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Translating China

The life and legacy of Sidney Sharpiro


Translating China

The life and legacy of Sidney Sharpiro


“It’s always the same questions,” Sidney Shapiro complained over the phone, when we first contacted him for an interview. “Why did you come to China, why did you decide to stay. And I’m just sick of it,” he paused. “I’m very busy, you know.”

Shapiro meant that his dance card was full, but on a slightly longer scale this is a laughable understatement. At 96, Shapiro has weathered several lifetimes of work and experiences, undergoing a series of metamorphoses that ultimately transformed him from a Depression-era lawyer in New York to respected elder statesman in Beijing. Along the way he gained another distinction: as one of the most important literary translators of his generation.

In recent years, renewed interest in Shapiro’s life and work has led to a spate of articles in both the Chinese and the Western media. Though Shapiro is revered in China, among Western writers he’s earned a reputation for being a difficult interview. A recent piece about him in the Jewish newspaper, The Forward, painted Shapiro as a sharp-tongued curmudgeon prone to mocking his interviewer. An acquaintance at another publication told us that he demanded journalists complete his 400-plus page autobiography before he’d agree to an interview.

It was after jumping through all the appropriate hoops that we found ourselves standing in front of a great wooden door on Nanguanfang Hutong, a winding narrow street in the old Houhai neighborhood of Beijing. We were greeted by a quiet, middle-aged Chinese woman who led us through a courtyard filled with flowers to the door of a stone house. “His hearing isn’t so good,” she said solemnly as she knocked on the door. Her demeanor was sobering. A vision rose in front of my eyes of a gnarled old man curled into a rocking chair, stamping his cane against the floor and demanding that we hurry it up already.

Still, we were prepared to take a little bit of abuse. This, after all, was the man who’s done some of the most important Chinese-English translation work of the past 50 years, including some of the first work to come out of New China; the man who became one of only a handful of Westerners to be granted citizenship by the PRC; and the man who, decades before most of us were born, faced down death as a Western intellectual working in the thick of the Cultural Revolution.

When the door finally swung open, we were hit by a blast of music. Before us stood a small white-haired man in a button-down Oxford shirt and shorts, beaming up at us. “You must be from the magazine!” he said, ushering us in. “Welcome, welcome,” he said in both English and Chinese. “I don’t know which language to speak.” He looked between me and our Chinese photographer.

The house was a spacious one-room, simply and tastefully decorated with a rug, comfortable wood furniture, wall hangings and a big-screen TV. Shapiro turned toward the television. “Do you know Leonard Cohen?” he shouted over the music. On the screen, the 60s-era counterculture bard was rocking out to Latin beats. “This is one of his live sessions,” Shapiro said. “I think it’s just wonderful. I like to play it really loud and do my taijiquan.”

Leonard Cohen lighting up Sidney Shapiro's living room.

Leonard Cohen lit up Sidney Shapiro’s living room while he did taijiquan.

This was far from the sharp, ascetic intellectual that the articles about him had suggested. For a man who’s lived in China for two-thirds of his life, Shapiro is still deeply American, albeit one with the slightly embarrassed hospitality of a Chinese. After offering us ice cream and fussing over whether we should eat the pie we’d brought him now or later, we finally settled into his dining table to talk about his life. “So,” Shapiro said, placing his hands on the table. “What is it that you want to know?”

We already knew the basics. A Brooklyn-bred Jew, Shapiro was just past 30 when he landed in Shanghai in 1947, looking for adventure and an escape from the New York rat race. Armed with little more than $200 and some wartime training in Chinese, Shapiro was quickly swept up in the swirling cultural and political tides. He married Fengzi, a Chinese actress and member of the Communist underground, witnessed the giddy euphoria of 1949 liberation, and spent the following tempestuous decades working as a literary translator. Through it all, he’s maintained a healthy public presence— as an actor in Chinese fi lms, a staunch writer of letters to the editor, a member of governmental committees and a tireless advocate of everything Chinese. Yet in the decades since he gave interviews to The Washington Post and deployed public opinions on the state of Chinese society, Shapiro seems to have crystallized: from a public scholar and social critic into a kind of sanitized icon.

After some drawn-out chit-chat on the superiority of electric heating over coal, and the recent doings of his granddaughter Stella (a discussion eye-glazingly evocative of church potlucks), we eased into conversation about Shapiro’s past. With a sunny garrulousness, Shapiro meandered from his early days as a lawyer working with left-wing theater groups, to how the military convinced him to go off and study Chinese (“They told me the campus would be co-ed, and I said, ‘I’ll take it!’”). Despite his professed distaste for repeating himself, Shapiro recounted entire episodes from his book, delivering the same punchlines with a true storyteller’s relish. Like his book, Shapiro had a maddeningly roundabout way of spinning his tales, weaving long, elliptical narratives that revolved more around history and theories than his own experiences.

