HUNAN, Central China — In 1979, when Zhong Shuhe’s nine years of political imprisonment finally ended, the China he was set free in was undergoing profound changes. Mao Zedong had died, and the “reform and opening-up” period, in which China ended its isolation and reoriented its economy, was afoot.
Amid the change in the air, Zhong decided to pursue a long-held dream. He compiled a series of books, titled “From East to West,” that recounted the travels of Chinese intellectuals in the decades leading up to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 — another period of hope and uncertainty.
Despite the texts’ archaic writing and outdated content, the series was a hit among Chinese people who eagerly anticipated an international future but who no longer knew how to engage with the world. The books reminded them that if their forefathers had traveled far and wide, so could they.
In 1980, Zhong published the first book in his initial series of 35 titles. They became a nationwide sensation in a country starved of knowledge about the outside world, and are now praised as having helped China achieve intellectual liberation after decades of dogma.
Zhong, 91, is still as dedicated to his craft as he was four decades ago, despite suffering a stroke last year that paralyzed one side of his body. He has difficulty eating, reading, and writing, but he continues to work. And in today’s globalized era, he tells Sixth Tone sister publication The Paper, it’s all the more important for Chinese people to keep going abroad.
Zhong Shuhe reads at home in Changsha, Hunan province, July 2022. Courtesy of Lu Mi
A studious childhood
Zhong’s family witnessed the drastic shifts of 20th century China. At the end of the Qing Dynasty, his father took part in the imperial civil examination and was later accepted into the modern school founded by reformists, the Academy of Current Affairs, where he was taught by renowned scholar Liang Qichao.
When Zhong was born, in November 1931, his father was already 58 and working as a mathematics teacher at a middle school in Changsha, Hunan province. Zhong only remembers his father as an old man who would often go out drinking with friends and rarely kept him company. Nonetheless, he preferred him to his mother, because he never told him what to do and would often buy him books. By comparison, his mother was far stricter — a stern woman with a poor temper.
In the fall of 1938, as the Japanese army drew closer to Changsha, 7-year-old Zhong was sent back to his ancestral home in Pingjiang County, just north of the city wall, where his extended family still lived on large tracts of land accumulated over generations.
His father rarely came up from Changsha to see them. Once on his birthday, to avoid people stopping by his home in the city unannounced, he sneaked back to see Zhong. His father lamented that, compared to some of his classmates, like the revolutionary general Cai E or Director of Beijing Normal University Fan Yuanlian, he felt as though he’d accomplished nothing in life. “You need to study harder, lest you end up like me,” he exhorted.
Zhong was a mischievous and restless child; his arrival in Pingjiang was the first time he’d ever seen farm fields and the animals that roamed among them. But his mother didn’t allow him to run wild and instead insisted, to his great displeasure, that he study.
Zhong would often sift through the old books they had around the house. At first, he didn’t recognize many characters, but with time, his literacy improved. He’d spend evenings reading by the light of a lamp that projected silhouettes of Zhong and his mother, who would often be doing needlework, onto the wall.
He read virtually every old novel they had, as well as some newer books in which Chinese people spoke of their impressions of societies abroad. He enjoyed the classical poetry of female writer Lü Bicheng, but her life overseas as recorded in her travel log “Roaming in Europe and America” was very Westernized — a contrast that took Zhong by surprise.
The “From East to West” series. Courtesy of Lu Mi
He also read “My Life in China and America,” the memoir of “the forefather of overseas Chinese students” Yung Wing, as well as “Notes from My Travels to Eleven European Nations” by Kang Youwei, a central figure of the Hundred Days’ Reform movement of 1898. Zhong later included both these works in his “From East to West” series.
Owing to the upheaval of war, Zhong only attended six years of school. A paternal uncle and older male cousin, both educated, would sometimes teach him.
In June 1949, while Zhong attended the second year of high school, news broke that the communists were about to defeat the nationalists in the civil war. At the school, a fight broke out between sympathizers of both sides, and Zhong, who had left-leaning values, suffered a head wound.
Upon seeing his son in the hospital, his father burst into tears.
In the fall of 1965, Zhong’s father passed away at the age of 88. Many years later, Zhong recalled in a written tribute to him that the summer of 1949 was the only time he saw him cry. “To this day, every time I think of my father, the image that first comes to mind are his eyes filled with tears,” he wrote.
From reporter to editor
In the winter of 1949, Zhong — who’d originally planned on studying archaeology — ended up applying for a journalist training course for the chance to spend more time with a girl he was interested in. Upon completing the course, he found work as a reporter for The New Hunan Times. Because of opposition from her family, the girl he liked didn’t end up joining him at the newspaper and instead left for Xinjiang, in China’s far northwest. As a result, the two lost contact for good.
