Another Kind of American History in Chongqing, 2: Evolution

by Xujun Eberlein

(First a note about yesterday's post: a reader wrote to call my attention to "David Herlihy's 2010 book The Lost Cyclist, which tells the story of Frank Lenz, the first American to cycle across the 1890s!"  I want to thank the reader, and I really look forward to reading that book. Meanwhile, let me take the opportunity to make a correction.  I think - and this could still be wrong - Bob was the first American who cycled across China after it re-opened in the 1980s. Now, the SACO story continues from yesterday's prologue.)

Following Red Crag's publication, an exhibition titled "SACO: Crimes of America and Chiang [Kai-shek]" opened in 1963, and immediately became a big hit for tourists.  The two prisons, Refuse Pit and Bai Mansion, were displayed as part of the SACO "concentration camp," together with torture cells equipped with American supplies. Included was also the residence of Miles, which Dai Li had built for him. On its walls were texts describing Miles as a mad anti-Communist American military man.

Passionate visitors came in an endless stream to look for traces of the Red Crag heroes. Monuments were built up for the martyrs. When I was in middle and high school in the 1970s, every year on November 27 we students went to sweep the tombs.  Each time we took a day-long tour round the exhibition area.

The impression of American cruelty at SACO ran deep and we never questioned its authenticity. The novel Red Crag spread the accusation, and the exhibition established hard evidence. The martyrs were real people (two of them, Qi Liang and Wang Po, were my father's underground comrades); the prisons and the SACO site were real places. What was there to question?

In early 1967, several years after Red Crag's publication, the novel's leading author Luo Guangbing jumped off a building and killed himself. This happened in the heat of the Cultural Revolution; I was eleven then. I was utterly stunned to hear a friend of my parents describing the gross suicide scene (though today some still suspect Luo was murdered).  I was too young to understand why a hero who survived torture and massacre in an enemy prison would want to die in an era following the victory of his own side.


Bob never visited the SACO site in 1987.  A year later we married. China was changing fast, and so was my parents' view of Americans. Our marriage was a personal happenstance, but its possibility was dictated by historical conditions: it happened after a turn in Sino-American relations. Accompanying China's economic reform and opening, the image of Americans held by Chinese was transforming from fierce paper tiger to exotic animal and then to fleshed-out human.

My father's condition for accepting Bob as his son-in-law was "Keep my daughter out of politics!" which Bob cheerfully accepted. In our happiness we never asked whether he meant Chinese politics or American politics. Either one, we couldn't have cared less.

Among our wedding guests was Uncle Jin, an old friend of my parents and an idol of my youth. In 1948 Uncle Jin had been arrested as an underground Communist and jailed in the Refuse Pit prison, in the same cell with Luo Guangbing (Red Crag's author). Fortunately, several months later Uncle Jin was bailed out by his wealthy landlord family, thus avoiding a deadly fate in the November 27, 1949 massacre.

At our wedding, Uncle Jin again suggested Bob visit SACO. "You must see the handcuffs, made in USA!" he said repeatedly. Bob was annoyed, but he smiled and said some polite and meaningless English that Uncle Jin did not understand.  In private though, he complained to me, "Why does everybody want me to see SACO?"

What Bob wanted to do was ride his bike to Tibet, along the Sichuan-Tibet road that was built in the 1950s.  It had been his plan the year before in the first place. But once again his ambition was foiled by my fierce objection: that road was too harsh, too dangerous for a cyclist.

I moved with Bob to Boston in the summer of 1988, started a family, got my PhD and began work with a small technology company. That busy life kept me "out of politics" without the slightest nudging from Bob - until one day thirteen years later, when the twin towers fell.

For me, Chinese netizens cheering the lesson that America had received signaled the return of abstract hatred. I was troubled: what my generation dropped, the new generation picked it back up.  I say "abstract" because, I'm sure, if an American tourist ran into one of those young Chinese in a private situation, he or she would be as friendly as anyone.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

From This Author

Just In