by Diane Johnston

Chinese universities first reopened after the Cultural Revolution in 1977. Since 1949, no academic degrees had been awarded in China. The first bachelor’s degrees since then were awarded in 1981, the year I arrived for my assignment at the American embassy. It was the era of monotonous conformity, leftover trauma from the Cultural Revolution, fear of making a wrong step in the new order of things.

Our cables back to D.C. said every American was struck by two impressions upon first arriving in China: the ignorance of things American and the poverty. I noticed something else: inertia. Other Chinese places I had lived—Hong Kong and Taipei—brimmed with energy, life, color and a work ethic that took my breath away. Beijing in 1981 was the exact opposite.

One of my tasks was to introduce American studies to Chinese universities via the Fulbright program. We had to start from zero. The Chinese were vague and uninformed about the subject—the teaching of English was a technical skill that did not include culture and area studies. They wanted Fulbright teachers for English language teaching only, and they did not necessarily want students learning anything about the United States that did not conform to Communist Party ideology.

We few, we wary few, treaded very lightly on the newly planted hundred flowers blooming, well aware, just like the Chinese, that political winds could shift. I arrived when the time was determined to be right for making a push to change the focus of the program from English teaching to American studies, to convince the Chinese at the top universities and the Ministry of Education that students needed to learn about American history and literature (and art, too; we had a big art exhibit to arrange that year, not to mention a ballet company’s tour.) We, like the Chinese, were trying to make up for lost time.

The Harvard/Stanford of China was Beijing University (BeiDa). We thought if we could convince BeiDa to lead the way, other universities and even the Ministry of Education would follow. It was a moment in Chinese history where a leader, Deng Xiaoping, had seen just how far behind his country was, and knew the only way forward was learning from the West. But many, many obstructionists were still in their sinecures deep inside the bureaucracy, and they had seen leaders come and go. We knew we were in for a hard slog.

I was excited when we finally got approval for a meeting at BeiDa. My boss had been there before, his Mandarin was flawless, and he told me later that the setting for the meeting showed great respect for us. It was at the home of John Leighton Stuart, former president of Yanching University who later served as the last U.S. Ambassador in Nanjing in the late 1940’s. We were shown into the Ming-style home, and introduced to party functionaries and elderly heads of the history and literature departments. A nice-looking, middle-aged man took notes. He was Ma Shiyi, who was to become my window into the possibilities for a freer China.

Diane Johnston and Ma Shiyi in Beijing in 1981

The meeting was productive. The professors agreed with us that the time had come to invite specialists in American history and American literature to teach about our cultural patrimony rather than just teach English. The Party representatives nodded as the old professors spoke, and all seemed headed in a positive direction for us. On the ride back to the embassy, my boss and I talked about how important it would be to choose the right kinds of American personalities to fill these ground-breaking assignments at BeiDa.

There were more meetings with Ma Shiyi as arrangements were worked out. At the end of these talks, Ma always had an invitation. Would we like to see a new exhibition of traditional Chinese painting? Were we interested to learn about traditional Chinese opera, recently resurrected from the dead after the Gang of Four’s departure? Ma didn’t just get us tickets, he accompanied us, and explained the paintings, explained the opera. One Saturday afternoon, he got special permission to take us backstage to watch the opera singers apply their complicated makeup. During the performance, he watched our faces to see if we understood climactic scenes. If we didn’t, he painstakingly explained the significance of the costume colors, the allusive footwork, the colloquial speech. Later, as we became more familiar with this ancient art form, he clapped delightedly when we shouted “Hao!” like old hands during a particularly difficult aria. I started to love Chinese opera just because it was a chance to spend time with this most unusual Chinese official. Unusual because he radiated joy, a very rare thing those days in China.

As I got to know him better, I realized that Ma didn’t look at life through the lens of being Chinese, that wounded xenophobia shared by almost every native I had met in Beijing. And he never even mentioned “Chairman Mao.” Ma asked questions about my country and our ways of doing things, and seemed eager to try new ways himself. He was an anomaly who could probably get along with anyone, no matter how different they were from him. How did he do it? How did he, alone of all the officials I met in my two and a half years in Beijing, remain warm, curious, cheerful, open, enthusiastic, ever flashing a thousand watt smile and above all, so alive?

I have photos of Ma grinning as he tried out my colleague’s American motorcycle, Ma helping my two-year-old daughter with her chopsticks, Ma joking with the newly arrived Fulbright professors, who ended up relying on Ma as their interlocutor for every request or misunderstanding with the BeiDa authorities. We relied on him, too, for advice, for counsel, and he seemed to thrive in the role. I have a cherished photo of him in an “I love NY” tee shirt that I gave him at a going-away party in my apartment.

He was clearly going to be a key player in future educational exchanges with the top Chinese university, so we arranged an International Visitor invitation for him. We had been careful to give top BeiDa officials, including Party representatives, first priority. They had already been to America. Now it was the worker bee’s turn. They let him go, as long as he was accompanied by another official, a Party apparatchik. I was thrilled that Ma was going to see my country. I couldn’t wait to hear his impressions.

