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Savouring her Blessings after Trials and Tribulations: the Woman General born in America

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Chicago, 1933.

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With General Phoebe and her husband Louis, Beijing, 2006.

GENERAL PHOEBE, female general, born in 1930, and her husband, Louis, former Secretary to the Mayor of Shanghai, interviewed in Beijing, capital of China. General Phoebe was born in Columbus, Ohio, and moved back to China with her parents, both academics, before the war with the Japanese. She joined the PLA in 1949 as an instructor at the Foreign Languages Institute, and was part of a secret unit for "foreign relations". She was head of the Institute before she retired. Her second marriage with Louis,whom she had known years before, came about after they hadexchanged 160 love letters, which were later published as examples of a model relationship. They see themselves as being part of "the most fortunate of generations".

In the twentieth century, China experienced the chaos of war and political dissension, and after nearly one hundred years of this, the country and its people were exhausted, with all infrastructure near paralysis. In 1981, a group of world economists predicted in a Chinese government journal that it would take China at least a century to climb out of poverty. Their prediction attracted a great deal of attention: it piqued Chinese self-esteem and provoked a deep-seated popular indignation, stirring a capacity for serious reflection and for hard work long numbed by government policies. I say this because it took less than thirty years from that moment for China to soar to the position of an up-and-coming superpower, arresting the attention of the world in so doing.

Where did that energy come from? Some people say that it was the peasants, hitherto ceaselessly engaged in primitive cultivation, who nurtured China's political dreams. Bound to the soil for generations, Deng Xiaoping's reforms allowed them to migrate to the cities. Their cheap labour helped to break down the rigid constraints of the planned economy. In the process, they "re-educated" a leadership who were feeding on "pie in the sky".

Other people say that the army and academics have risen up and redeemed a Chinese society immobilised by deadly internecine power struggles. Some claim it marks the rise of a new, historically determined, period in China, and is a necessary part of the dynastic cycle. Others view it as a new budding growth from the rootstock of China's great civilisation. And still others say that it is because China is on the rebound from years of extreme misery.

But in my view, this energy is the product of the accumulated self-esteem, wisdom and sheer grit which has been nurtured by five thousand years of civilisation, coming from a people who have learned the meaning of happiness and how to achieve it.

While I was growing up, I knew a woman who had turned tribulations into fields of endeavour, grievances into sport, dedication into responsibility and the vicissitudes of life into the brilliantly coloured fragments of a kaleidoscope.

A year ago, we were chatting on the phone about how each of us felt about China today, and I mentioned the China Witness project, and that I was reaching the final stage of interviews. "Come and see us," she said cheerfully. "Come and listen to the stories of a pair of old folks from the most fortunate of generations."

The "most fortunate of generations"?

From what I knew of her, and judging by any normal standards, she had been fortunate in many ways, but had suffered pain and injustice as well, which hardly made her one of the "fortunate generation".

During the interviews I made on my travels around China, people told me of their pride, I saw their confidence and felt their self-esteem, but so far had heard nothing of "the most fortunate generation". Indeed, few of my interviewees had used the word "fortunate" about themselves.

My friend holds an important position, so I needed to avoid any suspicion that I was digging for classified information. The following is her story, which is an edited version of articles published by Chinese military reported Mr Xueneng Tu in the Keji-Ri Bao newspaper (online) in July 2002.

Spring 1996, USA.

A saloon car sped along the freeway from Maryland to Columbus, Ohio, USA. In the car sat the woman general; her daughter Lan was at the wheel. Their destination: the place where the general had been born sixty-six years ago.

As the car drew to a halt, the general climbed nimbly out and stood at the steps of the maternity hospital entrance. A breeze touched her face and ruffled a few strands of hair. She did not look like a woman in her sixties, with her erect bearing and agile movements. "Was it really sixty-six years ago?!" The duty officer's face betrayed intense emotion. When she heard that they had travelled halfway across the world to visit the older woman's birthplace, her astonishment knew no bounds.

"Yes, it was sixty-six years ago," smiled the general, in a pure American drawl, gazing at the hospital before her.

A detailed folder of material was placed before her. On the first page, a small red footprint impressed itself on her gaze. "Well, that is incredible!" Now it was her turn to be astonished, a feeling accompanied by deep gratitude.

The file on the little Chinese girl born here sixty-six years ago was astonishingly comprehensive. The duty officer took them to the ward where it was recorded that she had first drawn breath – the room was still a maternity ward, and still held the sweet smell of milk.

The date was 28 December 1930. When the future general came into this foreign corner of the world, her father gave her the beautiful name Phoebe, the Greek moon goddess, "the shining one", with the wish that his daughter, like moonlight, would bathe everyone around her in warmth and happiness.

One autumn day three years later, the future general returned to China with her illustrious parents. Her father, with his American PhD in psychology, was made professor at the Nanjing Central School of Politics by the government. Her mother sent her to an American-run primary school where she did exceptionally well. After completing the first grade, she was told by the teacher: "Next term, go straight to the third grade."

Then came the Marco Polo Bridge incident on 7 July 1937, marking Japan's invasion of China proper, and from one day to the next everything changed. With the occupation of Nanjing, Phoebe's family took to the road along with the millions of other Chinese families, forming a wretched, endless stream of refugees constantly on the move in search of sanctuary. First they went to Changsha, but had scarcely had time to get to know their new home before they had to flee to the small county town of Zhijiang Xian in western Hunan province. Not long after, they took a boat to Chongqing. During their flight, no matter where they were, nor how hard life was, Phoebe never dropped out of school. She attended seven of them during six years of primary education.

Six years of middle school followed, and Phoebe was again tossed between schools in five different places. First grade (lower middle school) in Chongqing, followed by a spell in Fujian province; second grade in Nanping; third grade in Jianyang; and first grade of upper middle school in Jian'ou. With the successes of the resistance against Japan, the family made the longed-for return to Shanghai, where Phoebe continued with the third grade.

In the spring of 1947, the future general entered the Foreign Languages Department of Shanghai's Fudan University. An assiduous student known for her political zeal, she joined the Chinese Communist Party at the age of eighteen, and threw herself heart and soul into the struggle for Liberation which faced the city of Shanghai . . .

Before the PLA Ranking exercise of 1955, almost all women soldiers were given non-combatant roles, had their battledress replaced by plain uniforms, and were not ranked. Phoebe was moved to non-combatant duties but, in recognition of her professional ability and excellent work record, was permitted to remain in her teaching post at the PLA-run Foreign Languages Institute. Five years later, she became the youngest woman to head the teaching and research section of a military college.

In 1983, Phoebe was promoted to the position of deputy head of the Institute's training department. Her reaction, when told by the head of the Institute prior to the public announcement, was to object. "You must be joking!" she blurted out. Four years later, another unexpected "happy event" befell her, when she was told that her superiors wanted to promote her to deputy head of the Institute. She laughed, and out came the same catchphrase: "You must be joking!" General Phoebe has been raised to this level of seniority by the Chinese military's push to modernise. Her belief is that the key to language learning is the linguistic environment: if foreign-language teaching does not open itself up to cultural exchanges, then it will perish. She has called for increasing and strengthening international exchange programmes, advocates an increase in the numbers of officially sponsored Chinese students sent to study abroad, and more investment in teachers and teaching materials.

General Phoebe is an educationalist of the first rank, and has edited ten sets of textbooks, including The English Language Reading Course, which has become a core work for advanced English teaching nationally and was awarded the PLA Institute's First Prize for Educational Excellence.

General Phoebe has devoted her life wholeheartedly to teaching for almost half a century. She has dedicated herself to her students and, in so doing, has won their love and esteem in return. At the end of each year, three days of celebration follow one after another – Christmas on 25 December, her birthday on the 28th and New Year's Day on 1 January. Beautifully designed congratulatory cards rain down on her like confetti, and as General Phoebe peruses each familiar name and reads their warm messages, she is often moved to tears.

In September 1988, Military Commission Chairman Deng Xiaoping promoted General Phoebe to the rank of major general.

On 27 July 1984, General Phoebe's first husband passed away. Bereaved after twenty-eight years of a loving relationship, her grief was almost unspeakable. On her way back to Luoyang from Beijing, she exhorted herself, I must be strong, I must be strong. When I see our chiefs and comrades, I must not cry, I absolutely must not cry. And when they came to visit her, she really did bite her lip and remained dry-eyed. But when everyone had gone, and only she was left, when she looked at the empty room, and remembered the laughter and chatter she had shared in it with Mei Xiaoda, now a thing of the past, then she wept bitter tears.

After nearly ten years of respectable widowhood, General Phoebe happened to be at a Soldiers' Reunion meeting where she bumped into Louis [Lu Yi], an old school friend. Forty years previously, she had headed a study group at the North China People's University, whose other members included her late husband and Louis, to whom she is now married. Louis had been discharged for medical reasons in 1952, and allocated a job in Shanghai. By the time they met again, they were both widowed.

15 February 1992 was a day to remember both for Louis and General Phoebe. It marked the blossoming of a friendship in which for two years letters between the pair of old comrades flew back and forth between Luoyang and Shanghai.

A year has 52 weeks, and a weekly letter makes 52 letters per person per year. That's over 100 a year, or over 200 for two people for two years. General Phoebe and Louis exchanged over 200 such letters . . . "If a couple is lucky enough to have this kind of chance meeting, and true intimacy grows, then they begin to miss each other when they are apart." Every one of those letters was full of noble ideals and aspirations, every word an expression of true and sincere feelings. The upshot of around 200 of them, combined with a number of face-to-face meetings, was that General Phoebe and Louis married. At the end of 1993, the 63-year-old woman general became a new bride again in Beijing.

Life since their marriage has been good. We can tell how happy they are from the joint name card which they use: "We seek perfection of character, Our hearts are ever youthful, Our bodies still healthy, Light of heart, we face old age."

In September 2006, I visited the Beijing Officers' Village to hear the stories of this "old woman from the most fortunate generation". We had not met for a very long time, but the emotions we shared about the state of China today soon replaced conventional pleasantries. Afterwards, we were both surprised at the way we had so unreservedly immersed ourselves in deep discussion. She said with a smile that this too came from a yearning for happiness.

*

XINRAN: Auntie, over twenty years, of all the people whom I have interviewed, you are the one who knows me best. For years I have looked to you to teach me about life and about China. Every conversation we have had has stimulated me, and under your tactful guidance, I have acquired a kind of faith, one which resonates with that of your generation, to sacrifice oneself for love. I also believe that you understand what I am doing and why I am doing it. I'm convinced that it will be we who have to answer to the next generation, if the years bring a rupture of communication between the generations. I feel I have a personal responsibility here, one which others may regard as naive and laughable. When today's young people grow old, they may feel they are a lost generation. They may blame us, although they may not understand why they are blaming us. In the course of recent history, this has already happened: many young Chinese do not believe that their parents had a glorious past, do not recognise the values which former generations held dear, and may even have no way of confirming what happened to their own parents in the past.

