If you didn't know that a scholarly Sinologist could write simple declarative sentences about the Chinese, meet Orville Schell.
Schell, who was written four important books about the People's Republic of China and who co-edited the first three volumes of the prestigious China Reader series, wears his scholarship casually, as he does his cowboy boots and corduroy suits. More likely than not, he'll show up in downtown Peking wearing a 10-gallon hat.
He leaves you with the impresion that he would rather mingle with a few of China's 887,000,000 commonfolk and matter-of-factly report on their daily lives than chronicle the impersonal state-to-state happenings that most Asian dilettantes and political scientists obfuscate with the unfathomable lexicon of academe.
And what is what Schell does in a new book called "In the People's Republic," a collection of vignettes of everyday life in Communist China.
The book is based on a two-month long trip Schell made to China in 1975, during which he had an extraordinary opportunity to break away from the usual carefully orchestrated tours and live and work in a Shanghai factory and on a communal farm.
Schell, despite his fluency in Chinese and his graduate degrees and extensive credentials in the politics and culture of the country, approached China almost as Studs Terkel would approach middle America.
He glided over state-arranged tours of Mao's stuffed white horse in Yemen, and distained the familiar litanies of what he came to call the Chinese BIs - Brief Introductions by functionaries who mercilesly extolled the virtues of the people's revolution in a manner that seemed to be able to cure hopeless insomnia.
Instead, he insisted on being allowed to work on a collective farm at Tachai and in the Shanghai factory, helping to make electric motors and at the same time finding out what life in China is about.
He did so out of a frustration born at the Center for Chinese Studies of the University of California at Berkley, where he came to hate what he sees as the pomposity of being a Sinologist.
"I left there because highly educated people were writing thoughts that, while perhaps profound, couldn't be understood by anybody. It got so bad that ordinary people began feeling that it was their fault that they couldn't understand what was being written," Schell, who is a youthful looking 36, says.
Schell, in retrospect, concedes he was ready for such a breakaway. He had already begun to think of himself more as a writer than a scholar, having left Harvard to spend almost three years working on tramp freighters in Australia, the South Seas and New Guinea.
He traveled around Laos, Thailand and Cambodia for a while, writing for magazines and newspapers, and after a brief return to the United States went to Indonesia for the Ford Foundation, where he ultimately was expelled as the Communits under Sukarno gained strength.
Schell's brother, Jonathan, is a staff writer for the New Yorker.
The trouble with most Sinologists, Schell said in an interview, is that they are too remote from the ordinary people of China; and the trouble with America's perception of China is that it is based almost exlusively on the writings of the Sinologists.
"They (the Sinologists) are incomprehensible, unless you have spent a lifetime toiling in the vineyards of sociology. The trouble is, China has been left to the scholars and political scientists, who portray it quite remotely," Schell says.
Compounding this problem, he adds, is the reluctance of the Chinese to assist Western writers inside the country.
"If you write about the little human things, they think you are dwelling on the trees rather than the forest. They are very suspicious that you will miss the larger point of the socialist revolution," he says.
As a result, when he visited China with 20 other Americans under the sponsorship of a Vermont family that has had intimate ties to the country since before the 1949 Communist revolution, Schell did not advertise the fact that he was a writer. Inexplicably, the Chinese officials who granted him a visa overlooked the fact that he had already written so extensively about the People's Republic.
The "China work trip" was sponsored by the family of Carmeletta Hinton, founder of the Putney School in Vermont, who had made many trips to the Mainland in the 1940s and 1950s.
Schell's book, published by Random House, is a collection of vignettes, many as brief as a page long. But they are thoughtful and insightful glimpses of Chinese life, while at the same time being simple and sensitive.
His book is concerned with lifestyle more than social reform, recounting in fascinating detail, for example, his experiences in a Chinese barbershop or watching brain surgery being perfomred on a wide-awake patient with the help of acupuncture.
He poignantly describes the seemingly sexless attraction between a male factory worker and a female colleague, a liaison that appears based mainly on mutual respect for each other's unflagging devotion to the furtherance of socialism.
In doing so, Schell makes a point he stressed in the interview: "They believe there is nothing that is, or should be, separated from the furtherance of the revolution. They have embodied highly personal qualities - such as love and marriage - in their politics," Schell says.
He adds, "They would never say, 'Honey, I love you because you are beautiful.' They would say, 'I love you, you are on the right assembly line and you work very hard.'"
This is not to say, Schell emphasizes, that the Chinese he lived with are not without feelings of love and devotion, particularly to their children. But, he notes, the Chinese historically have no tradition of romantic love as Westerners understand it, and therefore regard marriage - which normally occurs at age 30 - as a furtherance of the state and a Confucian-like furtherance of their lineage.
"They are warm people in ways that are less obvious, but their values are, naturally, different than ours. They aren't exhorted all day long by television to oggle beautiful women and indulge in muscle-building and machismo. They are exhorted to further the cause of the socialist of revolution," Schell says.
While his book and his conversation about China are admittedly sympathetic, Schell does not fawn over the People's Republic. In fact, in an extraordinarily insightful section of the book labeled "Doubts," he writes, "Sometimes I just cannot make up my mind about this country."
He says he finds himself thinking back to accounts written with glowing enthusiasm by foreigners who experienced the Russian revolution, but failed to see "the seeds of brutality and sourness until long after they were fully grown under Stalin.
"Are there any signs of a frightening future lurking here around me in this factory which is moving hellbent with hope and energy into the future? Can I detect ominous tendencies beneath China's proletarian optimism? Do I dare?" Schell writes.
Schell, a native New Yorker who now lives on a small ranch in Northern California, says he is abandoning his expertise on China for a while to write a book about California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.
But it seems likely that Schell will eventually return to the study of the People's Republic.
"I look at China as one of the truly great social experiments in the history of mankind. It's astounding to me that it succeeded at all. I stand in awe of the fact that this poor child country of Asia has been fashioned into a great power by sheer energy and commitment," he says.