Common section

Interlude 3

Love Letters

In the West there is a long history of love letters. But in Chinese culture, especially in recent times, we are not used to seeing this kind of "emotional life" in writing, particularly as most marriages were arranged. Many young Chinese still don't believe there was romance between their "politically uniformed" parents and grandparents, and Westerners will hardly have read love stories from Communist period China before the 1980s. I was so amazed reading the love letters between General Phoebe and her husband, Louis, not only by their writing about love in such a "revolutionary voice" for China, but also by their sacrifice, by how much love and emotion had been kept controlled in the deep ocean of their daily lives. I have, therefore, selected some of their love letters from 160 Roses, in the hope that readers can, like me, be moved and encouraged that the feelings of these two people have not been worn away by political storms. Let not the love that surrounds us be lost; let not the heart that adores you suffer pain.


15 February 1992

Dear Comrade Phoebe,

As the poet Wang Bo said, "While there exists on Earth one who knows me for my true self, / Though separated from me by the expanse of Heaven, / She seems close at hand.' When we said goodbye, on the evening of the 12th, at the entrance to East China Normal University, as I walked home under the waning moon, I felt immersed in those ancient lines of poetry. It has been a New Year of such unforgettable happiness. I shall always remember the 1992 Spring Festival.

Before the Spring Festival, when our former colleague told me that you always spent the festival in Shanghai, and gave me your address, I very much wanted to meet up with my old army friend after so many years apart. I cannot conceal the fact that you made a deep impression on me during our short time together at the Beijing Labour University Foreign Languages Training Course in 1949, and I thought we were both fond of each other. The thought even occurred to me once (although certainly not now) that, if I hadn't left the university, you might not have chosen to marry our old friend who died so prematurely. Since my wife died a year or so ago, I have been introduced to half a dozen potential matches, but I have not been able to make up my mind. I've often thought, and said to other people too: how is one to find that one good woman to partner up with from among that immense sea of humanity, of strangers? If I am to marry again, then I'm going to maintain my high standards, and I would especially hope our relationship would be founded on real familiarity. So when I heard the news of your sad loss, and learned where you were, I came to what you called my "great" decision, and resolved to set off in pursuit. Meeting you, in the restaurant on the fourteenth floor of the Hengshan Hotel, was a further spur: I jumped in at the deep end and asked that question, to find out how the land lay with you. Firstly, because you were still you, the same you as four decades ago. That was the most fundamental thing. And also you remembered so many details of the things we did together back then. You hadn't even forgotten that we bumped into each other at the Spring Festival in 1956 in front of the Shanghai Park Hotel. Added to that, when we talked I discovered that we saw eye to eye on so many things and shared a common outlook, which secretly delighted me. I wasn't deliberately playing up to you, it was a true meeting of minds, as if we happened to have been practising t'ai chi in the same place.

At the restaurant table that day, when I laid bare my true feelings to you with that probing question, and you gave me your counter-arguments, I was deeply impressed by your sincerity and wisdom; indeed I was inspired to model myself on you. I said then: I'm disappointed but not lost. And that was the truth too. For a brief moment, in that elegant dining room, I was disconsolate. That was the moment when we fell silent and sipped our drinks. But I very quickly shook that feeling off, because even if you had rejected my probing, I had not only not lost your friendship, my feelings of tenderness were deeper than ever. I not only had absolutely no reason to mope, I had found new life beliefs to adopt, the "triple action, triple happiness" you talked about – adequate work, exercise and social activity, and the joy of helping people, being content with one's lot and getting enjoyment out of life. I wanted to put your formula for happiness into practice, and I talked about it in our senior cadres' branch office and to friends, and they also found it inspiring.

You said that my probing "was very natural" and I realised that you understood my feelings and would forgive my presumptuousness. I am so grateful to you! It's true – when I came to think about it more calmly afterwards, I really had overstepped the mark. At the very least, I was naive. The differences between us exist objectively, and I have to acknowledge that. How could I have had those foolish thoughts, on the slender basis solely of my feeling that there was "a definite basis" for the relationship and of the honesty and goodness in my own heart? Of course your negative answer was nothing to do with dislike for me, but arose from reasons at a much deeper level, which indeed I should have considered myself. Well, it's over now, and luckily there was no one nearby to make fun of or criticise us. So let's regard it as just a minor episode in the course of our new friendship! However, I still have to apologise most humbly to you. In this, my first letter to you, I have blabbered on and repeated much of what I said to you then, but it is only to get it off my chest, and we won't mention it again, all right?

I will put down my pen now; allow me to wish you every happiness. At the same time, I hope that we may be able to fulfil our heart's desire – to become truly good friends, and to exchange many, many letters. I'm also looking forward to us inviting two or three close friends to accompany us on a trip around China soon. I particularly hope that we can go to my home town and have a look at the Dayu Palace, King Yue's Burial Mound, the Orchid Pavilion, Lu Xun's birthplace, and enjoy the shady mountain paths and the black-awning boats . . .

With best wishes,



15 February 1992

My dear old army friend,

I hope you are well. I was delighted to have the opportunity to celebrate the Spring Festival with you and have such a good talk about everything, after an interval of forty years. I arrived home this afternoon at 2 p.m., after a smooth journey.

We all find that memories come flooding back at the Spring Festival. Our joining the army together then is still, today, so vivid in my mind. The boys and girls of that time have become old men and women, but our hearts haven't changed, we've still kept our revolutionary spirit. That part of our lives will always bring back beautiful memories for us, don't you think?

