MAO MEETS NIXON
Virtually no one from the West visited China in the 1950s. The first Western journalists allowed into China in the early 1960s were often accompanied by fifteen guides each, all expounding the Communist Party line at every turn. Photographers were restricted to taking pictures of model factories and happy collective farm workers. The usual tour, one journalist said, consisted of visits to perhaps a dozen factories, a half dozen hospitals and clinics, five factory kindergartens and eight communes.
In the years when China was closed off to the outside world, Hong Kong-based journalists tried to get a handle of what was going on by interviewing travelers and immigrants, and carefully reading Chinese newspapers and transcripts from radio broadcasts for hidden messages.
In 1967, the year before he was elected president, Nixon wrote in Foreign Affairs, “There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.” In a speech in 1971, Nixon referred to China as the “People’s Republic of China” rather than Red China.
Nixon’s Visit the Shanghai Rana Mitter, a professor of the history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford, wrote in The Guardian: “Historians would now argue that the Nixon visit to China in 1972 did not come out of the blue. During the 1960s, both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations discussed a warming of relations with China, but were frustrated by Chinese hostility, culminating in the cultural revolution, when it was hard to find anyone to pick up the phone in Beijing. Yet the decision of a Republican administration to reach out to an ideologically radical and xenophobic communist regime in the midst of a vicious land war in Asia still seems a bold one and, unlike many policy decisions of the cold war, one that has stood the test of time.
Good Websites and Sources: Nixon’s Visit to China chizeng.com/nixon ; Time magazine time.com ; The New Yorker newyorker.com ; Foreign Affairs foreignaffairs.org ; Webcast of Nixon Visit to China cfr.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Ping Pong Diplomacy Wikipedia
Links in this Website: MAO, HIS EARLY LIFE, TACTICS AND REVOLUTION Factsanddetails.com/China ; EARLY COMMUNIST RULE UNDER MAO, with a section on the Korean War and C.I.A. Spies Factsanddetails.com/China ; LEADERSHIP AND PROPAGANDA UNDER MAO Factsanddetails.com/China ; MAO'S PRIVATE LIFE Factsanddetails.com/China ; JIANG QING, LIN BIAO, ZHOU ENLAI Factsanddetails.com/China ; DEATH, REPRESSION AND LIFE UNDER MAO Factsanddetails.com/China ; GREAT LEAP FORWARD Factsanddetails.com/China ; CULTURAL REVOLUTION Factsanddetails.com/China ; CULTURAL REVOLUTION --ENEMIES AND HORRORS Factsanddetails.com/China ; CULTURAL REVOLUTION--THE END Factsanddetails.com/China ; MAO MEETS NIXON Factsanddetails.com/China ; MAO DIES Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINA AND UNITED STATES Factsanddetails.com/China ; AMERICAN AND CHINESE POLICY Factsanddetails.com/China ;
Nixon Comes to China
Nixon Goes to China On February 21, 1972, Richard Nixon made history when out of the blue he arrived in Beijing with advisor Henry Kissinger for a visit that paved the way for the establishment of friendly relations between the United States and China. The visit was immortalized in an opera released in the 1980s called "Nixon in China" and has sometimes been compared with landing on the moon because nobody thought it was possible, especially with Nixon, who made his career being an anti-Communist, as a central figure.
Nixon’s visit was set up in 1971 when Henry Kissinger secretly met with Zhou Enlai. The White House reported that Kissinger was taking a day off during a trip to Pakistan and a decoy motorcade was even set up with wailing sirens to play up the bluff. The charade almost fell through when a British journalist saw Kissinger at the airport and was told he was heading for China. The reporter called his newspaper but the story was killed because it sounded too absurd to be true. [Source: New York Times]
It was Nixon’s idea to visit China. When Kissinger first heard of the plan he thought Nixon was nuts. Nixon enjoyed the clandestine nature of the plan, code-named Polo One. Kissinger liked the fact that Secretary of State William Rogers was not informed. Key allies were not informed either. Britain and Japan expressed their anger about it later. H.R. Handleman—the advertising man of Watergate fame—carefully scripted the trip for maximum P.R. value.
