English Proletarian Takes on 1970s Nanjing

English Proletarian Takes on 1970s Nanjing

“You must understand [Mr. Kirkby] that if a Zhongguoren, a Chinese person, had done what you have done, he might be executed”.

To have been allowed to enter China 50 years ago and witness local life is very special indeed. An important historical document and a must read for Nanjingers, contemporary Sinophiles and history buffs, “Intruder in Mao’s Realm; an Englishmen’s Eye Witness Account of 1970s China” is also the memoir of an incredible life and experience. Kirkby does the book justice by evenly pulling in all angles of society present during that time. The Nanjinger was lucky enough to spend time with Richard Kirkby, author of the epic tomb that presents what it must have been like both for Chinese and foreign people in Nanjing at the time.

That which Kirkby has managed to do with his book is no easy feat. Perhaps it is his choice of words, or sharp memory, “Any normal human contact with the Chinese people was out of the question…communication with the great masses was limited to curt transactional exchanges”. Not only is it a fascinating read but its historical value belongs in the hands of anyone studying contemporary Chinese history.

After dodging armed military in eastern-Europe during the mid sixties, a politically driven Kirkby and his companions developed a love for the People’s Republics. They longed for democratic socialism and a life outside the bleak political mess that was The West. Living in Brixton Hill at the time he would learn of a “brave new world” where vast struggles were underway, and his attention turned to China.

Picking up copies of Beijing propaganda periodicals, such as “China Reconstructs”, in London’s Chinatown, is that which helped kick start “almost a lifetime’s travail with China” for Kirkby. “Getting to China was a pipe dream…until, that is, a small white envelope embossed with the Chinese Embassy’s address landed on our doormat”. Getting into China, it seems, isn’t any less difficult than it was in 1973.

After finally arriving in Nanjing via Bangkok, Hong Kong and Guangzhou, Party Secretary, Li An, of the foreign languages department at Nanjing University, welcomed the two new English teachers, Kirkby and his wife, Jo, to Nanjing. “Knowing little of the weight of Chinese culture, we had somehow expected a robust, proletarian, no no nonsense way of doing things. Instead our hosts seemed to be immersed in the comic opera of bygone manners – deferential and brimming with false modesty”.

Shortly into the book, we meet Minder Wang, who goes on to become someone who would watch and nanny every move throughout the couple’s Jiangsu journey. Something we foreigners of 2019 certainly do not have to endure is such a “minder” system. “Our minders’ association with the waiguoren – the foreigners – implied an elevation to an exalted lifestyle. But in reality [to be] a buffer between the unpredictable and fractious foreign devil and the quirkish hierarchy was a dangerous privilege.”

“This may be surprising to China expatriates today, but the most striking and heart-warming thing for me was that round about the mid-1990s I started to have conversations with my Chinese counterparts which were more or less ‘normal’”, Kirkby revealed during his interview with The Nanjinger.

“I think that the minders themselves also got fed up of minding. I know one whose job it was to accompany the highest English-speaking VIPs and she couldn’t hack it any more and fled to Denmark! But to be serious – now with foreign visitors of all kinds and all languages, numbering millions, the minder system (which also applied to non-resident foreigners) could no longer be applied”, Kirkby told me.

“While I was at Nanda for 2-plus years in the mid 1970s I never had a single normal academic discussion and wasn’t even permitted to set foot in the University department (Geography), where I might have had a conversation about my particular interest in urbanisation”, he went on.

Comedic snippets about hairy bottoms, unscrupulous forearm touching, lavatory experiences and sexual hysteria, certainly helps break up a few somewhat serious passages about party ploys and politics. Such is this account of eating out in Nanjing during the mid 1970s. Since eating most days was restricted to the university canteen or the Dingshan Hotel, dining with The People was a rarity.

“Of establishments to which you could attach the name ‘restaurant’ there were merely two left in Nanjing.The Sichuan restaurant might have survived the Red Guards, but dining etiquette demonstrably had not. The proletarian customers hunched over bone spattered tables, slurping and belching, with regular vigorous expectorations on the floor. Grimy dishes were gracelessly plonked down by scowling serving staff, their once white food-splattered jackets. Much of this dressing down was deliberate but some had already become a bad habit.”

As Kirkby made tracks throughout greater China, the presence of other foreigners in what he calls the “foreign ghettos” of Beijing and Shanghai became an interesting topic for discussion. “I seem to burn with curiosity about what’s going on in China, but I get the feeling that most of the foreigners here are just passing the time in rather comfortable surroundings.”

When I raised the topic in our interview, Kirkby commented, “It was surprising to me in the heady political days of the early 1970s that many of the ‘foreign experts’ recruited by China’s overseas embassies were clueless about either Chinese or for that matter global politics and economics. Considering how difficult it was to get to China, this is even more surprising”.

“Remember that most of the people, most of the time, are indifferent to the political, economic, social milieu which defines their very existence”, he said. “In our two assignments as ‘foreign experts’, we deliberately requested postings away from the nascent expat ghettoes of Beijing and Shanghai. It’s all too easy for foreigners in China today to be more concerned with events and personalities in their foreign enclave than in society at large.”

The chapter that details the birth of his son Yongshan was a pleasant surprise. Kirkby’s partner Jo, also English, was advised to give birth in Beijing at the Capital Hospital, where it was “safer” than where she had been living in Jinan.

Richard and Jo resettled at the famous Beijing resort town, Beihaihe, before what one can only imagine was a rather traumatic and unique childbirth. “Babies come out of foreign women from the same place as your Chinese women!’, I shouted. But poor D. Lang had done as much as he dared. It was the same old story – a mistake with a foreigner could cost someone in Dr lang’s position their job, or worse. Better to do nothing…. I swore at him. With shaking hands and almost with me directing him, he made the necessary incisions.”

“It was the boldness and confidence of (comparative) youth which allowed us to anticipate the birth of our first child in China with absolutely no trepidation. I can hardly believe that now, looking back”, he recalled.

In the mid 1980s, Kirkby’s experiences in China would form the basis of the world’s first comprehensive study of China’s urbanisation process: “Urbanisation in China”. During the 1990s he ran a contemporary China research centre at a UK university, and has since maintained a strong connection with China and Nanjing. I wanted to know more about Richard’s thoughts on modern China; less about its magnificent physical changes, rather, where he thinks the country is headed, why and how.

“I believe that China’s urban youth in particular, are now far better informed about the world than their equivalents in Western countries, particularly the USA”, he said. Yet, China’s youth are attached umbilically to their little hand-held super computers, to the point at which they communicate with it rather than the person next to them.

“The wholesale lurch towards capitalist relations of the past four decades, the privatisation of state assets and the consequent insecurities for much of the working population are anathema (to me). But having said that, there’s no denying that China’s integration into the global capitalist division of labour at this point and in this manner has greatly raised the living standards of most of the population. But with the new phenomenon of massive household indebtedness, mostly caused by the adoption of a market-driven housing market model, the economy is now at great risk and the gains could all be wiped out by indebtedness”, finished Kirkby.

Richard Kirkby’s “Intruder in Mao’s Realm: An Englishman’s Eyewitness Account of 1970s China”, 2nd imprint, September 2018, is published by Earnshaw Books Ltd.

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Renée Gray Beaumont
As an Australian journalist living in Nanjing for many years, Renée Gray Beaumont has a background in research, print and online publishing, taking great pleasure in discovering more about Nanjing with every article. 作为在南京居住多年的澳大利亚新闻工作者,Renee Gray Beaumont 有着调研以及印刷品和线上出版物的工作背景。她总是乐于在每篇文章里发现关于南京的内容。