Short Review of “Notes from China” by Barbara Tuchman

Over the weekend I read Notes from China by Barbara Tuchman. Notes from China was written after Stillwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945. Her criticism of the KMT government in that book (as well as Nixon’s opening to China) worked together to make the Chinese authorities identify her as a “friend of China,” and so Mrs. Tuchman became one of the first Americans to visit China after the thaw in relations.

Notes from China is a time-capsule. While much of the infrastructure of the Cultural Revolution is in place (Mao, the Gang of Four, Communes, Revolutionary Committees, Reeducation, Rustification, and so on), the naked violence had ended with the death of President Liu Shaoqi some year earlier. While Tuchman notes that the government is in control but not stable, she fears it will be many years until China moves from agriculture and embraces the world.

As Tuchman had spent four weeks in China before the World War, she is one of the few westerners (along with Sidney Rittenberg and Sidney Shapiro) to publish first-person accounts of China before and after the Communist take-over. Like the Sidneys, Tuchman is struck by the abolishment of extreme poverty, though she is much more critical of the total thought control.

Notes from China concludes with an essay that discusses Zhou Enlai’s request for a meeting between himself, Mao Zedong, and President Roosevelt in Washington, DC in 1945. The reasons for the request, the probable consequences of granting such a meeting, and why it was unlikely is discussed in an in-depth but very readible manner.

Notes from China is a great, first-person account of the late Cultural Revolution, and the reasons for the collapse of the KMT government in the 1940s.

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