A photo of an 18-Year-Old Zhong Shuhe, taken around the time he joined The New Hunan Times. Courtesy of Zhong Shuhe
That’s how, by sheer accident, Zhong ended up as a journalist. In the fall of 1950, a few young reporters were transferred from another paper. One of them, a woman by the name of Zhu Chun, took Zhong’s fancy. Two years later, they got married.
In 1957, after first inviting critique on communist rule during the Hundred Flowers Movement, Mao launched a crackdown called the Anti-Rightists Campaign. Zhong and Zhu were fired from the paper after being associated with “right-wing dissidence.” The couple was suddenly deprived of all income only two months before Zhu was due to give birth to their fourth daughter.
Colleague Zhu Zheng — no relation to Zhu Chun — had joined the paper at the same time as Zhong, and was also punished. The two of them would often browse bookstores and chat about their ideals and dreams for the future. After they lost their jobs, Zhu lost all hope. Zhong would try to boost his morale by telling him, “We need to keep on living.”
Zhong Shuhe’s pens. Courtesy of Lu Mi
This was something he’d also often tell his wife during this long and arduous chapter in their life. To avoid their parents from becoming entangled in their woes, the couple moved out of Zhong’s family home and found a place to rent elsewhere.
After their fourth daughter Xianxian was born, Zhu Chun found part-time work at a local factory and later went on to make wooden moulds. Meanwhile, Zhong went off to pull wooden carts and haul straw sacks.
“Doing manual labor wasn’t hard. My lower back hurt, but a few days later I didn’t feel the ache,” Zhong says. Despite Zhong’s stoic disposition, these jobs were a bitter taste of life’s hardships. Later, he found better paid work making wooden moulds, drawing industrial drawings, and working as a fitter.
At one point, the family’s poverty was such that they hardly had anything to eat. They were forced to split up: Zhu took their eldest daughter to live in an abandoned public bathhouse near the local factory, while Zhong took their second eldest to live in a small room rented from a friend. The third daughter went to live with her aunt, while the fourth was sent to an orphanage in Inner Mongolia. They lost contact with her entirely and were only reunited years later.
During this period, Zhong learned to “make rice” — in the most basic sense of the term. Zhong Tingting, the second-eldest daughter, recalls that, before leaving the house in the morning, he would prepare their meals for the day by mixing flour with some water and cooking it with steam on the stove. In the evening, he’d return home, reeking of sweat. After eating some of this dough, he’d go to the well to fetch some water for his bath. The sound of running water was often accompanied by a hoarse rendition of “Ode to the Yellow River,” a revolutionary song. “He was an optimistic man who never complained,” Zhong Tingting says.
In March 1970, Zhong Shuhe was persecuted at one of the “denunciation rallies” of the Cultural Revolution and imprisoned for nine years. Until 1979, Zhu Chun raised three daughters on her own with only the humble wages she earned making wooden moulds.
On the day of Zhong’s release, the grown-up Zhong Tingting saw her father emerge through an iron gate wearing a ragged padded jacket and she felt a pang in her heart. However, she was reassured to discover that he was just as cheerful as before; all the way home, he spoke only of things that brought him joy.
Following his political rehabilitation, Zhong refused to return to The New Hunan Times. Through his friend Zhu Zheng, he found a job in editing at the Hunan People’s Publishing House. At that point, he was 49 years old.
A lifelong learner
Downstairs neighbor Wang Ping was a retired senior editor from the Hunan Publishing Group who became good friends with Zhong. Wang would say that Zhong was “round on the outside and square on the inside,” meaning that his outward temperament was warm and easygoing, but that he had firm principles regarding people, events, and his job as an editor.
In an interview in 2012, Zhong recalled the origins of “From East to West.” During his prison sentence in the 1970s, he continued to discuss everything under the sun with former colleague and fellow inmate Zhu Zheng. Zhong believed that the fundamental problem with Chinese society was that it remained closed off for too long — China had forged a unique culture, and for several thousands of years had stubbornly refused to dilute it with elements from elsewhere. But, he thought, civilization is an asset shared by all of humanity, and nations need to acknowledge and learn from each other’s strengths.
Zhu Zheng (left) visits Zhong Shuhe in August 2022. Courtesy of Wang Ping
Therefore, upon starting work at the publishing house after his release, Zhong proposed his idea for a series of books compiling the observations of Chinese people who had traveled abroad during the late Qing.
Zhong wrote an introduction for every new volume prior to its publication. It was unusual at the time, but he felt that university students would be intimidated by classical Chinese without an introduction in more accessible language. For a long time, he wrote under different pen names. It was only in 1984, when he became Head Editor of Yuelu Publishing House, that he began to sign these introductions using his real name.