I'm sending you some photos of me in military uniform, as a memento. I'll close now.

Best wishes,



5 March 1992

Dear Phoebe,

Your letter of the 27th and the article about "the common people's general" gave me another reason to be happy! The fact that in two short weeks we have exchanged letters twice – the pair of us are well capable of being "activists" – is sufficient proof that we're going to make a go of rebuilding our friendship. How happy I am!

I found the article, "A good Party member in our midst", both intimate and moving. It is actually written with great simplicity; when the writer calls you "the common people's general", she is saying something quite profound, but does not conceal your brilliance either. I appreciate the way you behave as an official, and admire still more your high-minded determination to avoid self-seeking and greed with regard to the standard of living the government offers you (even in the broadest sense). Reading the article has given me a deeper knowledge of you: your ideology is even loftier than before, you are even more you! Really, I have so much to learn from you. If all Party cadres – especially high-ranking cadres – were like you, then the Party, our country, our socialist endeavour, would be so much stronger.

In this letter, I mainly want to tell you briefly what happened to me after I left the Foreign Languages Training Course, to reciprocate the account you gave me that day in Hengshan Park of the last few decades of your life. I left the army in May 1952 and was allocated a job back in Shanghai by the Jing'an Party Branch Committee, in the Jing'an District Educational Course for Unemployed Workers, first as education section leader and then as director of the course. The Five Antis movement had just finished, and there were a lot of unemployed workers, most of whom had been activists. The government had guaranteed them jobs and, in the meantime, they received political and general education. We had around a thousand students and a score of cadres and instructors on the course. So the Foreign Languages Training Unit's classes in current politics, social development and basic philosophy became the "capital" which I put to immediate use – and the teaching also made me miss the war years. At the beginning of 1954, I transferred to the Shanghai Municipal Labour Office to do workers' education; and in the autumn of 1965, I was transferred again, this time to the Office Party Committee of the Shanghai People's Committee (in the Municipal Government). I was first made Theoretical Instructor in the Officer Cadres' School, and then my job was changed to secretarial work: handling documentation, organising meetings and drafting reports (leaders' speeches, work summaries, short reports and so on). From then on, I earned my daily bread in Archives, Meetings and Reports, apart from the ten years between 1968 and 1978 when I was expelled by the Gang of Four and sent to 7 May Cadre School and to work in a factory. This carried on being my job (from 1978 onwards I was in the Shanghai Municipal Office) until I retired at the end of 1987.

I had my ups and downs during a thirty-odd-year career in office work, but basically I wanted to make myself into a good "tool" for the job. I have to say that I succeeded, that is, after I had undergone a difficult process of personal transformation, I achieved it. You know, in those days, I minded the fact that army life was "not free"; and government organisations did not permit "personal freedom" either. So gradually, I moved from a lack of awareness to being very aware, and consequently had to give up my "personal freedom". I sometimes think that since I was willing to make myself into a good "tool", why did I need to leave the army in the first place? But there's another side to me. In my heart of hearts, I always regarded myself as a student, but always found it difficult to act the "government official". At the same time, in the presence of VIPs like the mayor and deputy mayor, I showed them respect but would never bow and scrape to them. I have another secret in my heart, and that's the feelings about "democracy" which I revealed to you at dinner that day. Even though I very rarely bring it up in front of people, it's something which deep inside me doesn't let me rest . . . Well, that's brief introduction to me. I'll tell you in more detail when I get the chance.

The spring rain has been pattering down in Shanghai since the day before yesterday, and a lot of people have caught colds. The weather on the central plains must be pretty much the same, so please do take care of yourself. Will write more later.

With very best wishes,



1 March 1992

My dear friend,

I hope you are well. I assume you will have received my last week's letter to you and the PLA News article which I enclosed. I got a letter today from our friend, saying how happy he was to hear that we had met at the Spring Festival, and how impressed he was by you.

I heard recently that my three problems about moving to accommodation at the Beijing Cadre Retirement Institute where I live have been resolved, so I really can step down this year. Mentally, I've already made a number of preparations to retire: apart from the physical living arrangements, the most important thing is creating a sort of "microclimate" which will bring happiness to one's soul, and that includes friendship, music and many other spiritual aspirations. I feel I just need to put my mind to it, and I should be able to do it.

With very best wishes,



29/30 April 1992

My dearest friend,

This morning I headed back to my office after three happy classes with my research students, and I spotted a thick letter from you on my writing desk. This added a further warm glow of happiness to my already good mood. It's that head-over-heels-in-love feeling that you described! I never thought that as an old woman I would get back those feelings of my youth – and what beautiful feelings! And if my true feelings for you enable you to shake off the misery of loneliness, then that is wonderful. I sometimes think that it would really be worth a psychologist doing some in-depth research into this new-style relationship which we have created between us! (You call it love, but I feel that it seems to go beyond the common concept of love, because it is purer, more lofty, richer in poetic feeling.) We could joke that we've unwittingly created a new and original way of loving, don't you think?

