Homage to Richard Nixon

A Short Story

The short story that follows was written 20 years ago but never published. It is the first piece of original fiction to appear on ChinaFile since our launch in 2013. In a postscript, author Zha Jianying explains that when she unearthed the story earlier this year, she felt it resonated with the current moment in U.S.-China relations. —The Editors

* * *

Not long after my arrival in the United States, in 1980, I attended an evening party where I got into a fight.

Liam Roy, my American sponsor, had taken me there to show me off. “Let me introduce my new student, Mr. Ji,” he corralled anyone coming our way. Then, having secured the person’s polite attention, he’d drop his little bomb: “Mr. Ji has recently arrived from Peking.” After that, with the satisfaction of the owner of a rare curiosity, all he needed to do was watch me be examined and appreciated by the astonished interlocutor. In those days, meeting a citizen from Red China was, for most Americans, if not as unusual as meeting a Martian, certainly more unexpected than meeting an Eskimo.

Roy was the world’s leading scholar on the poet Robert Burns. A Canadian of Scottish ancestry, he had lived all over Europe before settling in this small university town in the American Deep South. An avuncular air hung about him: he had a big beard like Karl Marx, and bemused twinkling eyes that peered out below bushy eyebrows. He and his wife were romantic with one another. Mrs. Roy was French: tall, delicate-boned, very pale, and very pretty. They kissed on the mouth in public; Roy addressed her always as “Lucy, my love,” while she called him “Darling.” I fell under their spell instantly. Everything about the couple seemed exotic and charming to me. Apparently the feeling was reciprocal. The Roys took me under their wing as though I were their long lost Chinese son.

None of us, of course, expected that I’d get into a fight.

As had happened before, people got interested in me upon Roy’s introduction, and questions about China poured out. As always, I was eager and patient in answering them. I did this in part out of my gratitude to the Roys: I wanted to please them and make them proud of me. But in a way I also considered it my duty as a Chinese to inform the Westerners about my homeland. Even though I had been here only a very short time, I could tell people didn’t really know much about us. One lady asked me if we had electricity; another thought Taiwan was a different country. Even the worldly Roys were in the habit of calling “Mao” “Male,” no matter how many times I gently put forth the correct pronunciation of the Chairman’s famous surname. And Beijing was still Peking, even though Mrs. Roy did warn me not to describe myself as a “Pekingese.”

Well, to cut to the point, I was in the middle of explaining something about the Cultural Revolution to several curious guests when one of them let out a snicker. He had been introduced to me as Paul Boyer, a Parisian and a new faculty member in the arts. I paused, not knowing what was meant by that snicker. Everyone else, too, turned to see what the Frenchman had to say.

In his hand Boyer was holding a glass of Chardonnay, which he twirled deftly with his long fingers. He gave me a slight bow. “If I might be allowed to put in an observation from a different point of view, Mr. Ji,” he said in elegant, hardly accented English. “You make the Cultural Revolution sound like a complete disaster, as a return to the Dark Ages. But that wasn’t the entire picture, was it?”

This came so unexpectedly I blinked, not knowing how to respond. Just a moment before, everyone was nodding at me; one of them kept muttering “Atrocious!” Now they were all quiet.

Boyer went on: “It may be quite misguided to treat Mao Zedong as a God”—he pronounced the name perfectly—“since God alone is supposed to never err. I must confess, however, to be astonished to find a Chinese citizen not to be proud of all those remarkable achievements of the New China, and not to give some credit to certain aspects of the revolution’s passions. They were quite an inspiration to the rest of the world.”

At this remark I blushed to my ears. This Frenchman was accusing me of lacking patriotism! “But Mr. Boyer, I’m afraid you were taken in by Chinese communist propaganda. . .” I brought out, feeling all the American eyes on me.

“Chinese communist propaganda?” Boyer smiled, one of his eyebrows twitching ironically. “I would no sooner believe in that than in American capitalist propaganda.”

I was about to say something, but at that very moment dinner was announced; I let it drop. It was a sumptuous meal: salad, duck liver pâté, honey roast ham with pineapples, two wines, and a gooseberry pie. Under the chandelier, the guests’ faces gleamed, silver and glass clinked, jokes and laughter rose and fell. I ate and spoke little. Paul Boyer’s words had disturbed me; my heart was troubled. Downing one drink after another, I felt my evening was spoiled.

But that was not the end of it. Over coffee and pie, conversation turned to American politics. Reagan and Carter were discussed. Someone was wisecracking about the peanut farm and the Iran hostage rescue. This was a bit too “American” for me to follow. My mind roamed.

Suddenly, I heard Paul Boyer’s voice and the name “Richard Nixon.” Sitting at the other end of the long table, I could not make out clearly what he was saying. But his remark must have been quite amusing, for his listeners, two Americans flanking him, were nodding and smiling.

I strained my ears. Still, only fragments floated over: “. . . a crook . . . what’s so disgusting about Nixon is . . . and after all that . . . can you imagine anyone more shameless . . . but of course boys will be boys and a politician is after all . . .”

The instant I heard the word “Nixon,” I felt a rush of blood in my veins. Then, as each word of dirt and calumny reached me, a rage rose like a steady column of a wave, and I knew it was heading toward an explosive crash.

Before I could catch myself, words burst forth from my chest with a savage ferocity. “You are a disgusting person, Mr. Boyer!” I roared. My shout flew across the table and seemed to send the chandelier jingling. “Richard Nixon was a great president! And he is a magnificent, noble, kind human being! Someone like you could never understand his greatness. Never!”

