An American Wife, Ruth Lo, Tells of Her Years Behind China's Great Wall of Silence
When China’s Vice-Premier Teng Hsiao-ping arrived in Washington this week, he became his country’s first state visitor to the U.S. since before Mao Tse-tung’s rise to power in 1949. Though the visit signals an end to nearly three decades of antagonism between the two countries, much of China’s recent history remains obscure to most Americans. One who experienced the tumultuous events of those years firsthand is Ruth Earnshaw Lo, 68, the widow of a Chinese professor, whom she met when he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in 1933. They married four years later, and in 1937 she and her husband, Lo Chuan-fang, settled in China, where she taught English at a university in Wuchang. They remained there—except for three years in the U.S. at the end of World War II until 1969 when Lo died and his widow decided to return to America. But not until last March were she and her son, Didi, 34, given permission to leave. Now living in Boulder, Colo., Ruth Lo was interviewed recently about her experiences in China by Frank W. Martin of PEOPLE. Additional quotes come from an interview on Public Broadcasting System’s MacNeil/ Lehrer Report.
Mrs. Lo’s first impression of China was a bleak one—a vision of squalor and hopelessness. “In 1937, in the mills of Shanghai, I saw children lifting silk cocoons out of boiling water with their bare hands,” she remembers. “It was something that impressed upon me what terrific problems had to be solved.” The revolution, at least, offered promise of change. “By 1949,” she says, “things were in chaos. There was terrible inflation and poverty.” When the Communist “armies of liberation” arrived, they were welcomed. “There seemed to be nothing destructive about them,” Mrs. Lo adds. “Rather, they brought order and stability. A day or two after the troops took Wuchang, I went to the market, and everybody was saying, ‘Good morning, comrade!’ The police weren’t beating the coolies, the market women were very cheerful and very friendly. I felt everything was going to be all right.”
Chinese intellectuals approved of some of the Communists’ plans for land reform, says Mrs. Lo, but were shocked by the brutal treatment of landlords. “One teacher came back to Wuchang very agitated,” she recalls. “He could not speak for awhile, but finally he said, ‘I have hanged a man with these hands.’ He had literally taken part in a hanging, and it was a traumatic experience for him. It began to come through that justice for the peasants was going to involve a great deal of violence for a lot of other people.”
Soon study sessions—groups of 10 or 15 people, meeting daily—became part of the routine—and continue to this day. “You discuss political problems, your work, your attitude, even personal problems like, ‘Shall I have a baby this year?’ ” Mrs. Lo explains. As an American, she was required to attend class like everyone, but was always regarded as something of an outsider. “I certainly did all the required reading in Chairman Mao’s works,” she says, “but I never took part in discussions. Because of the language barrier, I think I was considered fairly hopeless.” (She had only an elementary command of Chinese.)
She learned early on that even casual conversation had to be guarded. “Back in 1950,” Mrs. Lo recalls, “I went to a meeting, and I walked up to a friend and said, ‘My word, but it’s hot!’ He said, ‘Don’t say anything like that.’ I asked, ‘Why not?’ He said, ‘It isn’t as hot for you as it is for the peasants sweating in the rice fields.’ I realized then that it was what you might call revolutionary manners not to complain.”
In such an atmosphere, of course, it was difficult to stay out of trouble. Once, during the cultural revolution of the late 1960s (when Vice-Premier Teng himself was temporarily purged), her husband made the mistake of criticizing a party member at a meeting. As a result, he was condemned to “wear the hat of a rightist”—a punishment first practiced in the early days of the revolution, when landlords were paraded through the streets wearing dunce caps. Though the sentence was never literally carried out, Professor Lo and his family were ostracized by their closest friends and his salary was cut. Earlier, Mrs. Lo remembers, “two of my neighbors poisoned themselves because they were afraid of being paraded through the streets as counterrevolutionaries.”
Allowed to emigrate from China at the beginning of the current ideological thaw, Mrs. Lo is now at work on a book she hopes will promote better understanding between her native country and the one she adopted. But she suspects the twain may not meet right away. “First,” she explains, “there are temperamental differences between the American and Chinese people. The Chinese are serious and ceremonious in their manner. Americans are apt to be facetious, which sometimes may be misunderstood. Also, millions of Chinese are studying English, but very few Americans are studying Chinese. And finally there is a Chinese proverb to the effect that the full stomach cannot understand the empty stomach—that it is very hard for a rich nation to understand the mentality of a poor country. Some Americans expect the Chinese to be impressed by our wealth, and to long for two cars in every garage. Possibly the Chinese look with more interest at our stable government and are more impressed by our democratic institutions.”