For example, for the last few years, I have bought all the new editions of Chinese history books, and I have discovered that pre-1949 history accounts for 80 per cent of the material, and only 20 per cent is devoted to the period after 1949. The ten years of the Cultural Revolution receive scarcely any space at all, and are covered in just a few vaguely worded lines. I realise that some historical truths can evoke painful feelings for some people, but we are talking here about facts. We should not rush to hasty judgements about whether the past was right or wrong, but we do need to link it to the present.

I believe that history is formed and continues inseparably from social and family education. The education given in school is very limited and is just the beginning of the process. What I am trying to do is introduce into a Chinese society which has been frozen solid for thousands of years, discussion of new issues, "fresh streams of water", to provide counter-currents for those generations who have seen such dramatic changes over the last hundred years; counter-currents in history, in the existence of truth, in the values and beliefs of a different era.

I have spent many years conversing with the elderly in different parts of China. I have been in the sitting rooms of families of three who have eight cars between them; I have been in country toilets where the floors crawled with so many maggots that there was nowhere to put one's feet; I have nibbled salted pickles at the tables of families living on a few jiao per head a day; and I have drunk champagne on the patios of private seaside villas. This is how the Chinese live today, coexisting in a multilayered society.

How can one be objective about China, explain it, analyse its causes and effects? I'd like to hear your opinions. And I'd also like to interview your husband, because you come from such different social backgrounds, although both were equally cultured – one of you comes from a family of Western-influenced intelligentsia, the other from a Confucian-style merchant clan. You both grew up in the same era of dramatic changes, and I would love to know what you have in common and how you differ.

GENERAL PHOEBE: I don't think there will be any problem with that. He won't object, I know him.

XINRAN: Auntie, the first thing I would like to ask you is about your mother.

GENERAL PHOEBE: My mother is the person I remember most. My father provided the family's only source of income, and ratified the policy decisions, but my mother was at the heart of the family and devised the plans. There are many stories about my mother's family. Her father came from the Hangzhou scholar-gentry. If you look at my mother's family tree, my great-grandfather and his forebears were all noted scholars and teachers, so there was a family tradition of study. As for my grandfather, he was very unfortunate because his father died at an early age. The family fortunes declined, and while he was still a small child he had to go and pawn their belongings to keep them alive.

He and his younger sister had to support themselves. My grandfather got a government grant to train as a PE teacher, which is what he became, while my great-aunt learned embroidery and supported herself that way. My great-aunt led a rather amusing life. When she was sixteen, it was still the Qing dynasty, before the Republic was established, and she went to be housekeeper for the family of an important official – his rank would be equivalent to the head of Zheijiang province nowadays. My great-aunt was a beauty, and became a junior wife of the official. She was a clever woman, and she bore him children too. Then the empire fell and the Republic was set up, but she was still a grand lady – the revolution did not affect her, and even after the Republic, the property of the Qing dynasty nobility was protected. Not only did her social status not suffer, but she also gained more freedom. She was able to use her contacts and went to Shanghai to set up a girls' middle school, called Kunfan Girls' Middle School. She became an educator like the rest of the family too.

My maternal grandfather, apart from being a teacher, became a devout Christian, but he married a woman who was a devout Buddhist. In our family the two religions coexisted quite peacefully. When my mother was small, her father took them to church on Sundays, after which their mother would take them to worship and burn incense in a Buddhist temple. So the children grew up under the influence of both religions. This kind of situation in the family was really a product of the way China changed between the Qing dynasty and the Republic. Christianity in those days in Shanghai was a "foreign" fashion – my mother and her siblings were young and easily influenced by new trends and she became a Christian. So her family was very westernised.

My grandfather had three daughters in a row, then the fourth baby was a boy, and the fifth another girl. He decided that all his daughters should go to university – at least to do an undergraduate degree. The elder three girls studied economics, and all got their degrees. The family sitting room looked like this: big photographs of four of them in mortar boards hung in a row – my eldest aunt, my mother, my third aunt and my uncle. My eldest aunt was born in 1905, and in those days very few people took degrees. They were among the earliest graduates. My youngest aunt did an English course but not to undergraduate level. My grandfather wanted her to get her degree, and to go and study, but there wasn't enough money, and she never got it. It was my grandparents' lifelong regret. They really should have had all five in mortar boards.

XINRAN: Tell me about your father's family.

GENERAL PHOEBE: My paternal grandfather was very westernised. My great-grandfather was in Anhui province in the Taiping Rebellion, I'm not sure where he was before that. During the rebellion he left Anhui and found work in Shanghai, but he suffered from ill health and died relatively young.

My great-grandmother was from Suzhou and was a skilled embroidress. Suzhou in those days was economically developed. When she arrived in Shanghai, her one aim was to have her sons study English. So this woman with her bound feet hired a pushcart to take her all over the city, as she looked for a school which taught English. My great-uncle became an important official at the Shanghai Tax Office, and my grandfather, whose English wasn't so good, ran an accountancy firm in Shanghai.

Because of all this, my family was a bit different from those of my schoolmates. There were very few feudal remnants in our family, and besides, after the Opium War, Shanghai became very westernised, not only in terms of religion but also, because it was a port, in its culture, food and so on. My grandparents enjoyed eating Western food, and from an early age I always felt that eating Western food was fun. At that time, I saw many feudal families, wealthy ones too, which were much more backward than ours. My father was a graduate of Fudan University, and an excellent student. He took the entrance examinations for many students, and helped them get university places . . .

XINRAN: Was that regarded as cheating?

GENERAL PHOEBE: You always get that kind of thing with some people, it's human nature. It's a by-product of kindness and a desire to help.

XINRAN: How did your parents meet?

GENERAL PHOEBE: My father's sister and my mother were good friends, and my aunt introduced them. They started courting, my mother got her degree, and just then my father won a scholarship to study in the USA. So first they got married, then they went off as overseas students.

XINRAN: My uncle on my father's side did the same thing – got a GMD government grant to study in the USA.

GENERAL PHOEBE: Yes, he got a government grant. The family was delighted, and topped up the grant, so that they travelled first class, and had a month's honeymoon on board ship. I was born not long after they arrived in America. My mother wasn't able to carry on studying economics. My father was doing a Master's at Harvard, and then went to Utah to do a PhD. My mother took a course in child education in the school my father was in, and I was her first subject of study, so I got the best possible education.

I really can't say enough about her influence on me. She was a very unusual mother, so all of us children were very carefree and optimistic. We got a lot of respect, we weren't repressed children.

XINRAN: What did your mother do after that?

GENERAL PHOEBE: She went on being a wife, having children and being a mother. My parents had a very good relationship, very harmonious and affectionate, a bit westernised really. We had so much fun, but my mother didn't really. She was an educated woman, and she felt that her talents were constrained by her family responsibilities.

Actually, as far as running the family went, and feeding and caring for the children, she went to a lot of trouble. Our house was always nicely decorated, even when we were fleeing as refugees to Sichuan and we lived in a mud hut with lime-washed walls – there was no wallpaper in that region in those days – she still found a way to decorate the house. She bought that shiny green-coloured paper, cut out circles and stuck flower patterns on the wall by the table where we ate. Some were flower patterns and some were other designs, and the whole house looked very "Western". Sometimes we found it hard to believe we were in an adobe hut! I loved making these pretty walls with her. She made all my clothes too. When I was a child, I adored Shirley Temple. Whatever she wore, my mother would make it for me, so we girls had lots of Shirley Temple outfits.

She used to tell us stories – she was good at storytelling – tales from Balzac, Tarzan stories, she could make us cry with her stories. She sang in English and Chinese, really movingly. She was such a clever woman, but she could actually only display her intelligence and talents within the confines of her home. Later on, when I thought back on it, I realised that she can't have been very happy at home.

XINRAN: Do you think she was unhappy all her life?

GENERAL PHOEBE: She enjoyed herself more after Liberation. Immediately after Liberation she shot off on her own. She and my father loved each other a great deal, and he understood and supported her. The three eldest of the five children were beginning to leave home to work or study; my mother, who was very well educated, became a professional and did her job extremely well. She worked in a cooperative nursery, quite far from our home, and could only come back once a week. So my father looked after my younger sister and brother.

This father was almost a complete stranger to me. When I was small, my father had never so much as brushed my hair for me, but with the youngest two, he looked after them and did everything for them! When he talked of how he had done nothing to look after us older ones, he felt very "sorry" [in English].

XINRAN: He must have understood, from looking after your younger brother and sister, what a wonderful woman your mother was.

GENERAL PHOEBE: That's right. My mother was a wonderful woman. Her biggest success was in educating us. She behaved very rationally towards us. When I was about to leave home, I didn't realise that she was like that, but when I came back to visit, she cried. She hadn't wanted me to go away knowing how desolate she felt. But she never interfered in our lives. Even as small children, we did things for ourselves. She was very well organised, and believed in proper behaviour. When we returned to China, we brought back a very interesting custom with us: I used to drink a glass of cold water with every meal, that was a habit I had picked up in America. Years later, my younger brother and sisters would say before we started eating: "Pour us a glass of cold water, Phoebe," and I would pour them a glass each, and everyone would say thank you.

My mother would set me up as an example which she wanted my younger siblings to follow. She brought us up to overcome difficulties by ourselves, she wouldn't do it for us. Nowadays, if a little girl falls over, her mother will say "Naughty floor!" and tell the child to hit the floor. I think that's daft, it's like saying it's never the child's own fault. With a small child, you have to get her to understand why she fell down. In 1935, my mother published a book called Your Bonny Baby.

XINRAN: In Chinese or in English?

GENERAL PHOEBE: In Chinese. My father did lots of illustrations for it.

XINRAN: What did your mother do after she retired?

GENERAL PHOEBE: After Liberation, she went to work in the nursery, and my father taught psychology at East China Normal University. Then the Beijing Educational Research Institute transferred my father and the whole family to Beijing. My mother was forced to give up her work at the nursery; and soon afterwards she died. She was sixty-four.

XINRAN: So young! What did she die from?

GENERAL PHOEBE: A cerebral haemorrhage. She was under too much pressure. That was the time of the Cultural Revolution. The university professors were treated like animals, they bore the brunt of the attacks. The Red Guards drove all the professors and academics onto the sports ground and made them all kneel down. It was all too much for my mother.

XINRAN: What about your father?

GENERAL PHOEBE: My father lived to the age of eighty-four.

XINRAN: He got through the Cultural Revolution.

