From Our Pages: “It Cannot Be Conceived.”

American idealists in two Chinese revolutions, Cultural and capitalist.

Mark Wyatt, China, 1996.

By Julie Anderson

Mao and niece at Beidahe, 1960. Wikimedia.

Only one event made an impression on them as they relaxed on Beidaihe’s warm yellow sands: Mao Zedong’s historic swim, at the age of seventy-three, down the Yangtze River on July 16 of that year.

The expats moved to China to participate in one of the greatest social experiments in the history of humankind.

I yearned for a better place, a better life, a better version of myself … just maybe, I’d find this in China.

In Chinese, there’s an expression: Bu ke si yi — “It cannot be conceived.” In other words, it was beautiful beyond imagining.

Postcard, Tiananmen Square, 1970.
Postcard, Tiananmen Square, 1988.
Rittenberg’s memoir, published in 1993.

Rittenberg came as close to achieving a real understanding of the country as any foreigner could. Incredibly, the Communist Party even made him a full member.

Rittenberg spent more and more time “making revolution,” which meant attending “struggle sessions” in which colleagues verbally and sometimes physically abused each other, to purge all “reactionary” thought.

Propaganda poster.

Mrs. Zhang, our friendly, easygoing English Department head, looked more like a girl of the 1950s than a woman of the 1990s.

Mark Wyatt, Hutong 1, People’s Republic of China, 1996.

True, people in China didn’t have much in the way of money or luxuries, but they had, I felt, a tremendous gift: the gift of time. Abundant, luxurious time.

Rittenberg began rediscovering his faith — if not exactly in America, then at least in the basic principles on which it was founded.

I learned that every class I taught had a spy in it, a student selected by the Party to watch what the American teacher said and how the Chinese students responded.

Everyone under the age of thirty, it seemed, wanted to buy and sell something, preferably something they could export to America.

Mark Wyatt, Hutong 2.

I’d often get lost not because my sense of direction was poor, but because familiar guideposts — hutongs, outdoor markets — had suddenly disappeared.

Golden arches on temporary display. Laws have recently banned such large outdoor signage.
Rittenberg and his wife, Yulin, in the USA.

Rittenberg’s specific mission, he claims, has always been the same: “to continue to labor on the bridge of understanding and cooperation between the peoples of America and China” … only now he does so by bringing businesses to China to boost its economy, improve its telecommunications, and create jobs for ordinary people.

Idealization and demonization are really two sides of the same coin.

Photo credit: Polly Lockman.
True stories. Honestly.

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