“Intruder in Mao’s Realm” by Richard Kirkby

Richard Kirkby’s China memoir Intruder in Mao’s Realm has a hint of the nineteenth century about it: frank and scrupulous in recording quotidian detail, it is a refreshingly unrefined book, in the manner of those accounts returned by Victorian missionaries and travellers after visits to unknown lands.

Kirkby has a connection to those predecessors: his mother was born in Sichuan province in 1919, daughter to Christian missionary parents who had moved there in 1903. His family history thus provided partial motivation for his move from England to China in the 1970s. However, key to his desire to experience the Middle Kingdom, then suffering the final contortions of the Cultural Revolution, was an emerging scholarly interest in the subject of urbanization. Thus, in 1974, Kirkby took a position as a “Foreign Expert” teaching English at Nanjing University, and spent the rest of the 1970s living within the then vacuum-sealed Communist state.

During this period, of course, the Chinese Communist Party’s aging leadership began to succumb to the ravages of time and lifestyle, and Kirkby was in situ for the deaths of Mao, Zhu De, and Zhou Enlai. He recounts the organized demonstrations of emotion after Zhou’s death, and the insistence of those in charge that he join the ceremonial grieving: “Today is the University’s ceremony to remember our beloved premier,” he is told, “and we thought our foreign friends should join us because we know they too loved our premier.”

The subtle but insistent control of Kirkby’s minders in Nanjing and then Shandong is a recurrent theme of the book, as is the author’s determination to throw off the strictures of his hosts, and experience the realities of life in Mao’s China. Through a mixture of naivety and guile, Kirkby does succeed in broadening the parameters of his experience, and even manages to secure permission to accompany his students “Down to the Countryside” “to learn the spirit of hard struggle and plain living from the poor-and-lower middle peasants.”

Eventually, however, Kirkby’s testing of boundaries comes to count against him. He befriends a young postgraduate student, who, it later transpires, has been sent to keep tabs on him; this friendship eventually sees him in a desperate dash to Hong Kong to escape the malign forces apparently keen to make an example of this overconfident foreigner.

Despite his enforced departure and the Kafkaesque impositions of the era, Kirkby is generally balanced in his assessment of the political environment he encountered, and he avoids drawing any broad conclusions from an experience which was self-evidently subjective and limited.

Intruder in Mao’s Realm: An Englishman’s Eyewitness Account of 1970s China, Richard Kirkby (Earnshaw Books, November 2016)
Intruder in Mao’s Realm: An Englishman’s Eyewitness Account of 1970s China, Richard Kirkby (Earnshaw Books, November 2016)

Indeed, Intruder in Mao’s China reminds us that the omniscient perspective adopted by many historical accounts of this period—in which the historian peers into the rooms of Zhongnanhai and the Great Hall of the People, observing and judging those who held the puppet strings—often fails to convey any sense of the reality of life for those without agency: those who encounter merely a series of unexplained restrictions and initiatives, imposed by individuals likewise ignorant of any grand plan.

The account would have been improved by some additional attention to editing; the text’s unrefined qualities unfortunately include errors of punctuation and grammar, whilst there are notable instances where information is repeated unnecessarily. In spite of that, Kirkby’s memoir is an interesting addition to the literature concerning the late Cultural Revolution for it gives the perspective of a foreign observer who was neither a politician nor a diplomat, but rather a relatively ordinary young man.

Dr Jonathan Chatwin is a British writer who has lived in, and written on, China. He is the author of Anywhere Out of the World: The Work of Bruce Chatwin.