I savoured your so-loving letter over and over again, and it gave me much food for thought. I recalled our feelings for each other right from beginning to end. I think the affection between us dates back to 1949, when we had just joined the army, but from my point of view this was just a "diffuse" sort of affection, because I was only eighteen years old. My mother had instilled into me the need to be extremely prudent where love and marriage was concerned, and not to get involved too soon. I did what she said, and pushed love right to the back of my mind. Of course that didn't stop me being attracted to friends of the opposite sex, so I knew the difference between those whom I liked, and the rest, but it never went beyond that. Then we went through ideological reform at the Foreign Languages Training Unit, and I thought even less about things like that. Even so, there were some students from among so many whom I was especially fond of, and wanted to be closer to, and you were one of them. Then, later on, a number of chance meetings brought Comrade Xiaoda into my life. Marrying him was a natural outcome to that, and we had a happy and fulfilling life together. After Xiaoda died, I buried the love he had given me deep within myself – it is hard to forget a love like that. But he had, after all, passed away, and I was still a woman with what Buddhists call feelings and appetites. I longed for my feelings of love to be reciprocated, and this was especially true because I was living completely on my own. But I never realised that I had this longing, because I had a very fulfilled emotional life: I had my job, I am very close to my brothers and sisters, and have a wonderful relationship with my children and the deep and enduring friendship of comrades, both old army friends and my students. So I felt I needed nothing more emotionally – until I bumped into you again this Spring Festival and was bowled over by the depth of your feelings for me. It all seems rather different to what I talked about above. It's more refined, more moving, more constantly present, very like the ardour of youthful passion. And yet not like that (which is why I think I can't describe these feelings as ordinary love) because youthful love brings with it sexual love and longings for happiness in one's future life together. But we're old now, and have had abundant experience of life, so our feelings are more rational, more mature. We don't want the feelings between us to have any kind of outcome, we just hope we will always be able to feel the communication between our hearts. It's even hard to find the language to describe this, but it makes us feel both happy and very fortunate. These feelings are so pure that they do not allow us to be troubled by the least unhappiness, which is why I described them as "diffuse". Even more essential is that our feelings have been nurtured through our correspondence, because letters can express the most beautiful, most heartfelt feelings. Our feelings are beautiful so the language we use is beautiful, and we can read the letters over and over, and constantly savour the words. Do you think I'm right?

I also think that it's not just anyone who can achieve this level of emotional communication. Firstly, it needs to be based in mutual love; secondly, the couple have to be relatively well matched intellectually, educationally and culturally; and thirdly, and this is even more important, both have to share the same sublime aspirations, constantly exploring aspects of human life and constantly rising, through study, to ever higher realms of the soul. It is, I believe, only under such conditions that this kind of love can be firmly grounded and can gradually evolve towards a degree of perfection.

Perhaps because of my career as a teacher, I have always been willing to look for the answers to many questions in books. Since I became aware of these special emotions between us, I've been exploring and researching it a great deal, and have even read On Love by Vasilyev. This is a rather serious book, which I bought because many of my young friends were reading it, and I wanted to know what it was about so that I could set them some ideological tasks. I brought my own questions to it and read through the relevant chapters; but although I found the book inspiring, it didn't quite accord with our own reality. That's why I wrote above that somehow our feelings seemed in some way "original", still to be researched! I hope you're not going to laugh at me for being too bookish!

You asked me if I could go to Shanghai after I retired. In theory, yes, but it's a bit late now, as I have already been fixed up with a place at the Cadres' Retirement Institute. Actually I really do prefer Beijing. Wherever I am, it won't make any difference to us. The main thing is that we should be able to write unlimited letters to each other. I'll definitely come to Shanghai every year, so we can always see each other, and after I've moved to Beijing, you are welcome to take a trip up here whenever you have a chance. You can stay here, and I can take you to see other old army friends or we can go sightseeing in Beijing. I've rambled terribly in this letter, so I'll stop now. I hope you won't fret any more about not getting letters from me. Believe me, I will write to you sooner or later, so don't worry.

With best wishes,



10 May 1992

Dearest Phoebe,

Let me throw restraint to the winds, and shout out my feelings vehemently! I got your letter of the 6th yesterday, and having my dear distant one's letter to read at the weekend was a great stroke of good luck for me. At dinner I like to drink a glass (about three fluid ounces) of locally brewed liquor, and so I warmed up my tipple, quickly sat down and gently tore open my love letter. As I read, I sipped the wine; only you can share these tender feelings! In the evening there was the weekend dance at my old workplace, and so I went out. I generally go dancing two or three times a month – it's free of charge. Too bad I'm such a country bumpkin from a foreign school that I don't dance very well. If only my valiant and gentle Phoebe were in Shanghai, my dancing prowess would no doubt soon attain postdoctoral level.

After the dance I came back home, and got your letter out to read it for the second time. I marked in red pen such memorable phrases as "Dear Lou" [in English], "In any case, you are already at the centre of my affections". I read and read, and marked and marked. My eyes were wet with tears, and my heart trembled. Such true joy! To be able to receive so much true, fervent and constant affection from you fills me both with excitement and contentment, and is even rather flattering, because I'm really a rather mediocre and superficial person, even though my love does run true and deep. But here too you have infected and inspired me. I rejoice that I can have your deep love for myself, I must do my best to reciprocate and, just as you do, irradiate and deepen life and everything around me!

