|Zhou Youguang was born in Shanghai in 1906 to an intellectual’s family. He was first attracted by communism at the missionary-run St John’s University. In 1925, to protest against the May 30 Incident, when British police killed student-worker demonstrators, he left to complete his finance degree at a more "patriotic" Chinese institution, the newly established Guanghua University. A career in banking led Zhou to New York in 1946, but China’s call brought him and his wife back to Shanghai soon after Liberation. His interest in the Chinese language lent him a second career. After his transfer to the China Language Reform Committee in 1955, he became the chief inventor of the Pinyin system of romanisation. In Beijing, Zhou served as a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference until he was 85, apart from disruption caused by the Cultural Revolution. Still writing books on language at the age of 94, Zhou shares his retirement with his wife of 66 years, 90-year-old Zhang Yunhe, an expert on kunqu, the precursor to Peking opera. In this excerpt from China Remembers he looks back at his life.
Many people have asked why I would give up a promising career and comfortable life in America to return to China. It may be difficult to understand for today’s young people, rushing to get out of the country. Actually, it was the most natural thing to do at that time. The founding of the People’s Republic of China sent shock waves across the world,
Asia in particular. Ever since the opium wars, China had been bullied and invaded by foreign powers. Now, for the first time, we Chinese stood up independently on our own feet. Many people round the world saw hope in communism. Many Chinese, seeing new hope in their homeland, came back, one after another, when the Chinese Communists took power.
One has to admire their ability in organising underground work. From 1946, I was running the New York representative office of a private Shanghai bank, Xinhua, and studying at New York University at night. I also did some work for the American Irving Trust bank, and frequently travelled to Europe to deal with the Bank of England among others.
Among many visitors to my Broadway home were Liu Zunqi and Yang Gang, outstanding journalists and, unknown to me, both secret party members. From an early stage, they were convinced the Communists would win because they enjoyed the support of the masses, and communism was the hope of mankind. I tended to agree. They advocated that patriotic Chinese must return to help build the new China. In fact, I needed little persuasion.
The Japanese invasion in 1937 pushed me closer to communism. The Japanese were imperialists, the most despised by the Communists, and our whole family suffered at their hands. In Chongqing, our little daughter died from appendicitis when we were in the countryside, escaping Japanese bombing. It was too late when we rushed her to hospital. Our son, too, nearly died from shrapnel.
I went through the Anti-Japanese War, so I didn’t believe the myth that the Communists defeated the Japanese. They played a role, though not a decisive one, yet by comparison the Nationalists lacked the Communists’ vitality, strength and ability to mobilise people to work together with them. After the Japanese defeat, the Nationalist government’s unwise policies lost any remaining trust. They should have controlled inflation, not let it soar, while some greedy officials made fortunes from our national disaster by pocketing property as they reclaimed Japanese-controlled areas. Corruption grew worse and worse.
Resisting offers to join large US banks, I decided to leave America after learning the Communists had crossed the Yangtze and taken Nanjing, the former Nationalist capital. It was obvious to anyone who would win. At that time, I must say a fair number of progressive Americans were also sympathetic to the Communists. Though the authorities might not like it, communism was tolerated, and [Senator Joseph] McCarthy’s anti-communism began after I left. Later Chinese intellectuals had great trouble trying to return. Once I made up my mind, my wife and I moved quickly, flying to Hong Kong to await China’s liberation. On 3 June 1949, a week after Shanghai was liberated, we boarded a boat from Hong Kong.
When we landed, I really felt I was back home. I was excited and eager to make a contribution to the new government. I thought my skill in finance would be useful in China’s construction, as the Communists had taken over a torn country. Returned scholars were generally treated very well, at least in the beginning. A committee was set up to look after us, and I was immediately made a senior manager at Xinhua. A friend on the committee arranged for me to teach at the economic research institute under Fudan University. I was very happy in the early days after my return, juggling various jobs and responsibilities. A year later, when the East China branch of the new People’s Bank was established, I also became senior adviser to the private enterprise department, an indication of official trust in me.
On top of that, I became a member of Shanghai’s political consultative council. Shanghai’s mayor, Chen Yi, was a wonderful man, clear-headed, pragmatic and open-minded, not the typical party bureaucrat you usually meet. Every month he invited experts and celebrities to a symposium and listened to our suggestions. He made me feel I had not taken the wrong path by returning. I think he appreciated two of my suggestions: given that the vital task facing China was economic development, we should rely on economic not political methods to achieve it. Secondly, I stressed the significance of industrial research.
