Skip to content

Book Review: Three Months in Mao’s China – Erik-Jan Zürcher & Kim van der Zouw

Ford, G. (2017). “Three Months in Mao’s China” by Erik-Jan Zürcher & Kim van der Zouw, Asian Review of Books, 29 April.

Between September and Christmas 1964, the Dutch sinologist Erik Zürcher undertook a three month visit to China organized by the state travel agency Luxingshe. It was official and exceptional. China was closed for business, isolated and angry at history. Barely more than a decade previously, Dutch troops in UN Command had been fighting the Chinese People’s Volunteers on the Korean Peninsula.

Zürcher travelled with a friend and colleague Gan Tjiang-Tek the Indonesian born curator of the Chinese collection at the National Museum of Ethnology at Leiden. Zürcher himself had the clumsy title “Professor of the History of East Asia, and in particular East-West Relations”. This invention was to avoid offending Leiden’s rather older and venerable Professor of Chinese, Anthony Hulsewé and his rare students.

While Gan was charged with purchasing traditional folk-cultural objects for the museum, Zürcher’s task was two-fold: first to make an inventory of Chinese Research Institutes and opportunities for collaboration for the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (ZWO), and second, on behalf of Leiden, to establish what opportunities—if any— were available for future student exchange.

Despite seventeen years as a sinologist it was Zürcher’s first visit. The timing was not so much the lull before the storm, but rather the lull between the storms. The Great Leap Forward’s attempt (1958-61) to force march Chinese industrialization had proved an economic disaster and human catastrophe with between 23 and 45 million dying in the consequent famine. In the aftermath, Mao was tamed by the “moderates” Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai and it would be another two years before Mao launched the civil war that was the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” in an attempt to restore his undiluted authority.

Thus Three Months in Mao’s China is a series of snapshots of that calm hiatus based on an edited collection of Zürcher’s weekly letters home to his wife Henny and the daily diary he kept during his trip. China then was a different country, one totally alien to China today in economic, social and cultural terms. If anything it was close to North Korea as seen today, suspicious, watchful and secretive. Decisions as to the duration of Zürcher and Gan’s stay and their itinerary were seemingly arbitrary and changeful. Both visitors were ‘leftists’, sceptical of European diplomats and their own national bourgeoisie, though not Communists, even if Gan was in their shadow. Zürcher’s diary retreated into Orientalism, “We [Westerners] would not be able to live in such a system, but for them [the Chinese] it is the only way.”

The travelers’ work, sometimes together sometimes apart, took them from ancient craft markets to modern laboratories, from agricultural communes to the universities. Both in the last and with the bureaucracy managing their visit there were endless, inconclusive discussions and negotiations couched in a narrow lexicon where nuance was an art form made all the more enigmatic by linguistic failures. It was a voyage of discovery navigated in a fog of uncertainty.

The diaries and letters show Zürcher beset with homesickness. He complains about the food—among which is “roasted doggy’”—and the guides, the climate, prices and the erratic postal service, he extols—some—temples, Chinese operas and the relics of Buddhist China. His thesis had been on “The Buddhist Conquest of China”. Zürcher is disgusted by the state visit he witnessed of the King and Queen of Afghanistan, “a feudal monarch who probably exploits his subjects even more than any colonial power.”

Most of the time they were in the environs of Beijing, but they travelled to Xi’an—pre-warriors—Nanjing, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Canton. They crossed to Hong Kong on 26 December, just over three months from their arrival in China on 21 September via the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Three Months in Mao’s China is a thin book (144 pages) that is more of a travelogue than memoir. There are few political insights and no overarching analysis—for good or ill—of Mao’s China. We are not told whether the trip resulted in any more considered analysis after Zürcher’s return to Leiden, but if not it was a partly wasted journey. If China proved to overwhelming for a trained sinologist no wonder the rest of the world struggled. Nevertheless the book offers a murky picture of a time and place than has until now been absent from our maps.