GENERAL PHOEBE: Yes he did. He was a psychologist, and psychologists in China went through hard times. He had come back to China to help fight the Japanese, but during the Anti-Japanese War, it was hard enough just to survive, so who cared about your psychology? From an academic point of view, he was under enormous constraints. After Liberation, China was under the influence of the Soviets and they ignored psychology, so he had no alternative but to do Pavlovian experiments, that is, to concentrate on the physiological aspects. But it was only fifty years after his return, during the reforms which opened up China, when he was over seventy and already retired, that he finally achieved academic recognition for the discipline of psychology and became very famous as a psychologist. In spite of his age, he then threw all of his energies into training up researchers, master and PhD students. So his later years were very enjoyable. He also trained some students in sexual psychology, an area previously taboo in China.

XINRAN: Forgive me for interrupting you, but I am a self-taught student of broadcasting psychology, and my many years of working in the media have made me aware of the thirst for psychology in Chinese society. It's very difficult for many Western theories in psychology to find acceptance in China because of distortions in our society which have developed over a long period. But China badly needs psychology to help smooth out the frictions between different elements in our society. Sexual psychology, especially, is urgently needed to deal with huge problems.

GENERAL PHOEBE: My father's very last student was a researcher in sexual psychology, and my father said to him: "Whatever level you achieve in your studies, that represents the highest level in China!"

XINRAN: Did your father ever discuss with you the future of psychology in China?

GENERAL PHOEBE: Yes he did. He felt that although China has developed quite fast since the reforms, and psychology was now quite well recognised, and there were far more people registering for psychology courses, nevertheless it would still take a long time for China to catch up with psychology in developed countries.

XINRAN: As the daughter of a psychologist, did you find that his work persuaded you of the value of psychology to Chinese society?

GENERAL PHOEBE: Undoubtedly! He did psychology, and we five children all went through higher education. I taught English; my younger brother studied mechanical engineering, and then did rehabilitation engineering; my next sister is a film actress; my youngest sister is a doctor; my youngest brother works in computing. In each of our areas of professional expertise, my father could hold his own in a discussion, and we often discovered that he was more knowledgeable than any of us.

I did languages, but I had to admit that he knew more about it than I did. He had been to a primary school in Shanghai run by English people, so his English was extremely good. When he was young he read lots of foreign-language books, so his knowledge of English was much more profound than mine. I was at school during the war, so obviously I didn't have the solid foundation that he had.

My brother then started to do rehabilitation engineering, and an idea of my father's had a great influence on him: he said the psychological process was transformed into the physiological process and the physiological process was transformed into the physical process, so that when my brother made artificial limbs and electronic and mechanical devices, he could use the same principle. I should add that by that time my brother was China's foremost rehabilitation engineer, but my father still outstripped him.

XINRAN: What are the strongest impressions you retain from your childhood?

GENERAL PHOEBE: My childhood was very unusual, because I was born in America, and I lived there until the outbreak of the Anti-Japanese War. My Chinese wasn't very good then, but when I first returned to China, and heard people say that they wanted to hear me speak English, I was scared to death, and didn't dare utter a word. I said to my mother, did our family and friends think I was a doll? That was when I was very small.

Until I was six, I was an only child. Even though my mother was a child educationist and tried her best to ensure I was not lonely, I had no companion at home, so when my girl cousin came to visit, I was absolutely delighted. Of course, this had a lot to do with my character, I've always enjoyed lively company because I was so alone as a child: even though I had plenty of friends at school, at home there was just me.

When my younger siblings were born, every two or three years, they formed a group. I wasn't in their group because I was six years older, and my mother deliberately made me their role model, so they looked up to me more than ever. It got quite ridiculous – when the little ones cried, they didn't cry for their mummy or daddy, they cried for their elder sister. That was how it was in our house, I was Big Sister.

When I was little, my father was a university professor, and before the Anti-Japanese War, university professors lived pretty well. When he came back, we had a small detached, Western-style house in Hangzhou and one in Nanjing, and my father was taken to work in a special rickshaw, of the type that used to go "clank, clank" as they went along.

But once the war had begun, we became refugees on the run. Our education suffered a great setback. I was first at the American School, and continued there when we arrived at Lu Shan, but then we left and fled to Hunan, first to one place then to another. I've worked it out: my primary school was six years, and I went to seven schools in that time, and never had one fixed school. And it got more and more difficult just to survive as we headed into the hinterland. We went as far as Chongqing, and in those days you couldn't just hop on an aeroplane like now. Fleeing for safety involved an arduous journey.

When I think back on it now, the hardships of our childhood have served me well in later life. After the outbreak of war, our whole standard of living fell dramatically, so we got to know what rural life meant. We lived on the outskirts of Chongqing, we were on the edge of the countryside, and we could see the extreme poverty of Chinese villages. I had never felt anything like it, not in America or in the big cities. I was greatly affected by my feelings – in some way I suppose I felt a kind of responsibility. I felt that our country was bad, backward, poor, and allowed foreigners to beat us. So I did lots of war-relief work, like making collections of padded clothing in the autumn and things like that.

Our lives changed so much, and those changes affected the whole nation. That's why old people in China today still burn with anger against the crimes committed by the Japanese seventy years ago. I still feel that hatred. The Japanese people did such great wrong to the Chinese.

My father was teaching in Nanjing at the time, and when we fled, we gave our house to a rickshaw puller to look after. During the Nanjing Massacre of December 1937, they cut off his arm. When we heard about it, we felt so bad. He was completely innocent, he was just a manual worker, who had he offended?

If you listen to our generation talk about the Anti-Japanese War, all of us, not to mention the wretchedly poor, have personal experience of the horror of it. When I see the Japanese flag now, it still makes me feel bad; my head is full of blood-soaked images, and I simply can't forget them, because they are so deeply imprinted on my consciousness.

When the war ended, I was fifteen years old. We finally made it back to Shanghai. Our standard of living was a lot worse than when we had been in Shanghai before. Even though my father was a professor, we were very poor. There was terrible inflation and we were like beggars, our daily lives just wretched. I was at middle school, and I had no shoes to wear to school. I just went in straw sandals – having cloth shoes to wear was a luxury.

We always made a fuss of everyone's birthdays in my family, and one year when it was my birthday, my mother wanted to give me a present, but she couldn't afford to buy anything. So she cut out a piece of ordinary blue cotton from the pocket of an old garment, frayed the edges, added a few little red flowers around the edge, and embroidered the flower petals onto it with red thread. Her clever fingers turned that bit of pocket into a pretty handkerchief in no time at all, and made me a birthday present which I have always remembered.

The truth is that we were still considered quite well off in those days. Many, many people lived in far worse conditions than us, not to mention those who starved to death.

Our poverty made a profound impact on me. I felt inferior, even though I went to a middle school which was very well known in Shanghai – it was called the Xiangwen Middle School, and was attached to the Catholic Institute. My cousins also went there and were in the same year as me, only I felt inferior to them in every way – in the clothes I wore, in the food I took to school for lunch. But I got better grades than them, which gave me a few crumbs of comfort, and a reason to be proud.

When I was in upper middle school, our home was at Fudan University in the Jiangwan part of Shanghai and my school was quite far away, in the city centre, so I moved in with my maternal grandmother. An aunt of mine also lived there, a very progressive woman, who often talked to us about progressive topics. I had seen poverty at first hand, and had seen how unfair society was, so I was very receptive to being indoctrinated by her ideas. But they kept us under tight control at my school and we had very little opportunity to go out and do our own thing.

After I started at Fudan University, I found the atmosphere there very good, and the students were active. It was just like my father's descriptions of his time at Qinghua University, when he and his fellow students were militant and felt that the GMD were terribly corrupt. By contrast, after we had defeated the Japanese, we university students felt that Chinese society had been destroyed by the Japanese devils, because the government was so riddled with corruption. First, carpet-bagging officials sent by the GMD to take over from the Japanese had arrived from Chongqing, and appropriated all the wealth for themselves, and then they used galloping inflation to fleece ordinary people. When I was at university, every time my father got paid, he had to hurry to do the shopping, before the prices of food and household goods rose again beyond his means. After the victory against Japan, large amounts of food aid was distributed, like US Army tinned food, those big green tins of luncheon meat. We really liked eating such stuff, and you could store the tins. So my mother bought lots, and when prices went up and other people had nothing to eat, we still had meat. We rushed to convert our savings into silver dollars, either the Yuan-head coins with Yuan Shikai's head on them, or the Sun-head silver dollars with Sun Yat-sen's head on them, because silver dollars kept their value. When my brother and I helped my father with the shopping, we had to carry a lot, because you needed big bags of money. It was common to see people going shopping carrying their money on shoulder poles.

In Shanghai I saw with my own eyes people who had died of starvation or frozen to death – it was a common sight. How could I carry on with my studies? I just couldn't. Some of my fellow students at Fudan University were from very poor families, and many of us took to the streets to demonstrate against hunger. The Communist Party was very strong by now, and everyone read Chairman Mao's books on the quiet. We were looking for a way to save China because many people had begun to realise that Chiang Kai-shek was useless and was not governing our country properly. When I was eighteen years old, I joined the underground Party branch at the university.

XINRAN: What did you study at Fudan?

GENERAL PHOEBE: English. But times were so turbulent that I hardly got any studying done. The students were constantly on strike, and we were involved in activities both on and off campus. All of us were in a high state of anxiety. What were we to do with our country? By that time, the CCP-liberated areas were expanding, and many students just hoped that we would be liberated soon and, whichever government took power, that the fighting would stop and the economy would start working again.

Our generation had very little opportunity to pursue our studies. I mean, what could I learn at primary school while we were on the run? And schools were so poorly equipped that I have never lost the habit of saving paper. There was no paper as white as we have today, it was all grass paper, browny-black in colour, we called it "horse-dung paper". When you used a pencil to write on it, it tore, and when you used a pen, the ink soaked through and went everywhere. If you could get hold of a good pencil, you were very happy. When I see paper swooshing through the photocopier now, with just a few words on one side, and nothing printed on the reverse, it hurts me. I've still kept the habit of using the edge of the paper to make notes or jot things down. It's a habit I would find difficult to change, because I lived through those times. Materially, we were incredibly hard up, plus it all happened at the time when I was beginning to be aware of these things – twelve or thirteen years old, right up to when I was seventeen or eighteen.

XINRAN: I know what you mean by "habits". I never used to understand at all, not until the first time I went to do an interview in a small village in Yuanyang, in Henan province, in 1989. The village was very poor, and I saw children with absolutely no toys. So I took some pages from my notebook and made them some origami rabbits out of the paper as a present. Some years later I went back –

GENERAL PHOEBE: And the rabbits were still there.

XINRAN: Yes, they were, alongside the portraits of Chairman Mao and the Goddess of Mercy. I was just putting my hand out to take a rabbit down and tell them about my first visit years before, when a small child stopped me and said: "Don't touch it. My dad told me that a visitor from far away came and gave it to us." I felt moved to tears: as far as I was concerned, these were just paper toys I'd casually made them, but to a generation of peasants who had never had visitors from the outside world, and had never seen the world outside their village either, it meant so much because they were living in a forgotten corner of China. Many rural children have never seen clean white paper, so after that, I acquired a new habit: I would collect together scraps of paper and make them up into little notebooks of all shapes and sizes, and when I went into the countryside I would take them to give to the children. I completely agree that unless you've experienced poverty and seen it with your own eyes, you can't understand what it's like to be poor, and you won't know how to help.