Now it's eight o'clock on Sunday morning and I've finished my various chores. I have "shut myself up away upstairs to become one with you", as Lu Xun put it, and to perform my sacred task – writing a letter, to you. My daughter-in-law has taken my six-year-old grandson, whose name is Erjia (his baby name is "Jimmy") to see her parents, and my son is sleeping late. In such an atmosphere of warmth and gentleness, I open my heart to my dear, faraway one and make a reading of its rhythms. First I take out of the drawer all those much-treasured letters you have written to me, and read them again. In the forties, I saw the Hollywood film Review of Lovers' Dreams*17 and, although I've long forgotten what it was about, I remembered its name while I was doing this because, just as if I was watching the film, I replayed in my mind our love, from that early spring day in February to the fiery heat of May. How amazingly quickly time has passed, and how very logically things have progressed. Let me quickly sketch in how things have developed: the happiness of our deepening feelings as we met again – I, far below you, probing; you, from your high position, enlightening me; then re-establishing relations on the basis of "good friends" – "letters between the two of us" linking us together, bringing us the closeness and happiness of intimate friends – further reminiscences and further exchanges, filling the voids in each other's souls, and "feeling abundantly enriched by life" – having the pleasure of reading each other's letters, and "getting boundless satisfaction from our love" – quantitative changes bring with them qualitative changes, leading to "deep, deep love", which "is pure because it reveals trueness of heart; noble because it rises above this vulgar world; beautiful because it can excite the most beautiful feelings in the reader" – now we are increasingly "in love", a new form of love, full of originality, pure, noble, filled with poetry, we have become lovers, in a "diffuse" yet real sense. Let us sing of the spring of our love, of this rush of longing, we are each at the centre of each other's love, "we want to clear away all obstacles" – and make the future all roses! Let vulgar people mock at our passion – some great writer may one day immortalise this rarest of feelings in a work which will amaze the world!

Let me now revisit an old dream: just as you were fond of me in the past, so your loving image never once faded from my mind in forty years. Although you weren't constantly present, you were with me almost every night and morning. This is not something which I've just made up – I can prove it. Every time I thought back to when we joined the army together, your beautiful image came naturally to mind. When I looked at photos of that time, especially, I thought of you; there was that photo of me in an army helmet with a chin strap, taken when I got a new army uniform, and you laughed at it and said I didn't look anything like a PLA soldier, I looked more like an English one! So whenever I turned up that picture I thought of you, and seemed to hear your tinkling laugh again. Then, in the summer of 1956, I bumped into you and Xiaoda at the entrance to the Shanghai Park Hotel when I took my niece for a drink in their fourteenth-floor restaurant. I was not yet married, and seeing you brought so many feelings back, as if a multi-flavoured bottle of seasoning had upended and the flavours gushed out, predominantly unbearably bitter. I wrote recently to you that if I had not left the Foreign Languages Training Unit, then perhaps it would not have been our departed friend who had the good fortune to marry you. The instant I bumped into you both at the Park Hotel, that was the thought that occurred to me. Another example: on 26 December 1989 (I now know it was two days before your birthday) about a dozen of us from the office took a trip to Nantong, and stayed at the Youfei Hotel. The manager told us the hotel's name commemorated a group of eminent scholars of old, but – as if I had had an electric shock – I thought of you because the "Fei" was the same character as in your name. That night, what with thinking of you and being in a strange place, I hardly slept. In the autumn of 1978, I met our Director again in Shanghai, and in the following three or four years, until he retired and went back to Beijing, I paid frequent visits to his house. Every time he mentioned old friends from the Foreign Languages Training Unit, I would think especially of you, but I dared not ask him how you were because I harboured ulterior motives. Then a month before the Spring Festival this year, he came on a trip to Shanghai and I went to see him at the Yun Feng Hotel. He told me that you came to visit your brother in Shanghai every Spring Festival, and gave me his address, and that was what first sparked the beginning of our romance.

When you were good enough to advise me to look for a life companion to care for me, I couldn't be angry or take it the wrong way, because you really meant well. But I won't accept it. I'm sure it's easy to find someone to look after one, but a true lover is hard to find. I will not be so foolish as to desert my soulmate – my true lover! You say "We can dissociate ourselves from our feelings", and I respect your opinion. It wouldn't be the first time this has happened, especially outside China. But if we dissociate ourselves from our feelings, all that's left is carnal desire; I'm afraid even sexual love is not enough. I am also still me, my darling, so let our future be all roses . . .

I will stop now. I grasp your hand!



13 May 1992

Dear Louis [in English],

The photo of you holding your grandson is lovely. I can see that you've completely recovered, you look about the same weight as when I saw you at the Spring Festival, and you look younger in spirit. Being in love keeps you young, that's true! Who would believe from that picture that you will soon be an old man of seventy! Your grandson looks adorable, what a good-looking boy! Those great big eyes are so appealing, and he's a sturdy little boy. I hope you'll give him a good upbringing; his parents' generation want to make life easy for their children because of the hardships they suffered as children themselves. But then, because they're the only child in the family, today's children end up spoilt rotten and that's actually harmful to their health. As a grandfather, you need to spend a bit of time on scientific child-rearing, which will turn him into the ideal, able young person, don't you think?

The depth of the love and affection in your letter made me read it over and over again, as if nothing less than this would enable me to assimilate your true love in its entirety. I didn't stop there – in spare moments, I read all the letters you have sent, from beginning to end, savouring them as I do so. Feelings of immense happiness wash over me – that's what's called being "madly in love". I always used to laugh at the "madness" of young people in love, and I certainly never imagined that I'd be "madly" in love myself in my old age. I think that we are really very fortunate to be able to enjoy being madly in love at our age. As soon as I've retired, as long as nothing bad happens, then we can really make this into a topic. We can write about it and the effects may be sensational! Of course, I just can't put things into words the way you can.

