People’s Hero-She Stands Up to the Chinese Communist Party and Wins

When Tamar and I were expelled from The People’s Republic of China in May 1986 (see “Would You Ever take a Bullet for Someone?”), I was told by many that I must not, for the sake of our Chinese friends, write about that series of events and our other China experiences under my own name. I chose to write this piece, and later pieces for an overseas Chinese student democracy magazine, under the name of the great early-twentieth-century American labor organizer Joe Hill.

The woman whose story I share has been in Germany nearly thirty years, in Berlin. She is a German citizen. No harm can visit her with the article’s republication. All names in the piece are pseudonyms. The Chinese city I named as the one where I taught is not where I taught.

This piece is my first published essay, appearing in East-West Magazine in 1987. That magazine was published through the University of Hawaii from the mid-1940s through the early 1990s, then died. After not having had my copy for 26 years (as a result of too many moves), I finally located it with the help of University of a Hawaii archivist. The drawing is a very fair likeness of Liu in her early twenties.

Most remarkably, and after many years of searching, I found the woman I here call Liu Ping. She is now an administrator in a design institute in Berlin. She and her husband have two grown children. In late April 2013, I wrote to what I knew in my gut had to be, for various reasons, her email address. She called here almost immediately. We’ve renewed our friendship.

I’ve no words to express how grateful I am.

  • • •

Liu Ping and I are staring up at ornate red calligraphy from the base of a giant four-sided obelisk, a bumpy thirty-minutes’ ride northwest of Beijing, not far from the Ming Dynasty Tombs. It’s a particularly warm and humid day for early spring, and all morning Liu Ping has been going on about the privileged position of artists and designers in China.

“We don’t have to care about the political question,” she tells me and everyone in earshot, “because we are too special, and of course we know more about life and how the people feel than the party comrades who only know how to tell a person to do something.”

I’m a less-than-enthusiastic partner in this mainly one-way ramble; already our conversation, only partly in English, has drawn more attention than the obelisk.

“Liu, please. Let’s continue this back in Beijing. There are many people here.”

“Joe, I understand. You are nervous and you are ridiculous. I can say what is in my mind. Look up at the writing on the monument. Can you read it?”

I can read only a little of the magnificent blood-red characters and Liu knows it, but I begin to hesitantly to translate in fervent hope of taking to take our dialogue in what I hope will be a new direction. I don’t get far.

“How long did you study Chinese? Not enough! Listen: On each side of the monument is a saying from a famous leader. Liu Shao-qi, Zhu De, Zhou En-lai. And, of course, Chairman Mao.” She then translates each revolutionary slogan. “You want to know what Chairman Mao says?”

Before I can answer, Liu doubles over, her face convulsed with laughter. She can barely get the words out, and a crowd has assembled to see why the foreigner is making the young Chinese woman shriek so hilariously.

“Chairman Mao says, ‘When the People are united they are as powerful as a stallion.…’ This is too much!” Liu is laughing so hard that the crowd needs no translation now to gather what’s been going on and recedes rapidly, wanting no part of this scene.

When we board the bus to continue our pilgrimage to the Great Wall, we have the entire back of the bus to ourselves. Liu affects not to notice the strategic withdrawal and chats on about artists she knows who have narrowly escaped political criticism, recent mindless television editorials, and other topics that leave me, an American who teaches at the university where she used to work, singularly uncomfortable.

Although Liu Ping irked me often while I was in Beijing, aggravating the political anxiety I shared with nearly every other long-term foreigner in China, she soon began to seem to me Liu Ping seemed to me then among a new breed of Chinese heroine, an individual with the courage and determination to use the unwieldy, top-down system to her advantage. These Her very iconoclasm qualities seemed to endear her to her colleagues, as with a combination of humorous disdain and savvy manipulation, she achieved the goal of nearly every Chinese career woman: a home, a family, and a challenging job in the city of her choice.

When I first met Liu, she was a first-year teacher in the acclaimed architecture department of the university in Nanjing where I went to teach English. Her colleagues and students adored her. On four separate occasions, I was taken, after my own morning lecture, to Liu’s office and shown her sketches and paintings. Twice I was taken by one of her students to one of her painting classes to so I could witness one of the students we shared said “see a perfect art teacher teach.” In this way, we got to know one each another.