Lessons and theories aside, Shapiro is rich with gems of anecdotes about his early days in China. There are the tales of his time in pre-liberation Shanghai, when he was deputized by the American Consulate to talk Jewish refugees into seeking visas to countries other than the US. There’s the story of his and Fengzi’s daring attempt to escape to the Communist territories, right under the noses of murderous Guomindang forces (foiled, in the end, by Shapiro’s status as a foreigner). Post-liberation, in Beijing, there was the expat hangout called the Dump, where the remaining Westerners would hang out with beers and occasionally slip upstairs for a little fun with the resident ladies. And years later, in the late 1970s, there was his run-in with American playwright Arthur Miller, who interviewed Shapiro for an article that later led to an acerbic back-and-forth between the two men in the pages of The Atlantic. “He infuriated me!” Shapiro said.

But the most fascinating of Shapiro’s stories lie at the nexus of both his own and the country’s upheaval—a period when personal and political turmoil crashed into each other to form a perfect storm, one that would flood the country with chaos. Ironically, it was during the Cultural Revolution—the most destructive period in New China’s history—that Shapiro would experience his greatest creative triumph.

Shapiro riding his bike in Beijing in 1967. The picture was taken outside of the hutong residence where he still resides.

Shapiro riding his bike in Beijing in 1967. The picture was taken outside of the hutong residence where he resided.

In both his book and conversation, Shapiro is reserved about the Cultural Revolution, walking a fine narrative line that decries the period’s excesses while forgiving them as the result of youth fanaticism manipulated by the corrupt Gang of Four. Always the scholar, Shapiro regards the era with the detached vigor of a historian, every so often throwing in—with his light touch and dry wit—bits of anecdotal evidence culled from his own life. Years later, it seems only natural that Shapiro should treat the Cultural Revolution as an era long past, a closed book that sits on his shelf along with rows of Chinese classics. But none of this means his experience wasn’t like so many others: lonely, turbulent and terrifying.

Though his job shielded him from arrest early on, Shapiro was separated from both his wife and his daughter. Thanks to a personal vendetta of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, Fengzi was imprisoned for most of these years, while the couple’s only daughter was sent away to a paper mill for re-education. Many of Shapiro’s friends, artists and intellectuals, were persecuted and Shapiro himself lived under the long shadow that Jiang Qing cast over Foreign Language Press (FLP) where Shapiro worked. Shapiro’s saving grace during these dark years was what would become his greatest legacy: his landmark translation of “Shuihu Zhuan” (水浒传), a thousands-page long epic written in the 14th century, regarded as one of China’s Great Four Novels.

“It was my whole life, my great interest, and I enjoyed doing it,” he said. The book was a massive undertaking, not only because of its length, but because the historical context and antiquated language required extensive research. However, when asked how long it took, Shapiro doesn’t know. “I can’t say,” he said, “because we kept being interrupted.” It was, ironically, Shapiro’s and FLP’s most prestigious project that almost got him killed.

“Shuihu Zhuan” focuses on the adventures of Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) outlaw Song Jiang and companions, a band of Robin Hoods who led rebellious campaigns against a corrupt government. At the time of the Cultural Revolution, these bloody fables raised uncomfortable analogies that soon drew the attention of Jiang Qing.

Jiang Qing feared that her longtime nemesis Zhou Enlai would be read as a modern-day Song Jiang, positioning him as a Robin Hood against the corrupt government that was the Gang of Four. The project would have to go through, but Jiang Qing didn’t want Song Jiang painted as a hero— which meant nixing Shapiro’s proposed title, “Heroes of the Marsh.” “She sent some of her hoods down to the Foreign Language Press, these mafi a boys of hers, and they came and raised a big row,” Shapiro recalled. “So it was up to me to think, how the devil can we do it? And this was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, when you could be arrested or beaten up or killed and so on, and there were a lot of people involved; it wasn’t just me who would be hurt.”

It was at this moment that Shapiro was called upon to do something that translators, as a rule, don’t do—use all their skills and all their knowledge to muddy the waters. His proposal was a simple one: change “heroes” to “outlaws.”

“Their English wasn’t all that good, and they thought it meant something like tufei (土匪, bandits). And I said, ‘Well, that’s one way you could look at it…’” Shapiro’s eyes twinkle as he delivers the punchline; he is clearly still tickled at having pulled off the greatest translation trick of his career.

In the end, Jiang Qing’s people agreed, blissfully unaware that in English “outlaws” are thought of more as folk heroes than criminals. It was by exploiting this ambiguity that Shapiro was able to keep both his head and his integrity.

Ask Shapiro how long “Outlaws” took to complete, and he couldn’t tell you. Though he spent most of the Cultural Revolution working on “Outlaws,” his progress stuttered along unevenly thanks to harassment from Jiang Qing. When asked if he ever feared for his life, Shapiro answered, “Well, there was that possibility [of being arrested]. But my joke was that I was saved by Song Jiang.” In other words, he was saved by China’s love for the book, and the prestige of the project. “It was not only an honor to me, but it was a feather in the cap of the leadership of FLP,” he said. “There was a big battle going on between the two factions who were physically killing each other in some places, and they both wanted to take credit. So they left me alone, because they wanted this thing to come out.”