When you told me candidly in your letter how you had thought and felt about me during all those years, I felt very honoured to have made such a profound impression on you. I really had no idea; if it had not been for our chance meeting, all this would have been buried forever, which would have been a terrible pity. I find your love very pure and precious. As for me, Xiaoda and I were so very happy together that I didn't think about you much, even though I had been fond of you. But after Xiaoda had passed on, that fondness was the basis on which you kindled the flames of feelings which had been hidden deep in my heart, and new and intense emotions were born, miraculously, out of our feelings all those years ago. You never can tell how life will turn out. Maybe we're destined to be together! I think that staying "madly in love" as we are now is probably the best way to deal with things, as it's the only way to keep the flames of our love alive forever.

I think you are one male comrade who is really capable. I've always felt that the more capable one is, the better, and the less one depends on others, the happier one will be. I always make a point of impressing this on the younger generation, especially the girls. It's fashionable nowadays for young girls to think that if you're "helpless", you can "use men" and so "manage men". That's a complete lie! If I was a man, I would find it unbearable to spend my life with a girl who couldn't do anything for herself, depended on me for everything, and just chattered away, no matter how pretty she was. Beauty on the outside diminishes for everyone as the years roll by. But inner beauty is much more important. It's what really fascinates, and it's everlasting [in English]. Of course, I still approve of people dressing themselves up in suitable outfits when they're middle-aged or elderly. At the moment I wear a uniform every day and I've got a bit sloppy about my other clothes. When I've retired, I'm planning to come to Shanghai to get a tailor to run me up a few things that fit nicely. The last time we met at Zhu Nan's, from the way that everyone joked about you being just a municipal cadre but you couldn't tell by the way you dress, I realise you're a bit of a dandy!

The story you told me about your name was really interesting, typical of the feudal society of the old days. My name was different from yours, because it reflected Western influence in the old society. You know I was born in Columbus, Ohio, and was given the English name, Phoebe (pronounced fee-bee). Phoebe was the goddess of the sun, so my parents wanted me to spread joy and warmth like the sun. Perhaps the name achieved something of this, as my philosophy of life has always been to give people warmth and happiness. If you turn Phoebe into Chinese characters and pronounce it in Shanghai dialect, it sounds very like the English. Either way, both your name and mine bear the stigma of the old, semifeudal, semi-colonial society. People are creatures of society, so people's names most clearly reflect social changes.

I'm glad to hear that you have a busy life. Dancing is a great social activity, and I think you should keep it up. I do like dancing – we have weekend dances here too, and I sometimes go and dance – but I watch more television. When people get older, quick dance steps are just too hard, and I prefer slow dancing so that I can enjoy the music and chat at the same time. That's what I enjoy most.

I've thought and written a lot to this point, and maybe I haven't expressed myself clearly, but I really don't care, just so long as our hearts have communicated. I know you will understand, and will forgive the deficiencies in my letter.

With best wishes,



30 May 1992

Dear Phoebe [in English],

I hope you are well. Your letter from Shanghai arrived in due course and I have read it. You have sent me another deeply loving and wonderfully philosophical love letter.

I accept and respect your analysis and reasoning. When I commented on the previous period of your letters to me, that is, on your attitude to the love between us, I used the word "appropriate", as heartfelt praise. Actually, after our conversation at dinner in the Hengshan Hotel, I passed beyond disappointment, became more aware and completely accepted your choice. I also broadly settled on the path my own life was to take, even if there was really no other way! Our letters flew back and forth, and elaborated more fervently our feelings, and these rapidly underwent a most gratifying development from their original basis in friendship. Nevertheless, I never forgot, and never tried to defy, your simple injunction, even though there were times when I cast restraint aside and showered you with tender regards. I believe that what exists between us is a real, yet also "diffuse" love, different from but surpassing a husband-and-wife relationship. I have suddenly remembered a line inscribed at the mountain gate of a monastery on top of Jade Emperor Mountain in Hangzhou: "Not in heaven, yet not of this world" – a realm which is not easy, yet not so very hard, to understand! I understand it like this: especially deep love is love which is deeper than normal love and also completely original, and I value and treasure it all the more for that. I feel and understand at the deepest level your very deep love for me, and offer you my deepest gratitude. To obtain one bosom friend in one's life is surely sufficient! To obtain a bosom friend who loves one so deeply is more than sufficient! I hope, I believe and I will strive to ensure that the especially deep love between us will continue to grow and will have the most wonderful outcome. It is also best to keep it a secret between us. Incidentally, the only person I have told of our special love, in sketchy terms, is my younger brother. He was delighted for me, and thinks this is a very good thing. I will obey your wishes and not let anyone else in on the secret – this I swear. Let me adapt, albeit inappropriately, a line of poetry: In a vow are the words of two hearts, our love will last forever!