Nixon’s visit produced the 1972 Shanghai Communique, signed by Nixon and Zhou, in which the United States agreed to “make progress towards the normalization of relations,” committed to the notion of “one China,” and promised to withdraw it forces from Taiwan. Nixon described his visit to China as “the week that changed the world” in his parting toast in Shanghai. He also said the trip “confirms my belief that we must cultivate China during the next few decades while it is still learning to develop its national strength and potential. Otherwise we will one day be confronted with the most formidable enemy that ever existed in the history of the world.”
Book: Nixon and Mao by Margaret Macmillian (Random House, 2007)
China-U.S. Ties Improving, Zhou Hinted in 1971
Kyodo news service reported in December 2011: “Before U.S. President Richard Nixon's surprise announcement in 1971 that he would visit China, Beijing had hinted to Tokyo it was starting to have closer ties with Washington, declassified diplomatic documents showed. A delegation led by then Japanese Foreign Minister Aiichiro Fujiyama, who was in Beijing from February to March of that year, was told by Zhou Enlai, China's first premier, that the United States was quick to change its foreign policy regarding East Asia, according to the documents. [Source: Kyodo, December 22, 2011]
The so-called "Nixon Shock" announcement and Nixon's subsequent trip to Beijing in February 1972 marked important steps toward formally normalizing relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China. "Rather than the United States, Japan is getting involved deeply" in Taiwan, Zhou told Fujiyama during their meeting, according to one of the strictly confidential documents, which was created by a senior official of the Foreign Ministry on March 11, 1971, based on the former minister's account of the trip after his return to Tokyo.
Henry Kissingerhas said that the United States began to approach China behind the scenes after around the fall of 1970 in an effort to end the Vietnam War.
Ping Pong and the Prelude to Nixon’s Visit
Nixon's visit was preceded by a tour of China by the American ping pong team in 1971. The American team had received a surprise invitation from China while they were playing in Japan. They were the first Americans to be invited to China since the Communist victory in China in 1949. Four days after receiving the invitation the 15-member team crossed into mainland China from Hong Kong. The team members were photographed in front of the Great Wall, made it on the cover of Time, but were thoroughly demolished in every game they played.
Why did China invite the U.S. ping pong team and move towards establishing friendly relations with the United States. Historians believe that China was anxious about hostilities between Pakistan and India and between itself and the Soviet Union and felt that an alliance with the United States might makes its neighbors think twice before taking hostile action against China. The idea to invitate the team was said to be Zhou Enlai's.
The ping pong team visited China at time when signs outside train stations read: “People of the world unite and defeat the U.S. aggressors and all their running dogs!” Even so the team was treated like royalty, with VIP trips to famous sites and lavish banquets. The player who drew the most attention was 19-year-old Glenn Cowan, a long-haired, self-proclaimed hippie from California who wore a T-shirt with a peace sign on it. The visit was followed by a tour by the Chinese ping pong team of the United States and an end of the trade embargo on Chinese goods in the United States.
The whole episode began when Cowan befriended Zhuang Zeding, a legendary Chinese player at the World Championship in Nagoya, Japan in 1971. Photographs of their handshake was published in the Japanese press, giving Mao the idea of inviting the U.S. team to visit China. The invitation and the visit generated a diplomatic buzz that Nixon called “the week that shook the world.” Nixon visited China 10 months later. Mao is said to have loved the term “ping-pong diplomacy” attached to the event.
Glenn Cowan and Ping Pong Diplomacy
A naturally gifted ping-pong player, Cowan grew up in New York and California and said publically that he liked to do drugs. He brought drugs with him to Japan and spent the night there with a woman he met in a bar. Several members of the U.S. Table Tennis Association wanted him excluded from the trip to China.
