I said, to have a writer in the post who cares deeply about artists than a Party hack or the corrupt son-in-law of some member of the Politburo. He nodded with a slow, ever-widening smile. I winked, certain that I had caught him mentally fondling the perks that came with the office. Shaking a finger, he reminded me of my advice of some years before when he was being recruited vigorously to join the Party. Would I still advise him to join, he asked, or would I now second his decision not to? I blushed. Before living in Beijing, I had thought that it was not only possible to reform the Party from within but that this was also the surest way. Lately, I had begun to have doubts--doubts planted by my friends who belonged to the Party. If they were not optimistic, how could I be?
While the others discussed the desirability of being embraced by the Party, the writer from Tianjin and I drew a little apart. Wondering when we would meet again, we slid naturally into reminiscences about how we had met, how he had become my oldest friend in China.
I had left Shanghai in 1946 as a child of eight. I returned after an absence of twenty-seven years, to discover a kinship that binds inalterably. For no matter what path and however far they travel, Chinese cannot outrun the shadow of their ancestors. A hollowness which I had not realized existed was filled upon homecoming. Hearing my clan's stories, I imagined the life I might have led. Traveling from Guangzhou to Xian, I saw the new China and met many members of my family, young and old. Yet more astonishing than the warmth of these reunions was the making of a lifelong friend.
It was 1973. China was still imprisoned by the Cultural Revolution. Some of my nearest kin dared not see me. Others avoided being alone with an American, afraid of what might happen if no one could corroborate our conversations when they were questioned later by the authorities. This I finally grasped one afternoon when nature called at one and the same time--many times--to two of my aunts, who sheepishly locked arms as they scurried from the room. Thereafter I vowed to suppress my brash American ways, to do nothing untoward, to avoid compromising any Chinese.
Then, on my last day in Tianjin, inquisitiveness overcame caution. Spying the tallest Chinese I had ever seen, bounding past my aunt's door, I asked about the young neighbor and learned that he was a star athlete, a prize-winning painter--and a writer. There went my vow. I promptly invited him to dinner, forgetting that such impulsiveness might prove troublesome. After all, before Henry Kissinger feigned a stomachache in 1971 and took Winston along to meet secretly with Premier Zhou Enlai, over two decades of hostility had divided China and the United States. Furthermore, Americans like me, who look Chinese, speak Chinese and have Taiwan connections, were especially suspect. But writers the world over are a curious breed, and the neighbor eagerly accepted my invitation.
At the restaurant, Peking duck tasted like food for the soul, so nourishing were our discourses on books, art, what's old, what's new. We marveled at the unexpected in our lives. I, who had set out to be a chemist and never dreamed of penning anything but formulas, had once stopped at a reception to chat with a publisher. That happenstance led to my writing Eighth Moon, the story of my youngest sister's life in China. He, who had just graduated from high school and never dreamed of playing basketball, had once stopped in a park to watch the city team practice and had caught the eye of the coach. That happenstance led him to a place on a championship roster.
My relatives at the table laughed uproariously at our tales of the unforeseen, but I sensed that their hilarity masked tears. Each had suffered so profoundly from the fury of the Red Guards during the first year of the Cultural Revolution that the wounds inflicted then had yet to heal. Talk of happenstance, however humorous, could not fail to trigger doleful memories.
To change the subject, I showed photos of home, forgetting that our dog was in the pictures. I had meant to keep him a secret. Apollo gulped beef daily, submitted to annual checkups, had even attended charm school to learn how not to violate the sensibilities of neighbors. To Chinese, whose cloth, oil, meat and grain were strictly rationed, a huge Labrador could only be anathema and its owner first cousin to Marie Antoinette. Flustered, I sputtered a long, agonizing apology. My new friend smiled. "Don't be foolish! People everywhere are the same. I once had a singsong bird, and at every meal who do you think had the first pick of rice?"
He was not only a man of many talents but a man of heart.
At the end of the meal he announced, "I shall paint something for you."
I was pleased, envisaging a graceful sketch.
"But you must promise to return for it and see more of China."
Now I was intrigued.
Two years later, he wrote, "The painting is finished." The timing seemed perfect. I was soon to accompany Winston and Secretary of State Kissinger on an official visit to Beijing.