About first love [in English]. I have never actually enjoyed real first love. The first time I was in love dates back to the spring of 1947, at St John's. She was a fellow student, her name was Chen, and she was very keen on me, and we spent time together for a while, but it was limited to talking and walking around the campus, and we seemed closer than I was with other students. But soon I was told by another student, an underground Party member, that Chen was "essentially not of a very good person" (I clearly remember that phrase) and it was hinted that I should see less of her. So I didn't take it any further. Then in the autumn of 1951, after I had left the Foreign Languages Training Unit, and was recuperating from a lung infection in a convalescent unit in Pudong, Shanghai, I became the Party Secretary of the unit, and the Deputy Party Secretary was a young woman, also convalescing. She had been an underground Party member in Shanghai's Sanzhong area. We were eating, living and convalescing together, and working together too, and gradually we grew close, although we never got to the stage of being open about it. In early spring the next year, I left the convalescent unit and in the beginning we kept in contact, but we gradually stopped because of a certain amount of "pride and prejudice". To be strictly truthful, these were no "sweet first love" experiences, they were brief and painful. Then in 1954, while I was in the Labour Office, I met Ren Dacheng, my late wife, and love was kindled again. However, our courtship did not go smoothly, mainly because her family and fellow workers were putting a lot of negative pressure on her and she didn't want to risk giving rein to her feelings. We married in June 1958, just as the Leftist movement was in full swing, and we didn't dare have a warm and loving home life in case we got labelled "petty bourgeois lovey-doveys". At the same time, her family was just as short of cash as ever, and she and her older sister were the sole support for her five school-age brothers and the parents, so she had to carry on looking after them. In April 1959, when we hadn't been married a year and my wife was about six months pregnant with our son, I was ordered to go and "toughen up" with a year of labour in the countryside, so when the baby came, I wasn't with her. From 1962, she had to do two stints of farm labour and socialist education, one after the other. That was followed by the Cultural Revolution, and I was imprisoned for a year and then "exiled" to Nanjing for six years, which meant that our family life was even more fragmented. Things got much better after the 3rd Plenary Session of the CCP 11th National Congress, and we could get a bit of time to be a family together at home, but from 1979 onwards, she was suffering from cerebellar ataxia, which got progressively worse, and the whole family went around with long faces. We were powerless to help her and she died prematurely in middle age. All that took up more than half my life, so I never really got to enjoy a happy family time. My memories are mostly of pain in the midst of happiness, and affection which was beyond my reach. Luckily I'm quite a strong character. Although physically puny, I'm strong in spirit! I never let it get me down, or put the blame on anyone else, least of all my sick wife. After all, she suffered more than me, and never had a good life after she married me. Sometimes I found it difficult, especially when she wet and soiled herself, it was really unbearable to deal with, I felt like swearing at her, even hitting her, but I could never bring myself to be that cruel. Sometimes I thought how she could have been a wife to me, and I never got any of that love and affection; but then it wasn't her fault, and besides, I didn't give her anything more or better. So I pulled myself together and faced reality, and didn't let myself get downhearted. Anyway, that's enough of all that . . . you may take it or leave it!

Again, thank you so much for the birthday greetings you sent me. I am deeply moved by all the efforts you made for me, I am such a lucky man, so lucky, so very, very lucky!

I got back here, as arranged, from the Shengsi Islands, on the 28th. I wasn't terribly impressed with them, except for eating twenty different kinds of seafood, which were very tasty.

Well, I'd better stop now, though there's never an end to lovers' talk, but anyway, let it remain unfinished!

With best wishes,



Evening of 2 June 1992

Dear Louis,

I hope you are well. The first thing I did on my return from Nanjing on the afternoon of the 31st was to read your letter, several times over. I've found lots of advantages in writing love letters. Apart from the ardour you feel when writing them, which unlocks the floodgates of love, allowing it to pour over the loved one, and confers enormous happiness, there's also the fact that you can read them again and again and thus savour their mysteries. This is true delight for the soul. I am so glad that you had a very happy birthday this year!

The article you enclosed in your letter of 23 May was really good . . . full of fervour, and charmingly written. May I also say that the way our love has developed is a credit, in large part, to your skill with your pen. You are so good at cutting to the chase. And your General can only admit defeat, and become your prisoner of war, don't you think?

Your example of the line "Not in heaven, yet not of this world", is really very clever. At the Spring Festival I felt so very fortunate to be receiving your pure, deep love – perhaps only such a love as an immortal spirit can enjoy! – so incredibly fortunate. Because, for the immortal, there is absolutely none of the murkiness of human relationships, so two hearts can collide without needing to analyse the reasons why. It is only because this love can draw them together at the highest level that this attraction has nothing in common with the naivety of youth, but is mature and wise. Anyway, the way we are imprinted on each other's hearts can't adequately be described in words. Reading your letter of 30 May gave me an even better understanding of your goodness and fortitude. I do so admire you! You have really had a hard time of it for the first part of your life. The problems you faced were considerable, and yet you managed to deal with them very well, and endured. I also admire your unsullied integrity in your job as a bureaucrat. The beauty of such inner qualities is absolutely at one with your handsome and spirited exterior! So I hope you will consign what you regard as your "Treatise on Mediocrity" to the waters of the East Sea – only a mediocre person would regard you as mediocre.

I was in Nanjing to attend the Annual Meeting of the Chinese Universities Foreign Languages Publications at the International Relations Institute, and I saw your old college friend from St John's. He used to work at the institute and is now retired. He remembers you very well.

As I write, I remember what you said about your emotional problems. From what you said in your letter, you missed out on love in the past. This, of course, had a lot to do with the political climate back then, but also perhaps something to do with differences in your and your wife's backgrounds and temperament. I feel that we should let bygones be bygones; we don't have much longer to live, but at least while we are still alive, we should make up for what you missed. And I intend to put all my efforts into that!

As far as our relationship goes, I went to Beijing in April to see my youngest sister, and confided in her about it. She endorsed my own views, and thought it was a sensible course of action. Of course, outsiders can't necessarily fully understand the warmth of the love between us. Only our two hearts can know each other, and let us enjoy that to the full!