A dead silence fell in the large room. For a moment, Paul Boyer jerked his neck and glanced about as though bewildered by what had hit him. Then, a sardonic smile emerged on his gaunt, elegant face as he looked across the table at me. “Richard Nixon a noble man? I dare say that’s a rather novel idea to everyone here. But if Mr. Ji insists. . .” He shrugged condescendingly and drummed his ringed fingers on the table.

Trembling, I stood up and started walking toward him. To be honest I didn’t know exactly what I had in mind. My body seemed to carry me along without my head giving it any thought. But it must have appeared I was planning to punch the Frenchman, because suddenly Mrs. Roy was at my side, taking my arm gently and murmuring words of concern I could not comprehend. Meanwhile, I heard Roy’s voice: “Well, let’s be fair. Nixon opened China, didn’t he?”

That broke the tension. A chorus of gallant consent rose from around the table and the atmosphere softened. The host and hostess, from opposite ends of the table, simultaneously started chatting about the local scene, eager to steer the conversation away from the dangerous subject of Nixon.

A few minutes later, we left, the Roys driving me home as they always did. On the way, Mr. Roy made some quip about the “French left persona,” which I didn’t quite grasp. Mrs. Roy kept turning her small head over to make sure I was all right in the back seat. On my doorstep, she kissed my warm forehead like a mother hen and advised herbal tea before bed. She must have smelled the alcohol on my breath. A rush of emotion choked me and I had the urge to tell her that she had often reminded me of Mrs. Nixon, the former First Lady. Of course I said nothing, afraid she might take it the wrong way.

Sleeplessness seized me that night. In the moist tranquility of the American South, lush plants breathed, alien flowers bloomed, and memory spread its gentle wings in the bluish air. Standing before the window with my herbal tea, I journeyed back to 1972, to a cold February day in Beijing. I was nearly 15, my soul barren and without hope. I had no foreboding of the event waiting at my door.

* * *

The day began badly with Mother throwing a fit after running into Mr. Yao in the bathroom.

The Yaos had become our flatmates about six months earlier. For years, our family had had the apartment to ourselves: It was assigned to Father because the building belonged to his work unit, the Academy of Sciences, and he was a scientist quite senior in rank. Then, Father was sent off to the labor camp in Henan, and Mrs. Yao, a typist for the Academy’s Party Secretary, saw an opportunity. With her indignant air and glib tongue she told the housing officials that it was unfair to let a family of “stinking intellectuals” enjoy special privileges while a working class family like hers had to make do in cramped quarters. The officials readily agreed, issued an order for us to make space, and gave her the keys. That was how the Yaos moved in. They took up the two bigger, sunnier rooms on the southern side, and we had to share the kitchen and bathroom with them.

Behind their backs, Mother called them “bandits,” but since the Yaos would be our neighbors for a long time and nothing could be done about it, polite facades had to be put up. Mother tried to avoid cooking during the same hours as Mrs. Yao, so we ended up having very early breakfasts and very late dinners. My kid sister Yun and I often grew hungry during the day. We didn’t whine. By now we were used to making accommodations in life.

Bathroom clashes, however, were harder to avoid. Mr. Yao, a stocky, genial truck driver, and his son Datou, who went to the same school as me, apparently had their own hygiene standards. It didn’t seem to bother the Yaos that the toilet seat was often splashed with yellow piss, and lines of green phlegm floated in the bowl. But my mother, fastidiously clean, winced at the filthiness.

That morning, Mr. Yao had not bothered to switch on the light after going into the bathroom, nor did he latch the door. As usual, my mother had been speeding through the morning chaos: serving breakfast, taking out Yun’s wet mattress, tidying up our two rooms. She’d had about six minutes left to catch her shuttle bus off Chaoyang Avenue. And when she rushed into the open bathroom, she ran smack into Mr. Yao with his pants down.

Yun and I were finishing our porridge when I heard a bang on the door. Mother staggered in, her face flushed crimson and a “sorry” still on her lips. But as the shock subsided, fury seized her. “Bandit! Bandit!” She cursed under her breath, her low voice shaking with humiliation. She was too scared to provoke a fight.

From the bathroom came the sound of the toilet flushing.

“What happened, Ma?” I asked.

“That hooligan left the door unlocked, on purpose!” Mother said breathlessly. “And he had the nerve to grin.” She sat down on the edge of our bed, her body half collapsing.

From the bathroom came the sound of water splashing from the faucet and Mr. Yao’s cheerful whistling. A picture appeared before my eyes: Yao stands there shaking his prick complacently after peeing into the pot. Mother’s face startles him for just a split second, he tosses her a sly grin. Blood rushed to my head. I felt like smashing something.

Yun gave a nervous titter.

“Shut up, you little idiot!” I hissed, shaking a fist at her. “You don’t know about anything except wetting your bed!”

She burst out crying.

Mother snapped. “Why are you going after her? Laugh and bully her like everyone else, is that what you want?”

“But Ma, I only meant. . .” I stammered.

“Oh, what’s the use!” Suddenly Mother threw up her hands. Then she covered her face. Ignoring Yun’s continuing whimper, she rocked her own body back and forth slightly, in a steady rhythm, as if she were comforting an upset baby, cooing it back to sleep.

The sight of that pathetic rocking body saddened me beyond words. “No man, there is no man in my life when I need one,” she wailed silently. “No hope in this family.”

A moment later, Mother raised her face. The familiar stony look of resignation had returned. She got up quickly and finished the last of her morning chores. She even dabbed some water onto the comb and ran it through her hair before stepping out into the freezing cold street. Having missed her shuttle, she would now have to take two buses and get scolded for arriving late. To this, a small unpleasant detail in a life seemingly fated to keep sliding downward, she looked resigned as well.