In April 1971, Cowan had just finished practicing and was trying to get to the main stadium during the tournament in Nagoya. He flagged down a shuttle bus with the tournament logo, and climbed aboard and realized it was occupied by the Chinese team. With no seats available he stood by the door and faced backwards. Addressing the stares that greeted him he broke the silence by saying in English , “I know my hat and hairstyle and clothes look funny to you. But in the U.S., lots of people look like this.”
Zhuang Zedong, three-time world champion, was seated near the back of the bus, A translator told him what Cowan had said. Zhuang later said, “Even now, I can’t forget that naive smile in his face.” While sitting in the bus Zhuang decided he would give Cowan a gift, and presented him with a brocaded tapestry woven the city of Hangzhou. Cowan stepped off the bus holding the tapestry with a smiling Zhuang at his side. Photographers captured the two smiling athletes together. The picture were printed on the front pages of Japanese newspapers and the story was picked up by AP and Agence France Presse. Later Cowan gave Zhuang a T-shirt with an American flag and a peace sign. In front of the media, Cowan was asked if he’d like to visit China he said yes he would. More news.
The Chinese team traveled to Nagoya under the slogan “friendship first, competition second.” Even so they were ordered not to pose for photographs, exchange flags or initiate conversations with Americans. Years earlier Mao had said, “Regard a ping pong ball as the head of your capitalist enemy. Hit it with your socialist bat, and you have won the point for the fatherland.”
Zhang was upbraided for his show of friendship. In his defense he said, “Chairman Mao told us we should differentiate between American policymakers and common people. What was wrong with my action?”
Mao Decides to Invite the U.S. Ping Pong Team
Table tennis teams from Canada, Colombia, England and Nigeria had been invited and visited China before the American table tennis team did. Some Chinese officials thought the United States was fishing for an invitation by the way events unfolded in Nagoya. Chinese officials discussed the matter and rejected the idea of an invitation and the decision was forwarded to Mao as a formality.
Mao took the briefing papers on the decision with him to bed, After taking his usual sleeping pill be came across press releases on the encounter between Zhuang and Cowan. According to Wu Xujun, Mao’s nurse, Mao looked at the photos of Zhuang and Cowan and exclaimed, “My Lord, Zhuang!” and said the American team should be invited. The only thing was that Mao had told Xu to disregard any directive he issued while under the influence of sleeping pills but Mao insisted he wanted to extend the invitation and refused to go to sleep until the order had been given to the foreign ministry.
On the last day of the tournament in Nagoya, the leader of the Chinese delegation, who had avoided the slightest eye contact with any Americans, beckoned the leader of the American delegation to come over and asked how the U.S. delegation might react to an invitation.
Kissinger said, “There had been about a year of back and forth. China had sent us a specific proposal to come to Beijing, and we were on course to answer favorably. Then in the interim they invited the ping-pong team, and that reinforced in our minds what the Chinese had told us secretly.” In his memoir White House Years, Kissinger said, the Chinese had a knack for making “the meticulously planned appear spontaneous.” he said the invitation of the American team was carefully planned, “Only Mao could have ordered this. And only Zhou could have orchestrated it.”
U.S. Ping Pong Team in China
U.S. ping pond team with Zhou En Lai The 15-member U.S. Ping-Pong team was the first non-communist group of Americans to visit China since Mao came to power in 1949. They entered mainland China on the railroad bridge from Hong Kong.
In China , the Americans team ate and ate, were photographed at the Great Wall, watched a ballet staged by Mao’s wife, and discovered that many Chinese had no idea that a man had landed on the moon.
The Chinese threw many of their table tennis matches against the Americans. When he realized his victory in front of 18,000 people at Beijing’s Capital Stadium was charade, according to a team mate, Cowan muttered to his opponent, “F— you, I’d have beat you anyway.” During the trip Cowan tried to make some business deals and lobbied to get himself on the cover of LIFE magazine.
On Cowan, one teammate told Sports Illustrated, “The Chinese had never seen a person with long hair and hippie ways, Thousands of people would surround him in the streets. They loved him but were also a little terrified of him, because China was very straightlaced then. They saw him as an extraterrestrial almost.” Another teammate said “Glenn was a rock star...He was the biggest thing [U.S.] table tennis had ever seen.”
