A Chinese boyfriend/Chinese husband and foreign woman 30 years ago, through “Son of the Revolution”

As I’ve written before, Chinese men and foreign women — dating or marrying — are a rarity. But when Liang Heng and Judy Shapiro fell in love in China in 1979, they weren’t just a rarity — they were pioneers at a time when the idea of marriages between foreigners and Chinese were still questionable.

Most people read the 1983 book Son of the Revolution — written by the couple — to learn more about the experience of living through Chairman Mao’s rule and the Cultural Revolution. I, however, was anxious to know about the challenges they faced in their relationship, and how they overcame the odds to marry in a China that had barely opened up.

Liang Heng, studying to be a Chinese language teacher at Hunan Teacher’s College, first met Judy Shapiro, the resident English teacher and foreign expert, when he needed help with a translation. But pretty soon, the two made more than just beautiful prose together. This relationship — a Chinese man and an American woman — was something that not even the two of them could keep secret forever. After an old cadre saw Liang’s pants and shoes in Judy’s apartment, the couple anxiously decided to go public to him:

“He said it’s wonderful that I have a boyfriend,” [Judy] reported happily. “And he said Chinese-foreign marriages are permitted now!” Relief flooded my heart, but I knew too well how extraordinary was the step we had taken to think that everything would work out so smoothly.

Liang’s fears came true when his department leaders spoke with him:

There were three of them, all political cadres, and they had no interest in international diplomacy. “Remember that you are Chinese,” they said sternly. “You must love your motherland. There is a difference between insiders and outsiders.”

Whoa. While my Chinese husband, John, never heard these exact words from his parents, they certainly thought about it. Still these were cadres, not Liang’s family. Maybe that’s why they wanted to ask Liang’s mother’s opinion about the relationship:

This could be disastrous, as I had not yet taken Judy to meet my mother….According to custom, I should have introduced Judy to [my mother and Uncle Lei, who lived with her], but I had been reluctant to fighten Mother with the news that I was involved with a foreigner….The only solution was to race into town ahead of the cadres to explain the situation and obtain Mother’s support. Without her approval, we would never get permission to love each other.

Interesting — and completely unlike my experience with my Chinese husband John. He initially didn’t have full support from his parents. But he ignored their wishes — and they eventually permitted him to bring me over for Chinese New Year. So, what did Liang’s mother and uncle have to say?

They were horrified by my news. I spent nearly three hours there talking them around, beginning by assuring them that such a relationship was now legal, despite so many years of an-American propaganda. Then I had to allay their fears about her character.

With confidence, I explained that what Judy needed was exactly what I could give her most easily — a permanent, loyal relationship. In America, she had told me, contrary to what Chinese propaganda said, the young people are raised with the desire to make deep commitments. I also told my mother that Judy love China deeply, that she had spent eight years learning Chinese, and that her work would be connected with China for her whole life. We would be able to help each other.

“She really loves me, Mother,” I said proudly. “I can swear to you that she will be a good wife.”

I love how Liang Heng presents his relationship — the idea of helping each other is exactly what my Chinese husband John would have said. But fear still looms large:

“But where will you live?” asked Uncle Lei, a new fear emerging….”We don’t know yet,” I said gently. “If we are together we will be happy. But we would never leave China forever.”

The following day, Uncle Lei came to my dormitory. He was furious. The cadres had indeed followed me to my mother’s. They had said the friendship would never work because Judy was from a Capitalist country and I was from a Socialist one. Also, my salary was one sixth of hers, so we were obviously unequally matched. Judy would just leave me behind when she returned to America, or, if she took me with her, abandon me there without any family or friends. “Westerners marry and divorce just for the fun of it,” they had said. “We’re just trying to protect your son.”

While the political argument doesn’t factor in today, the others do — that a Chinese man wouldn’t make enough to satisfy a foreigner (a fear my in-laws had), that Westerners (and Western women) are loose in marriage.

