Culling the China disease, Chris Elder

The Foreign Expert: A New Zealand Journalist in China
Mervyn Cull
Hazard Press
$24.95
ISBN 1 877161 03 9

China’s English-language press is full of the unexpected. It ranges from unlooked-for revelations (my favourite is a story which read, from beginning to end, “The Beijing Qianjude Roast Duck Corporation has taken over the Beijing Toothbrush Factory”) to wording ripe with unintended possibilities. “Wipe Out Chamber Pots Campaign” would be hard to beat as an arresting headline. (Disappointingly, it prefaced a somewhat pedestrian article about the introduction of modern plumbing to Shanghai.)

The China Daily article I best remember, however, is one which began: “Thirty-two students from the In Gymnasium School can we check this name in Switzerland completed a 10-day visit to China yesterday.” For in that sentence, the veil is for a moment twitched aside to reveal the normally invisible hand of the polisher.

Melvyn Cull was a polisher. Within the wider group of foreign experts which gives his book its title, polishers are native speakers of languages other than Chinese, employed to ensure that China’s foreign language publications are accurate and idiomatic. Cull came to Beijing and the (fictitiously named) Longmarch magazine after a long career in New Zealand journalism, mostly with the New Zealand Herald. His appetite whetted by a brief visit accompanying Prime Minister David Lange in 1986, three years later he returned for a longer stay. Foreign Expert is his account of life and work in Beijing between 1989 and 1992.

There is in fact a long and distinguished tradition of New Zealanders serving as foreign expend. “Uncle Scrim”, C G Scrimgeour, advised the Chinese on broadcasting after he fell out with the New Zealand system. Doug and Ruth Lake, after their own falling-out with the New Zealand foreign service following the closure of the legation in Moscow, gravitated to Beijing and employment as English language polishers. Reg Hunt, who helped pioneer Chinese language teaching at Victoria University, shared two stints as a polisher with his wife Waddy. The group is one marked by individuality of outlook, and Cull fits easily within it.

Working as a foreign expert in Beijing does not have a lot to offer in the way of financial compensation or personal comfort. Cull earned scarcely enough to cover ongoing expenses in New Zealand, home for him and his wife Ann was a small apartment in the Friendship Hotel, a gloomy Soviet-style block in the city’s northwest suburbs. But what the job has always had to offer, for those who value it, is an opportunity to work and associate freely with Chinese colleagues. The opportunity seems less remarkable today, in the wake of Chinas social and commercial liberalisation, but for most of the term of the Peoples Republic it has been rare indeed.

Foreign Expert is, in a sense, a description of Mervin Cull’s discovery of the Chinese people. He arrived speaking not a word of the language (and left speaking little more) and without any preconceptions beyond a belief in a shared sense of humour. Thus unencumbered, he found himself within weeks at ease among a wholly unfamiliar people:

I would have to pinch myself to make sure I was not dreaming. It would have been hard for any New Zealander to find himself in a more foreign environment, surrounded by people of a different race, language and culture, but there I was, acting and feeling as though I had been there all my life. I could not explain it.

The day-by-day growth in familiarity of the early months was disrupted by a defining event in recent Chinese history – the student protests culminating in the Tiananmen massacre of 4 June 1989. Cull’s account adds to our knowledge of the human dimension of the tragedy – the hopelessly idealistic students, the foreigners ready to tender advice with no need to take responsibility for its consequences, the deep shock and despair that followed the resort to force. Cull accepted advice to leave the country, but within three months he was back, a victim of “the China disease”.

The China disease contracted in Cull’s case “not from China’s history or culture, but from its people”. But a sense of fondness for the people created problems of its own. For instance, the unpolished translations of his Chinese colleagues were on occasion rich in unintended humour. Was it permissible to point this out to them? Was it even permissible to be amused oneself? Happily, Cull chose not to stand on his dignity. In fact, as he observes, the occasional infelicities which he and the other polishers were called upon to correct arose more from the illogicality of the English language than any shortcomings on the part of his Chinese colleagues. If one quickly cycled or soundly slept, why be put out when complimented for hardly working? If there could be two Englishmen, why not two Germen?

At the end of their time in Beijing, Mervyn and Ann Cull find themselves in doubt whether it will ever be possible to explain satisfactorily the fondness they have developed for China and the Chinese. It is a problem others have described. Owen O’Malley, who lived in Beijing in the 1920s, used to assure enquirers that if they took the chance to live there, “you will then have two worlds instead of one. I cannot quite explain this. It is like the religious experience: you cannot understand it unless you have it.” The Culls come to the same conclusion: “Unless they’ve lived here, I don’t think they would understand.”

Undeniably, there are aspects of life in China that are too personally felt, or too far removed from others experience, to be easily conveyed. Foreign Expert demonstrates, however, that there is much that is not. For those who would like to derive something of the flavour of life in so different a culture (“short of going to the moon”, according to O’Malley, “we did not see how anyone in any other way could similarly enlarge their universe”), the book offers a perceptive and amusing insight. I can do no better than echo the sentiment of an advertising flier once received in Beijing: “Stocks are limited. So don’t waste your time!”

Chris Elder lived seven years in Beijing. His book, Old Peking, was published in 1997 by Oxford University Press.

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