Chou Wen-chung

My Early Years in China

By Professor Chou Wen-chung

1. Political and Cultural Atmosphere at Time of Birth

I was born in 1923, on the 16th day of the 5th month of the Chinese lunar calendar in Yantai, Shantung Province. An error in converting from this old calendar subsequently caused the date to be officially given as July 28, whereas the correct date is June 29. It was only 12 years after the popular Revolution against the decadent Manzhou (Manchu) Dynasty, but China was in chaos again, with widespread civil war and constant changes in government, interference by Western powers and invasions by Japan. Astronomical indemnity payments stipulated by numerous treaties imposed by Western powers through gunboat diplomacy depleted the Chinese national treasury.

Culturally, it was equally chaotic with all the attributes of a society at a crossroad. Even the language itself became a matter of contention. The traditional literary style (wenyan) was still taught in school and used by scholars, but it was difficult for the vast uneducated population to grasp. The informal colloquial style (bai hua) became increasingly acceptable and was adopted more and more by writers. Although [sic], those educated only in this style were unable to read either the classics or any other learned publications. (The subsequent adoption of simplified characters further seriously eroded Chinese heritage.)

The May 4th Movement of 1919 began as a genuine “cultural revolution” with popular support and great potential. Unfortunately, it failed to live up to its promise because of intense ideological manipulation by various political groups. Nonetheless, the 1920s and 1930s turned out to be a great era for introducing Western culture to China and for re-investigating Chinese achievements in culture. This much-needed cultural process had been abandoned from 1949 until today.

2. Cities I Grew Up In

All of the cities I was brought to by my parents, except Beijing, were so-called “treaty ports,” opened to trade by force of Western-imposed treaties, usually in conjunction with extraordinary “indemnity” payments in compensation for damage to properties or bodily harm to citizens belonging to the West. Often a territory within a city called a “concession” would also be established under the control of Western governments. These cities would then be exposed to Western cultures, with some emerging as true intercultural metropolises such as Shanghai.

My birthplace, known historically as Chefoo (Zhifou) is at the tip of the Bhohai Sea which leads to Korea and Japan. The mystery about life on legendary islands beyond the land’s end led to an imperial visit to this city by the First Emperor of Qin who united China for the first time 2200 years ago. I was taken to Beijing, the Imperial City since the 13th century and the temporary capital of the Republic at the time, only a few months after my birth; and then onto the beautiful seaport city of Qingdao (Tsingtao), circa 1923/24.

Qingdao had been a German colony and was later occupied by Japan until 1922, when it was returned to China. In fact, my family moved to Qingdao because my father was appointed one of the leaders in the new Chinese administration. I remained there until c. 1927/28 when I was brought to Shanghai, even then the greatest metropolis in the East. The richness of its heterogeneous culture and ethnicity could well have matched the capital of the Tang Dynasty, Changan. (It was in Shanghai, that my father took part in the 1911 popular Revolution at the age of 19.)

Then we moved to Wuhan (Hankou), c. 1929/30, an active river port with about half a dozen foreign concessions. However, I was still too young to be aware of the cultural diversity of the city. My family then moved to Nanjing (Nanking), c. 1932/33, then the capitol [sic] of China under the Nationalist regime. (Nanjing had been the capital for much of China’s history.) Although only a pre-teen, I enjoyed living in Nanjing’s authentic ancient ambiance, and it was there that I began to be aware of Western and traditional Chinese cultures. I played western instruments while practicing traditional Chinese arts, such as brush calligraphy, without being conscious of any cultural divide.

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