Opening to China: A Memoir of Normalization, 1981–1982

by Charlotte Furth

Reviews

“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

“Charlotte Furth, a distinguished scholar of China’s past, turns her gaze now on a special moment in her own. The resulting memoir is alternately amusing and moving. Writing in an engaging and candid style, this book is a pleasure to read and opens a fascinating window on an intriguing but little studied moment in recent Chinese history.” —Jeffrey Wasserstrom, editor of The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China

“The scale and reach of China’s transformation since the death of Mao challenges historical perspective. Few Americans today have any sense of how far China has come since its opening in the early 1980s. Charlotte Furth was there to see the start of the defrost with the country’s opening and her lively account of her experiences in China then provides a unique and invaluable record. Hers is a touching, gentle, humorous, and thoughtful story. It is also useful in these days of rising tensions between China and the United States to be reminded of China’s social reality not very long ago.” —Gordon H. Chang, Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities, Stanford University and author of Fateful Ties: A History of America’s Preoccupation with China

“Written in a sober, yet intimate, tone, Charlotte Furth’s memoir of her time teaching in China during the very early years of the reform era brings to life the tensions, contradictions, and promises of that period. A famed historian writing about her personal experience, Furth gives us a vivid portrayal of a China ‘on the verge,’ and of the emotions, fears, and hopes it elicited in those who saw it up close. This book is a gem for specialists and curious onlookers alike.” —Fabio Lanza, Department of History, University of Arizona

“As a trained China historian and astute observer, Charlotte Furth has provided us with a nuanced and well-crafted narrative of her life as a foreign teacher at a major Chinese university emerging from the trauma of the Cultural Revolution. As one of the first Fulbright teachers in China after 1949, she was sailing in uncharted waters, but managed to impart a better understanding of the United States for her students, while gaining their trust. She has perfectly captured the ambiance and environment of Beijing in the early 1980’s: poverty, the winter stockpiles of cabbage, the hordes of cyclists, dust storms, lack of personal choice, bureaucratic restrictions, and ‘spiritual pollution.’ From the encounters she describes, the reader will appreciate the continuing importance of social relationships while working and living in China, especially in successfully coping with the madding ambiguity of Chinese bureaucracy and opaque social norms.” —John Thomson, first Counselor for Press and Cultural Affairs, American Embassy in Beijing (1979–1981)

“In this engaging memoir of the early days of China’s opening to the outside world, Charlotte Furth captures the strangeness of a time when few foreigners lived in Beijing and no Chinese could be sure which way was forward—or whether that way could include knowing people like her. As she recalls the affection and puzzlement she felt responding to their hopes and fears, she is able to show us the contradictions and disappointments with which that generation, stranded between Maoism and modernity, had to cope. China’s opening may not have been easy for the foreigners who went to live there, but as one of her students told her, ‘It is difficult to be a foreigner here, but not as difficult as to be a Chinese.’ Furth fills this gap with a thoughtful compassion that we would do well to nurture still.” —Timothy Brook, author of Vermeer’s Hat and Mr. Selden’s Map of China

 

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