In March of that year, renowned literary scholar and author Qian Zhongshu published a preface to the “From East to West” series in the authoritative Party newspaper People’s Daily, stressing the importance for Chinese readers to step out of isolation: “Even if you’re completely unwilling, even if your feet are shackled to the ground, you have no choice but to go to the world. Because even if your feet grow wings, you can’t leave this world behind. The world is wherever people go, and wherever people go becomes the world.”
A manuscript of Qian Zhongshu’s preface to the “From East to West” series, 1984. Courtesy of Zhong Shuhe
In 1989, after losing a vote for the leadership of the Hunan Publishing Bureau, Zhong left his job at Yuelu Publishing House. His original plan to publish 100 volumes of “From East to West” was suddenly interrupted only 35 volumes in. In 1992, the 61-year-old Zhong retired, but continued to work on his life’s endeavor on his own terms, searching for and sifting through resources all by himself.
In 1998, the Hunan Culture and Arts Publishing House published a ten-volume collection of writings by modern author Zhou Zuoren, classified and edited by Zhong. In the spring of 2017, 37 years after the inaugural book, he finally published the 100th volume of his “From East to West” series.
One of the editors for the final volume, Li Mianyan, says that Zhong is “meticulous to a fault” when it comes to his work. Every time she handed him a manuscript, he’d insist on using a mechanical pencil to write his corrections, which filled the page like billowing clouds.
Wang Ping also worked as an editor for Zhong. He says that Zhong would rework manuscripts dozens of times. The young women in the formatting department came to fear him. But sometimes, after editing a manuscript, Zhong would say, “There are times when I think that some parts were better before I corrected them, but this is just a habit I have.”
Though he only worked as a professional editor for a little more than a decade, Zhong became one of the most influential people of his generation in publishing. At the 2017 East Asian Publishers’ Forum, Zhong was awarded the Special Contribution Prize.
Zhong Shuhe’s study. Courtesy of Lu Mi
A tight schedule
Ironically, this elderly man who encouraged an entire generation of Chinese people to visit the wider world gets carsick and doesn’t like traveling. Instead, he prefers to stay at home reading, organizing his notes, and chatting with friends. His understanding of the outside world is almost entirely based on
books, TV shows, the radio, and his friends.
Once, Zhong and Zhu Chun went to live with their eldest daughter in the United States for half a year or so. That was the only time in his life that he ever left China. Zhong explains that he’s unable to read or speak English and couldn’t adapt to life abroad.
The other three daughters still live in Hunan. For various reasons, none of them went on to study at university, but thanks to their independent learning skills and hard work, they’ve all carved out decent livings. However, his four granddaughters have all studied overseas. As Zhu Chun once put it, after two generations, their family had finally “gone to the West.”
Zhong says, “My initial goal was a humble one: I just wanted to keep myself and my family fed and lead a normal life.” He adds that, if he hadn’t been employed by the newspaper after school, he could’ve made an okay craftsman.
For the next generation of reporters, he offers the following advice: “As people in my field, I hope that you’ll work hard. You’re still young and have the chance to truly master your trade. My advice is to try and earn a decent, stable wage so that you can take care of yourself. Only then will you be able to buy and read good books.”
Zhong already had a stroke once before, about 40 years ago. This latest stroke was more serious. For a while, it left him unable to walk, eat, or talk normally. He was afraid that, if he shut his eyes, he would never open them again. Fortunately, he’s making a decent recovery.
Zhong Shuhe edits a draft, August 2022. Courtesy of Lu Mi
Last year, heeding his daughter’s advice, Zhong had his home at the dormitory of the Hunan Publishing Bureau in Changsha adapted for old age care — for example, any steps between rooms have been made into slopes, while handrails have been installed in the corridors and the bathroom.
When his wife Zhu Chun was still alive, the two would often play billiards or checkers at home, or go for a walk in the park together. When Zhong didn’t feel like leaving the house, Zhu would nag him. “If you don’t get up and move, you’ll die soon. And when you die, all these books will be mine.”
Since his wife passed away, Zhong has become even more of a homebody. Except when he’s bathing, using the bathroom, or doing rehabilitation exercises, Zhong spends his time lying on his adjustable bed. There, he’s constantly reading, editing, and writing. “I’m on a tight schedule, so I don’t have time to indulge in morose thoughts about loneliness or death,” he says.
For the moment, the most pressing matter for him is completing his autobiography. After that, he also wants to write a simplified history of China.
Lying on his bed, his feet covered by a tartan blanket, Zhong says, “Time is of the essence. There are still many things I want to do.”
Reporters: Ming Que, Ding Chaoyi, and Ge Bei’er.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is published here with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editor: Xue Yongle.
(Header image: Zhong Shuhe at work, 1980s. Courtesy of Zhong Shuhe)