John Liang

An Old China Hand Tells His Story

(Fall 1956)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.17 No.4, Fall 1956, pp.138-139.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Behind the Bamboo Curtain
by A.M. Dunlap, M.D.
Public Affairs Press, Washington, D.C. 1956, $3.75.

The author of this collection of letters, written from Shanghai between April 1949 and October 1952, and published with fill-in notes, is one of that vanishing tribe known as Old China Hands. These were men who went out to China, in their youth and spent the best years of their lives building their personal fortunes. Those who failed to get out in time, or having gotten out, failed to stay out, had the disconcerting experience of seeing their life’s accumulations consumed in the flames of revolution.

History has attested more than once that a social revolution is highly discommoding to the propertied classes that find themselves dethroned. The Old China Hands may properly be considered a part of the old Chinese ruling classes – the capitalists, the comprador-bankers, the landlords – whose supremacy was ended by the revolution. They lived in a close community of interests with their Chinese class partners, engaging with them in a common system of exploitation, under the monarchy as under the republic.

It is perhaps natural, then, that Dr. Dunlap’s letters should alternate in their tone between pained protest and animosity against the revolution. For the good doctor had been living well in Shanghai, though surrounded by a sea of native misery. He had also acquired some fine pieces of real estate in the “best” residential area of the city. The revolution not only disrupted his personal life. It made of his property a financial burden where formerly it had been very profitable. Finally, he had to abandon it when he returned to this country for good.

Dr. Dunlap was born in Savoy, Illinois, in 1884 and went to China in 1911 to head the department of eye, ear, nose and throat diseases at the Harvard Medical School of China in Shanghai. He continued in that post until 1916 and in 1918 was made head of the ear, nose and throat department of Peking Union Medical College, an institution financed by the Rockefeller Foundation. He remained there until 1931 and then returned to Shanghai to enter private practice and to head the ear, nose and throat department at the medical school of St. John’s University, an American missionary institution. Caught in Shanghai by the Pacific war, Dr. Dunlap was repatriated to this country in 1943. When the war was over, he returned to Shanghai to resume his practice and do some medical teaching.

The Old China Hands who flocked back to Shanghai at the war’s end figured that, with the Japanese army out, the good old days would return. They were going back, they thought or hoped, to enjoy for the rest of their days their nice homes, their servants, the club life, the night spots, the cocktail and bridge parties. For a brief three years they did enjoy the good life again, despite the runaway inflation that marked the death agony of the Kuomintang regime. Then the towering wave of the revolution, rolling down from the north, engulfed them. The war proved to be more than just an unpleasant interlude. As so often in history, it was the precursor of a gigantic social overturn.

With his world collapsing around him, Dr. Dunlap seems to have displayed a quite remarkable equanimity. As the Red Army was occupying Shanghai in May 1949, he wrote his friends over here: “My one concern is, will it (the weather) clear sufficiently to permit golf out at St. John’s tomorrow.”

But the stern visage of the revolution is now on the scene and the next day the good doctor reports that “some two thousand Communist soldiers were in the dormitories of the University, but behaving themselves.” (The lower orders, you see, are not expected to “behave” themselves.) China’s leading city fell to the revolution, not in the classic manner, through an uprising of the population against the old regime, but through military occupation. Chiang’s reluctant troops simply fled and the Red soldiers took over. There was a little desultory gunfire but no fighting and consequently no destruction.

Because of this, at the beginning the foreigners experienced little disturbance of their lives and, with their Chinese friends, lived hopefully. They seemed to nurse the strange belief that when the dust of revolution settled, life would flow back into the normal, familiar channels. For this illusion they are hardly to be blamed. Hadn’t Mao Tse-tung proclaimed a “new capitalism” and protection of private property as the program of the revolution? Really, it would have been nice to just get rid of the old, inept and corrupt regime of Chiang Kai-shek and stop there. However, the Chinese masses didn’t destroy the old regime just to accommodate Dr. Dunlap and his friends. They took the road of revolution in order to effect a drastic transformation of class relations, in order to remold society for the benefit of the millions.

Trotsky remarked on the magnanimity shown by the proletarian revolution toward its class enemies. The Chinese revolution repeated, at least in Shanghai, the Russian October. On September 21, 1951, more than two years after the turnover of the city, Dr. Dunlap was able to write:

“While there is always the possibility of dire things happening, I think with very few exceptions every foreigner here lives a fairly normal life. There seems to be a consciousness of some restraining hand which will prevent things from going too far.”