In those early days, policies were reasonable and the political atmosphere rather relaxed and tolerant. The government respected the private sector with little interference. At the People’s Bank we even granted loans to private enterprises. Liu Shaoqi had a good policy called "five types of economic co-existence", permitting state-owned and private companies, joint enterprises between the state and private sector, foreign-owned companies and joint ventures.
At first, the government also interfered little in ordinary people’s lives. People were still allowed to wear fancy clothes, but more and more began to wear the simple blue jacket and trousers. I was used to wearing Western-style suits, but soon found I was too embarrassed to wear one. There were so many PLA soldiers in the streets, but they were so well behaved and disciplined that the only jokes concerned their country bumpkin image.
Most returnees had expected a much poorer material life. I was not as comfortable as before, but my salary was high by Chinese standards. I occasionally missed Western food, but that was bearable. What I really missed was good newspapers, with all kinds of news and opinions. I wrote regular columns for the Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po, published in Hong Kong, but I couldn’t even read my own articles! On the other hand, it was probably just as well I couldn’t buy them, or they might have been used as evidence against me in later campaigns (they were certainly politically incorrect!).
Gradually things began to change. From late 1952, the Soviet system was adopted in higher education. Then in 1953, as joint state-private ownership was introduced, Xinhua and all other private banks were merged into so-called state-private banks. The general manager was made the deputy head of the joint bank; the head, of course, was Communist. At first, private owners’ interests were not hurt. When the Communists took over, they confiscated the properties and shares they felt they had reason to take, like those belonging to the "big four families", Jiang, Song, Kong and Cheng, who had their fingers in almost everything. Those families’ shares became state-owned, but others retained their stakes. As for management, the government sent someone to supervise, but businesses were still more or less run by their owners. Most of those concerned thought this quite acceptable.
The next stage, the 1955 Socialist Transformation campaign, was far more radical. Xinhua became totally state-owned, as the entire private sector was seized by the government and turned into state property.
Private business people gained nothing and lost everything. Even their housing was taken away. One thing communism hates is the economy. That’s why all socialist countries are poor, without exception. Since Deng Xiaoping’s reform, the situation has improved considerably, yet they continue with policies that make no economic sense. What’s the point in keeping so many loss-making state-owned enterprises for so many years?
Anyway, it’s no longer my concern. At the end of 1955, I was called to Beijing for a meeting on language reform. I had retained a strong interest in language and written articles on romanisation. Afterwards, I was asked to stay on. It was a dramatic career change, and I might have been able to refuse, but by this stage I realised my financial knowledge and experience had little use in socialist China. Our newly formed committee was charged with standardising the language (there are too many different dialects in China), simplifying the characters and introducing a new spelling system, using Roman letters. The last was the most important, without which we not only couldn’t pronounce characters properly, but would be seriously disabled in modern communications.
Only a year after my move, the Anti-Rightist Campaign started. The head of Fudan’s economic research institute committed suicide after falling victim, so did my favourite student, a bright, promising economist.
If I had stayed in Shanghai, there was no chance I could have escaped attack, for I was famous for speaking out frankly. Both the journalists who befriended me in America suffered greatly. Yang Gang had been promoted to high office by Zhou Enlai, but she, too, killed herself after being attacked. Liu Zunqi spent 20 years in jail, before becoming chief editor of China Daily.
All these vicious political campaigns not only shocked us returned scholars, but the millions worldwide who once had hope in communism. I myself only gave up communism during the Cultural Revolution. Inevitably, I was attacked like other intellectuals and sent into exile in Ningxia in China’s northwest.
I’ve never regretted coming back, though the situation did not turn out exactly as I expected. Life is such a confusing business, determined by so many accidental factors. I’ve been lucky to work all these years on language, which has fascinated me since university. That I’ve achieved something is a great comfort. Of course, we would have been richer if we had stayed in America.
But material life is not the only thing that matters. Today’s young people are far more realistic and material-oriented than our generation. Pursuing an ideology like communism is not important to them; what’s important is their practical, individual interests. Like Deng Xiaoping’s grandchild, my own granddaughter has settled nicely with her family in Canada and has no intention of returning. She took the exact opposite path to mine, which is natural in today’s China. Different times produce different people. I am an old man now, well into my 90s. Looking back on a long life, I really have no complaints.
We have a saying in China: "The fallen leaves return to the root." I am where I belong and my heart is at ease.
China Remembers by Zhang Lijia and Calum MacLeod ©
Oxford University Press, $185