Interview: 'In my darkest hours, I looked up at the stars'

'I was a target,' writer Han Xiu says, describing her early years in China.
By Vienna Tang
Interview: 'In my darkest hours, I looked up at the stars' Writer Han Xiu is shown in an Aug. 24, 2021 photo.
Vienna Tang

Han Xiu is a writer and former professor at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute and Johns Hopkins University who has published more than 50 books in a career spanning some 40 years. Born in Manhattan in 1946 to U.S. military attache Willie Hanen and Chinese actress Zhao Yunru, Han was brought to China by her mother at the age of just 18 months. There she grew up in Beijing, living with her grandmother and reading ancient classical texts. She was lonely all the way through elementary school and high school. Nobody would share a desk with her, so she always sat in the very back row, alone. Here she speaks to RFA’s Vienna Tang about her long life and her survival against the odds:

RFA: You’ve said that your childhood ended abruptly at the age of eight. What happened that made you grow up overnight?

Han Xiu: Nothing special. I didn’t know what the U.S. had done in the Panama Canal and why there was a gathering at the Tiananmen Square. I attended the Mishi Street Elementary School, not far away from Tiananmen Square, and teachers would take the students there to attend events. There were parades, rallies, slogans and all sorts of weird things. Some people stacked the portrait of President Eisenhower and some American flags together into a circle. Suddenly, my teacher saw me. He looked at the circle and told me to stand there. Very soon, the flags and the portrait were set on fire. Ashes flew up. President Eisenhower was the American president that I remember best, every little detail of his face, because I witnessed his portrait burning up in the air and falling to earth as ashes. That circle was also interesting. It kind of looked like the Target logo. All I knew back then was that I was nothing more than a target. I was eight years old, and in second grade.  

RFA: The teacher did this to you because your father was an American. I know that you had a chance to attend Tsinghua University when you were 17, but you didn’t make it because of your father’s nationality?

Han Xiu: In fact, the exam papers were sealed. My papers were stamped with the words “This student shall not be admitted.” The general secretary of the party branch, whose last name was Zhou, told me that I could write a 200-word short essay saying my father was an enemy of the Chinese people and that the U.S. was the enemy of China. She said that if I wrote this, the door to Tsinghua University would be open and waiting for mw. I asked her, “What if I don’t?” She said, “If you don’t, then you’ll go to Shanxi tomorrow.”

RFA: So you packed up and went?

Han Xiu: I said, then I’ll go home to pack up.

RFA: Though you only met her father shortly after you were born, in your mind your father was always tall and perfect and not to be desecrated.

Han Xiu: When I was born in Manhattan, he stood outside of the newborn room to look at me; the nurse was holding me in her arms. There was a picture in a folder that a DoD official brought me when I returned to the U.S. in 1978. It was only then that I learned that my father had seen me before. Of course, I wouldn’t have seen my father. I was so little, a newborn, an infant. We didn’t have any exchanges afterwards, because he was assigned to New Zealand. By the time he heard about my news I was already en route to China by sea. I arrived at Shanghai on Sept. 19, 1948. Nothing could have been done then.

My grandma had told me when I was little that she had met my father once in Chongqing. My father was a U.S. military attaché assigned to Chongqing. He was in charge of the Hump, the lifeline to China over the Himalayas. The Himalayan lifeline is the route, literally a lifeline, that transported war supplies from the Burmese border to China and helped the Chinese government and the Chinese people resist Japan. Therefore, my father was a friend of the Chinese people, not an enemy. This is what I have known since I was little. There's one other thing, that when an entire society alleges that a country is bad, that a person is bad, there must be something wrong with that society. It’s not one that I would trust.

RFA: You came to realize that at such a young age?

Han Xiu: Of course. I was a target, myself. I was so young, and they were already treating me as a target. I could of course sense how vicious their intentions were and how cruel their actions were. So rebelling was instantaneous. Besides, I have always been an outsider. I was never one of them. As a result, I have always looked at China with a calm pair of eyes.

RFA: You also lived in the countryside and in Xinjiang for 12 years?

Han Xiu: Yes.

RFA:  You went through a lot in those 12 years. Could you share with us what impressed you the most?  

Han Xiu: There were many things: the kindness of the Shanxi people to me, the kindness of peasants to me versus the cruelty of the army corps. The contrast between those two extremes was very clear. As for Xinjiang, the sentiment there was that everything about Chairman Mao, for example the Quotations from Chairman Mao, was sacrosanct. Take those plaster statues of Chairman Mao for instance. If you broke them, there would be dire consequences. There was one young man from Shanghai. He was dismissive of other peers from Shanghai who were engaged in romantic relations and undignified behavior. They wanted to give him a hard time, and their tactics were very simple. The bathroom was public, and there were no doors. Someone reported that they found a book of quotations from Chairman Mao in the pile that this young man used as toilet paper. He was instantly found guilty of being an active anti-revolutionist. He eventually died in the labor camp.

The peasants of Shanxi cared a lot about my safety. When the Cultural Revolution began, the Red Guards were everywhere smashing property and looting. They killed people and set things on fire. There was nothing they wouldn’t do. So the people in Shanxi told me to get away, the farther the better. If the Red Guards came, I would be the first one they beat to death. There was a guy in the Baidian village where the sent-down youth stayed. His father was a senior cadre in the Party. However, his father sided with Liu Shaoqi, so this young man was beaten to death. I am forever grateful for the kindness and love that the people of Shanxi showed me.