From the general context, it appears that the restraining hand to which the doctor refers was being exercised over the workers and the local authorities by the central power in Peking. The Shanghai workers were a factor of which the doctor seems to have been very much aware from the beginning of the revolutionary events, but his occasional and fragmentary references give us only hints as to the activity of the Shanghai proletariat during the early period of the new regime.

It is July 8, 1949, two months after the overturn and the good doctor writes: “It is not that labor is starving, but they are all out to get all they can during the turnover.” Next day’s letter contains a complaint of “growing demands by labor.” The day after that he reports: “It is felt that few effective measures are being instituted to bring labor under control and that anything can happen.” All of this indicates a great stirring of the Shanghai workers, but Dr. Dunlap vouchsafes us no detailed information and we hear nothing more on the subject until he relates his dealings with a labor union and the labor bureau when closing out his Shanghai office in 1952, preparatory to his departure for the United States.

Long before that, the physiognomy of the new order was beginning to take shape. Thus, in a letter dated December 29, 1951, Dr. Dunlap writes:

“A German business man was just in as a patient and when I asked him how his business was, he said that they were doing nothing and he saw no possibility for the future. Government-owned organizations including wholesale and retail establishments are driving all others from the field. It is probable that this period will see many shops closing. A most unhappy people!”

In a following note, the writer quotes “one who was familiar with the Communists’ schedule for reorganizing all, China” as saying that the “attack on private enterprise was not supposed to come until at least ten years after they had gained control of the country. It was his belief that the schedule had been revised due to the Government’s need for solid money to prosecute the war in Korea.” More probably, the main factor hastening the squeeze on capitalist enterprise was pressure from below by the masses who couldn’t possibly be satisfied by Mao’s anemic program of reform. The needs created by the Korean war and the imperialist blockade were doubtless added and important factors determining the tempo of development under the new regime.

In the good old days, as this reviewer can testify from personal recollection, about the only praise of the Chinese you Could get out of an Old China Hand was that they made excellent servants. Alas, under the new conditions these excellent servitors became quite uppity and talked back to their lordly foreign masters with a representative of their union (something unknown in the halcyon days of the Kuomintang) at their elbow. What hurt Dr. Dunlap most was the “ingratitude” of his employes, to whom, for long years, he had extended the privilege of working for him for the most miserly wages. Now, suddenly, the employes feel themselves to be the top dogs. Gone is the old servility. Dr. Dunlap relates the sad experience of Sir Robert Calder-Marshall, wealthy British businessman and chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce:

“Sir R. has just been in to say goodbye, expecting to leave by boat on Saturday or Sunday. It has been most difficult closing out his affairs and it has come finally to his virtually giving his firm over to his former staff. In fact, they consider that it belongs to them.”

If anyone at this late date is still inclined to doubt that what occurred in China was a social revolution, a class overturn, let him consider these additional mournful passages from Dr. Dunlap’s letters.

May 8, 1952: “Our big job [he is referring to the closing out of his office] will be to satisfy the people of the staff who have become too big for their pants. If you try, I don’t think you can realize how much pressure the so-called laborer can put on one, especially if he is a foreigner.”

June 5, 1952: “One has to see and hear at first hand this sort of thing before one can believe it. One can understand how and why one’s staff will hang on for dear life when there is nothing ahead, but disloyalty of those one has employed for years is hard to take.” (Disloyalty seems to have been insistence on ample severance pay.)

July 1, 1952: “One does not enjoy being asked by his office boy if he is ‘keeping the law’.”

July 14, 1952: “The ignominy of sitting on a hard bench (in the Labor Bureau) and being interrogated by one who probably at one time was someone’s houseboy is sometimes hard to take but it must be taken with a calm exterior, otherwise one gets nowhere.”

Grudgingly, Dr. Dunlap concedes that the new regime began tackling social problems for which no attempt at a solution had ever been made by the Chiang Kai-shek gang or their foreign imperialist partners. Thus:

“the authorities went all out not only to provide medical care for the people but public health matters were pushed as well. Perhaps never in the history of the city were the inhabitants so completely immunized against smallpox, cholera, diphtheria and typhoid. In addition, the health authorities attempted to wipe out prostitution. Almost immediately after ‘liberation’ the long lines of amahs, who frequented certain areas, each with her gaily dressed and painted prostitute by her side, virtually disappeared overnight. All prostitutes were finally to be given jobs in factories.”

The Dunlap book, limited as it is by a narrow subjectivism, has an obvious value, for we can learn about a revolution from its opponents as well as from its partisans. Dr. Dunlap is an opponent of social change, an enemy of the Chinese revolution. But, refracted through his animosities and discontents, we can get some significant glimpses of the greatest revolution since the Russian October and of the New China which it brought to birth.


Last updated on 30.3.2005