SAISer Book Review: “Daughter of China:”A Tale of Espionage at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center in 1980s Communist China

By Aidan Li Ping Greer

  • “Daughter of China: The True Story of Forbidden Love in Modern China”
  • By Meihong Xu and Larry Engelmann
  • Paperback, 378 pages
  • Published 1999 by Headline Book Publishing
The original cover of “Daughter of China.”

“Are there spies among us?”

It is not uncommon to overhear Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) students and professors alike joke about being monitored by the Chinese government while on the HNC campus of Nanjing University. In 1988, the answer to that question would have been simple: yes. In that year, and most likely since HNC’s conception in 1986, not only were incoming and outgoing letters screened, telephones tapped and members of the housekeeping and administrative staff required to report to the Ministry of State Security, but a member of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Second Bureau (the intelligence bureau) was a student. Her name was Xu Meihong.

Published in 1999, Xu’s autobiography, “Daughter of China”, co-written with her ex-husband Larry Engelmann, details an amazing story of trials and tribulations during one of China’s most chaotic periods that is even more astonishing because it is true. A seemingly straight-and-narrow Chinese woman, Xu was the daughter of two members of the Chinese Communist Party and joined the Communist Youth League. She was one of 12 women, known as the “12 Pandas,” selected as the first class of female intelligence operatives with the specific goal of working with Americans. As such, she was sent to the newly created HNC to better understand American culture and politics. But she was also there to observe a particular professor who the Chinese government believed to be an American operative: Larry Engelmann.

Contemporary Sino-US frictions frequently revolve around US accusations of Chinese espionage.

As Xu rose through the ranks of the PLA and completed her training, she became increasingly disillusioned by the pervasive corruption and favoritism in the Chinese military. Her feelings came to a head when she was ordered to spy on Professor Engelmann. As she spent more and more time with him, she became aware of two things: one, he wasn’t a spy, and two, she was falling in love. As their relationship developed, Xu’s loyalties wavered and the Chinese government and army’s suspicions grew, leading to her arrest and detention in December 1988. 

To categorize “Daughter of China” as an espionage-love story would be a disservice. Xu and Engelmann’s narrative relates the complicated and conflicting emotions of growing up and living in Communist China from the 1960s through the 1990s. China’s extensive and rich history is fraught with conflict and Xu effectively frames her modern experiences against the backdrop of her family history, dating to the generation of her great-grandparents. This history spans the end of the Qing Dynasty, the Japanese invasion and Communist China under Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The writing is at times circuitous, as Xu’s timeline alternates between real-time events and the stories of her past. Regardless, “Daughter of China” is moving and evocative. The reader is forced to confront both the personal and sociopolitical issues of traditional family shame, self-discovery and conflicting U.S.-China relations, some of which are still present in China today. 

Xu Meihong lived these experiences. As HNC students, we continue to discuss them in our classrooms, as we learn about the views of Chinese students and professors with relative freedom compared with much of China outside the HNC’s walls. Today, most international students (mostly American) have a Chinese roommate. These roommates come from all backgrounds including current, former and future Party members, concurrent graduate students, and young entrepreneurs. Although classroom settings allow for a certain formal discussion, personal conversations often elicit more stimulating debates on Taiwan, Hong Kong, democracy or religion. From late night discussions with roommates to spirited debates on WeChat, HNC students are uniquely placed to engage in provocative and contentious discourse, sometimes finding that agreeing to disagree is the ultimate conclusion, other times being surprised by agreement. 

Yet, the Big Brother effect that felt oppressive to Xu is still palpable. Complications in research and communication due to the ever-present Great Firewall, increasing implementation of facial recognition technology, reliance on heavily monitored mobile applications like WeChat and the strict registration system indicate that China can still easily find and track individuals. If Xu Meihong’s story took place today, under the modern Chinese surveillance state, she may never have been able to marry Larry Englemann and flee to America as the spouse of an American citizen. Daughter of China tells the story of China’s history through one young woman’s struggle against one of the most powerful countries in the world. Though 30 years have passed since Xu Meihong’s story, HNC students continue to confront many of the same questions. 

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