Issue: 2023: Vol. 22, No. 2

China on My Mind: A Memoir

Article Author(s)

Mary Brown Bullock

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Dr. Mary Brown Bullock is president emerita of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia and Founding Vice Chancellor of Duke Kunshan University. She serves on the advisory board of the China Research Center. 
2023: Vol. 22, No. 2
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My book, China on my Mind, is both an autobiography and the story of access to China for 50 years. Today we are engaged in a huge debate about U.S.-China relations – how they should continue in the years ahead. This is, however, about China’s civil war, the Korean war, and our eventual re-encounter with China.  What did this mean to someone who lived during this time? America’s cultural encounter with China should not be taken for granted. I write about how an American family was affected by China’s civil war, the Korean War, Nixon’s opening, rapprochement, collaboration, and competition. Missionaries, medicine, and education were all important.

Childhood diaries, letters, personal memories, and historical documents animate this account. I begin with the late l940s Huaihai battle and my paternal grandfather’s last time in China. As he wrote, “It was a night to be remembered, for it was old Suchow’s last night of freedom.” Suchow, today Xuzhou, becomes a metaphor for old and new China. Although I grew up – in Japan and Korea – with tales of Xuzhou I never dreamed that I would eventually go there or reprise my grandmother’s educational work when, in 2012, I became vice-chancellor of Duke Kunshan University in the same Chinese province.

The role of education and the changing roles of Chinese and American intellectuals are at the heart of this narrative. In the mid-1970s, Chinese were just reemerging from isolation and were eager to learn from Western colleagues. I remember my first Chinese natural scientist, Ku Kung-shu of the Institute of Geophysics, answering a Mayflower Hotel waitress’s dessert query on his first night back in the United States, “Apple pie, apple pie à la mode. I have waited decades for a piece of American apple pie.” Ku then proceeded to spend a month showing his younger colleagues American advances in earthquake prediction.

Chinese scholars were so excited to be in America. Every aspect – from growing corn to extracting oil to manufacturing high technology — was to be studied for how China could adopt the American way. I was, nonetheless, surprised when Chinese students – at first by the thousands and even today by the hundreds of thousands – sought out freedom, sought out American universities. They also saw the downsides of our society even as many elected to become part of our community.

Americans were also eager to learn what Chinese archives, society, and polity would show about the world’s largest developing country. American sinologists – John Fairbank, Doak Barnett, Frederic Wakeman, Michael Oksenberg, and Ezra Vogel, naming just a few who have now passed on – were all involved in the first decades of re-establishing ties with China. From them, I learned how much we did not know and how to make sure future generations – their students – were never again in the dark.

I write about the extended trajectory of America’s diplomatic, economic, and strategic role in China. Through it all, cultural relations were seen as drawing the two societies together. But political obstacles still intruded, nothing more destabilizing than that of Taiwan’s status. Early on, in 1974, the Chinese seismology delegation walked out of a Denny’s restaurant in protest of a Taiwanese flag on the menu masthead. Taiwan was always brought up in Chinese briefings and I have never known a Chinese citizen who has not agreed with the government’s dictum that Taiwan is a part of China. I realize the power of the Taiwan issue to China and the conundrum it presents to American policy makers. This is but one area in which the values of the two societies functioned differently. As this account makes clear, the difficulties between the two societies were present from the very beginning.

The changing role of Chinese intellectuals, about which I write a lot, is an interest which dates back to graduate school papers on the May 4th revolution. I had no idea then that the quintessential wealthy Rockefeller family would become so important to my understanding of education, Chinese intellectuals, and philanthropy. From early in the 20th century, Rockefeller and the Rockefeller Foundation believed that Chinese scientists were to be citizens of the world, and they never forgot. In this case, following American medicine in China was to follow Chinese education and intellectuals through the thick and thin times of this era. Chinese intellectuals who wrestled with the complexities of American influence became my guides to China itself. I began by studying their articles in the l970s and continued with personal interviews in the l980s and ever since. The journey that I traveled with them, across many regions of China, led to the surprising discovery that the American influence was enduring. This is an essential part of my world outlook today.

As a university leader – at Agnes Scott College, Emory University, and Duke Kunshan University – I had the opportunity to see how China’s education system is always changing. For example, faculty autonomy and academic freedom are discussed but are understood quite differently than in the United States. At Duke Kunshan I did discover how difficult it was to join the missions of three very different sponsors – an American university, a Chinese city, and a Chinese university. One example will suffice – from the world of branding no less. How do you create a new identity for a joint-venture American and Chinese university? My young Chinese staff finally came up with a color-coded solution: Duke was bright blue, Kunshan was light green, and Wuhan was dark green. But even the colors never merged.

Throughout the decades since Nixon “opened” China, American organizations – from the Ford Foundation to Yale-China to the China Medical Board and many others – wanted to return to China. I say “return” because so many had a previous mission in China. I was on the boards of these organizations and write about how much they struggled to reenter China and then to stay involved. But today both countries have changed and perhaps seek to go their own way. U.S.-China relations will persist but look different in the future.

I am grateful that the China Research Center has included my book in its series on China-related memoirs and that Hanchao Lu, its director, has contributed a preface.

This book is available both from the publisher, Xlibris, or Amazon.