China-The Surprising Country by Myra Roper: A Review

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I found this book during a Friends of the Library Sale. Until now, I had never heard of Myra Roper, a British born Australian educator, and and an expert in China. More information can be found here. China-The Surprising Country is a memoir of her travels in China. The focus is on her 1963 trip that resulted in a documentary about China from footage filmed in the country as authorized by the government, then under Mao Dezong. Without the first appendix, the book almost comes across an apology for communism and Mao despite Roper’s frequently disclaiming  to the contrary. If you should decide to read the book, read Appendix One first.

The tour that led to the book and the documentary was planned with care. Like all tours, only the good is shown to Roper and her group. Roper realizes that there are limitations to what she can show about China, and the state of its people. She realizes that the politics of the day ruled the people and controlled their lives. In spite of this, Roper is able to document in words and film how the common person lives and works. This is where the account is almost too happy, wholesome, but imperfect Roper writes. A glass bubble or willing or deliberate naivety, surrounds to the people Roper encountered and documented so that they avoid seeing and doing anything to disrupt the fragile peace, stability, and prosperity that so many  of of their countrymen fought and died for. It is a view far different than others that I have read and which were written by Chinese authors, including The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Zhu Xiao-Mei and Wild Swans:The Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.swans.

Roper, Zhu Xiao-Mei and Jung Chang’s accounts are different ways of looking at and evaluating the New China as it was termed by Roper. None of them are wrong, if you realize that for most people, politics was what Mao Dezong said it was. It was a blind faith or at least acceptance on their part. Those who could not accept this were termed counter-revolutionaries and life was much harsher for them. Does it mean they were wrong to protest, to challenge the system? No, Does it mean that Roper’s account was wrong. No, though inaccurate, or incomplete is an apt description. Nothing was ever mentioned about Mao’s wife, who  Zhu Xiao-Mei and Jung Chang wrote about. The Communist party structure is loosely detailed about in Roper’s account, much less than in the other two. The life outside Peking (now Beijing) is better documented by Roper but that could be that the other accounts are autobiographical and would include more limited information of other areas.

What would be Roper’s assessment if she were still living of today’s China? The crackdowns? The environmental degradation? A lot of what Roper wrote about seems to this author to have changed 180 degrees, and not for the good. A plausible explanation is that some of the children that Roper wrote about grew up and along with their children have wanted more, know more about the West, have seen what isolation has done to North Korea, how South Korea is prospering, seen the effects of Russian orthodoxy on Georgia, Afghanistan, and finally, seen in their lifetimes how Hong Kong has come under Chinese control when the Chinese government expressly disclaimed any intention in this regard to Roper.

As I have always believed, one cannot read too much or too broadly and so I recommend Roper’s account to you even as you know that things have changed a lot since she wrote China-The Surprising Country.

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