RFA:  I’d like to talk about your mother. She graduated from the Nanjing National Drama School. She had also shared the stage with Taojin, Zhang Ruifang and Qin Yi. Did she ever tell you about that part of her life?

Han Xiu: When she handed me to an American couple, she never wanted to see me again. We were on a military vessel, at a time when Asia was still a vast battleground. China was at war. When she sent me, an 18-month-old child, to Shanghai, she had no intention of ever seeing that child again.  I was always a piece of baggage to her, a burden to be gotten rid of if she could. She did not return to China until the 50s. I had been with my grandmother for a few years. She never said anything about my father. Then the Cultural Revolution began. It was only when the rebels came to our house and mentioned my father in front of me and her that she acknowledged his existence. My grandmother had told me about my father, so I was not surprised. She kept on emphasizing her so-called relationship with left-leaning [diplomat] John Stewart Service, but this was just an arrangement by Zhou Enlai.

RFA: John S. Service was the Second Secretary in the American Embassy in Chungking [now known as Chongqing] in the 1940s. He was part of the Dixie Mission to Yan’an to meet with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and others. He was one of the first American diplomats who suggested that the United States should shift its support from the Nationalist government to the Chinese Communists.

Han Xiu: After his return from Yan’an, John Service and the left-leaning staffers in the American Embassy had painted a whitewashed picture of Yan’an in their reports to the U.S. State Department. When I was in high school, I actually danced with Zhou Enlai at a ball. There was no one around us; no one could hear us.  Zhou was all smiles while we danced. I felt that he was in the mood to talk, so I asked him about something that had been on my mind for many years. I asked him, what do you think of John Service and his friends, including Edgar Snow and Anna Louise Strong? He said they didn’t have anything to offer. They were nothing to him. His contempt was utterly explicit. Soon afterwards, I left Beijing for the countryside, with no future ahead of me. But this was how Zhou Enlai thought of them. I don’t think he was lying.

RFA: In The Unwanted, you describe your mother as selfish and cruel. She would burn you with cigarette butts and slash your skirts. During the Cultural Revolution, she even reported you as a “descendant of American imperialism.” These stories ring very true. Are they?

Han Xiu: Yes. These were the facts. Nothing but facts. There are many things that I don’t think are worth further discussion. When I left Xinjiang, I saw the large number of materials she had sent to Xinjiang to report me. Any part of those materials could have killed me. The papers were piled 18 inches high. Back then, Deng Xiaoping’s office had sent a message to Xinjiang, saying “this person is not suitable to stay in Xinjiang.” This was referring to me.  I could not see the upper or bottom parts of that letter; I only saw that one line. But the letter was from Deng’s office.  The letter said “this person is not suitable to stay in Xinjiang,” so the Xinjiang army corps decided to send me back to Beijing.

But on the eve of my departure, the political work official couldn’t keep quiet any longer. He said that he had never seen a mother like this in his life who would put her child in harm’s way. He said the reports she sent denouncing me made a pile 18 inches high, and that they should have burned them all to ashes. But they wanted to give me a chance to look at them. The papers were carbon copies, so multiple copies had been made. "When you arrive in Beijing, [he warned me], your employer or work placement office will be sure to have a copy. You should be aware of this." So, yes, I read the things she sent.

RFA: Why do you think your mother would do this to you?

Han Xiu: Of course she would.  Didn’t I tell you earlier? I was just baggage. She would do anything to get rid of me. She was what she was. We will not talk about this. There was no affection. I still brought her to the United States after she did so many evil things. She was able to come because I brought her here. But what did she do to me after she got here?

RFA: She planted a bugging device in your house?

Han Xiu: Yes. What else can I say about something so disheartening?

RFA: What do you think of those who went back from overseas to the New China but endured unfortunate and tragic treatment later?  What are your thoughts?

Han Xiu:  This is a topic that will never cease to be discussed. Many people will never understand what the Chinese Communists are about. They will never understand to what absurd lengths a tyrannical regime will go. So those people will always fantasize. They have fantasies. Mr. Shu Qingchun [the writer Lao She] was tricked back to China. Zhao Yunru was one of the accomplices who tricked him. Zhao Qingge, Lao She’s collaborator in earlier days, was another. These people put a great deal of effort into fooling him into going back. But then look what happened after Lao She went back. [The writer suffered mental and physical abuse at the hands of Red Guards, including being paraded in public as a "counterrevolutionary," and later took his own life.]

RFA: In your latest publication, the collection of your essays, you write that “the flame that burns deep in my heart is my relentless pursuit of the beauty of humanity.” You have endured so many things unimaginable to the majority of people. What kind of strength has sustained you to keep that flame alive?

Han Xiu: I am a person who has undergone numerous deaths. To me, every day that I am alive is an extra bonus. I would like do something valuable in the extra days that I’ve earned. Why am I so interested in writing biographies of artists? Because they have bestowed the ultimate beauty on this world. Oscar Wilde once said: "We are all in the gutter … but some of us are looking at the stars.” I am someone who looks at the stars. In my darkest times, I looked at the stars.

Translated by Min Eu. Edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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