Far from shying away from this unusual public flattery, Liu basked in it: “Yes; it’s true. My students love me because I am kind to them and because I hope to teach them very well.” In her first year, Liu was singled out by the university as a “model teacher,” her name forever to be listed in the Model Teacher archives of the Chinese Ministry of Education. Most such recipients modestly file them such an award away, but I wasn’t surprised when I first visited Liu’s house to see hers prominently displayed hers on her apartment on the wall above her small Japanese television.

After that first visit, I visited stopped by Liu’s apartment—a one-room concrete rectangle with a bare bulb in the center of the ceiling. Within its 600 square feet, it combined the styles of New China Austere and Very New Liu décor. Its centerpiece was a sparkling new, green Yugoslav refrigerator, upon which rested a new crock pot/rice cooker atop the fridge. There is set of new black enamel-trimmed pine bookcases incongruously anchoring a net of clotheslines that spiderwebbed up to the low ceiling. The room also contained a half- dozen exquisite There colorful cloisonné vases, a set of porcelain teacups, and a collection of model airplanes atop. Liu’s husbands model airplane collection st on ceramic stands. All of these nice things were gifts that Liu’s her husband, Zhao, a noted industrial designer and leading figure in his academic department, brings received for his consulting work home from consultations in distant cities. 

When I came by one day, he was once again away, now consulting with factory managers and public officials in distant another city. 

When he returns, Liu tells me as she serves a dinner of scrambled eggs with tomato, rice, and pork-filled dumplings, he will bring more gifts. But there is an event more momentous event in the offing: “Joe, ” Liu smiles, “in another month, maybe two, my husband and I will move to a new, large room [should this be a “large apartment”? is this the three-room unit mentioned below?] in a building for parents. When my baby comes, we will have our new home. When my husband returns from his business, he will discuss this matter with the university leaders.”

I ask her a question that’s been on my mind. “Liu, several of my women students tell me you are a hero. Why is that?”

She looks proudly about her small room, at the refrigerator, the bookcases, the cloisonné vases, the model airplanes, the Japanese television set, and begins her remarkable story.

“You know, I plan all this, but even I did not ever think I could have all this so quickly and, in a little time, a baby and a new home with three rooms. You know, I am only twenty-three years. My mother and father love to come to my home to see my things. My husband is well known and people give him respect. I have a good job, better than before at your college because here I can live with my husband and my work is also very interesting. Look.”

She stands up and opens one of the bookcase cabinets, removing four large red plastic photo albums. I’d seen one of them. Included are family snapshots and, toward the end, some pictures of us together, Liu, Zhao, and me. The second is jammed with business cards, Chinese, English, Japanese, perhaps 150 in all. The other albums are filled with photographs of designs, models, all kinds of architectural drawings, each snapshot photo neatly trimmed behind a plastic guard. Liu sits down.

“Joe, there are not many women who can show you books like mine and my husband’s. I am very lucky.” Liu is speaking softly. “When I worked in the architecture department in Nanjing, before I come to Beijing to join my husband, we are married three years and yet I see him only one time every month, and if I am busy or if he travels at that time he is busy, maybe one time in six weeks or more long than that. And then, at that time, if I see him, maybe I am feeling still alone although I am with him, and maybe I feel angry, and I think maybe he is angry at me because I am so much away from him. Many, many times we are angry with each other, and once I tell my roommate that I think maybe sometime I will have to divorce with my husband. When he leaves to go back to Beijing, I cry all night and say many bad things about him, but really it is that we are alone for each other.”

I recalled that an acquaintance my university who lived in the same building as Liu told me on several occasions about the fights Liu and Zhao had when he came home.

“I know you wanted to live with Zhao,” I said reassuringly. “He wanted to live with you, too, of course.”

“Yes, but it is not simple. When I graduated from Beijing Central Fine Arts Institute, I hope I will be told I can teach here, but I was sent to your university in Nanjing. My husband asked his leader to help us, but his leader could do nothing. His leaderShe told him that we must not complain because when she was young woman, she lived in Beijing and her husband lived in Human Province, much further than Nanjing, and that her husband joined her after a long time, maybe seven years. She said she saw her husband two times in one year maybe, and she said she was a very sad young woman and that my husband should be happy. Well, we were not happy.

“I decided I would go to Beijing and get a new job. I don’t care anymore that so many young women from university never live with their husband for a long time. For me, it is almost three years and it is enough. I began to ask my department leader about this question…if I could change my job so I can be with my husband, and he said for many months he did not have time to listen to me. My husband was very happy that I began to do this, and we decided…he told me that I would if I take my best work and carry carried it to Beijing on a train and, he will try to make for mean appointment for me with leaders at schools and government offices. My husband knows many people.