But I had seen her body’s silent reproach. My heart was tinged with shame.

When I came downstairs to go to school I couldn’t help turning my head to cast a furtive glance at our third floor balcony. As always, an old mattress, covered with interlocking brown rings spread out like dirty blossoms, was hanging over the iron rail. This wretched thing, soggy and heavy with our family’s shame, was laid out to be dried by the day’s sun. In this weather, it would soon be frozen stiff. I turned away quickly, the frosty air stinging my cheeks like so many tiny blades. I felt numb. Shoulders hunched over, I hurried to school.

My sister Yun’s bedwetting problem had something to do with the night our home was ransacked. She was almost potty trained at the time. But the sight of a stranger dragging Mother’s hair and banging her head on the wall made Yun wet herself. Since then, there had rarely been a morning the bed stayed dry. Naturally Mother felt guilty about this, and for a period she took Yun to the home of an old doctor of traditional medicine who received patients in private. Mother used to run all over the city to get the strange herbs the doctor prescribed, and patiently boil them in a small clay pot. The bitter smell would permeate the apartment for hours, until finally the black juice would be ready. Yun would drink this foul cup to its last drop with a determination remarkable for her age. She wanted badly to be cured. But it did not happen. Yun was nearly eight now.

My mother used to be a translator for the Foreign Languages Press. She was a tall, spunky woman, with boundless energy and a somewhat naive but dignified air. My father, a bookish, shy little man, adored her. But when the Cultural Revolution began, some colleagues of hers dug up a remark she had once made at a staff meeting and branded her a “counterrevolutionary.” She laughed at it.

"Ridiculous,” she said to them. “Revolution made me what I am today. I’m the daughter of a poor rickshaw puller. My mother was illiterate. If the Party hadn’t sent me to college, how could I have learned English and become a translator?” For this brazen attitude she got beaten up at rallies and was ordered to reform herself by working at a printing factory. But she said a rickshaw puller’s daughter was not afraid of physical labor. Even that horrible night, Mother had cursed at the man who led the search of our home. “You are no revolutionary!” she yelled. “This is a personal vendetta. You hate me because I didn’t vote for your promotion!” He had to bang her head on the wall to stop her. All through their political misfortunes Mother had been the tougher, more defiant one, whereas my father, born into a wealthy landlord family, believed that he deserved all the bad treatment. He, and now his wife and children, must pay for the sins of his class.

I could feel that something in my mother had broken when the Yaos moved in. It was as if the terrible message she’d been fending off had finally been driven home, and she no longer had any way to escape it. We were “enemies of the people,” and were to be treated as such. However much she had denied it had made no difference to anyone else. And now she saw that it was pointless to deny it even to herself. I watched the change in her. Day by day she grew more listless, more nervous, and her shrunken spirit hung like a damp fog over our heads.

The most obvious sign of her despair was the halt to our English lessons. For a year she had been teaching me in the evenings. I had started learning Russian, the only required foreign language, at school. But Mother believed in the special charms of English: In the past, she had translated some of Jack London’s and O’Henry’s stories, and her favorite author was Mark Twain. She had an almost religious faith in the intrinsic value of all knowledge, and none of Father’s complicated feelings of being an “intellectual.” I was reluctant in the beginning; I did it only to please her. But the lessons soon became a pleasure. I discovered that I had a gift with foreign tongues, and I was good at both Russian and English. My progress delighted Mother, even though neither of us could see any practical sense in our endeavor. Once she had me read the famous last lines of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.

This was difficult and I’d had to practice several times. When I finally got it, mother asked me to read it aloud while she shut her eyes, listening with an enthralled smile to the foreign words rolling off my tongue. “You see,” she’d said afterward with a sigh, “this is not correct English. But it sounds so beautiful, like music with its own rhythm and its own soul.” I nodded. Though I understood neither Mr. Twain’s passage nor this explanation, I loved the moment. It had been so good to see my mother’s face glow.

* * *

After the Yaos moved in, the lessons slackened. Then, a few weeks ago, they stopped all together. A letter from my father arrived. He was not to be granted leave for the Chinese New Year after all. “The leaders said we are to spend a revolutionary Spring Festival working here at the camp,” Father wrote in his usual succinct way. And that was that; not a word of complaint. Of course, one had to be cautious about what one put in a letter. You never know who might be reading your mail. So it was startling that Father, having thus informed us of the canceled holiday, went on about the American President Richard Nixon’s approaching China visit. Certain rumors had been flying around at the camp lately, Father wrote. “Old Liang heard that Nixon will be invited to give a speech at the Beijing Workers’ Stadium, and will receive applause from half of the audience. This sounds quite wild. What news have you heard in the capital?” You could tell he couldn’t help asking this question.

Mother got depressed without finishing the letter. I had already placed my English lesson book on the table and was watching her nervously. “Let’s not do it today; I’m tired out from work,” she said lifelessly. But her gloomy eyes said more: Oh, what’s the use!

That week she brooded, and I was overcome with a helpless feeling. We spent a dull, cheerless Spring Festival cooped up in our two cramped rooms. Mother slept through most of it. I put my English books away in the bottom drawer of an old chest. I didn’t want to see them again.

“Hey, Datou, what’s up?” A voice called out from behind and startled me out of my reverie.

I was already at the school gate, the long, gray classroom building looming ahead. Datou, the Yaos’ son, was also 15 but we were in different classes. Apparently he had been walking behind me. I heard him begin chatting in an animated voice with Second Army, the most popular boy in my class. I hurried along without turning.

