You are here

#3: Solving the China Puzzle

Stanley Rosen was a pre-med student before he first got interested in China. A professor at USC now, his classes on Chinese politics, society, and film are informed by the over 60 trips he's made to China since 1980.

February 19, 2020


You can find every episode of China Life on our website or by subscribing on Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts, or Spotify.



Craig: ​Albert Einstein said that the only source of knowledge is experience, so it stands to reason that what you learn outside of school will be different than what you learn in the textbook and that that will change how you view the world. And that certainly holds true for Stanley Rosen, a Brooklyn native who was a pre-med student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 1959, before he got interested in China. He then continued on to get his masters and PhD in Political Science at UCLA. And Stanley’s gotten a lot of experience in China since then. He first went to Taiwan in 1970, Hong Kong in 1971, he first visited the mainland in 1980, and has traveled back over 60 times. That accumulated knowledge is a real resource to his students at the University of Southern California, where he specializes in Chinese politics, society, and film.

From the USC U.S. China Institute, this is China Life, the podcast sharing the stories of people living and working in China. I’m your host, Craig Stubing.


Stanley:​ What got me interested in China was, I had a professor who was Chinese who was teaching East Asia. That was the best class I had and I got a degree in political science, double major with English even though it took me five and a half years.

Craig​: So almost like coincidence?

Stanley:​ I feel very fortunate that things ended up the way they did, I would have been a disaster in medical school.

Craig: ​So, when you were at Chapel Hill and you took that first class that sort of introduced you to China, did you know much about China before then?

Stanley: ​No, not really, I wish I had been more diligent during my college years. I played basketball, I played golf, I played tennis, so I wasn’t really oriented. I still remember the cuban missile crisis in 1962, I had just come back, I think from the golf course, and everybody was on the screen and it looked like we were going to go to war with Russia or something. I said “what’s up?” They said “it looks like we may end up in a nuclear war.” I said “oh, okay but I have to have dinner first.” [Laughs] So, I was not really oriented in world affairs and that’s one of the things China has done, once I started studying political science in China, to really get me interested in world affairs. So I read the New York Times and the LA Times, Washington Post, everyday very carefully, and that’s really been a big change and I wish I had started that way.

Craig:​ So, when you were at UCLA, what fascinated you about Chinese politics?

Stanley:​ Well of course I started in ‘65. It was the beginning of the cultural revolution. I think that was probably what became very exciting because all of this was going on and we didn’t have a whole lot of information other than what was appearing originally in the Chinese newspapers. One of the great sources in those days was the Japanese correspondents who could read Chinese characters, and look Chinese to some extent, dress like Chinese, so they would go and read all the wall posters and write them down and publish it, then it was translated by the American embassy in Tokyo in the daily summary of the Japanese press. So, we got information from that and all these secret documents from the past leaked out from the Red Guards selectively leaking Mao’s former speeches and other things about the cultural revolution. So, it was a time of great turmoil in a sense in the world, both in the US with all the anti-war movements going on, trying to figure out what’s going on in Vietnam, trying to figure out what’s going on with the cultural revolution in China, Sino-Soviet split was another issue. Yeah, so it was really a time of great interest in terms of world affairs.

Craig: ​You were kind of learning it as these phenomenally huge changes were going on in real time.

Stanley:​ Yeah, the student movement, police coming on campus. When I was a TA at UCLA, I had a big poster of Mao in my cubicle in our office. The police of course came to campus from time to time. At one point I noticed that my picture of Mao was defaced with a big “X” across his face and someone had written “pig power.”

Craig: ​Did that give you any pause? Did you think that maybe this is not the right thing to be studying?

Stanley: ​No, you have to remember the mentality of the times, no it didn’t give me pause at all. It was just a part of everyday life.

Craig: ​And when was the first time you went to China?

Stanley: ​I was studying in Taiwan from December 1970 to June ‘71, that was my first trip to Taiwan. I was in Hong Kong from 1971-76, as part of my fellowship from the University of California system. I was required to teach at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and I studied two years of Chinese, studied six months in Taiwan, a little bit in the U.S. at first. My first trip to mainland China, I was supposed to be there in ‘73 to the Canton trade fair, but the person who invited me, she couldn’t get enough visas, so I couldn’t go. I didn’t get there until 1980 for the first time. I went twice in 1980. Once through Macao to Guangzhou, and the second time was a Chinese International Travel Service to Hangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai, various places like that.