With best wishes,



18 December 1992

Dear Louis,

I hope you are well. Today I received another love letter from you. I read it many times, savouring every bit of your news, and it set off ripple after ripple in my heart. It gave me much cause for thought.

To tell you truthfully, since our feelings have become so deep, I have begun to feel rather confused and bewildered. Not long ago, I got letters from my Shanghai sister-in-law and the wife of a cousin in Guangzhou, both saying that I seemed to be bothered about something. I always felt I was someone who could handle conflicts in my life. The word "bother" just wasn't in my vocabulary. But facts are facts. If I think about it carefully, I have to admit I am "bothered", and it's about what to do about us.

I have to admit that in the past, I've been too naive and simplistic, especially about feelings between men and women. I always thought that my original idea was very good, that is, that we could be "lovers", could have a relationship much deeper than friendship, and also be rid of all the hassles that come with marriage. But as our love developed, quite apart from your insistence all along that we could create the loving warmth of a new family, this whole process made even me begin to feel the same need. Especially now that I am about to retire completely and embark on a totally different life, one which is no longer work-centred, where I am on my own too. In my subconscious, how I was going to live in the future was really a big question mark. And I never really thought it through, so that question mark always lurked under the surface. Your latest love letter, by stating that question so clearly, has forced me to face reality, and give the whole thing serious consideration.

First, I think that love between us has brought us extremely close. In your letter you call me the "madly in-love young girl inside the Spring Festival General", and I think you're right, because our love has very deep foundations. Its foundations go back to our youth, when we were fond of each other. Those feelings were based on mutual attraction and affection and, even more, on a similar outlook: we were both from the non-labouring classes, and both had had a regular university education. And we were both progressive thinkers, and had enthusiastically joined the struggle. So when we met again forty years later, and those feelings were rekindled, we could recall all our youthful passion. If you just go by external appearances, we're old, and anyone giving us a glance would just see an old man and an old woman; but I never stop seeing you as the handsome young man that you were, even though if you look carefully, your hair is frosted with white and your face is lined with wrinkles. But I don't see this, because in my eyes, you're still the fine-looking young man that I remember. As our letters have brought our hearts closer, I have come to understand you better, and many such emotional "encounters", including the disasters that have befallen us in our personal lives, have resonated strongly in our hearts and minds. That's why I say I may be falling into love's snare!

And when a man and a woman are in love like this, then they're going to demand something: they will want to spend more time, or even all the time, together. I never realised this before, but what's bothering me now is that I so much want really to be with you completely! But I also have very many misgivings, and I keep having a mental block, which I feel is stopping me from taking that step. I realise from your letter how badly you need a new family, but I'm holding myself back and I don't feel I can answer that need, and this has been both bewildering and difficult for you. I understand that, so I have encouraged you to find someone else suitable. But now that you've actually started looking for a new partner, it's given me a real feeling of uneasiness which is hard to put into words, mainly because I feel I might really lose you, which I couldn't bear. Previously, when you told me about the woman with five children who got university degrees, I didn't feel like that, because we didn't have such deep feelings for each other then. But I can't see any way out, so of course I feel very distressed. I said to you that my love for you has never altered, and you said to me: "I believe that those are your true feelings." But if you really married again, I would of course take a conscious step back, not because I loved you less, but out of consideration for your happiness. I would rather bury our love deep in my heart, and turn our romance into a beautiful feeling, a memory which will be precious to me forever.

What I have written above is what I truly think. Until you find a new partner, we can still carry on this beautiful love that we share. And I've had another thought: if you still can't find anyone suitable, I'm willing to discuss getting married with you. I feel I ought to try and change these inhibitions of mine. It's not that love has taken me over and I'm regretting it because I've made a mess of it – I'm not that kind of person. When I make up my mind to do something, I always do it calmly, and once I've decided, I don't have regrets.

I've always had space for manoeuvre in our relationship, so why am I encouraging you to find another partner? I'm mainly thinking of your happiness; I'm worried that you might miss out because of me, and that I might be doing you a real wrong. That would make me feel bad, but that's my problem, and it would be better than both of us feeling bad, don't you think?

I've thought very hard about every word of this letter, and it's taken me a long time to write. I don't know if I've managed to explain clearly what's in my heart. Nor do I know if it will create many more contradictions after you've read it. But I like to tell the truth, to tell things as they are. During the last eleven months, we've exchanged nearly a hundred letters – on that basis, I do hope you won't find fault with me!

Maybe because recently I've been busier than usual, together with the changes in the weather, I caught a cold yesterday, and ran a bit of a temperature. I took "emergency measures" straight away – took a lot of medicine, drank boiled water, and was very good and went to bed for most of the day. By this morning I had fought it off and was completely well again, so was happy to go off and teach my two classes as planned.

It will soon be New Year and I have sent you a card – you could say the message on it tells you how I feel. Before the New Year, we'll have the chance for one more exchange of letters. When the time comes, I'll send you another card, with my very best wishes to you for the New Year. I'll stop now.