GENERAL PHOEBE: That was true all over China then – so we know why it was called the old society – and we weren't at the bottom of the heap.

XINRAN: And what do your son and daughter think about your habit of saving paper?

GENERAL PHOEBE: Our standards as parents, in bringing up our children, were very much army standards. When they were in primary and middle school, we made two round trips to work every day, so we saw them at breakfast, lunch and dinner, rattled off a few things we needed to say, and then we had to go back to work after dinner. We had no time to spend with our children, we really had no time at all in those days, everyone was so busy working, it seemed like the only way to do right by our country. We only had Sunday off, and only for half a day. We bathed once a week – that took two hours – then I had to hold a meeting with core cadres within the department and organise the next week's work. These memories hurt me deeply, but one can't turn the clock back. I understand the way society works today. People are so busy with their work that they have no time to spend on the family. They have a higher standard of living than we did, so they simply hand their children over to the school or get other people to look after them. That's even worse for the children, who sometimes don't see their parents at all during the week. I do worry for them when I see that happening. Those children are growing up, they need their family and their parents in a way that they never will again. Many people are working to get a better life for themselves but if, when you've got it all, you discover that in the process you've lost out on enjoying your children and family, that mindless rushing around is a tragedy. And the pain of that loss can never be compensated for.

XINRAN: During the interviews we've done, almost all the parents have shared that pain – that is, they didn't give their children the family and the love that they should have done, or fulfilled their needs, and it's the biggest regret of their lives. It's something that many of our generation are still searching for. Some of us even look for that parental love and warmth at work or among our friends. How many times have I dreamed that I was small again and my parents were making a fuss of their little girl . . . ?

*

General Phoebe's hitherto unclouded expression faded and, with it, her air of self-confidence and acuity. Her eyes reddened, and filled, and she gulped hard, as if to choke back the rising tide of pain. I also felt anguish – the reminder of this family and mother love which I was still looking for bubbling up to the surface – and we were both silent for a few moments, letting time ease the intensity of our memories.

*

XINRAN: Auntie, I'm sorry.

GENERAL PHOEBE: It's OK, this is excellent, it shows we're not completely numbed, that we haven't lost our ability to feel. The way we lived before, we had little opportunity to express our real selves. Don't worry, this is fine, please carry on asking me questions.

XINRAN: Did you see Shanghai being liberated? Do you still remember scenes from then?

GENERAL PHOEBE: Those were interesting times. On 27 May 1949, the city of Shanghai was liberated.*14 By 25 May, troops had already occupied some of the outskirts so the city was not completely liberated, but where we lived, it was basically liberated.

Before this, on 25 April, in the middle of the night, the GMD military police surrounded every major Shanghai university, to arrest so-called Communist elements. First, they drove all the students who were boarders into the dining hall, and then got spies who were standing around to identify CCP members. These were then dragged away and thrown into prison. Those were the mass arrests prior to Liberation. At the more famous universities, like Fudan, Tongzhi and Shanghai Jiaotong, large numbers of students were seized and imprisoned. I lived at home, so nothing happened to me, I probably wasn't on their blacklist. But our area was also surrounded, and I climbed up to the roof with a neighbour, to hide. My brothers went outside to see if the army and police were making arrests, and whether we ought to make plans to escape.

After these mass arrests, there were no more classes at college, and the underground Party branch was extremely active. Party members kept in close contact and our task was to fight for liberation and be there to meet it when it came. The underground CCP in Shanghai mobilised all sectors of society – workers, peasants and traders – with the workers in the lead. Students were a force to be reckoned with too. We didn't have phones then, but we used the Shanghai Park Hotel which was the tallest building in the city; now, it's scarcely visible, because it's dwarfed by crowds of other skyscrapers. We arranged that when we hung a great length of white material from the top of the building, everyone would immediately go and gather in a prearranged spot. Our job was to do the propaganda work, and some of us would do guard duties too, watching over key cultural sites and national archives.

On 24 May, the scenes on the streets in Shanghai had been quite farcical, because the GMD had organised demonstrations to celebrate the victory of their armed forces, and the streets had been full of their troops. We found it very funny, and we shouted at them: "It's almost over for you, what are you doing celebrating victory?!" Actually, they were covering their retreat.

XINRAN: I've heard about GMD victory parades in Shanghai on the eve of Liberation, but I've never been given an eyewitness account. I interviewed an old man in Shanghai who told me about it, but he said things were very confused – everyone was saying that the CCP were about to take the city, and yet the streets were full of GMD. I said that couldn't be true: if he insisted they were GMD in the streets, not CCP, how could he say it was the CCP who liberated Shanghai? He admitted that he had been very confused about what was happening at that time. But you've confirmed the truth of what he said.

GENERAL PHOEBE: Yes, on the 24th the streets were full of GMD troops, but by daybreak on the 25th they were full of PLA troops, every one of them with a gun on his shoulder. But no one went into anyone's house. All this made a very good impression on the city's inhabitants.

XINRAN: Was there a big contrast?

GENERAL PHOEBE: There was a joke going round then: the PLA didn't know what a flush toilet was, but they didn't want to bother any of the city's inhabitants, so they thought they must be for washing rice in. They put their rice in and poured water on top, swooshed the rice around and rinsed it clean. I don't know if that was true or just an urban myth, but the point of the joke was that the PLA were completely different from the GMD soldiers. Lots of GMD soldiers would come and ask to borrow something and never give it back; but if a PLA soldier came to our house to borrow something, we'd get it back immediately.

XINRAN: Were you someone who thought that the PLA were "hicks"?

GENERAL PHOEBE: No, I didn't.

XINRAN: So you didn't feel that since their uniforms were in tatters, and they were dirty, they were uneducated peasants?

GENERAL PHOEBE: No, on the contrary – we found them very educated. The GMD soldiers were pretty dumb. Their officers beat them, we all saw it happen, we saw them beating soldiers on the street with their truncheons, and the soldiers on their knees begging for mercy. I saw it when I was a kid, but nothing like that ever happened with the PLA soldiers.

XINRAN: That must have been a dramatic change for the Shanghainese. One day it was all GMD troops, and the next, it was all PLA troops and the CCP. So, how long did it take for the whole city to change from one system to the other?

GENERAL PHOEBE: At daybreak on the 25th, my aunt phoned my mother and told her that Shanghai had been "liberated". (My aunt's family were considered rather wealthy – my aunt ran a private bank.) She deliberately used the word "liberated" and I knew that this word was not in the GMD vocabulary, so it showed how many people accepted this huge change straight away. Of course we all ran to the front gate, and people ran out of the lanes, and saw how orderly they all were. The PLA didn't beat anyone, didn't take stuff and behaved properly. The CCP had done some propaganda work beforehand, but the best proof was ordinary people seeing it with their own eyes.

Well, then I worked for many, many years in the PLA Institute. The army belongs to the people – that's a principle which permeates it from top to bottom.

XINRAN: Before we began this interview, we talked about how China was a country formed by very particular circumstances. We don't have a national religion; we've taken in Buddhism, Christianity or Islam, we accept them all, though in fact these arrived more than a thousand years after Chinese indigenous philosophies and faiths. The result, when a country has no national religion, may easily be a confused medley of beliefs, a confusion produced by the lack of a guiding principle. By this I mean an accepted vertical analysis of history, in other words, an understanding which is the product of generally accepted immutable moral rules and common articles of faith. In China "each Son of Heaven brings his own retinue" and this moral framework changes with each new emperor on the throne, so that people's understanding of good and bad shifts accordingly. This could be one of the reasons why Chinese is so extremely rich in adjectives, but also why its language and culture are so closed to outside influences, and why we as a nation can be suspicious of religious belief.

I have been thinking about the fact that China has experienced a hundred years of dynastic and regime changes. After the end of the feudal Qing dynasty, China never stopped changing – from Empire to Republic took just a few years, and the change from GMD to CCP also happened quickly. Especially in the cities, regime change was really rapid. It's like you said, in Shanghai people's political outlook changed in twenty-four hours. How is it possible, in your view, for ordinary people to cope with such rapid change?

GENERAL PHOEBE: Ordinary people don't care. You change the dynasty or the emperor, it's all the same to us. We'll follow any emperor, so long as you don't stop us going about our business.

XINRAN: So people "got used to" these transformations just as previous generations had.

GENERAL PHOEBE: I think they got used to things, and didn't care. It's "I'll obey anyone, and any authority, who's good to me".

XINRAN: Political authority is like a god for an awful lot of ordinary Chinese.

GENERAL PHOEBE: Authority is very important, not just for a nation, but also within the family. The patriarch of the great Chinese family is an authority who cannot be disobeyed by family members. A family without an authority figure will quickly disintegrate; the children and grandchildren may scatter, and some will begin to fight between themselves. Within the family, the main head of the family is basically a ruler. If he or she is an enlightened and wise one, then they can deal with all family relationship problems, and guarantee that future generations have family rules that they can follow – rules which can make those family ties indissoluble and keep the generations together. When that authority weakens, then other family members may involuntarily gravitate towards a new authority, and this may bring conflict in its wake. Interestingly enough, we can see the reappearance in national history of the traditional cultural consciousness of the great Chinese family, as the "cells" of family life penetrate the bone marrow of the nation.

XINRAN: So when Shanghai was liberated, how was the new government's power imposed on Fudan University, where you were, and how was it received by staff and students?

GENERAL PHOEBE: When the CCP took over, our underground Party was not yet out in the open, but the organisation was very strong, and very active. Everyone knew who was a Party member, and who had links with the Party. In those days, CCP members were usually models of behaviour in that particular environment. Then, to become a Party member, you had to be an exceptionally good person. You had to have real warmth and care for ordinary people, and if you were a student you had to be a better student than the rest. And only people with exceptional technical skills could join the Party. It's different nowadays – mediocre people with no real ability can join too. So every Party member had the power to bind people to them. If one of them spoke, we listened – of course we listened, we knew that what they said included instructions from higher levels of the CCP, and was integral to the interests of ordinary people. The Shanghainese very soon began to feel that life was an awful lot easier under the new leadership.

XINRAN: By Liberation, roughly how many members did the underground Party at Fudan University have?

GENERAL PHOEBE: I don't really know, the figures had to be kept secret, but it's true to say that a sizeable proportion of the students were members.

XINRAN: And then, after Shanghai was liberated, society became quite calm. It was even a natural transition.

GENERAL PHOEBE: That's right.

XINRAN: Did any of the students harbour any doubts about the new government?

