DAUGHTER OF CHINA
A True Story of Love and Betrayal
By Meihong Xu and Larry Engelmann
Wiley. 352 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Judith Shapiro
Daughter of China is a gripping memoir of the improbable romance between Meihong Xu, a married female Chinese intelligence officer, and Larry Engelmann, an American teacher suspected of being a spy. Set in the 1980s, it portrays a Chinese military leadership that has lost its moorings to corruption and struggle and a military training system whose graduates refuse assignments to Tibet in favor of jobs in joint ventures. This is a world of spies who are seemingly as interested in feuding with each other as in monitoring the activities of other states.
The book is written in Meihong Xu's voice. A country girl with a deep admiration for the People's Liberation Army, she was selected in 1981 to become one of "twelve pandas," an elite group of female officers trained at a prestigious Nanjing military institute for a lifetime of espionage. After graduation, she was sent to learn Western ways at the nearby Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies, an American-style college with faculty and students from the United States and China. Posing as an ordinary student, she was assigned to spy on Larry Engelmann, a journalist whose possession of declassified CIA documents appeared to make him a likely secret agent. She quickly won his trust and gained access to his letters and computer files. However, to her consternation, she found herself captivated by Larry's laughter, open heart and loneliness, and doubted he could be the spy her bosses were seeking.
Meihong's other mandate at the Center stretches credibility: She was to learn about America so as to help her reform-minded patron, nicknamed "the coffee General" because of his Western habits, to build a mock American city within China for use in intelligence work. "Officers from around the country could be assigned to our secret installation for final training before being sent to America and thus be better prepared to carry out their duties. . . . Trainees could live in our American city and ride the buses, drive cars, shop in the supermarket, buy movie tickets, write checks, use credit cards and computers." However, before this plan could be realized, exposure to Western learning styles led "Rose," as she called herself, to question a lifetime of faith in socialism and the Communist Party.
When allegations about her relationship with Engelmann played into strug-gles between Mao-sts and modernizers, she became a tool for her patron's enemies within the army. Whispered warnings, strange telephone calls and unmarked vehicles signaled that she was in deep trouble. But, Meihong notes, in China being watched is only a matter of degree: "Only a fine line separates the daily aggravations of being under general surveillance from those indicating one is under specific surveillance." Finally, she was arrested, interrogated and threatened with execution for jeopardizing state security by befriending an American spy.
These dramatic events are interspersed with well-crafted flashbacks. One vignette recounts a devastating incident in the collective memory of Meihong's village, when invading Japanese burned haystacks where the town's young girls lay hidden. A visit to a grandmother's grave introduces a tale of female infanticide, while a water buffalo glimpsed from a train evokes memories of a grandfather who longed to tend his fields but was forced to become a puppet for Communist propaganda. Meihong is spared the expected bullet, but she is expelled from the People's Liberation Army and Communist Youth League and sent back to her village in disgrace. With the help of her husband, whose devotion provides the real romance in the book, Meihong finds refuge in anonymity in the impoverished countryside. Meanwhile, despite Meihong's refusal to make a false accusation, Engelmann is charged with rape and thrown out of China. He and Meihong are reunited after the 1989 Beijing demonstrations and massacre, when Meihong's marriage falls apart under political pressures and she decides to divorce her husband and flee China. When she contacts "the American," he offers to marry her and bring her abroad.
While Daughter of China is a wonderful read, it is also a bit of a puzzle. First, there is the paradox of betrayal implied in the subtitle: Just as China betrayed Meihong by not living up to her ideals, so does Meihong seem to betray China. Moreover, for all Meihong's refusal to implicate "the General" during interrogation, she seems prepared to damage him with the publication of this book. Finally, there is the surprise of Engelmann's aching postscript about the couple's divorce and weekly meetings to write the book, revelations that call for a reconsideration of all that comes before. All autobiographies involve selective interpretation, but this one's agendas seem unusually self-serving and muddled.
Judith Shapiro, co-author with Liang Heng of several memoirs of China, is at work on a book on the environment during the Mao years.