Craig: ​What did it feel like, making that first step onto the mainland?

Stanley: ​The trip to Macao to Guangzhou in those days, there was no highway. We had to go through four ferries. The trip to Beijing, we had to stay in Tianjin because there were no hotel rooms in Beijing for us. Everything was on a very tight schedule, it took four hours to go from Tianjin to Beijing, again the highways were not good. We got back at 1am, got up at 5am, so we had 20 minutes at, for example the Temple of Heaven. There were some people in our tour group who had prepared their entire lives to see the Temple of Heaven. They refused to leave after 20 minutes, they’d just sit down and strike and said “we demand to stay longer and we will sacrifice lunch, but we will not leave.” And so they learned from the cultural revolution I guess so they stayed a little bit longer, but it was just all new experiences. The Great Wall, Forbidden City. I’m not much of a tourist, I’m more just watching people, looking at what’s available for sale in the stores, that kind of thing. But it was, you know, an eye opening experience in a sense, so having studied China unlike a lot of other people in the group, you know, it wasn’t as big of a surprise to me as it was to some people.

Craig: ​Did it feel different after studying, you know, fifteen years of Chinese politics, and then actually being there?

Stanley:​ It gave me a feeling, which was repeated many times after that, that China’s usually a big place with lots going on, and you could be less than a mile away from some major event and wouldn’t even know about it. I thought about that in 1985 when I was at the friendship store in December, and when I got back to my hotel room in ‘85, somebody from Beijing University sent me a message saying: “what did you think of the big demonstration in Tiananmen Square by the students?” I was maybe blocks away from that and I had no idea it was happening until I got back and they told me it was happening. So I mean it’s just the scale of things, it kind of put in mind to me that you could learn a lot more about China in a sense by not being there, by being outside and getting the information because if you’re there, unless you’re right on the scene, you’re probably not going to know what’s going on.

Craig: ​You still teach about Chinese politics? 

Stanley: ​I do.

Craig: ​What do you think you try and teach your students based on your experiences now as opposed to in the 80s? Do you think that your opinions of China have changed over time?

Stanley:​ Yeah I think my opinions have changed over time. I was a bit arrogant, I think, in those days, but over the years I’ve realized there are no absolutes and you have to qualify almost everything you say about China. Like every society and every political system, it’s very very complicated. I don’t take extreme positions on any issue, I think, compared to what I might have back in the 80s.

Craig: ​Do you think studying and teaching about China for so long, that China itself has impacted the way you teach now?

Stanley:​ Yeah I think studying China, reading the Chinese media, and spending a lot of time, you know, I’ve been there maybe sixty times, I don’t know how many times. I think it has affected my teaching more generally, not dismissing any arguments completely out of hand unless they’re obviously completely wrong and I’ve done that before. But I’m willing to listen to different kind of arguments, looking at the same data in different ways.

Craig: ​What do you think caused that?

Stanley:​ Well, one thing is the humility of being wrong on a number of occasions and making predictions, whether it’s 1989 in Tiananmen Square and what was going to happen after that, or any number of other predictions about what might or might not happen in China. Not to mention what might or might not happen in U.S. politics. I guess I’m one of the few people who, I shouldn’t say this in arrogance, said that Donald Trump had a very good chance to win the election. I was trying to explain to some political pundits who were supposed to know these things very well, that during the Republican primaries, I’m really afraid of Donald Trump becoming the candidate and actually winning, and they dismissed out of hand as a lot of my friends did when I came back after studying the cultural revolution. My fellow graduate students who were so pro-China, had a misunderstanding of what was going on. Once I started doing refugee interviewing, interviewing 100-200 Red Guards, for example, for my dissertation, I got a much better feel for daily life during the cultural revolution and also how people joined factions and it wasn’t just reading what was in peoples’ daily or what the Chinese government wanted you to read, so it became much more nuanced.

Craig: ​You mentioned that you teach Chinese film?

Stanley: ​Yes. Certainly it’s something that I’m very interested in. I teach about it and I also research it and write about it.

Craig: ​What interests you in Chinese film?

Rosen: ​Well that’s another thing, I’ve always been interested in film since I got to college, I think, although even as a kid I would go to films all the time. When I got to college, I joined all these clubs, film clubs, and did the same thing in grad school and even in Hong Kong, I was a member of all these film clubs. As I gravitated toward foreign students in college, I gravitated toward foreign language films and that was the high tide of foreign film invasion of the U.S., when they still had the haze codes so you couldn’t see some kinds of films. Censorship was very strong in the U.S. for the late 60s, and so foreign films were much more edgy, and so I’d go to see Fellini, Bergman, you name it.

