Opening to China: A Memoir of Normalization, 1981–1982
by Charlotte Furth
“Charlotte Furth’s memoir provides a window into a China that few of us can remember or even believe possible: a country that was not the economic and political powerhouse of today, but a hesitant, slightly paranoid society emerging from decades of being closed-off to the outside world. As one of the rare witnesses to this crucial transition, Professor Furth takes us into the life of China’s most important university, showing the struggle to accept her group of visiting scholars–a microcosm for the debate in China at the time over whether the country really should open up. Written honestly and candidly, this memoir will be of interest to scholars of US-China engagement but also to general readers eager to see how much China has changed over the past decades.” —Ian Johnson, Beijing correspondent for The New York Times, and author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao
In 1981 an American historian of China, Professor Charlotte Furth, travelled to Beijing to teach young Chinese scholars about America. Professor Furth’s year-long adventures, captured in this lively memoir, tell of classroom encounters, bureaucratic entanglements, expat frustrations, unlikely friendships, and misunderstandings both comic and grave. Her sponsor, the Fulbright program of academic exchange, had just revived after thirty years of the Cold War, and carried with it American hopes for a new era of cooperation between China and the United States. Her students were shaped by the Communist revolution, schooled in its political disciplines, and torn between thirst to experience the outside world at last and anxiety about what lay ahead in a post-Mao future.
Based on Professor Furth’s detailed notes and letters home at the time, this book evokes the unique atmosphere of expectation and frustration that characterized the first years of normalization. Furth belongs to a generation of American China experts who hoped for alternatives to the reductive cold war policies that made communism not only an enemy abroad but a weapon against social democracy at home. She encountered young Chinese intellectuals who also wanted to imagine a more just society at home without abandoning their primary loyalties to culture and nation. Their search for common ground can help us understand the impact of the Mao era on society and the path Chinese elites have followed since the 1980s. For American readers, it can also tell us about ourselves when forced to defend our own society against friendly yet penetrating scrutiny.
Opening to China is a valuable account for specialists on Sino-American relations and on the formative years of the generation of Chinese who lead the People’s Republic of China today. It is also a fascinating read for anyone who wants to explore the pleasures and perils of Chinese and American struggles to understand one another.
Charlotte Furth is Professor Emerita of Chinese History at the University of Southern California. For her scholarship and service to the profession, she was honored for “Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies” by the Association for Asian Studies in 2012. Watch Professor Furth speak about her book at the University of Southern California book launch here.