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A Schell Of His Former Self

In the People's Republic By Orville Schell Random House; 269 pages; $8.95

By Gay Seidman

Ever since Americans first began visiting the People's Republic of China, the American public has been besieged by first-person accounts of their trips. There is, of course, a long history of such travelers' tales about China, starting with Marco Polo; the West doesn't seem to get tired of the genre, as if it were unable to comprehend the nature of Chinese society except from a personal viewpoint.

Orville Schell's In the People's Republic: An American's Firsthand View of Living and Working in China follows in that tradition, with one major difference. Schell, 37, has studied China for years, with several scholarly works on the subject to his credit. He also speaks fluent Chinese. That background informs his tale, and it is much easier to accept his conclusions than those of most China visitors.

Schell visited the people's republic early in 1976, in the last months before Mao Tse-tung's death. Since then, of course, there have been major changes: Mao's ideal of a permanent, dynamic revolution seems to have given way to a more bureaucratic regime, which seems to stress production, not producers. But--at least before Mao's death--China was unique in its emphasis on change rather than consolidation of power, and Schell was able to appreciate the subtleties of that approach more than most visitors.

In the People's Republic is different from most travelers' tales about China in still another way. For some unexplained reason, Schell was able to spend several weeks working alongside the Chinese, in a factory and then on the legendary Tachai commune. While the first half of his book is devoted to the typical travelers' items (a visit to a school, a jail, a hospital), the rest is taken up by conversations with normal Chinese, instead of the official spokesmen who populate most works on China. Schell has a healthy bias against official statements, the "Brief Introductions" that are supposed to inform the visitor about a particular Chinese institution. Too often, he suggests, the "B.I.s" lack depth, as the guide rattles off the revolutionary phrases without appearing to think about them.

In the factories and farms, Schell got to know Chinese citizens outside the bureaucracy, and he draws their portraits with a great deal of sensitivity. There is Hsaio Ti, whose dedication to building socialism will keep him from marrying, he says, until he is at least 30. There is Yu Shao-feng, a young woman working in the factory who grows uncomfortable around the strange American. There is Comerade Hung, an agricultural specialist who has been sent down from the universities to help Tachai build up its orchards, and who isn't completely happy in his exile to the countryside. And there is Ch'eng-yuan, a small boy who befriended Schell.

It is not surprising that the individual portraits are the most memorable part of Schell's book. He makes his bias clear: "I begin to wish that the walls of these meeting halls could speak, letting me hear the real struggles and human drama which must have gone on within." But he is also aware of the difference between his outlook and that of the Chinese.

We are a society that is fascinated with the power of personality. The Chinese are a society fascinated with the power of a political system, and they do not seem to understand the deep yearning of Westerners to put faces on the facts and statistics. There is no scholarly discourse on the roots of the two-line struggle, for instance; instead, Schell quotes workers, who described to him how the struggle and its resolution affected their lives. It makes the picture somehow more complete than either a simple first-person narrative or an academic work could be, because Schell has tried, generally with success, to put the face behind the statistics.

Schell does not leave the reader with a completely one-sided vision of progress in China. Certainly he is aware of the immense changes in the social structure there, and approves of them; but he also recognizes a tendency to bureaucratic regimentation, which he suggests was only halted by Chairman Mao's influence. Mao, he suggests, was able to avoid seeing his revolution turn into a regime simply because his personality was powerful enough to prevent it from happening; which rather leaves us wondering about events since he died, and whether they were, as Schell implies, inevitable.

Whatever happens now in China, now that the "gang of four" has been cast out and a new regime has moved in, Schell's book will be valuable, a record--perhaps the most sensitive that could have been done by an outsider--of what it was like to live under Chairman Mao, in a country undergoing such huge changes that only a traveler's personalized tale could capture its essence.

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