GENERAL PHOEBE: It never occurred to us to doubt the new government, because the Youth League of the Three Principles of the People were the only opponents of the CCP members. They were bad people, who did despicable things and had a very bad social influence. We, in Shanghai, were liberated later than Beijing so, for us, all the news coming out of Beijing was good news, and very encouraging. No one wanted to stay still; we all told ourselves we should go and join in the reconstruction, and get to work to make China strong again. That really was what we felt, we didn't want to study.

XINRAN: What about the teachers?

GENERAL PHOEBE: My father was a professor so when he came home he told us how they were reacting. Of course, the Party did its work well, and just a few days after Liberation, the CCP Mayor of Shanghai, Mr Chen Yi, spoke to the intelligentsia in the Grand Cinema. Many professors attended and were extremely pleased, quite reassured. Mayor Chen was very clear on his hopes for the future and what he was inviting them to do at that moment. No one had any complaints, in fact they were falling over themselves to back him! I think that was why my family supported me joining the army.

XINRAN: When you decided to join the army, did you find it hard to leave your family? Did you think of the worry it would cause your parents?

GENERAL PHOEBE: To be honest, no. Everyone had made it their personal task to reconstruct the country, and that was the reason why my mother and father had come back from America to fight the Japanese.

XINRAN: What about your brothers and sisters?

GENERAL PHOEBE: My next brother was six years younger than me, and when he saw me join the army, he falsified his age and joined up too. Later, he left because of poor health, and became an academic. My other brother and sisters were too young at that time. I joined in July 1949. We were instructors first, and then I was sent by the Party organisation to take a written exam. It was only afterwards that I discovered that it was for the Foreign Ministry, who were recruiting . . . All of us had been chosen by people who had already been recruited, for our all-round excellence and because we were high-achievers. They wanted to use us to set up the China Military Diplomatic Academy.

XINRAN: The whole system for training military diplomats was set up by your cohort, wasn't it?

GENERAL PHOEBE: Not entirely by us. The precursor of the PLA Foreign Languages Institute was the CCP Military Committee Foreign Languages Training Unit set up in 1938 in Yan'an. In August 1949, this was formally established as an institute in Beijing, and we were its first cohort of instructors. There were about four hundred of us, about a hundred or so from Shanghai, and then some from Beijing, Nanjing and other places, but the Shanghainese were in the majority. Our institute was called the Revolutionary University then, part of the North China People's Revolutionary University. Section One was the Party School, Section Two was for diplomats, and there was another section, and ours was Section Four. There was a huge sports ground, where we gathered for reports and briefings, starting with learning what the sickle was.

XINRAN: Was it at that time that you met your first husband?

GENERAL PHOEBE: I and both my husbands were in the same section. Of course, at the time, I only knew that they were very nice to me, but I didn't realise that both of them loved me. Louis had been at St John's College, Shanghai, and had a diploma from there when he joined up. Most of us were sent to the Foreign Ministry. As I said, they recruited us specially, and then told us our unit was directly under the control of the ministry. We didn't know this at the time but our unit was to deal with "foreign relations". . .

XINRAN: Did your birth and your family's foreign background count against you in your work and your career?

GENERAL PHOEBE: Everyone knew I was born in America, I had made that clear from the start, and there wasn't anything illegal about it.

XINRAN: In the thirty years from the 1950s to the 80s, there were so many political movements in China which stifled the intelligentsia, and meted out punishments to many Chinese who had returned from overseas and were suspected of allegiance to US and British imperialism. Were you not subject to any unjust accusations?

GENERAL PHOEBE: Not really. We were protected to a certain extent. The Cultural Revolution was simply ridiculous: they said I was a powerful, reactionary academic, which was glorifying me. I never regarded myself as an academic, still less as someone with power. When they made me wear the "reactionary's hat", I found it funny.

XINRAN: So you were attacked?

GENERAL PHOEBE: At that time, we were living in the Hongxingyuan compound at Zhangjiakou, and the Red Guards put up big character posters attacking the "Four Big Diamonds". My late husband and I were two of those under fire, and the posters stuck on our house were mainly an attack on me, a fierce onslaught on my "criminal record" and my political views. After that, we were taken under armed guard to do Reform through Labour in the Hubei Cadre School. I didn't know how to do anything, so they gave me kitchen duties, and I cooked! I just learned and made the best of things, and I didn't endure any great suffering. Eventually, I even learned to kill pigs – I killed lots of pigs!

XINRAN: But how did you feel about what was going on? Did you feel wronged? Or indignant? I've discovered that many old people who went through hell then and survived into happier times talk very amusingly about that period, but are actually explaining what happened from the perspective of now, not then. What I really want to know is what you felt then, at that time.

GENERAL PHOEBE: What were my inner feelings then? It was just like when a revolution breaks out. First, there was the question of one's political attitude. What Chairman Mao said was very effective: "You should believe in the Party and the masses," so I believed in the Party and the masses. I don't think it was anything very frightening, because historically, when there were "rectification movements" in China, cadres' personal histories were investigated, we all knew that. When a period of time is past, and the storm is over, things eventually become clear, so I take a moderate view of history.

XINRAN: You were in military education for forty years, weren't you?

GENERAL PHOEBE: Yes, from 1949 right up to 1993.

XINRAN: If someone were to ask whether you could explain the ups and downs of Chinese history, how would you answer a question like that?

GENERAL PHOEBE: I feel that the Liberation of China in 1949 really was a fantastic event. And I include Mao Zedong in that. Even though Chairman Mao did a lot wrong, and even committed crimes – I do acknowledge that. But we have to recognise Mao Zedong's contribution to the revival of the Chinese nation as a whole. He was actually a great historical figure and his name will go down in the annals of history. He's like the Emperor Qin Shi Hung Di, who burned books, buried Confucian scholars alive and tyrannised the people, but this can't obscure his achievements in uniting China, setting up the legal code, developing commerce, and even building the Great Wall, one of the wonders of the world. Mao Zedong gave the Chinese back their self-respect as a people after the Opium War, and that achievement can never be wiped out.

What does Liberation mean? The greatest liberation has been for the working people. Previously in China, workers and peasants had absolutely no status; now, they may still be poor, but it's not the same. At last now, society and the media and officials have to show respect for them, whether they mean it or not, and they're supposed to be the masters! Before Liberation, the expression "Chinese people" didn't include them. The difference between then and now is really huge. That's why I tell you we are the most fortunate generation, because we have seen with our own eyes the difference between before and after Liberation. We have seen the whole process – from war, starvation, poverty and unrest, to the imposition of order, our growing strength and the development of a humane society.

The liberation of women in China has been more thorough than elsewhere, in a certain sense and within defined limits. The emancipation of urban professional women has been marvellous, and my mother was a witness to that change.

Of course, we lag behind in some things. Culturally, we are rather backward and haven't caught up. New China has been built by workers, peasants and the Red Army, and their influence should not be underestimated. Plus, for a long period after 1949, the majority of those who held power were worker and peasant cadres. Even though we knew that they had many shortcomings, we had to recognise that they had many good points. It's the same kind of liberation as the Paris Commune; even though afterwards many people suffered greatly in all sorts of ways, it was a very good thing that it happened. When the Gang of Four were crushed, we were so poor we didn't have any meat to eat, but each family somehow bought a chicken, and we had a hundred-chicken celebratory banquet. Educated people were beside themselves, to have seen this day come at last.

XINRAN: I'd like to hear you compare Chinese society today with how it was just after Liberation.

GENERAL PHOEBE: Nowadays, there are still many good Party members and leaders. It's not just a few individuals, you find them all over the place, really good people. Of course, they may bear the imprint of society today, and that includes wrongdoing and self-interest, but when it comes to disaster relief, you'll find that there are lots of good people, and that's the absolute truth. Every time there's a famine, China is so big that many, many people die, but you find that people help and give to each other. It's as we say, in a disaster, you really know who your friends are.

XINRAN: People of your generation really believe in the Communist Party, don't you? Do you know the story of my father and my younger brother? Did he ever tell you?

GENERAL PHOEBE: I don't think he ever did, no.

XINRAN: After my younger brother had joined the army, he went home on a visit, and my father asked: "How come you haven't joined the Party?" My brother said: "In my unit, the bad things are all done by Party members. I'm not joining." My father trembled with fury when he heard this. "Get out!" he shouted. So my brother took his bags and left. It was nearly three years before they spoke again.

GENERAL PHOEBE: It's because before Liberation we all saw so many bad things, and we firmly believed the CCP could resolve all those undesirable things. We pinned all our hopes on the CCP, so I can understand your father's feelings. But if you take a broad view of the development of the whole of human society, it's not that simple, it can't be explained in black and white terms. Human beings are always in search of truth, goodness and beauty, that's a universal trait, but it's not so easy to find. Human nature has so many contradictions. No political system is without its faults, and that's because we have many problems: people are weak, opportunistic, corrupt, selfish, everyone's got their failings. It's really worthwhile looking into how people come to a common understanding on how to solve these problems. In my view, war, religion and culture are all avenues through which people seek to resolve these contradictions and weaknesses. The expectation has been that we can deal with evil by using goodness, but many studies of human nature show we still have a long way to go; we have still not solved fundamental issues like poverty and war, let alone other problems.

XINRAN: War and poverty are precisely the factors which have torn apart modern China, and in my view it is only people like you, who have had both a Chinese and a Western education, and are of a generation who have experienced these dramatic changes, who can see things clearly and make comparisons. Many of the worker and peasant cadres, who benefited from these changes, just keep saying: "You don't know what it was like in the past." But they don't have any idea how to resolve past problems which persist today. They believe that it's easy to exchange one faith for another.

Apart from the kind of face-to-face interview which we are doing now, I have also conducted a series of telephone interviews, where I called people from London. One of them was a violin-maker called Wu, who was in his second year at university fifty years ago when he said something wrong and was clapped in prison right up until the Cultural Revolution. Two days before he was due to be released, he was in a group reciting the quotations of Chairman Mao and he made another mistake, and instead of saying "We should support those who oppose our enemy", he turned it into the opposite, "We should oppose those who oppose our enemy", so he was condemned to another fifteen years and didn't get out until 1985. He had completely and absolutely lost his entire youth. He went to Hong Kong in the end.

I met him in London, and I asked him one question: "Do you have regrets?" He said: "No, none." I asked him why not, and he said: "For an era to become an era, people have to endure it." And he went on to say that he had become a witness to a part of a particular era. "Through me, people will see one aspect of this era." I found Wu's self-evaluation very moving.

GENERAL PHOEBE: A man of noble spirit.

XINRAN: I did another telephone interview with a senior cadre who had never had any setbacks because he was a worker-peasant cadre, son of a Red Army soldier. I asked him: "Do you have any regrets about your life?" and he said: "I regret the fact that my father achieved nothing of value in his life, apart from his good name; not a thing in a whole lifetime, and I was a loyal and filial son to him." I really didn't understand that at all. I thought his answer was going to be the opposite because he had profited from his father's status, his house, his work and everyone's admiration of his family. Don't you think? I would have thought that Mr Wu might have said his life had not been worthwhile, but actually he thought it turned out fine!