But when he returned, he was incommunicado for months. We heard he was under some kind of house arrest. It later became clear that he had enjoyed his time in America too much. Upon arriving in New York City, he had ditched his Party handler and done things like get on a city bus, ride it to the end, and just wander around, chatting with anyone who would talk to him. In Hawaii, he had tried surfing. He loved the U.S., loved meeting Americans, soaked everything up. When we could finally see him, he would not say much about his status upon returning, but it was clear things were different. He still worked with foreigners, just not so much with the Fulbright program.

My tour was almost up. I may not have said a proper good-bye. I didn’t want to make trouble for him by setting up a meeting. I was happy to later hear while living in the States that an acquaintance who had set up a consulting business in Beijing was working with Ma on a book project, and she had found him as refreshingly easy to work with as I had. Then I learned he had stomach cancer, and was dying.

When I returned to Beijing a few months after hearing the news of Ma’s illness, he had just died, only fifty or so, as had another former contact in the Ministry of Education, also quite young. Both of them had worked with us in those early days of modernization, both had been our advocates in opening things up. I discovered later that there was an epidemic of stomach cancer in Beijing during that time, and I speculated that the stress of pushing the boundaries of what was possible must have contributed to it. In fact, I knew this was true. My ahyi, the young woman who had taken care of my daughter while I worked, had lost her husband to stomach cancer after our tour. He was the driver for a Latin American ambassador. The ambassador’s secretary had invited him and my ahyi to dinner at her apartment. They had accepted the invitation, but forgot to ask permission. He was punished by being fired from his job. He got stomach cancer, and was denied any medical treatment, including pain killers. As I said, it was a grim time.

One day I heard from embassy officials that BeiDa was holding a memorial ceremony for someone who “used to have something to do” with the Fulbright program. I found out it was Ma Shiyi. I decided to attend. No one from the embassy felt the need to go. No one was left at the embassy who knew Ma Shiyi. The Fulbright program had expanded rapidly. Institutional memories, like tours of duty in those days, were short.

The large room where the ceremony was held was filled with people, all dressed the same in dark blue Mao suits. Several huge flower arrangements with red sashes were displayed at the front of the room. A photograph of smiling Ma Shiyi was centered in one of the arrangements. Two elderly professors recognized me and my husband and thanked us for coming.

A solemn young man, dressed in a better tailored Mao suit than the others, stood up and started to speak. He gave a short biography of Ma Shiyi. He asked the group a question: Was Ma Shiyi faithful to Communist Party teaching? One by one people got up and spoke at length about the ways in which Ma Shiyi was or was not faithful. One of the professors who had welcomed us talked about the benefits to his department of all the Fulbright professors over the past few years. Others disparaged Ma’s obvious comfort with Americans. My mind wandered. I imagined a Christian funeral in America, where a eulogy is given and prayers are said, and only God decides what someone’s fate in the hereafter might be. But here, the only hereafter is the way in which you will be officially remembered by the Communist Party, and this was going to be decided that afternoon for Ma Shiyi.

I debated with myself whether to get up and say something about how much he was respected by me and the rest of our staff for smoothing our way with hard-nosed Chinese bureaucrats, for making intractable housing and teaching and travel problems go away for the American professors, for impressing this foreigner with the real beauty of traditional Chinese culture that the Maoists tried so hard to destroy, but most of all, for being the kind of guy who gives you hope for the human race in a place and time where that hope was often sorely tested. Much as I would have liked to rise to his defense, I knew that whatever I said would only hurt his reputation with this crowd. So I said nothing.

After about three hours of discussion back and forth, the verdict seemed to be a compromise: he made some mistakes, but was basically a good Communist. And the meeting broke up. My professor friends silently accompanied us outside, shook our hands, and thanked us again for coming. I think they were embarrassed.

Ma Shiyi has not been written about or memorialized for his role in making BeiDa the great university it has become. Most Chinese don’t think America has much to do with China’s rise. But of course, it does, in every way possible, especially in educating all the engineers, scientists, and financial wizards running China today. Ma helped make that happen at the very beginning. Yes, it would have happened without him or me, but wasn’t it so much more pleasant than it might have been because he made it so? Not a small accomplishment when you think about it, especially in that singularly fraught historical moment of China’s opening to the West.

Ma Shiyi

I think of Ma as one of my best memories about China. If good Communists love people, then he was a good Communist, but in my experience, good Communists love “the people” and that’s a very different equation. How did such a rose bloom in the midst of gray conformity?

One of my favorite authors, Willa Cather, describes the odd assignment of a gently bred, scholarly French priest to the rough outback of the American West this way: “Perhaps it pleased (God) to grace the beginning of a new era and a vast diocese by a fine personality. And perhaps, after all, something would remain through the years to come, some ideal, or memory, or legend.”

This is offered as a small something that remains. Rest in peace, Ma Shiyi.End.


Diane Johnston had a short Foreign Service career with postings in Taipei, Hong Kong, Beijing and New York.  She later worked at Radio Free Asia.  Diane and her husband have a consulting company that advises on doing business with China.

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