When Cowan asked Zhou Enlai what he thought of the hippie movement, Zhou replied, “Young people ought to try different things. But they should try to find something in common with the majority—remember that. I wish you progress.” The next day the New York Times ran the headline: CHOU, 73, AND ‘TEAM HIPPIE’ HIT IT OFF. After the trip in Hong Kong, Cowan said, “I loved China. I loved the Chinese. Where else, man, would you see a child of three carrying a child of two in his arms?”
Account by Ping Pong Member
Vice Premier Li Lanqingg and Kissingers in 2001 The members of the American ping pong team were the first Americans allowed in China since the Communist take over there in 1948. A member of the team, Connie Swerris, later wrote in Newsweek: “The team was in Japan for the last day of the Tokyo World Championships, and we were stunned by the offer...Before we left Tokyo, the U.S. Embassy took our passports and used a black marker to cross out a section that forbade travel in China. That’s when I knew this wasn’t going to be an ordinary trip.”
“We stuck out like sore thumbs. All the Chinese wore uniforms, either gray or blue pants with high-collared tunics, while we were each decked out on typically American garb: jeans, windbreakers, T-shirts. Glenn...waked around Beijing wearing tie-dyed jeans and a red Rambo-style sweatband. Schoolkids followed him through the streets, which were filled with two- and three-wheeled bicycles and human-drawn carriages...Meals were routinely eight to 10 courses, four or five times a day. At first I would ask what we were eating, but after I got answers like shark’s stomach soup, chicken-feet soup and monkey’s head, I stopped.”
On my first day I saw a sign on a store window that read something like: PEOPLE OF THE WORLD DEFEAT THE U.S. AGGRESSORS AND THEIR RUNNING DOGS! Later, when we went to an opera, the plot seemed to be a lesson about communism triumphing over capitalism....Portraits of...Mao Zedong were everywhere...And most places had red books of Mao’s quotations where you would expect to find Bibles.”
“We played our Ping-Pong matches in an 18,000-person stadium, and even though the Chinese players were the best in the world, they let us win a few games...Afterwards, when we met with Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, Glenn Gowan asked him what he thought of American hippies. ‘Youth wants to seek out the truth, and out of this search various forms of change are bound to come,’ the premier responded, his eyes sparkling.”
I didn’t fully realize the impact of my team’s trip until a few decades later, when my son found a photo of me in his high-school history book. I was standing on the Great Wall of China. When my team returned in 2006 for the 35th anniversary of the visit, I realized we were more than just another tour group from the West. We were this group that made such tours possible.”
After U.S. Ping Pong Team in China
Ten days after the table tennis tour, in a message delivered by the Pakistanis, Zhou told Nixon that”the Chinese government reaffirms its willingness to receive publically in [Beijing]...the President of the United States himself for a direct meeting and discussion.” Nixon and Kissinger toasted the message as “the most important communication that has come to an American President since the end of World War II.”
After the China trip, Cowan was diagnosed as a manic depressive and had drug problems. He became obsessed with Mick Jagger and Mao and freaked out when he didn’t take his medication. He worked for a while as a school teacher and sold shoes and was homeless for many years. He had heart bypass surgery when he was in his late 40s and died of a heart attack in 2004 at the age of 52. Only publications related to table tennis ran an obituary.