“Many months I continue to teach in my department, and my husband has friends in some schools and offices who say they will see me. I travel here to Beijing many times and show my work to many leaders. At the last, two of them tell me that if my department leader says I can go, they will welcome me to work in Beijing! One gave a letter to say that they will welcome me, and I then brought the letter to my architecture department.”

“When did you first discuss this with the department chairman—after you were invited to work here?”

“I discussed discuss this with him, I try to, very quickly, of course. But I told you, Joe, he did not want to discuss this thing with me even I show him the letter. So, after long time, I get very angry and my husband is angry, too, because he says I can try harder to discuss my future with my leader. My husband gave me a very angry letter, and he said if I care about my family, I will not care about my department, and I think he is right. So I did a very terrible thing.”

Liu’s voice lowers an octave. “On the morning after I receive my husband’s letter, I taught two classes and then it is time for my lunch. But instead of going to the dining hall with my students, I go to my leader’s office. It is only him in there, and he asks what is my question. I tell him that he knows my question and he must help me. He looks at me for long time, and I cannot believe I have talked to him in this way. I try not to have my voice sound so angry, but I keep thinking of my husband’s letters and that he says I can be strong for my family. My department leader looked outside the window and I think that he will not speak to me, so then I do something even more terrible.”

“What did you do?”

“I hit my fist down on his worktable near his desk, and he jumped up because he was looking outside. Now I am very afraid. He looked away from the outside and at me. He told me, ‘You are a very impolite woman. I will have my lunch now,’ and he begins to walk from his office. But I stand in front of him and I say, ‘Professor Chen! Please listen to me! You must help me and my husband and our baby! Professor Chen! Comrade Party Secretary Hu Yao-bang says a husband and wife should try to be together!’ Professor Chen is very surprise. Maybe no girl has ever talk to him like this, Joe. Then I see he is looking past where I am standing and that he is not looking well because his office door is open and there are some students and teachers gather there because they heard my voice. I think I was not quiet.

“Professor Chen closed the door and told me to sit down and he walked quickly to his desk. He looked inside his desk for a long time and did not look at me. I am very afraid now, Joe, because I do not know what he will do. Of course, Professor Chen is also a Party leader a long time. I feel very hot and my face felt red and I have a big pain in my stomach, but I do not move. I try to look at Professor Chen.

“Then Professor Chen took from his desk a pen and university writing paper. He asks me what do I think: He will write a letter to China Travel Service and suggest that for next three months I work for his department and then after three months, I go to Beijing and work for Travel Service. If Travel Service likes my designs for them, I can stay with them three months and then come back to his department and continue in this way. He asked me what is my idea.

“I tell him thank you but if he can find someone to teach my students, maybe I can stay in Beijing with my husband. He said he will try. Then he walked to the door and locked the door, and I worry again. But he smiled at me when he sat down, and he said I was a very impolite young woman and that I must learn to give him more respect. Professor Chen said to me, ‘Teacher Liu, I am not so old. When I began to teach, my wife was in Harbin, very far north. We saw each other very little for more than six years until she came here. Then, after three years she was ill and she died. I am not so old, but I still have no wife. I can try to help you and your husband.’

“Now my household is here, Joe, in Beijing, and my husband and I will have our baby and he will be Beijing Citizen and he will go to the children’s school at my husband’s college and later to the middle school and my husband’s college and he will have a good life.”

Liu washes the dishes in a communal sink in the dark hall outside her door. She carefully sets the candlesticks and the placemats inside a bookcase. She sweeps the floor under the table. She says, “When we move to our new home, I will buy a machine to clean my floor. I am saving money now for this.”

We talk together for perhaps another hour. Liu is tired, and I’ve become somewhat light-headed with the dinner wine. “I will walk with you to the Guest House and tomorrow I will take you to the train. I am sorry, Joe, that you will leave China before I will have my baby.”

Shortly after Tamar and I left China, I received a letter and a book of sketches from Liu Ping, recorded in the Guest House apartment of a mutual American friend still teaching in Beijing. Liu related that she and her husband Zhao had recently moved into their new three-room apartment in another part of her husband’s campus.

Her new design job was going very well. Zhao had been away on consultations twice in recent months; he had brought home a new wooden television stand and a used electric typewriter. [ha! Love this]

Their son Zhao Ping-xin was born on 25 August 1986. I have his photograph, and no doubt there are a dozen more like it in the Liu-Zhao family album.