But the political climate was wrong. Zhou Enlai, the architect of the new relationship with America, was dying of cancer; his pragmatic protege Deng Xiaoping was losing power and the ideologue Madame Mao and her Gang were prevailing. Our Chinese hosts accorded us a chilly reception, and I was not permitted to go to Tianjin.
The following year the city suffered an earthquake that took over 200,000 lives. My friend wrote that everything in his apartment had been ruined by water or smashed into rubble. Everything but my painting, which had been sealed in a biscuit tin.
I began to think that destiny was at work. Until then I had regarded the painting as a gracious thank-you for dinner. Chinese artists have a tradition of giving rather than selling their works to friends. Indeed, while one famed artist was a houseguest at my great-aunt's home in Hong Kong, her cook had wheedled a valuable painting from him for every breakfast, lunch and dinner he served. "That's fair enough," the artist said with extravagant modesty. "My work for his work."
In 1979, when I returned again, China had finally emerged from its holocaust, and Deng had flung open its doors to reforms and to the world.
My friend had grown a little heavier. So had I. But our friendship was as rich as moon cakes. The moment had come. He fetched the biscuit tin. It was the size of a can of tennis balls. He opened it and took out a silk scroll. His wife held one end while he slowly unrolled it. I was stunned. The painting was his version of the Sung masterpiece Life Along the River on the Eve of the Festival of Pure Brightness, painted by Zhang Ziduan. Down through the centuries, copies of such national treasures have been painted by masters and prized. So ingenious was my friend's artistry that even the subtle changes in hue and the ravelings that must occur after eight hundred years of being admired had been faithfully reproduced.
The painting starts on the outskirts of the capital, where shopkeepers on donkeys and peasants on foot travel among rice paddies past gentlemen sipping tea in pavilions and coolies unloading grain from barges moored along the shore.
At the Rainbow Bridge a crowd has gathered. There is trouble. A ship's mast has been caught in the arch, and a few yards upstream the crews of other vessels, their way now blocked, labor desperately to forestall disaster. Those safely ensconced on dry land and atop the bridge know better how to accomplish this and generously shout their advice.
The path is dotted with restaurants and open-air markets offering all manner of goods. Contented guests savor the breeze from the balconies of inns, large and small. Greening willows line the city's moat, and on its banks sedans, wheelbarrows and oxcarts share the way with plump pigs and idlers upright and reclining.
An ornate, arching roof graces the main gate to the city, through which passes a caravan of camels. Banners are unfurled. A scholar wearing a wide-brimmed hat is attended by three grooms, and members of the gentry in long gowns exchange news of the Empire. Citizens listen to the pitch of the patent-medicine man and the yarns of the storyteller. Water carriers replenish their wooden pails at the well. Customers at a peddler's stand flex bows for sale. The barber shaves a man's head. Singsong girls and fortune-tellers do their numbers.
Over five hundred people to see. A way of life captured within the span of twenty-seven feet.
I stared at the huge hand holding the scroll, then at the myriad expressive faces no bigger than pomegranate seeds, and felt in awe of the artist and unworthy of his gift--even more so when I learned that the scroll had been completed in his spare evenings. He could paint no more than an inch at one sitting, for he had to do it in the same tiny, dimly lit room where he and his wife and son ate and slept. No wonder the work had taken so long to complete.
He had painted only two versions of this scroll. The first had been for his country to sell to a British museum for needed foreign exchange. He continued to paint, but no more in this style; it exacted too great a toll on the eyes.
Remembering that reciprocity is the wellspring of friendship, I asked, "What could I possibly give you in return?"
"Just one thing," he said with a grin. "Display the scroll in your home. Your gift will be the pleasure of knowing that in America a painting I painted of China will be seen."
And so whoever comes to our apartment in New York is ushered first into the dining room to view The Festival of Pure Brightness. What better way to welcome a guest than to show him this gift of friendship?
Lost in our reminiscences, I did not notice the Embassy waiter offering an array of drinks until he had cleared his throat. I served my old friend his favorite, a glass of warm beer. He nodded appreciatively, pleased that I had remembered. We could not refrain from smiling. Nostalgia nursed between friends is ambrosia to Chinese, who crave it. Heady with memories, we started to ask each other the same question. Neither had to finish it.
"Did you ever think that you ...?"
