China in the early-to-mid-1970s was more closed and mysterious than North Korea today, but Richard Kirkby who first entered the country in 1973 subsequently applied to the Chinese authorities to return to the fabled land. Against all the odds he and his partner Jo were invited to teach at Nanjing University. From that vantage point he witnessed the twisted tumult of Cultural Revolution China first-hand – this despite the officials’ efforts to enforce a state of isolation on the tiny group of foreigners in the country. He observed and sometimes participated in the roller-coaster political campaigns, including the first post-1949 mass demonstrations against the Mao order of April 1976. With the deaths of the iconic leaders of the revolution - Zhou Enlai, Zhu De and in September 1976, of Mao himself, he was caught up in the events which eventually signalled a formal end to the Cultural Revolution - the arrest of the Chairman’s coterie, aka The Gang of Four.
With an informative interlude of Hong Kong R & R under his belt, in 1978 the author was persuaded to return to a China posting – at Shandong University. China was slowly regaining its balance, and for the first time it was possible to forge semi-normal relationships with acquaintances and colleagues. But the politics of the Cultural Revolution lingered on in Shandong, with unsavoury consequences which led to a contrived ‘escape’ to Hong Kong. Richard Kirkby’s story provides unique insight into the China during and just after the Cultural Revolution.
Richard Kirkby was born in Yorkshire, into a farming family with strong China antecedents, and was educated at a Quaker school, at Bristol University and at the Architectural Association, London. In the 1960s, he was heavily involved in student politics, and in the early 1970s, spread his wings to Cultural Revolution China. He taught English at Nanjing University from 1974 to 1977, an experience enriched by spells of labour in rice paddies and a factory machine shop. After Mao’s death but with China still in troubled times, he moved to Shandong University. Since 1980, the author has been a consultant on the Chinese economy, a writer of academic tracts (starting with his 1985 book Urbanisation in China, a foundation work in the field). Richard is the third generation of his family to live in China since 1904. Today, representing the fourth generation, his son William lives and works in Chengdu.
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