Datou wasn’t bad with me at home. He had a cropped head, a button nose, and his father’s easy, genial bravado. From time to time, he copied whole pages of homework from my notebook, which I gladly provided. Once, before a quiz, he asked me to help him pronounce the difficult “r” in the Russian alphabet. I made him try the method of gargling water while rolling the tongue out, but for the life of him Datou just couldn’t produce the sound. “Damn the Soviet Revisionists!” He kept cursing. We had a good laugh about it and ended up playing cards. He also showed me his marble and cigarette box collections. I was grateful. Skinny and gauche, I had always been considered a bookworm. I wore glasses. No boy in his right mind would deign to be my friend. Even Datou made sure to keep his friendliness at home, so other boys wouldn’t get an impression that he might be wimpy or strange. He always acted cool when we bumped into each other at school, offering me no more acknowledgement than a casual nod. Sometimes he pretended not to see me.

The first class of the day was Political Study. But after the bell rang, Teacher Wu, who taught Russian, showed up at the door. The classes had been swapped, he announced, because Teacher Shi had to take care of unexpected family business.

Russian was an easy ride for me, though most students in the class either hated or were bored by it. Nobody could see why we were still required to learn Russian a decade after the Soviet Union betrayed China and became our number two enemy, right after America. Maybe the Education Ministry forgot to cancel it. Or maybe they didn’t know what to do with all the Russian teachers. Many of them, like Teacher Wu, used to be English teachers and were ordered to switch to Russian in the 1950s when the Soviet big brothers had been our best friends.

“We love China,” Teacher Wu, a sulky, balding man, was leading the class to recite in Russian.

“China is a great socialist country.”

“Chairman Mao is our great teacher, great leader, and great helmsman.”

“The People’s Liberation Army and the People are like fish and water. When they are united as one, who under heaven can beat them?”

“In July, the peasants harvest the crops with sickles, hoes, and tractors.”

At this point Teacher Wu chalked three giant Russian words on the blackboard. Sickle. Hoe. Tractor. “Now take out your notebook and make three sentences in Russian with each one of these words.”

Silence. Everyone bent over their desks, scribbling. I could see Second Army, seated in the row next to mine, shooting dreamy glances toward the windows. Outside, a crow squatted on top of an electric pole. Far above the leafless poplars and scholar trees, a lazy, pale sun glowed in the hard, azure sky, casting weak rays on the empty playground. I knew what he was thinking. Next class was Physical Education, and Second Army was the best athlete in our class.

A tall, long-legged boy with rough-hewn good looks, Second Army could run like the wind, swim like a fish, and leap up into the air as though the soles of his shoes were made of springs. He was also on the school’s ping-pong team. In order to improve his wrist power, he practiced with a paddle made of solid iron: two hundred forehands, two hundred backhands, every day. Once he showed us the paddle, and all the boys were impressed. It was a smooth, bright chunk of iron, somewhat rugged along the edges; the surfaces were so well polished it gleamed brilliantly under the light. The power and beauty of that instrument chilled me, for I could not help but imagine the effect of its being brought down onto someone’s skull. In reality, Second Army wasn’t at all a bad boy. Like Datou he was a poor student, and like other boys he mostly ignored me. But for all his physical superiority he wasn’t given to bullying others. He also didn’t know what to do with girls. Little open exchange existed between the sexes at school, as was the custom then. But it was easy to see that many of the girls liked Second Army.

An hour later, in the middle of Physical Education class, I fell off the horse. This was my second attempt. The first time I hadn’t gone far enough and ended up landing squarely on the horse, which aroused a wave of laughter. This time, I called up all my strength and managed to vault over it, but the exertion threw me off and my hands ended up touching the mat first. Amid loud laughter I picked myself up and limped back to the boys’ rank, feeling a pain in my ankle. Then I spotted something that deepened my shame: Zhao Lida in the girls’ rank also had her mouth covered in a giggle.

With a willowy waist and milky white skin Lida didn’t at all fit the standard beauty of the time. The soft, even bangs covering her forehead and her delicate, moist eyes shaded under thick black lashes enforced the impression of a vulnerable doll. I had secretly marked her out as Second Army’s girl, ever since I spotted him sweeping dust away from her shoes. The three of us belonged to the Wednesday clean-up team, and I, too, had earlier that day admired Lida’s pretty new nylon socks. But it was when I saw how deliberately Second Army’s broom moved around Lida’s feet, and the way they both blushed deeply without exchanging so much as a glance, that I realized how they felt about one another. Strange to say, that was also when I realized how I felt about them: I envied him and loved her. Of course, there was nothing I could do. As far as they were concerned, I hardly existed.

A boy’s figure flew gracefully through the air, across the horse, and landed lightly on the far side of the floor mattress. Fanning out his arms like wings, Second Army stood erect like an eagle halting still in the sky. A wave of applause. Teacher Wang blew the whistle. “Perfect. Second Army, do it once more to demonstrate. Show those that have glue on their bottoms and sandbags on their legs.” This cruel remark drew another round of hearty laughter.

My face burned. But for some reason I did not lower my head. Instead, I stared fiercely at the girls’ rank opposite us, and fixed my eyes on Lida’s face. Lips parted, she was openly admiring Second Army’s demonstrative leap. My gaze must have touched her, for all of a sudden her cheek quivered and she tossed a glance in my direction. For a second our eyes met. Immediately she looked away. “Traitor!” I cursed her silently.

