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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #15 (April 6, 2004), page 14 and 20.
One woman’s view of 20th century China
Grace: An American Woman in China 1934 - 1974
By Eleanor McCallie Cooper and William Liu
Soho Press, 2003
Paperback, 304 pages, $15.00
By Andrew J. Weber
Accusations fly about weapons of mass destruction. War is simply an extension of U.S. economic policy, to concentrate financial power in the hands of a few. The "liberal" media comes under attack.
Although reading like today’s headlines, these views were expressed by American woman Grace Liu in 1951 about the Korean War. Grace eventually became a political target herself, and was publicly branded a "counter-revolutionary American spy" and put under house arrest during the Cultural Revolution. She later remarked, "When fanatical thinking takes over, whether it is political or religious in nature, people … act in illogical ways and language loses its meaning."
But such is the nature, even the objective, of propaganda. And China in the 20th century effectively served as a blank slate for the reams of propaganda produced by both sides in the Cold War. Since much of China was unknown and closed to the outside world, it became a canvas upon which all manner of political fantasies, views, and objectives could be painted.
Grace: An American Woman in China offers an intimate counterpoint to the Cold War propaganda, a unique view of China from inside the "Bamboo Curtain." The book is a biography composed almost entirely of Grace’s own words: her personal letters, articles she wrote from 1949-59, interviews conducted from 1976-79, and Grace’s unfinished memoir. William Liu and Eleanor McCallie Cooper, Grace’s son and cousin, provide additional narration and detail to complete the story.
In defiance of her traditional Tennessee family, Grace Divine married Chinese engineering student Liu Fu-chi, whom she met in New York. In 1934 she defied her family a second time by setting off to live in China after the birth of their son. Not even she could imagine that she would not return to the U.S. for forty years.
During those four decades, she witnessed first-hand the most tumultuous events in recent Chinese history: the end of the colonial period, the great flood of 1939, the Japanese Occupation, World War II, the Communist takeover, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. In each case, Grace offers a rare perspective from "the other side."
After the Communist victory in 1949, the great disparity between the "official" U.S. view and Grace’s immediate environment inspires her to write a letter to the Saturday Evening Post that is later published around the world. Responding to an editorial cartoon depicting a clueless Chinese man about to be killed by a hammer and sickle, Grace decides that after three months of viewing the behavior of the actual Communists, "I wouldn’t have the least worry if it weren’t for the things I read in the American magazines." She goes into lengthy personal details of her own experiences with the Communist soldiers in Tientsin, who are nothing like the monsters they are made out to be.
Of course, Grace later ends up out of favor during the Cultural Revolution, and witnesses the darker side of the Communist uprising. This displays how the power of Grace — its intimate, personal tone — is also the cause of its occasional weakness: limited scope.
Grace’s life in the foreign sector of Tientsin is sheltered; she lives in a "small, confined world inside a larger, unpredictable one." Her personal experience cannot hope to encompass every possible experience in vast China, and she undoubtedly overlooks many important aspects of her society simply because she is not directly exposed to them. Despite the explanatory narratives provided, the reader is often left wanting a more complete "big picture" of events, the forest instead of the trees.
Nonetheless, Grace’s intimate story is touching and inspiring. Family friend Charles Ruas writes that she possessed "The commitment and passion- ate faith that makes her want to build a life in a revolutionary society, and the fortitude and courage to live out the choices she made," and no one reading her life story could argue otherwise.
At the same time, Grace is a moving piece of anti-propaganda, the opposite of "language that has lost its meaning." Grace is simple and human, reflecting truths that no political agenda can capture. Anyone looking for a deep view into an extraordinary woman’s life, and into a still-mysterious China, should certainly take a look.