GENERAL PHOEBE: In the past, the dominant things in our lives were controlled within society, but now we can't have complete control over things. Because changes have happened so fast, society fragments into many different viewpoints. It's all so complex and quite out of the ordinary, and that's a product of our age.

We old people see things a little more clearly because we are on the margins of society, not at its centre at all. We have been through a lot and have thought about it a lot. Many uneducated cadres have been through a lot too, but haven't been enlightened by education, so they can't think it through rationally.

We should take a calm look at things and put everyone back in that time, because Chairman Mao was not a god, he was an ordinary human being, and people allowed him to assume great powers. He put terrible pressure on people then, and that wasn't good, but all of that developed completely naturally. Power has always been tyranny over enemies and opponents, because it is born out of the struggle to subdue enemies and opponents, and the greater the power, the greater the number of people subdued. It's always been like this from ancient times. One can't see Mao Zedong as an unnatural phenomenon.

XINRAN: There are Westerners who think that Mao was the biggest murderer of the last century, a worse tyrant than Stalin and Hitler. Personally, I hate Mao Zedong. I was only a child during the Cultural Revolution, but I suffered a lot because my mother and father were attacked. If you accept that this was the work of Mao, then I was also one of his victims.

But if you go to Chinese villages and ask many ordinary people, peasants who have lived on the lowest rung of society, for their opinion, then you get a completely different point of view. At the very least, they feel that Mao Zedong did something for the peasants and the poor that no emperor had ever done, which was to burn the landlords' title deeds, redistribute the land and give everyone a livelihood. And he made housing, education and medical treatment free in the cities.

So we still see Mao's portrait hanging on the walls of peasant homes, and they still do their devotions to his statue as if he were a god. Some of them wept and shouted at us: "When Chairman Mao was here, there were never land snatches by the government or the kind of cadre corruption that there is now!" If 78 per cent of Chinese still make a living from the land, and they still have this kind of faith in Mao Zedong, then should we consider and respect the people's aspirations when we pass judgement on figures from our past, or not? Historically speaking, it isn't a simple issue of love and hate, it's about how we, the younger generation, define our forebears, and how we understand today's society. Why did families like yours return to China during the war?

GENERAL PHOEBE: In my generation, the intelligentsia looked at China and felt hope. That was the strength that knowledge brought them. Knowledge can make people love their country, and educated people can feel their country's pain, they're not at all bothered about their standard of living, they understand life but they're not living just in order to live. Many intellectuals say: "If my life's not that great, it doesn't matter, but to see China becoming powerful, that makes me happy, it's worth almost any degree of hardship." Many intellectuals, if they're real intellectuals, have this kind of response.

Millions of Chinese are educated now, but they're not intellectuals by my definition; their enjoyment doesn't come from seeking knowledge, it comes from the number of houses or fine clothes they have. Real intellectuals' greatest enjoyment comes from having an environment conducive to their studies, by means of which their country can make progress.

In fact, a prosperous lifestyle is appropriate for today's China, because China has just stepped over the threshold of the reforms which are opening up the economy, and needs a settled period of transition. This will provide those intellectuals who have the ability to make adjustments in the mechanism of Chinese society with an environment in which they can reflect and study. Prosperity means having a simple and easy spiritual and cultural life, and no fights and worries about great wealth or great poverty, still less painful entanglement in human affairs.

China today is witnessing an explosion of materialism, and consumerism is rife. When you open the newspaper, it's frightening how there are more and more ads for luxury homes, and anyone who doesn't have one is seemingly a non-person. If everyone wanted to live in a luxury home, where would we find the space? If our entire population of 1.3 billion people all wanted a luxury home, would there be enough? Of course not. In which case we'd have to move to the moon, and then that wouldn't be enough either. And after you've moved into your luxury home, you will inevitably have a whole lot of new desires, and it's never-ending . . .

XINRAN: What do you feel about the reforms in education which followed the economic reforms of the 1980s?

GENERAL PHOEBE: Education is the biggest failure of the economic reforms! I absolutely detest modern methods of English teaching, they're destroying people, and young people will never learn to love the English language. Whenever they get to year six in primary school, they have to cover the topics for the middle school entrance exams, so the way they teach foreign languages is just to teach them a few idioms and tips. It's not teaching them to understand, speak, read and write, it's just spending time on memorising grammatical structure in order to get through the exams. It's the reason why our English teaching is so poor. When our English majors go abroad, they can't speak enough to get around. This is a "sorry situation". [And here she drops into English.] We didn't use to teach like this, and we didn't study like this before Liberation. After Liberation, we followed Soviet methods, and learned nothing at all. Have you seen what kind of students we turn out? It's such a waste of people, materials and lives!

XINRAN: Is it because the whole educational system was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and the educational level of the first cohort of teachers in 1977 was inadequate, and classroom education after that suffered from the economic upsurge of the 1980s, which had a serious impact on people's respect for academic study?

GENERAL PHOEBE: Chinese worker and peasant cadres have a popular saying which goes: the lowly are the cleverest, posh people are the daftest. The more you know, the stupider you are, and the greater your knowledge, the more reactionary it is. By the end of the Cultural Revolution, intellectuals were one of the Stinking Nine categories of society – they had really hit rock bottom.

The reforms of the 1980s came, created new respect for knowledge and talent again. So how did they show you this respect? Well, you got fantastic treatment, both in terms of material goods and your reputation. Then there was a reaction against this, but after that, there was another reaction against the reaction. Things change so rapidly. Now we're overwhelmed with a respect for material things, and knowledge has once again been devalued. How senior does a PhD make you nowadays? There are so many of them, doctorates aren't worth anything. Worse than that, there are lots of people with heaven knows what kind of doctorate, plagiarised or bought, and the academic world and society has absolutely no respect for that kind of thing. Only real study and real talent brings you real, unshakeable respect. Writing superficial work to get that PhD certificate makes people lose faith and then doctorates lose all credibility!

XINRAN: What do you think can be done to put that right?

GENERAL PHOEBE: The pendulum needs to swing back.

XINRAN: Isn't that like letting the market rule?

GENERAL PHOEBE: It's not the market. It's the country that needs to consider if it should be training people in this manner.

XINRAN: Why is this happening in China? In a lot of other countries, for instance developed countries in Europe and America, it has taken them nearly 250 years to go from control by religion to democratic republican systems. China has spent the last hundred years struggling towards the same goal, don't you think?

GENERAL PHOEBE: We've gone too fast. We were afraid of not catching up, and we really haven't caught up. Our thinking has lagged behind reality.

XINRAN: Do you think this is related to beliefs and culture?

GENERAL PHOEBE: Where do human beliefs come from? Why do humans create gods? All of us believe in a higher authority. But now the higher authority is the American dollar, and the dollar empire uses the dollar to realise its supremacy. And why is it so arrogant? Because it has plenty of money, it's perfectly natural. Humanity has not yet advanced past money worship to a spiritual civilisation.

XINRAN: Do you think China will emerge from dollar worship?

GENERAL PHOEBE: Yes, because more and more Chinese people are looking into very profound matters like the ones we are talking about now. Where is our society going? Our priority must be to allow personal enmities to fade so that we can believe in China's future.

XINRAN: Are there many others in this Officers' Village who are as reflective as you are? Is the government aware of your wealth of experience, and does it make use of it?

GENERAL PHOEBE: This care organisation is very big. We are all highranking, and it's hard for the management services department, they are all overworked. You see, our average age here is seventy-nine, there's a lot of dementia, and many of us can hardly walk, and are in wheelchairs. Everyone's going deaf, and when we gather together no one can hear anyone else. All these are problems specific to old age. The management's main duty is to keep us safe, and to do their best to take care of us in a general way. There's hardly any of that sending of retired people into different domains to change people's thinking and consciousness, like in American institutions.

However, society seems to be increasingly aware of our worth, and a lot of old cadres act as consultants, which of course also fills a need for social contact.

This place offers everything you could need. It's like a small country. There's a hospital, a bank, shops, a cinema, an activities hall with card-playing, ball games, music and entertainment. There's everything. The dining hall is not like a restaurant, the food is all home-cooked. All the old ladies and gents have their main meals with their friends, and getting snacks is very convenient too. You can pop downstairs to eat or, upstairs, there are small private dining rooms where you can order special meals. Our dining hall can seat a thousand. At the weekend, people take their children and grandchildren there for a meal, and then they don't need to cook. To be quite honest, when we lived in a cowshed during the Cultural Revolution, I never dreamed that we would enjoy the degree of comfort and respect that I do today.

XINRAN: What's your view of the current Chinese leadership?

GENERAL PHOEBE: Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao? They're better than the old ones. They're new people, and they're hands-on. There's no personality cult.

XINRAN: I am very interested in their policies on giving aid to the west of China, developing rural education and tax relief for peasants in poor areas. These are the first leaders in a hundred years, with the exception of Mao Zedong, who have really thought about the peasants. They suffer great hardships and the tax burden on them is appalling.

GENERAL PHOEBE: And it's been like that since ancient times.

XINRAN: When we visited Anhui to do interviews, the peasants north of the Huai River told us that they had never dared to dream of tax relief. They said that there had never been a time when you tilled the land without paying the Emperor's Grain Tax. Never, since earliest time. Then there's the funds to develop education in the west. I see that as incredibly important. You can't develop the west of China and let education there lag behind.

GENERAL PHOEBE: Yes, we've begun a strategic opening-up of the west. In some areas, the infrastructure is quite good, like the Qinghai–Tibet railway, and the new Xinjiang–Gansu highway. I think that the leadership are investigating the situation. China is so big, the population so unevenly distributed. There's a great disparity between east and west, between town and country, and it's very hard to administer.

XINRAN: I have another question, I don't know if I can ask it, and that is about your second marriage. I know that it's the Chinese custom that one shouldn't ask questions about, one, changes within a family, and, two, about the private lives of the elderly. But I have heard that you had a very romantic courtship in your old age. Can you tell me about it?

GENERAL PHOEBE: I've known you since you were a child, you can ask me anything you like, and I'll answer anything that I can, and if I can't, I'll tell you. It's true, ours is an extraordinary story of love and marriage. We put our letters together in a book, called 160 Roses. But I suggest you listen to my husband tell the story.

*

General Phoebe's husband looked like a scholar who had walked straight out of the pages of traditional Chinese literature – a very cultured man, still glowing with the vitality of the elderly academic. I had only heard of him through friends and family, and had not met him before. During this visit, I was observing his role in this marriage. Was he a realist who depended on her? Many marriages among those of advanced years were born of convenience. Was he just attracted by her reputation? General Phoebe's abilities combined with her moral integrity had been a magnet to many men. Or was he a romantic who had happened on her by chance? A lot of elderly Chinese were only liberated from political marriages and their parents' matchmaking in their later years . . .