Throughout Political Study my head throbbed. The idea that Lida had somehow betrayed me refused to go away. The more my eyes lingered on her white nape a few rows before me, the more I realized why I had loved her before and now hated her. She and I were the only ones in our class whose parents were “stinking intellectuals.” Lida’s father, I had heard, was also away in a labor camp somewhere in the northeast. If it weren’t for the Cultural Revolution, she and I would be attending one of the city’s top schools rather than sitting in this neighborhood school among these workers’ children. This school had been for those who scored an average of 60, but Lida and I could get top 90s, easy. Now exams were just a joke. And look how she had become enamored of this jock! A worker’s son who chopped air with an iron ping-pong paddle! Didn’t she care a hair about what I was good at? Wasn’t she interested in books, language, or sciences anymore? No, she’d sold out. She considered herself above me now. She thought she was Redder than me, because Second Army loved her!

These dark thoughts frightened me. It was the sudden growling of a lonely underdog with no hope of joining the pack. For more than a year I had been trying to join the Red Guards. To be liked, to be accepted by my classmates, was a yearning so strong I habitually pushed out my sour feelings towards them. Yet they were there just the same, hidden in me like poisonous fluid, ready to gush out whenever I was beaten down by fresh disappointment. Involuntarily, my eyes darted about as though checking if anyone knew what I was thinking.

After an hour of fresh cold air and excitement on the playground, the class appeared sluggish. In his whiny, monotonous voice, Teacher Shi was doggedly reading out some paragraphs from the “Quotations from Chairman Mao.” Nobody paid attention. A few seats down the aisle, a boy was reading a picture book on his lap. Another was languidly folding a paper airplane. The girl sitting beside me held back a yawn. I relaxed in my chair. The drowsy mood in the air soon enveloped me. The crude, bumpy classroom walls, painted in a coat of ugly green, began swaying slightly. The line chalked in great white characters on the blackboard, “Dig Deep Holes, Stock Up Grain, Never Claim Hegemony,” were growing blurry. And in my ears, Teacher Shi’s reading began to take on the sound of distant waves hitting a rocky shore.

Suddenly there was a buzz of static. It came from the little wooden box attached to the wall. Everyone started. Teacher Shi, a thin, horse-faced man with a small Mao button pinned above his breast pocket, stopped mid-sentence. With a scarcely discernible expression of relief he slowly placed the well-worn volume on the shabby lectern. He seemed surprised, just like us, by this sign of a pending broadcast.

Apparently the teachers hadn’t been informed beforehand. Could this be another air-raid evacuation exercise?

All ears in the room perked.

An explosive sound burst out from the loudspeaker. The microphone must have been knocked over by some nervous elbow, and the sound of tumbling and crashing and shattering glass suggested that a cup got dragged off a desk by the moving wire. In the midst of the chaos a grumbling masculine voice cursed someone’s stinking ass.

Delighted guffaws rippled through the entire classroom. Everyone recognized the owner of this voice. It was Master Wang, head of the Worker Propaganda Team stationed at our school. Since the team supervised all political affairs, Wang was also the school’s Party Secretary. But he was simply Master Wang to all the students, the way he was addressed back in his plant, where he had been a renowned grade eight metalsmith.

Teacher Shi winced at the sound of expletives. “Stop laughing!” He barked, blood draining from his long face. “Be serious!”

The class quieted down. Looking at Shi’s bespectacled sour face, I felt sorry for him. He was so dull, so serious, and he obviously couldn’t stand Master Wang’s coarseness. Yet Wang was as loved by the students as Shi was disdained.

A moment later, Master Wang came back on the loudspeaker. He cleared his throat a couple of times and began his address in a deliberate voice.

“Students and teachers in grade two and three, due to an emergency we are suspending your classes for the rest of the day.”

The class released an audible cheer.

“I have just received a directive from the relevant leaders of relevant Party branches above. A special, extremely important political task has been assigned to you all.”

He halted again, as if unable to bear the weight of what he had to say. The classroom was so still I could hear my own breathing.

“This is a highly significant diplomatic task. Eh. It’s unprecedented. It is a great trust and honor bestowed on our school by the Central Party Committee and Chairman Mao.” Here Master Wang had to pause once more to prevent his voice from sounding too breathless. “This evening, you are to be taken to the Great Hall of the People, where you will welcome the American President Richard Nixon and his entourage, and watch an opera with them!”

Stunned silence. Then tumult broke out. All kinds of commotion and noise rippled across the classroom. For a few moments even Teacher Shi didn’t bother to reign in the class: He stood there as if in a stupor.

I felt shell-shocked. Nixon. Watching an opera with Nixon in the Great Hall of the People. Maybe meeting Premier Zhou and Jiang Qing as well. Is this real? Am I not dreaming?

And strange to say, from the moment I heard that announcement, it seemed I was entering a new world. We all had seen foreign devils on the screen, like those American soldiers getting mowed down by our volunteer troops in the Korean War classic Heroic Sons and Daughters. But everyone knew they were fake. The Americans were played by our own Chinese actors with white face powder and painted big noses. None of us had ever laid eyes on a real foreigner. Now we were to meet Nixon?

My fellow classmates were apparently as shocked and excited as I was, for it was through a foggy wall of their chattering disbelief that I heard the rest of the broadcast. Master Wang went on a little longer about the significance of the task ahead, the friendship between the Chinese and American people, and so on. Then the principal came on.

The principal talked about protocol. As usual, a strong sense of organization and discipline was stressed. But what I recall the most was his elaboration of the correct attitude we must all display in the presence of the Americans. In fact, weeks before Nixon’s arrival, we had already received a briefing about this. In case any of us should run into one of his delegates on the streets, the State Council had distilled the appropriate attitude into a four-word motto: 不卑不亢 (bu bei bu kang), which means “not obsequious, nor arrogant.” But now that we were actually going to meet Nixon himself, it seemed necessary the policy should be explained to us more concretely. To give us an example, the principal now cited Premier Zhou Enlai.