All the best,



Afternoon of 29 August 1993

Dear Phoebe,

I received your letter of the 25th today, and you've confirmed the date for my trip up to Beijing on 15 September, so that's it then! In the nearly two years that we have been friends, I have been the recipient of your inestimable love in all parts of my life. Shall I give you an example? I could give you so many of them. Soon, I will be able to tell you in person: when we are chatting together, when we stroll out in the morning and evening, in that special enjoyment when two people are dancing and talking together, amid the extraordinary autumnal hues of the Western Hills . . . What I want to tell you is that the one who has been really fortunate is me. I am so very grateful for everything you have given to me! Even if it was me who "sought out" this "love", or rather who got you into "trouble", I have never regretted it for a moment, and I have felt incredibly fortunate. There was a time when I fretted about the "distance" between us two, to the extent that I could not help hesitating about getting involved with you. This had something to do both with the obvious difference in our rank, and the geographical distance between us. But now it doesn't seem that this has ever been or ever will be an obstacle to us having regular contact with each other. This is mainly thanks to you! And that truly comes from the bottom of my heart. May I be allowed to suggest that surely, out of the two of us, the person who ought to feel most fortunate, and express the deepest gratitude, is me?

My situation hasn't changed recently, but the man you will be meeting in a couple of weeks' time is a just a poor, skinny old scholar – only his heart remains constant! I could say more, but let's wait until we meet!

With very best wishes,



1 September 1993

Dear Louis,

I received your letter of the 29th the day before yesterday.

I think we can do all the things you have described once we are together, and may even think up some new ones. How lucky we are, that we can still have such beautiful longings at our age! When we meet, we can decide what to do, day by day, and after we've had a good time out and about, we can sit down and savour all the details, so that the lovely time we have together will imprint itself indelibly in our minds. I have made the necessary arrangements for your arrival, mainly to do with practicalities. I remembered that you said that before you do your relaxation exercises every morning, you drink a glass of soy milk, so I've bought soy milk powder. And don't you like your favourite tipple every evening? I've got some in, and I can join you in a glass too.

It sounds like you're giving me advance warning that I'll mind you being "old and skinny". Honestly, you don't need to worry. Everyone gets old, that's a law of nature. If you go by appearances, the signs of ageing can only increase. These biological changes are natural. You can see through them, and they don't matter. Take me, for example: my hair's going whiter all the time and I'm getting more wrinkles and liver spots. Of course, I can make myself look nice when I want, but really, I'm not that interested. I believe the most important thing is inner youthfulness – we're both good at that, and we should keep it up. If we're psychologically youthful, we'll never feel old. And once past the aged exterior, the you which is in me is ever-youthful, and always irresistible, really! I await the arrival of the man of my heart.

With best wishes,



Afternoon of 5 September 1993

Dear Phoebe,

I hope you are well. You and I may have created a phenomenon with our exchange of letters which, at least in terms of numbers, has outdone Lu Xun's famous love letters. It is so interesting to think back over the scores we have sent each other, which have united two once lonely and shattered hearts, brought a new glow of youth to them and planted in them constant tenderness. There is one thing which marks our letters out particularly, and that is clarity. I remember the first letter I wrote to you last year, how I racked my brains and struggled with it . . . But later, writing felt much more natural, and we wrote more and more just as we liked. The words on the page flowed as freely as if we were having a conversation. The content of our letters has always been completely real, with sometimes a bit of description, a bit of embellishment, but always revealing our true feelings. And right here in these letters is the proof of how we value and put into practice your tenet that "the truth must be told"!

Your going fishing reminded me of fishing for shrimps near my home when I was small. We were fleeing from the Japanese bombardment, and at one point had taken refuge in a village. When we had nothing to do, my brothers and I used to go out fishing for shrimps. We would attach an earthworm to the line at the end of a bamboo pole, and throw it into the river. In a little while, the shrimps would come and nibble the worm. I would gently lift the bamboo rod while with the other hand I slowly slid a net under the shrimps, and then quickly caught them in the net. It was certainly easy, but always seemed a lot duller than real fishing.

I've booked my ticket for the 15th on the number 14 train, and would love it if you came to meet me. We've already agreed the guiding principles for this trip, so I won't say any more about that. But I'd like to make three practical points: one, I don't want my presence to change or get in the way of your daily routine in any way at all. Just stick to the way you've always done things. Two, we'll eat just the sort of meals that you do now, or as the local expression in my home town went, "just add more chopsticks, but not more dishes". Be sure not to go adding anything extra. Third, don't buy anything especially for me, just do everything as usual. OK?

This morning I went to say goodbye to my two brothers, and they were very happy for me. And thanks to your summons to "come a bit sooner" and "stay a little longer", my heart has already flown to Beijing. It's incredible to think that two people nearly in their seventies can be fired up like a pair of teenagers, and such fun! The rest can wait until we meet.

With very best wishes,


PS I've just been to post this and found your letter of the 1st in my mailbox, so had to open the envelope and add a sentence or two: I was moved to tears at the trouble you have gone to, even down to the soy milk powder and my "tipple". How did I come to be so lucky? I am greatly moved.

I always feel how lucky I am as a Chinese person to live in this historic moment of change, as China moves forwards what sometimes feels like five hundred years. I have seen how the old China lived through those "ancient lives" in the poor countryside, and how the future China lives in our modern cities. People are between such different life styles and capabilities. Before the 1990s, 90% of the Chinese population was made up of peasants and farmers who had very little education. Life for them means food in your stomach, warm clothes in the cold winter and a simple place to sleep; reading and writing must seem like a myth. When you move on from these romantic love letters to Chapter 10, you will see the huge difference between Chinese people of the same age and at the same point in this nation's history. If there is a wall between different cultures and beliefs, then they might so easily have had war between the classes over the last one hundred years in China.

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