Our interview would fulfil a long-held desire: I had always wanted very much to talk to a couple whose lives had harmoniously encompassed the culture of both China and the West.

*

XINRAN: You say you came from a traditional Chinese family. What kind of family was it?

LOUIS: I was born in Shaoxing in 1925. Our forebears were all salt merchants, who moved from Anhui province to Shaoxing in Zhejiang province during the Qianlong period, towards the end of the eighteenth century. Before the Anti-Japanese War we were well off, an extended family with four generations under one roof. As a boy, my first schooling was in the Three Character Classic. I received my primary education from a private tutor at home, then I went to a lower middle school in Shaoxing.

The salt market collapsed when the Anti-Japanese War broke out. Our family fell on hard times because our livelihood had gone. Then my father became a bank manager and in 1941 the whole family moved to Shanghai. I had gone from being the child of wealthy salt merchants to being the son of a bank employee. It changed our lives dramatically. I had been the "Little Master", now I was just an ordinary kid. In Shaoxing we had had a large house and courtyard, and everyone had their own room, but when we got to Shanghai, the seven of us were squeezed into two rooms, so our standard of living had plummeted.

XINRAN: Do you have any memories of his work in the bank?

LOUIS: He was in a merchant bank, a very small bank. I only went there once, and it didn't make much impression on me.

XINRAN: What happened to the bank's employees after Liberation?

LOUIS: In 1952, many small banks collapsed, and my father's later years were quite hard. I've always had a guilty conscience about that. After Liberation the Party wanted us to "make a clean break" with any capitalists we knew. In principle, my father's class origin was top-level white-collar, but I didn't understand the political categories, and I told them he was a big landlord. Top-level white-collar workers were at most "petty bourgeois", but a big landlord wasn't the same thing at all, and as a result my family got put into the "black" categories. After Liberation, my parents lived on their own in Shanghai, and my brothers and sisters and I didn't see much of them. We just gave them a bit of money to live on every month. I hardly ever saw him, especially after the Cultural Revolution began. Firstly, because I had been sent to do labour in the countryside for six years, and secondly, because of something very painful which happened.

When the Cultural Revolution began, my father was still a bank manager, and he helped the son of my wet nurse by getting him a job as an office boy in the bank. When the bank closed down, the boy went back to Shaoxing and joined the Red Guards, then he came back to Shanghai along with other rebels. He said that when the bank closed, the guards had given a firearm to my father. Keeping a private firearm was very serious indeed. He went to my father's house and said: "Will you confess, or shall I report it to the Shanghai Red Guards?" When I heard this, I said: "We'll deal with it. I and my rebel brothers and sisters will confront my father." This must have been the end of 1966 or the beginning of 1967. My father knew nothing about the whole business, so he said he really didn't have a handgun. I took my politics pretty seriously in those days, and I wanted to "make a clean break" with him. It was like the public struggle sessions but in the family. This hurt my father deeply, and it's one of the things that has caused me the most sorrow in my whole life.

My mother died in 1969, and none of her children were with her. Only my sister-in-law and my first wife went to the funeral home. I put in a request to go to the funeral, and my chief said, sure, I could go, but I had to remain firm politically, she was the wife of a landlord. So I took my son and daughter, and we went with my first wife and my sister-in-law to the funeral. My father was standing there alone, crying and making his bows, and we just stood there expressionless. We had "made a clean break" so we couldn't cry. That's something I feel ashamed of too.

After the smashing of the Gang of Four, my father and I talked it over, and I said that we had been too extreme then.

XINRAN: Did he understand?

LOUIS: Probably he did. He still loved us as a father. Though at that time, we really had made a clean break between him and us.

XINRAN: But you can't really make a complete break, can you, with all the upbringing you received from your family?

LOUIS: That's true. No matter what, we were brought up with Confucian standards. There was an order of seniority between young and old, and even walking down the street, you couldn't walk however you wanted. My mother, especially, took our upbringing very seriously. What made the greatest impression on me was the three things that she asked of us. She said that to be a person, you must first: Impress people with your appearance. And by "appearance", she didn't mean looking good, but that you carried yourself with dignity. The second thing was: Impress people with your language. When you spoke you had to use appropriate language. And the third was: Impress people with your pen – you had to write well. My father taught us the Analects of Confucius, and that made a big impression on me too. We children played around, it's true, but we couldn't be too mischievous, and I never did anything really improper.

I went to upper middle school in Shanghai, and in 1945 I started at Sui'an University. Sui'an was pretty strong in foreign languages. It was an American Church college. During my four years there, I began to believe in the Communist Party and in socialism, and became a CCP member. But I think that Christianity had a very big influence on me all the same. When I first arrived at the university, I discovered that my classmates helped each other in a Christian spirit, and helped me too. Students had to register for courses when they started, and it was a credits system. You chose your own classes and how many credits to build up. I was building up economics credits, and the college had four or five classrooms I could choose from, but I didn't know how to choose. My classmates were in the University Christian Fellowship and explained the differences between the five classrooms. They were extremely patient. This spirit of mutual support made a big impression on me. Our university had a college-wide organisation called the University of Christianity, with lots of sub-groups which included other religions and political views. The underground Communist Party wanted me to rally my fellow students, and the best way of doing this was by organising the groups. So I got together a hundred or so students into a larger group, with me as its chairman. The aim was to provide student support services, including holding lots of parties, and what drew people in mainly was this ethos of service.

XINRAN: And did you retain this Christian spirit alongside your faith in the CCP?

LOUIS: I never was a Christian, I've always been a very free spirit. But I've followed the spirit of Christianity. I joined the CCP because I was critical of Chiang Kai-shek. He was advocating a civil war, and imposing a dictatorship, but our college was very strong on democracy, and democracy and freedom was an aspiration for many of our students. When I joined the Party I didn't at that point have a very clear idea of what Communism was.

XINRAN: If I were to ask you about the three happiest and the three most painful experiences you have had, what would you say?

LOUIS: I'm not sure I can give you three of each, but I can talk to you about happiness and sorrow.

Before I retired, I was head of the secretariat at the Shanghai municipal offices. I was employed by the municipality continuously after I left the armed forces. Before the Cultural Revolution, I worked in the secretariat of its Standing Committee, in Archives, Meetings and Reports. I was in charge of handling documents for the archives, organising the municipal meetings and conferences, and writing up reports. It wasn't that I wanted to do this sort of work, I was just following orders.

I feel quite gratified that, one, I have never made a serious error during my whole career; two, I have never been infected by the bad habits which some officials have, I feel quite proud of that; and, three, friends have been very important in my life, and I have a lot of them. My wife says I've been in the dungheap without getting dirty, but I say Chinese officialdom isn't absolutely and completely corrupt, is it?

There are several things which have caused me great sorrow in my life! The worst was being imprisoned for a year during the Cultural Revolution and doing six years of hard labour in Nanjing, because of a couple of things I said.

The first thing I said was in 1968, when I was leader of the study group at work. No one understood what the Cultural Revolution was about and, as group leader, I had to explain it to them, but I didn't understand it either. So I said that according to Lin Biao the achievements of the Cultural Revolution were huge, and its failures were minute. But, I said, I saw it as exactly the opposite: all I'd seen were failures, and its failures were huge, and I hadn't seen any successes yet. Afterwards, it was put to me that I could have got shot for saying that, because it was not only an attack on the Cultural Revolution, it was a smear on the reputation of the deputy commander-in-chief of the revolution.

The second thing I said was that if Zhang Chunqiao, one of the Gang of Four, had not had the backing of Jiang Qing, Mao's wife, he would not have come to prominence. This was interpreted as an assault on the headquarters of the proletariat and I was immediately attacked as an active counter-revolutionary, and locked up in the basement of our offices for a year!

Luckily I'm a philosophical sort of person. After a year, I was transferred to Nanjing to do hard labour and there I stayed until the Gang of Four were smashed. Only then did I get my job back. That was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Working in the underground Party against the GMD was nothing compared to being condemned to hard labour as a criminal, by the very government and Party that I believed in. Then there was the death of my first wife, the premature death of my son, my daughter's illness. If it wasn't for my son and my daughter, now that I have Phoebe as my partner I would be absolutely 100 per cent happy.

XINRAN: Do you feel that the lives of your generation have been worthwhile?

LOUIS: I think so. We've suffered so many trials and tribulations, but I believe that the progress of human society is never straightforward, and that's true of society and a country and of each individual.

XINRAN: Don't you think people like you have paid too heavy a price? For instance, your father was from a great salt merchant family, but his family fortunes collapsed because of the war. And in the 1960s, the Party that you believed in inflicted such injustice on you. Don't you think that was too great a price to pay?

LOUIS: No, quite the opposite. As far as I am concerned personally, my contribution has not been enough. Because everyone who's born into this world, into society, should make their contribution, irrespective of their ability; the main thing is that they should offer it, it should not be demanded of them.

I never thought about the contribution that my family had made in the past as salt merchants. After all, the salt trade was rather feudal, and was built up on the basis of exploitation of many people. I've been to see the salt fields on Taishan Island in Zhejiang province. That's where the seawater comes in and labourers dry out the salt crystals in the sun. It basically requires no investment or technology, just physical labour. It occurred to me that my ancestors had made their wealth by exploiting countless numbers of people down the generations. And the salt merchants had to be on good terms with the salt officials, the so-called salt officials–salt merchants arrangement. As a salt merchant you had to have an official licence without which you couldn't trade; everything else was called "illegal salt".

We were a very large family, and owned maybe 2,000 mu*15 of land. We were self-sufficient in grain, and rented out land on which, each winter, we collected rent. We sent boats to collect it. Until I was sixteen, I'd never even washed a handkerchief, let alone cooked, I was completely dependent on other people to look after me. If our society had carried on in this way, how would the labouring people and the poorest in our country ever have made a better living?

XINRAN: So do you think that people of your generation feel the same way as you do?

LOUIS: I think the majority do. As for China's development after Liberation, whether you're talking about inside the Party or my old comrades, there are differing views.

First, on Mao Zedong. I don't hate him, I admire him actually, but I don't accept everything he said and did. When he launched the Anti-Rightist movement, I didn't know then, we none of us knew . . . traditional "absolute loyalty" was the measure of a good cadre, and we certainly never assumed individual responsibility as we do in modern politics. It was only when Mao died that I began to feel that he had made serious mistakes. I have forgiven him, because from the upbringing he received, after he had achieved power and status, he might well have felt he wanted to be emperor and to live in the emperor's palace. When he stood on top of Tiananmen Gate at the proclamation of the People's Republic, there were so many people cheering him on, and everyone was shouting, "We wish you ten thousand years of life!" The worst thing that happened was the appearance of all those sycophants around him, with their foolish "loyalty", and I include us in that. When Liu Shaoqi was declared a traitor and expelled from the Party, everyone in the Central Committee had to raise their hands and vote. One person pretended to be asleep – her name was Sai Mengqi – but we all knew she wasn't asleep: it was because she didn't agree. It made me think – what kind of high-ranking cadres are you? Are you responsible for a country or are you just courtiers to the emperor? Why did they all stick their hands up? So China's stagnation in the last hundred years is not the sole responsibility of some imperial minister. We all have a responsibility for it, it isn't just a problem of Mao Zedong as an individual. I sometimes wonder, if I'd been in his shoes, might I have become complacent too? We can't escape our human instincts, that's why we need democracy and a political system to suppress the despotism and dictatorship which can be a product of such instinct.