Zhou went to the airport to welcome Nixon, but after Nixon stepped out from the plane, Zhou had stood waiting a few feet away from the plane’s stairs, letting Nixon walk over eagerly, and then simply bent his arm at the elbow to meet Nixon’s outstretched hand: a perfectly poised handshake. Nixon was grinning broadly, while Zhou offered merely a half smile: a perfect facial expression. The cameras captured all of this and conveyed the message to the whole world: the Americans have come all the way to seek us out, whereas we Chinese received them politely but not too eagerly. This, the principal said triumphantly, is what is meant by the attitude of “not obsequious, nor arrogant.”

Besides this, the principal said, neat clothes and clean faces were also important. We must show the Americans our fresh spirits as the flowers of our socialist motherland. So after the broadcast, we were to go home, change into our best clothes, freshen up, and report back to school at five o’clock sharp.

I remember what I put on for the evening: blue pants and an army green jacket over my padded cotton coat. The fashion note was the jacket—for both boys and girls army green was all the rage then. Only weeks earlier Mother had made me that jacket for the Spring Festival; I hadn’t worn it since the holidays.

But how did I while away those hours before five o’clock? Did I take a nap or just fidget? Did Datou, who was also home preparing for the evening, talk with me? Did Yun come home from school before I left? None of this has left a trace.

The thing I do remember was being fed. Yes, before getting on the buses that took us to the Great Hall of People, we were served a hot meal by the school kitchen. This was a special treat, as normally the kitchen cooked for teachers and staff only, never for students. I can still see the tall bamboo baskets bundled against the cold with thick cotton covers, and the cooks in their greasy white uniforms standing beside the food cart in the winter dusk. In those baskets were steamed buns as white as snow and piping hot from the stove. Each of us got two of these buns, plus two boiled eggs. I also remember that one of the cooks, awkward with emotion, patted a boy’s shoulder after handing him his dinner and said: “Kid, go and bring glory to our school.” The atmosphere was so solemn it was as though we were marching off to war.

Our bellies full, our spirits high, we were bused out to the Great Hall of the People on the west side of Tiananmen Square. But what was my impression of this world famous place, which even in my dreams I had never entered before? I must confess my memory retains only a rather hazy picture. I remember filing through large, empty hallways with tall ceilings, glimpses of forbidding doors, and huge pillars that shot up and up. I remember feeling surprised by certain areas that were not so well lit, since in my fantasy the entire place was always ablaze with light.

I also remember the silence. We tiptoed on the carpets like thieves, and no one dared utter a sound. Outside, the capital was choked in a grim winter’s embrace; inside was warm, almost stuffy, yet none of us even dared to cough. As for the performance hall that we were finally led into, I can merely recall that it was a very big room with cream-colored walls, fronted by a wide stage with rusty red velvet curtains drawn across it. The place was already filled when we arrived—all were selected audience members, of course. The hush of the crowd was so absolute it gave me the feeling of being in a silent film. We were the only school children, and got seated right behind the “reserved” front rows.

This recollection is quite devoid of detail. And for a long time I thought it was caused by my general nervousness and the intensity of what happened to me later that evening. It was not until years later that another cause dawned on me: the Great Hall of the People had no detail. Like most other big, imposing state structures built in the Soviet style of that period, the place was nothing but a grand statement.

But this was, at any rate, an academic point, for here we were, finally on the threshold of the pivotal moment in my life. We had been sitting there for what felt like a long time, waiting in complete idleness. And in recollection the moment seemed to have arrived without warning, like a thunderbolt striking after a long lull.

All of a sudden Nixon was there. In point of fact, Jiang Qing appeared first, clapping her hands as she walked with her head held high. She was a striking woman, glamorous even in a stiff, light gray Mao suit. They say she was only a second-rate actress in Shanghai before marrying Mao. But she certainly had the looks, no doubt about that. Behind Jiang was Nixon, followed by a long row of Chinese and American dignitaries, Henry Kissinger among them. My eyes were fixed on Nixon, whose face I had already studied in the newspapers. He was rather tall, his hair brushed back neatly to reveal a prominent forehead, and as he walked his shoulders threw ahead a little, giving the impression of a slight haunch. But he had a great presence. Dressed in an elegant dark suit, he walked in briskly and was smiling—grinning broadly, as the principal had put it.

At this point we were offering Nixon, following the instructions given to us beforehand, a “partial applause.” That is to say that those of us seated in the front and middle rows—about two-thirds of us—clapped our hands, while those in the back rows remained still. But Nixon didn’t seem to notice the degree of enthusiasm shown to him from this delicately measured applause. He waved to us happily, as did the other gray-suited Americans behind him. They were all grinning like big kids.

According to protocol, the leaders were supposed to walk straight to the front center of the theater and take those seats reserved for them. But an unexpected thing happened. Jiang Qing was already walking over to the seats when Nixon said something to her and, before she could reply, turned to the aisle and walked straight to the audience by himself!

This sudden, incredible straying from the plans took everyone by surprise. Even Nixon’s aides stopped dead in their tracks and blinked. There was panic on the faces of some of the Chinese officials. What a crazy whim! What does he want to do? Would anyone stop him? But while everyone was gasping and staring, the President of the United States of America was briskly walking . . . toward me!

Yes, that was how I felt, anyway, from the moment Nixon turned to the aisle. I was sitting second from the aisle in the third row of the audience seats. One would assume, if one could assume anything for such an extraordinary occurrence, that Nixon would stop by the first row, and address the first kid sitting in the aisle seat, right? It would only be natural. But no, that’s not what happened. The president, carried forward either by the momentum of his own brisk pace or whatever unknown factors of fate, walked a couple of steps further and stopped right before my row. And he smiled, first at the boy sitting in the aisle seat beside me, then at me.