But there was another worry for Liang, because Liang’s mother believed the cadres would speak with Liang’s father — a man so traumatized and ravaged by the Cultural Revolution that the appearance of cadres, reporting the son’s relationship with a foreigner, would make him relive the nightmares of that time. :

That night, I could hardly sleep, and the next afternoon, I learned that I had been right to worry. Liang Fang [his sister] arrived, so frantic that she practically ignored Judy, launching immediately into a torrent of accusations about my selfishness and lack of concern for Father’s health. It seemed the cadres had made it sound as if I were practically in jail already, and then demanded to know if Father approved my actions. It was all he could do to appoint Liang Fang family deputy before collapsing, shaking, onto the bed.

Still, the law is the law — Chinese were allowed to marry foreigners. And the law helped bolster Liang’s relationship in the family:

Only after Judy’s cadre returned from the Foreign Affairs Office with a copy of the document permitting Chinese-foreign marriages did Liang Fang relax a little and smile. Father would believe a Party document, she said; since we said Mother supported the relationship, she would tell the leaders that Father did too.

And just as my future Chinese in-laws discovered, there’s a difference between propaganda and reality:

Only when I was seated could Mother get her first good look at Judy. I suppose she had imagined that all foreign women had painted lips and fingernails, and here was one in army sneakers so simple that only peasants would wear them! Suddenly Mother seemed completely at ease. She began to fuss over Judy as if she were her own daughter.

Thus, Judy won the hearts and minds of Liang’s family. But what about the hearts and minds of the public? Well, just imagine what a headline it must have been when people discovered that an American woman had a Chinese boyfriend — in Hunan, of all places:

The whole city was speculating about me. I was said to be a man of mystery, the son of a high-ranking cadre, a man of extraordinary good looks, an immoral who had had many girlfriends. Some said I wanted to get rich and go to America, others that Judy and I had signed a contract for a temporary alliance that would end when she left the country. And when we went out walking together, openly now, people no longer stared at the foreigner, but at the unfathomable Chinese who had dared to court her. If I waited at a bus stop, a circle gathered around me; if I bought cigarettes at the school shop, the salesgirls hurried to wait on me so they could get a closer look. I even began to dread going to class, where I would have to deal with my classmates’ incredulous questions. The general reaction was a shock to Judy, who came from a country in which marriages between people of different cultures were not uncommon. I soon found myself protecting her by keeping most of the gossip to myself. She clung to our friends’ explanation: shao jian duo guai, “What is seldom encountered is found to seem strange,” and hoped that the wave of talk would pass quickly over.

Liang, however, had more practical concerns: would they be able to marry?:

The local Foreign Affairs Office, which had authority over Judy, presented no objections; the document permitting Chinese-foreign marriages came from the ministry in Peking. The problem was the authorities over me, the college officials. We went to visit Vice-Dean Yin.

She gave us a cool reception in her dark apartment, not even pouring us tea. Apparently she had heard all about our request, and her mind was made up. When she spoke, she addressed Judy alone. “You are a foreigner. Perhaps you don’t understand our Socialist country. Ours is a collective leadership, carrying out policies according to documents transmitted from higher levels. Several months ago, we received a notice from the Ministry of Higher Education via Hunan’s Department of Education forbidding student marriages. Liang Heng is a Chinese student. He must obey the decision of the leadership.”

No matter how we explained our thoughts and pleaded with her, she repeated the same words. When I spoke she avoided my eyes, as if a mere student had done wrong in daring to speak with a college administrator. I should have remained in my place and spoken only to the people in the rung above me in the ladder, my department leaders. When I expressed my fears of not being able to marry if we waited until after I graduated, she said, “Your suspicions of Party instability show that you lack faith in the Party. This is an incorrect viewpoint.” Then she rose rose to see us out, shaking hands warmly with Judy, but waving my outstretched hand away.