Tensions Between China and the Soviet Union
Despite common ideological roots and considerable Soviet assistance in over several decades, relations between China and the Soviet Union began to sour in the 1950s and got so tense that for a while China considered the Soviet Union to be its No. 1 enemy, presenting more of a threat than the United States. Tensions in relations between the two countries had began to escalate in the mid-1950s. The 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the buildup of Soviet forces in the Soviet Far East raised Chinese suspicions of Soviet intentions. Sharp border clashes between Soviet and Chinese troops occurred in 1969, roughly a decade after relations between the two countries had begun to deteriorate and some four years after a buildup of Soviet forces along China's northern border had begun. [Source: Library of Congress]
“Particularly heated border clashes occurred in the northeast along the Sino-Soviet border formed by the Heilong Jiang (Amur River) and the Wusuli Jiang (Ussuri River), on which China claimed the right to navigate. Border provocations occasionally recurred in later years--for example, in May 1978 when Soviet troops in boats and a helicopter intruded into Chinese territory--but major armed clashes were averted. [Ibid]
“In the late 1970s, China decried what it perceived as a Soviet attempt to encircle it as the military buildup continued in the Soviet Far East and the Soviet Union signed friendship treaties with Vietnam and Afghanistan. In April 1979 Beijing notified Moscow that the thirty-year Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance--under which the Soviets aided the PLA in its 1950s modernization--would not be renewed. [Ibid]
Zhou En Lai and Nixon
Details of Nixon’s Visit to China
Nixon stayed for a week in China accompanied by a huge entourage of aides, policy-makers, spies, reporters, technicians, security men, and cooks. He visited Shanghai, the Great Wall of China, Beijing and Hangzhou and met with Mao. Before a national television audience of millions, Nixon and Zhou Enlai toasted each other three times with cups of mao-t'ai (a sorghum-based liquor that tastes like lighter fluid) at a lavish banquet with all kinds of Chinese delicacies.
There were a number of faux pax. Nixon's wife Pat insisted on wearing a red coat on her arrival even tough she had been told that red was often associated with prostitutes. The gifts form the United States to China—a pair of musk oxen named Matilda and Milton—were a little odd. Even though Nixon was known to get tipsy from a glass of wine, and was warned not to overdo the toasting, he dismissed the advise and drank a number of toasts with high-alcohol mao-tai.
At the Great Wall Nixon famously said “This is a great wall.” At the Ming Tombs, Nixon was greeted by, in the words of Nixon biographer, Margaret Macmillian, “children with touches of rouge on their faces, skipping; families dressed in brought new clothes having picnics and listening to revolutionary songs on their transistor radios, groups of friends playing cards, apparently oblivious to the bitter cold.” After Nixon left Communist officials collected the radios in a bag.
Nixon was fascinated by the gymnastics and table tennis exhibition that was staged for him. In his diary he wrote, “The appearance of both the girls and the men, as well as, of course, the superb Ping Pong event, left an impression that was not only lasting, but also foreboding.” In his memoir he wrote, “the awesome sight of the of the disciplined but wildly—almost fanatically—enthusiastic audience at the gymnastic exhibition in Beijing, confirmed my belief that we must cultivate China.”
Discussions Between Mao and Nixon
Nixon Greeted by Zhou Enlai Nixon’s visit to China took place while the United States was still at war with China's ally North Vietnam and the United States and China had sharp disagreements over Taiwan. The initial objective of the visit was for the Nixon to seek China’s help in ending the Vietnam War and for China to get some support for it aim of reclaiming Taiwan. Both goals it soon became clear were unrealizable because China was unwilling to pressure Vietnam and the United States could not end its support of Taiwan.
The shared interest that the United States and China pursued was their suspicion and worry about the Soviet Union and their desire to put the screws on the Soviets and make them worry. Nixon told Zhou Enlai on the visit that he knew he sounded like a cold warrior when he defended American military presence in the Pacific as a means of keeping the Soviet from moving in "but it is the world as I see it, and when I analyze it, it is what brings us, China and America, together."
Both Mao and Nixon were surprisingly open in regard to matters on which they agreed and those in which they differed. Nixon often had more difficulty convincing Kissinger and the U.S. State Department of his objectives and goals than he did Mao. Nixon told a member of the White House staff, Mao "sees strategic concepts with great vision.” On Nixon, Mao said, “I like to deal with rightists. They say what they really think—not like the leftists, who say one thing and mean another.”
Nixon and Mao agreed they both had an interest in thwarting Soviet expansion. Mao also said the Taiwan issue was not important and agreed not to assist Vietnam, adding that the support of Vietnam was historical not ideological. "You want to withdraw some of your troops back to your soil; ours do not go abroad." Mao said.