He answered first. "No, Madame l'Ambassadrice."
"No, Monsieur le Ministre."
By then the rest of the guests were arriving. They numbered over a hundred. Only a handful knew English, but Winston, who speaks only snippets of pidgin Mandarin and is the quintessential WASP, had always had a unique affinity with Chinese that transcended language. Masters of nonverbal communication, they would read his face and trust implicitly this blue-eyed foreign devil. The phenomenon never failed to amaze me. In a culture that breeds ethnocentrism and xenophobia, it was exceedingly rare.
Our guests had met Winston numerous times, so I was spared that hoary scolding for neglecting wifely duties by not teaching my husband Chinese. No man or woman has yet to suggest that the fault might be his. In fact, it was Uncle Sam who was to blame.
When we got engaged I was not an American citizen, and according to the rules at the State Department, where Winston worked, I had to prove my suitability as a wife. That our parents were overjoyed at the prospect of our marriage, boasting to all who would listen that we were the son or daughter they had never had and threatening to disown us if we did not wed, was beside the point. Like all noncitizens aspiring to marry into Foggy Bottom, I had to be screened. This did not seem unreasonable. Who knew whether among us "foreign" damsels there might not lurk a Mata Hari?
My test was administered by a functionary with the rank of GS-15. A portly man with spectacles as thick as crystal paperweights, he introduced himself as Mr. Szluc. Then, flipping through a bulky folder with my name on it, he said, "Let me warn you that should you fail this test, no one can undo my decision. Not even the president can veto my veto. Do I make myself clear?"
Very clear. While I did not care for the man and thought he was living proof that bureaucrats the world over lacked common sense, I was not worried. What could go wrong? I had been told by those who had passed that if I spoke a semblance of English, had paid my taxes and perpetrated no crimes, and was able to name the president of the United States, I could start marching down the aisle.
My informants were wrong. For the next two hours Mr. Szluc bombarded me with arcane and eclectic questions. Who is Vardis Fisher? What ingredients go into a Death in the Afternoon cocktail? State the difference between the mazurka and the pavane. Name the starting lineup of the Green Bay Packers, the capitals of all the West African countries, the order in which the thirteen original colonies were settled.
At last he announced the final but most important question, warning me to take all the time I needed even if that turned out to be another two hours. "Should I disapprove of your marriage to Mr. Lord," he said, "what would you do?"
That provoked an eruption. I shot back, "Winston could find another job, but not another me."
In the end Mr. Szluc blessed our marriage. The State Department, however, then notified us of its policy concerning the future assignments of any Foreign Service officer who married a non-citizen. The career of Winston Lord would be limited for reasons of national security. Because of my family ties on the mainland and my father's professional affiliation with Taiwan, my husband would never ever have anything to do with China policy.
So Winston, declining to spend years studying a language he could not use professionally, never learned Chinese. I sometimes regret not insisting that he do so for my sake alone. But although in terms of grammar Chinese is simple, it has a paucity of sounds--only four hundred and twenty monosyllables, to be exact--and depending on whether they are rendered "flat," "rising," "curling" or "falling," they have totally different meanings. Furthermore, since Chinese has no alphabet, learning to read it requires memorizing a different ideogram for every word. Patience was one Chinese characteristic that I had left behind when I emigrated to Brooklyn, and the prospect of piloting my husband through this ocean of ambiguity quelled my desire for more togetherness. Undoubtedly a useful skill was lost. Undoubtedly a marriage was saved.
Now, at our last party, with Winston as usual mixing easily among our guests despite his lack of Chinese, I went off to visit each of the thirty tables. Inevitably old friends had chosen to sit together. Chinese, unlike Americans, were wary of making new friends. Old ones were safe. New ones were risky: betrayal had been a daily occurrence during the Cultural Revolution; caution had become habitual. Still, I never grew accustomed to how frequently, how sincerely, how urgently one good friend of mine would warn me about another good friend of mine.
"Watch out, that one reports everything to Public Security."
"Watch out, that one is disloyal."
"Watch out, that one abuses friendship."
"Watch out, that one violates confidences."
"Watch out, that one is an out-and-out spy."
No wonder I avoided assigning seats at parties except when protocol demanded it.
