"I became a dictionary maker by accident," says Lu Gu-sun of Shanghai, whose American friends sometimes call him "Professor Lu" only to be told, in no uncertain terms, "Cut it! Lu Gu!"
The accident that made him a dictionary maker was the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, when professor-translators of western language and literature were suddenly looked on as strange and suspect characters.
"I'm a very apolitical person," says Lu, downing a cold beer in the apartment of his University of Maryland friends Steve and Cindy Bladey and answering questions in just the sort of easy, idiomatic English you don't expect to hear from someone who first met the language at 17 and first traveled abroad at 41.
In his loose gray suit, baggy white-knit sweater and thick black glasses, Lu would have no trouble passing for an American college professor, albeit a slightly old-fashioned one, the type that might have been played by James Stewart or Henry Fonda in the movies, and might have to contend with a campus full of rebellious teen-agers.
The gang in Lu's life, however, was the infamous Gang of Four, which turned China into a place where, apolitical or not, he was regarded as a "budding revisionist."
"Sure, I got into trouble," he says. "But in retrospect that was a kind of experience, too, and because you were in very tough times--'hard times,' as Dickens would say--you learn to be content."
Today Lu is a prolific translator of American criticism and fiction (including Arthur Hailey's "The Moneychangers" and Peter Benchley's "Jaws"), in addition to his regular duties as a professor in the foreign languages department at Shanghai's Fudan University, and head of the new Shakespeare Library there.
His lexicographic career got off the ground in 1970, when the study of Western literature was no longer an acceptable occupation in China. Lu was put to work preparing a mid-sized English-Chinese dictionary, which has now sold 2 million copies despite a hefty price tag of about $3, compared with as little as 30 cents for other Chinese books. Lu says the dictionary didn't really deserve the good reviews it received in the United States, because it was watched over a tad too closely by "workers' representatives" bent on purging it of slang, underworld expressions and "anything X-rated."
"They were thinking of producing a wholly clean and correct dictionary of Chinglish," says Lu. Just the same, he managed to "smuggle in" a few everyday practical terms such as "schlemiel," "schlep" and "schlock"--an achievement in which he takes visible pride.
His own conversation is laced with words like "newfangled," "viable" and "ubiquitously," reflecting the dictionary-maker in him, and also, perhaps, his experience translating popular American fare--some of it popular in China, too. His translation of "The Moneychangers" earned Lu the equivalent of a year's salary in China. His wife, who teaches English to medical students, has translated Daphne Du Maurier's "Rebecca"--another hot seller.
As a professor, Lu earns a monthly salary of 82 Chinese dollars, or $45 U.S., which he calls a "so-so" rate of pay compared with that of, say, factory workers. He owns the family home in Shanghai, but shares it with an abundance of relations. Soon, Lu, his wife and daughter will be moving into a three-room apartment on the Fudan University campus--an unusually spacious establishment by Chinese standards.
Lu's firsthand knowledge of America comes from a year he spent here helping American scholars work on a Chinese-English dictionary. It was Lu's first trip overseas, and his first prolonged separation from his wife and daughter. "I did not have what they call 'culture shock,' " he says. "I was very homesick, though."
Early in his stay, he remembers remarking: "I did not expect to see canines so widespread." But today that tale is told with a laugh about the offbeat phrasing.
Among the other American traits that first struck him: cold drinks, material well-being ("especially the housing"), serious work habits ("Work ethics are pretty good here. Work is work. Play is play."), and the fact that American drivers go easy on their horns--at least compared with Shanghai, where drivers have been known to commence honking even before they start up their cars.
And "this tenure system is pretty good," says Lu. By which he means, not tenure itself, but the period of competition for it. "We don't have a shadow of that sort of thing," he says. In China, tenure is early and automatic, and old professors rarely bother to teach. Nor can they be compelled to, says Lu, "because of the respect they command." The underlying difficulty, he says, is the generous policy the Chinese call "eating from the same big pot."
"That's one of the things China is trying to wrestle with," he says.
At the University of Colorado, Lu was stunned to learn that teachers were rated every semester by their students--an innovation he found so appealing that he proposed its adoption in China during a debriefing session with the Ministry of Higher Education.
But Lu has decidedly ambivalent feelings about the current "fever" of Chinese enthusiasm for America and Americana. "When I first came to live amidst such material well-being, of course, I could enjoy these things," he says, "but I kept thinking, well, these things don't belong to me." He looks on the United States, he says, as one big hotel, where he is emphatically a guest.
In Shanghai lately, Chinese youths have taken to carrying portable cassette players and riding motorcycles, and parents have begun putting the arm on their American relations to sponsor Chinese college applicants here. "The effort to understand English, to understand western culture, is largely healthy," says Lu. "But there are young people who have made it their lifetime goal to leave China and to settle down here. That's despicable!"
He flew to Washington two weeks ago to take part in a conference at the University of Maryland. In his lecture on Chinese-Western interchange after the first World War, Lu recalled that "some of the Chinese dramatists would lie prostrate before the feet of western dramatists." They complained, among other things, about the absence of a concept of tragedy in Chinese drama (which Lu believes to have been a misplaced criticism; there were Chinese tragedies, he says, but they tended to have abrupt happy endings tacked onto the end).
Today, he fears a return of that kind of national self-loathing. "China has a lot of good things," he says, "such as Chinese philosophy, which emphasizes patience and tolerance."
(And, Bladey reminds him, Chinese beer, which "comes in bottles twice this size.")
When he defends his country and excoriates those who would leave it, Lu says "this is my father speaking through me." At the time of the 1949 revolution, his father worked for a Hong Kong shipping magnate, who urged him to leave Shanghai and move his family to Hong Kong. Instead, in the early '50s, Lu's father moved back to Shanghai. This was because, in Hong Kong, "life was so hectic for him--people were so material-oriented," Lu explains.
Lu's mother died when he was 8, and his father never remarried. "My father was father, mother, mentor and tutor to me," says Lu.
His father was also a scholar of French, and "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "The Three Musketeers" were two of Lu's favorite books as a boy. He studied Russian in high school, reading Turgenev and Chekhov, "and Russian music was played all the time," he recalls. But he hasn't had too much use for his Russian lately, what with the chill on Sino-Soviet relations.
At Fudan University, Lu has taught American literature as well as Shakespeare. The literature course goes from colonial writers through Cooper, Emerson and Poe right up to what Lu describes as the contemporary "Jewish school."
"There's a lot of interest in the Jewish school," says Lu.
When he returns to Shanghai, Lu will start his Shakespeare course with a half-semester devoted to "Hamlet." Shakespeare is catching on in China, he says. "Romeo and Juliet" was recently performed in Tibetan, and a drama class production of "King Lear" was shown on national television. Chinese audiences "like to be there even if they don't understand very much," he says.
Nevertheless, a Chinese Shakespeare expert remains a definite novelty in the West. Last year, Lu raised a few eyebrows when he delivered a paper on "Hamlet Across Time and Space" at a British Shakespeare colloquium. "I was the first Chinese speaker ever there at the conference," he says.
He looks for a parallel. He finds one.
"I was a panda bear."