XINRAN: So you're saying that not only was Mao Zedong destroyed by blindly loyal flatterers, but also, while we Chinese were spending the last hundred years searching for a "saviour", we were on a slippery slope, like the "blindly loyal" saddled with old monarchist feelings when the dynasty has come to an end.

LOUIS: That's just how it was. We were only too happy to put our leader on a pedestal, and gave very little thought to the need for personal responsibility. In our recent history, no leader has had the courage to face up to this and state it clearly. When Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution, he ended up passing responsibility for it to the Gang of Four. Some people say that the Gang of Four was really a Gang of Five. Everything bad was done by the Gang of Four but Mao agreed to it. I am critical of Mao for this, but my main feeling is that we didn't have the proper mechanisms in place within the Communist Party. If China doesn't have proper political mechanisms, then it will be possible for a second Mao to appear. Our generation has been enlightened about this, we haven't condemned Mao Zedong. I am a victim of the Cultural Revolution, but I don't brood on it. As we say nowadays, "no recriminations, no regrets". This was not something one person did – we were all responsible, and maybe it was something Chinese society had to go through.

XINRAN: Do you think the young generation understand this? Do they know what you went through?

LOUIS: Hard to say. They haven't had the intense experiences or suffered the hardship that their parents' generation did. This generation have grown up, mostly, in comfort, so we'll have to see whether they arrive at a proper understanding of that period of history.

Nowadays, we greatly admire the Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao model. Their slogan, "put people first", is admirable. When we watch the televised proceedings of the People's Congress, we see them bow to the delegates before they speak, and then bow to the podium. We feel that in the past, they were only giving the people a casual wave, but now they're making a bow to the lower ranks. Surely that's a good beginning. It should always have been like that. In the past, Communist Party doctrine held that everyone was equal, no matter what their status. Actually everyone had different jobs, so they couldn't be equal. As educated people, the most exasperating thing was we were not treated equally, but we didn't dare say anything. Back then, we intellectuals couldn't support egalitarianism, liberalism or democracy in any way at all, because our kind of democracy was condemned as capitalist democracy. Of course, democracy for me probably was capitalist democracy. I got it from school and from the Church. Our democracy was the French Revolution kind. But we were a bit democratic, we always had that tendency.

XINRAN: Does democracy have a class nature in itself?

LOUIS: That's really hard to say. Before the smashing of the Gang of Four, I didn't say what I felt, but I was democratically minded. My position as an individual was different, not the same as the accepted political view. But nowadays everything's a bit more democratic than it was.

XINRAN: Tell me about your first meeting with the General, and your feelings for her then.

LOUIS: As you know, we both joined the army at the same time from Shanghai. The hundred or so Shanghai recruits were divided into three units, and she was the head of one unit, and I was the head of another. We had a lot to do with each other in those days – we met at all the meetings of unit heads. I was very struck by her, and I once said to her: "You are so youthful, and beautiful too." I so wanted to marry her, that would have made me very happy, but I also felt she was beyond my reach. She had a sort of high-minded purity, much more than I did. I joked with her that she was like the Maid of Orleans. Later we started studying and training, and we were in the same group again, with her as the leader, so we saw even more of each other. I felt she liked me too. But in those days, leaders were not allowed to get into romantic relationships, so I just went on loving her in silence.

XINRAN: Did you feel she was keen on you then?

LOUIS: I felt she was. But she was warm to everyone around her. Although she was in the Party, she was still gentle and kind, not brusque and aggressive like a lot of the Party members. Why was I so sure? Well, after all, we were both from Shanghai and had both been underground Party members. We were from similar backgrounds, so I thought then that she was probably keener on me than on other people.

XINRAN: When you left after a year, did you write to her?

LOUIS: No, she was in a secret unit, you couldn't just write letters – when we met again, forty-two years had gone by, and in the intervening time we'd had absolutely no news of each other. In 1988, articles about China's five women generals appeared in the newspapers, and her name was there. That was the first time I knew what had happened to her. But by then, I felt even less able to bother her. She had a top job, Deputy Head of the PLA Foreign Languages Institute, and besides, the PLA Foreign Languages Institute was still a secret unit. Although all this brought back memories of our youth, I thought she must have married, and I had a wife too, so that was another reason why I couldn't think about her in that way.

XINRAN: What chance encounter brought you together again?

LOUIS: My wife died in 1990, and the head of my work unit and my colleagues soon began introducing me to eligible women. But I was over sixty, and it's difficult to start a new relationship at that age.

In the spring of 1992, Phoebe and I met at the house of some mutual friends, and the next day I arranged to meet her for lunch. I asked her: "Old friend, how do you want to spend the rest of your life?" She said that marriages late in life rarely worked out well! She gave me many reasons: when two people had led such different former lives, it was very hard to find things in common. Problems with children, social relationships and so on, all were potential sources of conflict. Besides, an older person on their own is not necessarily lonely: one can read books and have friends. That day I felt that she had turned me down flat. We agreed that we would just be friends, and wouldn't marry. Even though I was introduced to more women, her image was so strong in my heart that no one else could hold a candle to her.

XINRAN: You began to write letters to her?

LOUIS: At the start I was very impetuous, but slowly, I became wiser. I wasn't sure I was a match for someone of such elegance. Then I discovered through her letters that her feelings for me were growing stronger all the time. She wrote that sometimes she would go out for a stroll in the evenings, and she would look at the stars, and it was like talking to me. She felt that she was getting emotionally involved, in fact that she was falling in love. We began to open our hearts to each other. Other people's love letters talk about their love, but ours were not like that; we talked of how we felt about life. It was through our letters that our true feelings for each other were born.*16

XINRAN: So your letters were like angels, bringing you lovers together. Then after you got married, did you feel there were any problems, any major differences, you hadn't foreseen?

LOUIS: To be honest, the differences between us in our daily routine are very obvious. Then there's the fact that she is a general, and I'm an ordinary government official – that's a very big difference. In terms of administrative rank, I am four or five grades below her. Then again, our family backgrounds have very little in common – she's from the intellectual elite, I'm from a feudal family of provincial officials. The kind of "salt merchant" upbringing that I had and her upbringing among the westernised intellectual elite were completely different. So on the surface, it's like the gap between the West and China, not an easy one to bridge. But in fact, "we are very [well] matched! " [he drops into English]. Everyone thinks it's strange, and even we're surprised that it's happened.

On our tenth wedding anniversary, I wrote her a poem called "Ten Years – On our tenth wedding anniversary, to my beloved".

Ten years, a mere flicker in the evening of the river of our years.

Ten years, an instant in your life and mine.

Hand in hand, we know life's brilliance; shoulders hunched, we face life's storms; all is exquisite and beautiful.

First knowing your heart was like pure heaven.

Without you, I, Louis, do not exist.

All is like a heartfelt whisper,

All is heart-born poetry, my ten-year enjoyment.

I dedicated this poem to her, and it came from the bottom of my heart.

We had only been married six months, when my son suddenly fell ill and died. This was a very heavy blow to me, but General Phoebe comforted me by saying: "You must not feel that it is only your son who has died. I would drop everything to go and help if it were just an army friend's family this had happened to, let alone you! Let's weather this storm together." So we went to Shanghai and she helped arrange my son's funeral. She steeled me. She said: "You still have me!" She knew I couldn't stop worrying about my seven-year-old grandson and she told me that we would take on supporting my daughter-in-law and grandson together, like we would take on the future together. All this was a huge support to me, and gave me great strength.

After that, I transferred my retirement pension from Shanghai to Beijing. A year or two after that, in 1996, my daughter got cerebellar ataxia. Her cerebellum atrophied, and walking and activity became very difficult for her. The doctor told me, this is like a terminal illness, there's no cure. Again General Phoebe comforted and supported me. "Your daughter is my daughter too," she said. So we go back to Shanghai frequently, to see my daughter. Once, when she was in hospital, I went out to look for a nurse, and she stayed with my daughter. When I came back, I saw she had been washing my daughter's feet for her. All the other patients and their families said to my daughter, what a good mother you have! I was very moved.

She doesn't just hold my hand and watch the sunset, she weathers the storms with me, and that's so important. And for me, losing a son and having a seriously ill daughter were bad storms! Without her I might have collapsed. So from then on our feelings for each other kept growing deeper and more ardent.

I really feel in my heart that I am very fortunate, she really is a very good woman.

XINRAN: Auntie and I talked a bit about how she felt after you married. She said that she gained from you another chance to be a woman, you gave her the chance of tenderness, gave her a man's protection. Don't you feel that this marriage of yours is actually one between equals?

LOUIS: I feel this relationship is of value to both of us. I'm a deeply emotional person, in the old days I'd be criticised for being "petty-bourgeois sentimental". Actually she's that kind of person too, she's given me real love. I can only answer in terms of our love.

XINRAN: If you disagree over something, who gives way, General Phoebe or you?

LOUIS: In principle we always talk things through. I tend to be more hasty, and she is more circumspect. She is usually very tolerant of me, but now that I realise I go too far sometimes, I try to catch myself straight away. There are no rifts between us, and really no secrets either.

*

As the China Witness trip was coming to an end, we went one Friday afternoon to sit in on an English class taught by General Phoebe in a University of the Third Age which she had set up at the retirement village. Thirty-odd retired generals came to the class, and after each one had handed in their homework, they sat down, straight-backed, at ordinary school desks. They started by singing three songs in English, "to remind them of their English", and then listened attentively as General Phoebe read them a short story about a family; after that, they broke up into small groups for earnest conversation practice. Finally, a number of them told the whole class stories in English about their families. According to these white-haired students, the story they most liked reading aloud was one they had written themselves called "We are the Fortunate Generation".

I asked them why they worked so hard at their English, and they gave me all sorts of different answers.

An artillery instructor: "If I learn a bit of English, then when I go abroad to visit my children, I can get around on my own."

An army doctor: "So many of our home appliances nowadays have instructions in English, so if I learn some English, I don't need to bother other people so much."

A hero of the Korean War air battles: "During the war, we were fighting in the air. Now it's peacetime and we should make friends on the ground. If you can't speak English, you can't make your own foreign friends."

A quartermaster: "All those foreigners who are coming to China for the 2008 Olympics, if they stop us in the street and ask the way, and we can't understand English, how can we help them out?"

I don't know any other people on this earth who are as concerned about others as the Chinese are.

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