Ouch. The whole question of to marry or not marry didn’t even enter into my relationship with John. By the time we decided to marry, they had already changed the laws. Today, you don’t need work unit permission, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a student or not. But Liang and Judy weren’t so lucky — they had to fight for their love:

For nearly two months, Judy and I spent every moment of our free time writing reports and making telephone calls, crossing the river to urge the Foreign Affairs officials to use their influence with the college, to make a positive decision. Every day we suffered and wept, but we were very strong, too. If anything, our love became even more powerful in the face of all of our troubles.

Many teachers told Judy, “This is a bad place. In another province, it would be easier.” In fact, Hunan was very backward. Since Deng Xiao-ping’s reappearance in the summer of 1977, the newspapers had been full of attractive new slogans about reform and “thought liberation,” but in our province the influence of the Gang of Four was unusually pernicious, and the new policies were resisted at every turn. We were kicked back and forth like footballs between the Foreign Affairs Office, the College Office, and the Provincial Education Department, each group of leaders claiming it had no power to act. They did have the power to say no, though. When Judy applied for a week’s leave to go to Peking and see if she could get things straightened out at the higher levels, the college leaders told her, “We do not approve your request. It is unnecessary to bring this matter to Peking. If you insist on going, we will dock your pay and terminate your position here when your contract expires.”

Liang figured he’d have to drop out of school. But wait. Judy had one last chance: Deng Xiaoping:

…Judy wrote an impassioned letter to the highest leaders in Peking, including those at the Ministry of Higher Education and the Peking Foreign Experts’ Bureau. As an afterthought, we also addressed a copy of her letter to Deng Xiao-ping, Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

It seemed incredible then — and still seems so now — but Deng, the most powerful man in the country, read Judy’s appeal. An official later told me privately that he frowned impatiently, said, “Of course they should be allowed to marry,” and scrawled instructions that approval should be sent down via Premier Zhao Zi-yang.

We had won.

Finally, they could marry. Just like John and I, they went to a government office to get their license:

One sunny afternoon…Judy and I bicycled down to the Western District Revolutionary Committee to pay eight jiao for our marriage license. With a minimum of fuss, the official there gave us a lovely document decorated with pictures of flags, the Daqing Oilfields, and the model commune Dazhai. The whole process took only fifteen minutes.

And then the wedding — one of the most fascinating parts of their story. My marriage to John was far more ostentatious than I imagined. Judy and Liang felt much the same about theirs:

The Foreign Affairs Office had arranged everything, reserving a huge room in the exclusive Xiang River Hotel. They also graciously offered to help out with expenses, which mostly involved the purchase of nearly one hundred pounds of candy for the four hundred guests (at least two pieces per person were necessary to ensure good luck). We might have been happier with something simpler, of course, but the overtones of international diplomacy were overwhelming.

….None of [Liang’s relatives] had ever dreamed of entering the hotel compound, and they stared in awe at the marble floors and lofty ceilings. It was a moment of great joy for me when I took Waipo, now nearly seventy-five and almost toothless, into the elevator and up to the top floor, the ninth, to see the whole city. Waipo had never even been across the river to the West Bank to see the Lovely Evening Pavilion, and she had tears of excitement in her eyes. Then we rode down again, Waipo pushing the button herself, and we walked into the meeting room where everything was ready for the ceremony to begin.

On the other hand, unlike mine, politics hung heavy over the marriage of Judy and Liang:

It was a real “Revolutionary comrades” wedding. The chairs had been set up in a square pattern facing toward the center, and Judy and I were placed in one of the front rows, with the head of the Foreign Affairs Office next to me and a college leader next to her. Beyond them were my mother and Uncle Lei, and the handful of other foreign teachers working in Changsha. The head of the Foreign Affairs Office, as the highest-ranking leader present, opened the meeting. “I represent the Hunan Provincial Party Committee in congratulating the Foreign Expert Xia Zhu-li and Comrade Liang Heng,” he said, standing and reading from a slip of paper. “Since the smashing of the Gang of Four, the United States of America has become one of China’s closest friends. The marriage of Xia Zhu-li and Liang Heng symbolizes this friendship. We hope that your love will grow stronger and stronger just as the friendship between the two countries grows deeper and deeper…”

After the marriage, Liang Heng finished his studies and taught Chinese at a top middle school in Zhuzhou, Hunan before immigrating with Judy Shapiro to the US.

