Letters from China

How "Letter from China" Grew

Every foreigner in China gets endless letters asking about the country. It is impossible to answer everyone at length. Two years ago I began making duplicate letters by carbon copies, so that each letter might answer three or four friends, with personal notes added by pen. Later I made "inserts" of duplicated material to drop into ten or a dozen personal letters. In September 1962, owing fifty letters and having much to chat about, I printed a special letterhead with a cut of Tien An Men I had made for a Christmas card, and mimeographed "Letter from China, No. 1" in sixty copies.

Fortunately or unfortunately, as you view it, I was going that evening to one of those big diplomatic banquets at the Great Hall of the People, and I took along copies of the letter to show American friends. All of them wanted some, to save their own letter-writing. When I wrote the second letter, on the "Sino-Indian Border Conflict", I made two hundred copies to supply these friends. This and the following letter "exploded". The subject was timely; it was republished in newspapers and journals in Australia, New Zealand, Djakarta, Colombo and Ghana. People wrote asking for more and wanting to "subscribe". I hesitated, not willing to feel bound by a couple of dollars to produce "letters" by the year.

Number Five, "A Year Ends! A Year Begins!" was a New Year's greeting in which several Americans and the New Zealander, Rewi Alley, pooled efforts and mailing-lists. We had to print it. It was far too long for mimeographing for when you consider the cost of airmail, printing is cheaper than mimeographing for letters of any length. We were now issuing a thousand copies. The handling had become a problem. Either I had to organize formally or give it up. I pondered this question while going south on winter vacation.

Meantime I produced two letters which went to very few people. Number Six, "Some Questions on Cuba", was very short, done in haste just as I started south, to answer questions that were coming in. I had run short of paper, and made only sixty copies, to send to the inquirers and a few old friends. While stopping over in Canton, I was impressed by the drama of the return of the weapons to India, and wrote a letter which I labelled "6a", but which went only to four editors. I was almost entirely out of paper and equipment, and merely made carbons on my typewriter in a Canton hotel room.

Six weeks later I was back in Peking, after a rest on Hainan Island in which I had firmly decided to stop writing "letters" until I could finish a book on "Behind the Sino-Indian Conflict", which I had begun to write months earlier and in which I had been interrupted by the letters. It was barely half done. The letters, while exciting, were exhausting and I felt there was more permanent value in a book.

My readers judged otherwise. In Peking I was met by a storm of demand from all parts of the world, and also by offers of help in spreading the letters. A group of Latin Americans wanted to translate them into Spanish, to circulate among their own friends all over Latin America; similar proposals came from French and Belgian residents, to translate into French for circulation into French Africa. A Brazilian was ready to translate into Portuguese for Brazil. All this help was voluntary; neither the translators nor the addressers of envelopes took any pay. Some of them even took collections among their friends for the airmail stamps. For the "Great Debate" about Communist policy was sweeping the world; questions about China were insistent everywhere.

I dropped the Sino-Indian book and returned to the letters, at first grudgingly. But as the tension of discussions increased, I knew that my readers and eager helpers were right. This was not the time for books, but for "letters", to send them as widely and as quickly as they could go.

The four letters that followed took finally a definite printed form, determined by the amount of printed paper that could be sent for a single airmail stamp, this being the chief element of cost. These printed letters were more than twice as long as the earlier mimeographed letters and were much harder to write. For in these I sought not merely a brief personal account of recent events, but a fairly comprehensive presentation of a subject, checked and re-checked in talks with various friends.

Number Seven discussed not only the return of the captured Indian soldiers, but the "Indian dream of empire". Number Eight took up the great importance of the Communist debate on "Man's Way Through This Epoch of Revolutions and Wars". Number Nine returned to the situation inside China, its economy and livelihood. Number Ten discussed many basic questions by telling my personal reasons for coming to China.

It was Number Eight, on the great debate about "Man's Way", that finally convinced me that this was the time for "letters" rather than books. It was twice printed in Peking; it was also printed in Canada, Australia, and Britain by people who wanted copies faster and in greater numbers than I could send by airmail. It was published in Spanish by a group of Latin Americans; and in Portuguese as a front page article in a new newspaper in Brazil. It was translated into French for French Africa as well as for France itself. All this was done by eager volunteers, some of whom gave up summer vacations to do it. These co-workers on the letters have not made my own work easier but have made it infinitely more fruitful. They have won the right to be consulted now in any future plans.

With Letter Number Ten I feel that I have for the moment said the chief things I have to say about China, and again I hope for the next three months to return to the Sino-Indian book. The time has therefore come to publish the "Ten Letters" in book form. Already they make a sizable volume which covers, though in sketchy form, the main events for China of the past year. These are, in order of time, but not of importance: the Sino-Indian Conflict, the Great Communist Discussion and China's domestic success in building her economy against difficulties and in raising the livelihood of her people.

The letters have all the lacks that come from their form, but also the advantages of a rapid informal coverage on the spot of events that have importance for the future of mankind.