Kissinger on Nixon in China
On the 1971 meeting Kissinger wrote in On China : "Mao dominated any gathering, [premier] Zhou [Enlai] suffused it," he notes. "Mao was sardonic; Zhou penetrating." He also gives us details of the one occasion when he (and possibly any westerner) saw the unflappable Zhou Enlai lose his temper: when Kissinger suggested that Chinese Marxism had adapted the tenets of traditional Confucianism. Zhou may have been particularly incensed since the insight was in many ways quite accurate."
On why Nixon visited China, Kissinger wrote in Newsweek, "Nixon was driven by the desire to extricate the United States from Vietnam, to create a counterweight to Soviet expansionism and to draw the sting from militant peace movements by unveiling a grand design. Mao shared Nixon's concern over Soviet expansionism."
Kissinger said that the meeting in China were organized with great speed and came off “due to the ability of the leaders of both sides to transcend ideology and cooperate on the basis of mutual interests." On the negotiations between Nixon and leaders in China, Kissinger wrote in Newsweek, "The United States and China stated opposing views on a whole series of issues but came together on some agreed principals. The most notable ones were common resistance to hegemony—a code word for Soviet expansionism.”
Explaining the Kissinger approach on China, Chinese-born CIA officer James Lilley said, "You embrace them, you make all the right statements about building strong and genuine relations, and all the while you run espionage operations."
On Kissinger Mao said, he is “just a funny little man. He is shuddering all over with nerves every time he comes to see me.” After Kissinger said, "The good thing about our relationship is that we want nothing from each other," Mao replied, "If I had wanted nothing from you, I would not have invited you. And if you wanted nothing from us, you should not have come."
Huang Hua, an eminent diplomat and statesman Huang Hua, who died in 2011 at age of 97, played a pivotal role in communist China's relations with the international community and key in reopening relations between the United States and China. In 1971 Huang was sent to meet Henry Kissinger. , the US secretary of state, who had been mandated by President Richard Nixon to take the lead on these exploratory talks. Transcripts released by the US several decades later showed Huang to be an effective, sharp operator, more than able to hold his own with the clever and devious Kissinger.[Source: Kerry Brown The Guardian, November 25, 2010]
By late 1971, a deal for the re-establishment of relations had been struck, leading to Nixon's groundbreaking visit to Beijing in 1972. Huang's reward for this work was to be appointed the first People's Republic of China representative to the in when the country took up its seat there, supplanting the Republic of China on Taiwan.
Mao's Reaction to Nixon's Visit
Three weeks before Nixon’s arrival Mao was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and a severe lung infection. After treating him, Mao's doctor Dr. Li Zhisui later wrote: "His edema was better, but he was still so bloated that he had to be fitted with a new suit and shoes. His throat was still swollen and he had difficulty talking. His muscles had atrophied from weeks of immobility, so we put him on an exercise routine a week before Nixon's arrival."
The day of Nixon's visit, Li wrote, "Mao was as excited as I had ever seen him. He woke up early and immediately began asking when the president was scheduled to arrive. He had a shave and a haircut—his first in more than five months...The medical team had made extensive preparations for the meeting. The emergency medical equipment—including oxygen tanks and a respirator that Henry Kissinger had sent after his secret visit the previous July—had to be removed from Mao's room. We dismantled Mao's hospital bed and moved the rest of the equipment into the corridor connecting Mao's study and bedroom. We put the oxygen tanks in a huge lacquered trunk and hid the rest of the equipment behind potted plants. [Source: "The Private Life of Chairman Mao" by Dr. Li Zhisui, excerpts reprinted U.S. News and World Report, October 10, 1994]
"Mao was delighted with Nixon's visit," Li said. "As soon as the president left, he changed back into his customary bathrobe. I took his pulse, which was steady and strong. Mao liked Nixon. 'He speaks forthrightly—no beating around the bush'...Nixon had told Mao that the United States wanted to improve relations with China for the benefit of the United States. 'Isn't it for the benefit of China that we want to improve relations with the United States?' Mao laughed out loud at the thought."
