Thursday, October 23, 2014

Winter in China: An American Life by Bert Stern


Winter in China by Bert Stern
Reviewed by Lawrence Kessenich

The biography of a well-known historical figure has its appeal — it gives us (we hope) insight into a person we’re more or less well acquainted with. Bert Stern, on the other hand, lifts a fascinating and barely known historical figure, Robert Winter, out of obscurity, illuminating the life and his times of a man who, without Stern’s diligence, few of us would ever even have known existed. And we’re all the richer for his effort.

Winter was born in Crawfordsville, a small town in Indiana, where, when he heard tales of relatives killing Indians, he found himself sympathizing with their Native American victims. This was a harbinger of Winter’s discomfort with his own culture, which ultimately led to him to forsake it altogether and live for most of the last 67 years of his life (he lived to be 100) in China, during the tumultuous last three-quarters of the 20th century. This period included the Japanese subjugation of China, World War II, the rise of ruthless dictator Chiang Ki-shek — supported, to Winter’s consternation, by the US —the Communist victory of Mao and the Cultural Revolution.

Educated at Wabash College in Crawfordsville (where author Stern later taught, himself), Winter went on to advanced studies in the US, Paris and Naples, eventually teaching college-level literature in Chicago. It was here he first met Chinese scholars and was fascinated and charmed by the Chinese culture they represented. They, in turn, appreciated his interest in their culture, which ultimately led to an invitation to teach at Tsinghua College in Peking. Winter was a professor in China for the rest of his life.

Stern uses his knowledge of Chinese culture (he taught for a year in Peking, himself) and his personal knowledge of Winter (he interviewed Winter several times — and was even at his 100th birthday party) to paint a vivid picture of a complex man in a complex time and place. The reader lives through a great deal with Winter over the course of this book, and I challenge any reader not to care about the man and his fate.

What Stern explores, with a fascination that the reader can’t help but share, is what led Winter to adopt China as his home, and to retain his allegiance to his adopted country through an almost unbelievable amount of deprivation and danger. He found ways to help his fellow Chinese — especially his beloved students, who often suffered most — oppose first the Japanese and then the brutal Chiang and his Guomindang party. Winter was always willing to suffer along with them and to use his privileged position as a foreigner to do dangerous things they could not do — even, for example, putting his own life on the line by intervening when he saw someone being brutalized on the street by soldiers.

What Winter attempted to do with his teaching — and his life — was to find the place where Eastern and Western cultures could meet and learn from each other. He taught Western literature and invited students to his home for evenings of listening to classical Western music — in fact, this last was another way he brought Western culture to China, by relating to his students in a personal manner, something Chinese professors rarely did. He also learned and grew from being exposed to the Chinese.

One thing that fascinated Winter about Chinese culture was the way a certain delicacy and profound sense of community was able to survive brutality — and there was plenty of that during Winter’s tenure in China: wholesale slaughter by soldiers, artillery and bombs during the Japanese invasion; casual rape by American soldiers as World War II wound down; murder of peaceful demonstrators by the Guomindang after the war; widespread death by starvation as the world war and then the civil war between the Communists and Guomindang destroyed the economy. Winter often went hungry himself for months at a time, when his meager means of support by the university and by the Rockefeller Foundation was reduced or delayed.

Through all this, Winter maintained his dignity, his honor and his commitment to his adopted people. It’s not overstating it to call this man a hero, though it was the modest kind of heroics that doesn’t often make it into the history books. Thanks to the diligent research and thoughtful interviews that Stern conducted in order to write this book, and thanks to his skill at translating that material into a vivid narrative, this modest hero now belongs to the ages.

Winter in China is available in hardcover, paperback or as an e-book at

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