This snapshot of Chinese-foreign dating and marriage in 1979-1980 reminds me how far China has come. Yet, unfortunately, many of the same perceptions of foreigners — and foreign women in particular — dating and marrying Chinese men remain today.

Still love happens. It happened then. It happens now…so more and more Chinese men and foreign women will get together in the future.

And I can’t wait to hear their stories.

How about you? What do you think of the experiences of Judy Shapiro and Liang Heng in Son of the Revolution?

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12 Replies to “A Chinese boyfriend/Chinese husband and foreign woman 30 years ago, through “Son of the Revolution””

  1. Thanks for a very intriguing writeup. I’ll certainly read Son of the Revolution. Mixed marriages in a homogeneous culture always sparks curiosity at the very least. Here in Canada it rarely gets more than a casual yawn.

  2. Hey, this is a really touching piece. I’m just learning about Chinese culture really, and I can’t imagine falling in love with a Chinese woman, just because of how different I imagine it to be. But I’m sure in the right circumstances it could, and obviously does happen. It’s so beautiful when it does. Cool! All the best to you. ill check out this blog more often.

  3. I think you are right about there will be more Chinese men marrying foreign women. People understand people from different countries and backgrounds much better than they used to be. I have not got a chance to read the book you mentioned. But it is worth to point out that even Chinese marriages in those days are very complicated and politically influenced rather than a simple love story.

  4. They moved to the States in the early ’80s, and I am pretty sure I remember reading somewhere that they got divorced — I was pretty dissillusioned after hearing that, as I enjoyed the book as well! Thankfully, not all cross-cultural marriages are doomed, and not everybody ends up going to the U.S. My husband and I are about to celebrate our 13th wedding anniversary, both families are totally accepting and wonderful as inlaws, and we have two great bilingual, bicultural kids.

    By the time we married in 1996, it wasn’t such an unusual thing. But we did get a show made about us by the local television station when we went back for the local wedding in the summer of 1997.

  5. “Westerners marry and divorce just for the fun of it,”

    Someone’s been watching too much hollywood..

  6. It seems that in the world Asian man-Western woman–couples are rare, but I’ve grown up in a Chinese-Western family.
    My grandmother (Finnish) met my grandfather (Chinese) in the 40’s. They had two sons, my uncle and my dad. When they lived in China, my grandfather was accused for being “rebellious” and not faithful to his country and during the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to some concentration/work camp. My grandmother was accused of being a spy and she was house arrested for years. But they have stayed by each others sides for almost 70 years. Now they are both 94 years old, living in Finland, still happily married.

    When it comes to “mixing” in my family, my mom (full out blond white person) married my dad. And eventually I ended up marrying a Korean(-American) man.

    I lost the idea why I was writing this reply, but I had a really good point in my mind at first. 😀

  7. You really should learn a bit more about this story…… Judy Shapiro took a “proprietary interest” in Liang Heng. She brought him to the US and marketed him. In the 1980s it was commonplace to hear China experts refer to poor Liang as “Judy Shapiro’s Chinaman”! The whole thing was tawdry. Shapiro was his “manager”. But by the end of the 1980s things had changed in China, with the rise of a new student movement and new realities on the ground. People no longer wanted to pay to hear about how Liang had suffered decades earlier as a child. And the market for Cultural Revolution memoirs also got glutted, with numerous other and much more interesting books than “Son of the Revolution”. Judy cut her losses. Word has it that she was banging guys left and right long before she dumped Liang, though. A real love story, huh?

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