Only later I learned why Nixon settled on me. The boy beside me had started shaking all over before Nixon even laid eyes on him. Sick with fright, he must have looked so ghastly that out of pity and embarrassment Nixon decided not to torture the kid further. So he turned to me. And strange to say, while my heart was beating violently when Nixon first entered the theater, I did not feel afraid. I was just very excited. Even more strange, now that Nixon stood before me smiling, whatever I felt, there was not a trace of nervousness in my heart.

“Hello,” Nixon said, looking kindly at me. “How are you?”

This was in English of course. And I understood it. My mother’s lessons had not faded.

The entire theater stood silent and still.

“I’m fine, thank you,” I replied in English, somewhat shakily but clearly. “How do you do?”

A twinkle flashed in Nixon’s deeply set eyes. “Oh I’m doing quite well, thank you!” He appeared surprised and delighted. An ordinary Chinese boy he picked out at random was speaking to him in English!

It must be one of those moments described as divine inspiration, for the next thing I heard myself say, in a clear and loud voice, was this: “Welcome to China, Mr. President!”

Nixon beamed, but a Chinese translator had hurried over and was now speaking to him. I didn’t catch the translator’s words, but no doubt he was begging Nixon to take his seat. And Nixon, a bit like a boy who had just pulled off a prank and was now satisfied and willing to do what was expected of him, nodded his head. But just before walking away he turned to me once more and said: “Thank you, my young friend! I hope you will visit America one day.” He waved goodbye and went over to sit down in the front.

There. So went the crucial moment of my life. It lasted less than a minute from start to finish. But of this much I am certain: During that one brief minute I was touched by the hand of fate.

That night the performance was The Red Detachment of Women. It was one of the eight famous revolutionary model operas produced under Jiang Qing’s personal guidance. This one and The White Haired Girl were my favorites because they were ballet operas and very theatrical. And the story in The Red Detachment was uplifting, more appropriate for such an occasion. Like most of the audience members, I had seen it on the screen but never on a stage. Ordinarily, this would be a thrilling experience. Imagine how striking it would be to watch all that high drama performed right in front of you by so many beautiful, long-legged women. But that night the show whirled before my eyes like a blurry, rhapsodic wind. All my concentration was gone.

Nixon left right after the show, and straight off we were packed onto buses and taken home. Exhausted, no one said a word about the evening on the way. When I got home Yun was already asleep. I told Mother what had happened, which she at first refused to believe, then interrogated me on every detail.

“You talked to Nixon,” she kept saying incredulously, anxiety written all over her face. “What’s going to happen to us now?”

I watched her pacing the room. Feeling feverish and tired, I questioned my own sanity: Did it really happen? Had I made it all up?

Outside, from the direction of the railway station came the hoarse, discordant whistle of a train. Where was it heading to in this lonely, pitch-black night?

Neither of us slept till dawn.

The following morning the entire school learned what had taken place inside the Great Hall of the People. Kids from other classes, other grades, pointed at me; even teachers stole curious glances when they passed by me in the hallway. I felt nauseated from the tension. Would I be punished for what I had done?

It was not until late afternoon that I was called to Master Wang’s office. I shuffled my feet like a doomed prisoner and hesitated before the door. But the moment I stepped in, Master Wang walked up and grabbed my shoulders with his large, callused hands. “Well done, young man! You brought glory to our school!” The principal was there too, and they both heaped warm praise on me. Apparently the relevant leaders of the relevant Party branches decided that I had carried myself well before the American president; my demeanor was dignified, my attitude neither too obsequious, nor too arrogant.

I was now asked to compose a full report about the encounter. All details must be put in: what Nixon had said, what I had said, and all the thoughts that went through my head before, during, and after. I should also explain my motivation for learning English. Had I thought, the principal suggested kindly, that one day there might be an opportunity to make a small contribution to our socialist foreign policy? Teacher Shi was assigned to assist me with this report.

My first draft was rather too short. On the issue of motivation I put down exactly what the principal had suggested. As for thoughts in my head while talking to Nixon, I put down things like “pride of China” and “dignity of socialist youth” since I couldn’t very well say I hadn’t the time to think of anything besides calling up those simple English phrases from my memory bank.

These were greatly improved on and expanded by Teacher Shi, who took to the task with his typical seriousness and drowned my draft in red ink. The two-page report swelled into an hour-long lecture, parts of it climbing to such rhetorical heights it sounded like a People’s Daily editorial. When I submitted the final version, the only thing the principal cut out was Nixon’s parting line: “I hope you will visit America one day.” Nixon might have said it, the principal explained to me, but it would not be appropriate for us to spread it.

I delivered this talk at our school. The entire student body gathered on the playground to hear me. Afterwards Teacher Wu came around to congratulate me. “Sterling speech,” said he, tears glistening in his eyes. “You are gifted with tongues.” I recalled that Wu used to teach English rather than Russian.

I gave this same talk at a number of other schools in Beijing. A mesmerized audience waited for me everywhere I went. I was thus paraded around town for a few weeks like a star. There was even some talk of a newspaper story about me, though nothing came of it in the end.

I joined the Red Guards and, a few months later, the Communist Youth League. Nevertheless, the official honors showered on me did not make me more popular in my own class. My classmates looked at me with grudging respect, and more than a little envy, but they went on following Second Army’s lead as before. He remained the heartthrob. Between him and Lida, however, there was no sign of any breakthrough. Occasionally I even caught something like ambivalence in the way Lida glanced at me.

But none of this mattered anymore. It all seemed quite trivial, really. For an inner voice told me my destiny was separate from theirs, my future would be distinguished.