After dinner, friends from the "opera" and "stage" tables performed and then, as at all our large unofficial gatherings, those who wanted to dance danced, those who wanted to chat chatted. Winston and I did both. When we discoed with our household staff there was wild applause. Throughout we posed with guests for pictures; everyone had brought or borrowed a camera.
I had forbidden toasts. They would make me too sad. I assured my friends and myself that this was not a true farewell. Only Winston was actually returning to the States in a week. I was accompanying him to Singapore for a three-day visit, after which, having exchanged my diplomatic passport for an ordinary one, I would be flying back for another month's stay. CBS News had engaged me as a consultant for the upcoming Sino-Soviet summit. I was to assist them with "human interest" pieces on Chinese culture and the progress of reforms.
Nevertheless, Winston and I would soon be riding to the airport for the last time as the American Ambassador and his wife. How trite but true: it seemed only yesterday that we had ridden in that Cadillac for the first time. ... It was almost midnight. The skies that midnight in November, were clear. The moon silhouetted the willows along the route from the airport. Not quite believing that we were actually in China, in Beijing, Winston and I held hands.
It was thirteen months after the first indication that President Reagan was considering naming Winston Ambassador to China, six months after the security check and financial declarations were completed, four months after the White House announcement was made, three and a half months after the first confirmation hearing was held by the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee, six weeks after a second hearing was called for the sole benefit of Senator Jesse Helms, a week after the nomination was sent to the Senate floor and passed 87 to 7.
Considering that long engagement, why was I taken aback when the chauffeur driving us to the Residence at 17 Guang Hua Lu addressed Winston as Dashi? I still did not fully comprehend that the dream I had never dared to dream had come true--that I was returning to the land of my birth as the wife of the American Ambassador. I realized it only when I was able finally to solve the mystery of the soft but incessant thumping that haunted us throughout the ride. I realized it only when I spied atop the right fender of the car the fluttering Stars and Stripes.
Everyone wonders about roads not taken: that other school, that other job, that other love. But I can point to the fork which above all else has shaped my destiny. I know its longitude and latitude. I know the year, the day, the hour. I know there was a playful breeze that tweaked our hats the morning I disembarked.
To me, the journey we immigrants make, be it a single step at the border or a voyage halfway around the world, marks us far better than the cast of our features, the lilt of our speech or even our mysterious familiarity with alien ways that we have never been taught. We who have sworn allegiance to the flag at naturalization ceremonies in courthouses august and quaint are privileged. What natives never question, we deliberate upon, then affirm by the raising of our right hand.
Although Winston was the one who had taken the oath of office, I vowed on that first night to be worthy of the honor of representing my adopted country--the honor that he had earned but that I shared simply because I had said yes in answer to the fateful question my Anglo-Saxon classmate had popped twenty-three years before. We were determined to promote one of the most critical bilateral relationships in the world.
Now, after three and a half years, we were leaving. During that period we had been given a unique vantage point from which to witness one of the boldest experiments ever tried--the transformation of a billion lives. Deng Xiaoping was steering the country away from fanaticism and dogma toward pragmatism. He engaged the outside world and fostered friendship between our countries.
Thus we were fortunate to be ambassador and wife at a time of unparalleled opportunities to work daily with officials, high and low, to strengthen bonds that enrich China and America. Despite inevitable problems and tensions, our tenure coincided with a steady expansion of public and private ties, a mighty stream of visitors, agreements and exchanges.
Winston and I were also able to enjoy unprecedented access to the Chinese people, who profoundly touched us with their capacity to endure. They lived in uncertain times, when the old ways had not been uprooted and the new ways had yet to take root. They lived in a country of limits. Limits imposed upon them by scarcity, be it of opportunities or of nature's resources. Limits imposed upon them by the traditional philosophy that prized family above individual, harmony above equity, order above change. Limits imposed upon them by the tenets of Communism that exalted Party above all.
I wonder if there will ever be another period in our lives when our time and energies will be as constructively spent as the years we devoted to forging links between China and America.
It was past midnight. Our farewell party had ended. We walked up the stairs to our private quarters, carrying presents. Among them were tapes that my friends had recorded for me because there was no more time. They were the most costly gifts any Chinese could give, the most precious gifts a writer could receive. They were the uncensored stories of their lives.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: China Social life and customs 1976-China History Tiananmen Square Incident, 1989