Thawing of Relations Between China and the United States
Nixon with Zhou Enlai In March 1971, the United States revoked its ban on travel to China. In July, Nixon ended a 21-year trade embargo with China. In October, China became a member of the United Nations. In 1973, the United States shared intelligence information on the Soviet Union with China. U.S. President Gerald Ford also met with Mao in China, in 1975. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping visited the United States in February 1979.
In May 1973, "liaison offices" were opened in Beijing and Washington. On January 2, 1979, under Jimmy Carter, China and the United States normalized diplomatic relations. Shortly afterwards Deng visited Carter in the United States. Embassies replaced the liaison offices in March and China received "most-favored nation" status in July. U.S. President Ronald Reagan visited China in April 1984. George Bush visited in February 1989. Bill Clinton visited in June 1998.
In 1979, China fought a border war with Vietnam to protest Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia.
Chinese 'Take' on "Nixon in China"
Nixon in China , an opera by John Adams, was first performed by the Brooklyn Academy of Music and premiered in Houston in 1987. It is censored in China. Those who have seen it are unimpressed. "I tried to watch the video, but couldn't finish it," Zhou Long, whose opera "Madame White Snake" premiered last year in Boston and Beijing told the Wall Street Journal. "My impression is that 'Nixon in China' is a story in China for an American audience." [Source: Nick Frisch, Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2011]
"I can't recall that any of us ever discussed the opera," says Chou Wen-chung, a retired Columbia University professor widely considered the dean of Chinese composers. Younger Chinese musicians are, if anything, even less aware. "There is an opera?" asks a bewildered Zhang Sixu, a sixth-year musicology student at Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music visiting Columbia. "I'm . . . I'm not sure many Chinese are aware of this." [Ibid]
Nixon in China, the opera On the opera violinist Li Jue, the widow of Mao Zedong's top conductor Li Delun, told the Wall Street Journal, "When Delun and I joined the Communists in Yan'an, we never imagined that Mao would meet a U.S. president. When Mao met Nixon, we never imagined it would become an opera." [Ibid]
The fact that his work isn't on the Chinese radar screen doesn't bother the composer at all. "This is an American opera, about American mythology" Adams said in an interview at the Juilliard School, across from the Met. "The worst thing I could do would be to parody Chinese music. It makes 'Turandot' unbearable," Mr. Adams insists. "I wanted to maintain an integrity of the musical palate. I knew that they played music for Nixon on his visit, but had no interest in that at all." [Ibid]
Poet Alice Goodman, the librettist, is likewise quite clear: "It requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Mao is not only singing, but he's singing in English, using political and poetic allusions which would mean more to an American," she says by phone from Cambridge University. "That's one reason we didn't call it 'Mao Meets Nixon.' It's 'Nixon in China,'" concurs Peter Sellars, director and longtime Adams collaborator, in a phone interview from Chicago. "It's about Americans encountering China, there is no presumption to state these things for a Chinese person." [Ibid]
Some Chinese do enjoy the opera once they encounter it. "I can't believe I've never seen this," enthuses Zhang Kemin after the curtain falls at Met premier. Mr. Zhang, raised in Toronto and a resident of Beijing, is the grandson of Mrs. Li and Li Delun, who served as music director for many of Jiang Qing's model operas and ballets—including "The Red Detachment of Women," so artfully reimagined in Act II. [Ibid]
Perhaps memories of those works are the real reason Chinese are so reluctant to accept putting recent events on the stage. Mr. Zhang explains that his grandfather saw the propaganda operas as a "last resort" to save the symphony orchestra from the Cultural Revolution. But once that nightmare was over, many Chinese artists were determined to prevent the arts from becoming the tool of politics again. To see Americans blithely mixing them together is almost as strange as Mao singing in English. [Ibid]
Image Sources: National Archives, Time, YouTube
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated July 2012