Seated in his comfortable hutong home, surrounded by worn memorabilia and soft pools of sunlight, Shapiro laughed over the idea of Song Jiang saving his life. For many people, this experience—not to mention the separation from his family—would have been harrowing enough to spur a move from the country, or at least a rethinking of its direction.

Shapiro with his wife, Fenzi. In her younger years, Fengzi was an activist and actress, and she later became a respected journalist and magazine editor.

Shapiro with his wife, Fenzi. In her younger years, Fengzi was an activist and actress, and she later became a respected journalist and magazine editor.

Yet Shapiro not only stayed, he deepened his connections with China. After the Cultural Revolution, having completed the greatest work of his life, Shapiro retired from literary translating, and moved on to a flurry of projects. In the 1980s, he kept busy touring the country with a government group, while editing projects on the side. After the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the US, he began to travel more frequently to the States and became an emissary of sorts between China, the US and Israel (leading, eventually, to his tumultuous encounter with Arthur Miller). He wrote two autobiographies and became an avid writer of letters to the editor, dispelling misconceptions in Western media and deploying finger-wagging missives about everything from TV to literacy in Chinese papers.

Yet all of this only heightens the question that, as one of New China’s earliest expats, has dogged him all his life: why did he stay? Why did he stay when so many others fled?

There are the obvious answers—his family, his friends, his career. For a man as curious and energetic as Shapiro, there was the intellectual puzzle that China consistently provided, as he spent a lifetime piecing together the language, the culture, the history and the evolving political situation. But more importantly—and perhaps inexplicably—than that, there was the stake that Shapiro had in the great experiment that was New China.

“When I first came, the country was completely disintegrating,” he said. “All through the 19th century, there was a question among intellectuals of how to ‘save China’. And they tried everything… It wasn’t until something called the Communist Party came into existence that they began to work on really having a creed—a basic standard of values that would work.”

Shapiro is effusive about Maoist thought and revolutionary values, which for him remain synonymous with the radical liberation and egalitarianism that he witnessed in 1949. He described the day the PRC declared independence in his book, My China:

“We stood that day with hundreds of thousands in the square before Tiananmen… Fengzi was in tears, and I was deeply moved. It wasn’t my country, I was a foreigner. But in that sea of humanity I could feel the emotions sweeping through like an electric current. People in shabby-patched clothes. Army men and women, sprucer, but whose uniforms showed signs of hard wear. The crowd had been silent at first, recalling years of suffering and fighting. But now, at last, victory. A roar welled from thousands of throats, a heart-cry of triumph and resolve.”

To hear him talk of those days today, it’s clear that the thrill, hope and relief of October 1, 1949 remain as vivid to him now as it was then. And it’s this that continues to drive him at 96—against his better judgment—to continue receiving journalists, and explaining to them the promise of New China again and again. It’s what drove him last year, while at a televised lifetime achievement ceremony, to deliver a prodding speech from the podium about the importance of revolutionary values. And it’s what, these days, continues to convince him that what he has done doesn’t really matter.

Shapiro has served a number of roles since coming to China: literary translator, public intellectual, foreign emissary, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. But when I asked him what he hopes he will be remembered for, he responded simply. “To know that I don’t really amount to very much, and that it would be shameful for me or anyone else to think that I’ve done anything terribly special,” he said. “I’ve done a little bit, but not nearly what is required of me and all of us.”

Selected Works Translated and Written by Sidney Shapiro:

Shapiro Book 1

The Family – 1958
Widely renowned as author Ba Jin’s most famous and well-loved work, “The Family” tells the story of an aristocratic family in Chengdu, focusing on the three brothers and the ways in which they are oppressed by their feudal background.

Shapiro Book 2

Jews in Old China – 1984
Motivated by the curiosity of Western visitors, as well as his own background, Shapiro enlisted the help of 12 Chinese scholars, historians, archaeologists and sociologists in digging up the 100-plus-year history of Diaspora Jews living in China.

Shapiro Book 3

The Law and Lore – 1990
This compilation, which aims at highlighting the effects of feudalism on Chinese law and justice, boasts a mix of history and literature on the subject. The book was born of Shapiro’s dual interest in law and literature, as a way of providing context to people when they were grappling. with issues of legal rights.



My China - 1997Written roughly 15 years after the publication of his first autobiography, "An American in China," "My China" expands on Shapiro's early years growing up in Brooklyn, and traces his transformation into a full-fledged Chinese national

My China: The Metamorphosis of a Country and a Man  – 1997
Written roughly 15 years after the publication of his first autobiography, “An American in China,” “My China” expands on Shapiro’s early years growing up in Brooklyn, and traces his transformation into a full-fledged Chinese national

 More: The Man Who Fooled Mao’s Wife — An Interview with Translator Sidney Shapiro.