That was a natural thing that I had become interested Chinese film. My first Chinese film that I saw was when I was in Hong Kong in 1971. It was called “Wo Zhe Yi Bei Zi [我这一辈子]” -- This Life of Mine, which has never been translated into English, that particular book, My Life as a Peking Policeman. I was so fascinated by that film because it was a history of 20th century China from a communist point of view. I was so fascinated by that film, never seen anything like it before, I went around to all of the used book stores in Hong Kong to try and find the original novel by Lao She, a very famous writer who committed suicide during the cultural revolution in 1966. Finally found it in a back room of a book store in Man Kok in Hong Kong, and I read it. Again it was a shock to me because the book ends in 1924, whereas the film goes up to 1949. The book has nothing about communism in there. It’s just about an ordinary person trying to survive in the last part of the Manchu or Qing dynasty and then the early years of the republic. I mean the communist party was only founded in 1921 and the book ends in ‘24, nothing about communism. So, they’d changed it completely to make it into this person not realizing how oppressed he was, and he becomes tortured by the nationalist party, Guo Min Dang, and at one point he says to his cellmate who’s a communist: “you know I’ve always lived this life, I’ve tried to be a good person, why am I ending up in jail here?” I think the other guy says “you’re an idiot because you don’t understand the nature of class forces in society and how you’re exploited, and you deserve to be where you are.”

That really opened my eyes, both to film in China and also the use of film for propaganda, and how original works are changed to meet the current revolutionary needs. I became interested in the politics of film at that point, I think, that film was very influential for me.

Craig: ​When you watch Chinese films, do you enjoy watching them the same way you would enjoy a Hollywood film or is it purely research?

Stanley:​ That’s a very good question because I went to see The Wandering Earth with a Chinese friend of mine. To me, in some ways, good or bad is irrelevant. What’s the purpose of this film, what’s it trying to tell us, why is the government promoting this film, so I’m looking at it from a research point of view. Of course I can like films that other people don’t like. When I see The Great Wall, I can see many flaws in it, obviously, which I’ve talked about and written about. But I’m interested in seeing why they’re doing what they’re doing; what is the political purpose and what is the social purpose, what is the ideological purpose and what are they selling here? This is a film made with a 175 million or so budget, which is intended to be successful all over the world, so some of what they do is done for that purpose, not to make any logical coherent sense as a story. So, I accept that and I don’t criticize on that basis other than, do they succeed or not in doing what they try to do.

Craig: ​You’re looking at it like a primary source?

Stanley: ​Yeah absolutely.

Craig: ​What do you think pushes you to keep studying Chinese politics after all this time?

Stanley: ​Working on a subject like China, everyday the newspaper gives me new information, new data that’s changing all the time. You’re not trying to find something new to say about Rousseau or Marx. It basically becomes like a puzzle, a very interesting kind of puzzle. Some people try to be influential, educating the public about China. I might have had that feeling back during the Vietnam War days, but now, I guess I’m doing that to some extent when I do media interviews, but when I teach my class I’m trying to give people a feel can’t get to the essence of China I guess, but give them a feel for what’s important, what do you need to understand to try and analyze China. You’re trying to impart a way of thinking, critical thinking to some extent. I tell people in the class that I’m open to all ideas but I don’t accept what any government says in face value, whether it’s the American government, the Chinese government, or any other government; governments lie. Governments basically have a point to make and they will do whatever is necessary to make that point, more so now than ever before, I guess, under the current administration. Winning is the only thing that counts, but I try to teach you to do some critical thinking about this.

Craig: ​Do you think studying China and going there so often, meeting so many people, has maybe informed you of what it means to generally be human?

Stanley: ​I think that’s true just teaching at USC and having students from all over the world in your class. I taught a class in soft power this past semester, looking at a lot of different countries. I had people there from Mexico, Italy, New Zealand, China...just a wide variety of cultures. As we talked about different countries and soft power, we had a lot of good discussions, even arguments, and I could tell where people were coming from based on where they’d been. I think USC has been very good in that regard because we have so many international, and as I’ve said I’ve always gravitated toward international affairs and international cuisine! I love cuisines from all over the world, and of course China is good for that. You go to China and you know you’re going to eat well. So, China’s been part of that but it’s not just China.