At home, Mother resumed teaching me English, with a fervor and joy I had not seen in years. There was pride in her voice when she announced that Yun, too, would be given English tutoring as soon as she reached a suitable age. Mother hummed in the apartment, and at meals she tricked us into eating her portion of the rationed meat. She even began cooking alongside Mrs. Yao, since she wanted to give us regular mealtimes now and considered our healthy growth the most important thing in the world.

Mother and I pored over the papers and clipped any news of Nixon and America. There wasn’t much, but we built a complete file of everything available. Into it went the “Shanghai Communiqué,” reports on the Chinese ping-pong team’s visit to the United States, Kissinger’s China trips, news of the first American movies released in China, and then, in 1974, the Watergate coverage. Oh, how much that scandal pained me. I felt outraged, furious at those Americans who could drag such a great man into the mud. They seemed to me so relentless, cornering him the way they did. Tears welled up when I read Nixon’s resignation speech; I could almost feel his humiliation. By then he was more than a president or a politician in my mind. He was even more than a benefactor, a personal hero. Laugh as you like, but Nixon had become a father figure to me.

My own father remained in the labor camp until 1976. In my Nixon file lies a note signed March 21, 1972. Two weeks before, I had mailed a long letter to Father describing my encounter with Nixon and what had happened since. As usual, Father was succinct in his response. The note contained only one line. “My dear son,” this timid, crushed man wrote in his scraggly hand. “I, too, hope you will visit America one day.”

September 15, 2000, Pok Fu Lam Road, Hong Kong

* * *


This is a piece of fiction. It is published here on ChinaFile for the first time, but I wrote it in September 2000. A note about what made me dust it off now might offer some useful context for the reader.

Nearly half a century ago, U.S. President Richard Nixon made his historic visit to the People’s Republic of China. Earlier this year, journalists at The New York Times and BBC, preparing programs to commemorate the event, reached out to me for comment. In the course of talking, I mentioned that I once wrote a short story about Nixon’s visit. They asked to read it, so I searched in my back drawers, where I kept a pile of fiction drafts composed during a homebound period when I was saddled with a rambunctious toddler and couldn’t travel for journalistic work. In a faded manila envelope, I found a printout of “Homage to Richard Nixon.”

I fully expected the story, set respectively in the American South circa 1980 and in Beijing circa 1972, to read like a period piece. But I was startled by certain psychic resonances—or is it dissonances?—which seemed oddly relevant to a more recent phenomenon concurrent with the rapidly deteriorating relations between America and China and our mutually changing perceptions of one another.

On the large stage of U.S.-China relations, the specific phenomenon I’m referring to is merely an ill-understood sideshow, captured by a term which has gone viral on the Chinese Internet since the 2016 U.S. election: 华川粉 (huachuanfen), Chinese Trump Fans or Chinese Trumpists. The term itself hardly needs explanation; similar labels have probably sprung up in other languages for what is an international phenomenon. What concerns me is the fact that the label is stuck like a magnet on the foreheads of so many of my old Chinese liberal friends. Among them are my colleagues, comrades, college buddies, and a few personal heroes: civil rights activists, public intellectuals, leaders, and exiles from the Tiananmen era, educated and successful immigrants in North America and Europe.

Reading “Homage to Richard Nixon,” I realized that Mr. Ji, the narrator and protagonist, would be a Chinese Trumpist today.

I’m a woman, and I have consistently voted for the Democrats (albeit with ambivalence sometimes) since becoming a U.S. citizen. But I cannot deny that, emotionally, Mr. Ji is my fictional alter ego. He’ll always be my brother and a part of me because we share a common past and, even today, we are likely to be branded together, with a certain irony, as 燈塔派 (dengtapai), or Beaconites. This moniker refers to those of us who constellate around the view that America is the shining beacon of liberty, the dazzling hope of all mankind. Most of us came of age during the Cultural Revolution, with traumatic memories and deep disillusionment about communist utopia. Our pilgrimage toward a new spiritual Mecca began in the 1970s, right after Nixon’s visit. Throughout the 1980s, we were those starry-eyed, gauche, grateful foreign students on American campuses, hungry to learn, prone to worship all things American. In our romantic vision, the USA was a near-perfect nation.

For decades, in the Chinese public sphere and at private dinner tables, we Beaconites have been quick, zealous defenders of America against all her detractors and critics: We have assumed those pointing fingers to be unfair or irresponsible, reprehensible or malicious. For us, survivors of great tyranny with scars to show and horror tales to tell, we understand that, fighting a conniving rogue, even a great giant must stumble occasionally, even a near-perfect nation cannot be perfect in everything.

Well. This long journey of love has been ardent, exhilarating, and joyful, but it has finally entered truly treacherous terrain. The travelers’ determination hasn’t diminished, the idealism still glints, but we have aged and our ranks have thinned and splintered. And, oh, let us admit the agony, the ambivalence, the confusion, the unavoidable questions and the midnight doubts, the nasty breakdowns of old friendships in the wake of explosive arguments over the typical sticking points: illegal immigration and the welfare state, identity politics and Black Lives Matter, 白左 (baizuo, White Leftists) and Proud Boys, conspiracy theories, election fraud, MeToo, Islamophobia, Christian fundamentalists, and, of course, the Chosen Man. . . The crises polarizing Western democracies are mirrored in our own anguished eyes. Our visions of America have, alas, grown more complicated. How did this happen? Can we look back on the path and recognize some of the inflection points: the moments when the wind started to shift and the mood to change?

2016. 2008. 9/11. 1989. . . I say let’s trace further back to 1972, the year we paid homage to Richard Nixon.

—Zha Jianying, May 15, 2021, New York City