Legacies: A Chinese Mosaic

Legacies: A Chinese Mosaic

by Bette Bao Lord


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Urgent and timeless, Legacies brings us closer than we have ever been to penetrating the great conundrum of China in the twentieth century. It could only have been written by Bette Bao Lord -- born in China, raised in America, author of the bestselling novel Spring Moon, wife of a former American ambassador to China, resident in Beijing during the "China Spring" of 1989. Lord's unique web of relationships and her sensitive insight have enabled her to observe Chinese life both high and low, Communist and dissident, intellectual and ordinary.

Lord interweaves her own story, and that of her clansmen, with the voices of men and women who recall the tumultuous experience of the last fifty years, and the legacy of the Cultural Revolution. In precise, subtle prose, Lord explores the reality of Red Guards and reeducation camps, of friends and families severed by political disgrace, and captures the individual voices of those caught up in them: the seven-year-old girl with a heart full of hate for her father; the journalist whose girlfriend believes the Party newspapers, not him; the imprisoned scholar who hid his writings in his quilt for years; the anti-revolutionary who tells his bitter story in a vein of high farce. All bear heartbreaking witness to the surreal quality of Chinese society today -- and to the astonishing resilience, humor, and heroic equanimity of the Chinese spirit.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780517079294
Publisher: Random House Value Publishing, Incorporated
Publication date: 10/28/1994

Read an Excerpt

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 Yorkis 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.

Table of Contents

Bette Bao Lord's Clansmenxi
Black Armbands, Red Armbands16
The Actress31
The Scholar44
The Joker60
The Long Marcher70
The Returned Student84
The Brick107
The Journalist120
The Peasant131
The Entrepreneur140
The Petitioner152
The White Dog163
The Cadre175
The Catcher188
The Vermilion Kite229
The Refrain232

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