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Interview with Margaret Sun: Betwixt & Between

The autobiography of MARGARET SUN traces intertwining personal events and epochal historical events, the recent history of China, from Shanghai before the Japanese invasion, to the Xinjiang of our day, passing through the civil war, the liberation of 1949, the Cultural Revolution, and China of Deng Xiaoping.

All the great events inevitably intersected and changed the writer’s existence like that of millions of other Chinese leaving deep and indelible traces.

Related: Betwixt & Between

What method did you use for writing the book? Was it difficult, or painful, to go over so many memories?

I know of no ‘method’ but just combed my memory chronologically as though I were telling someone face-to-face about my life. Yes, it was painful at some point when life was difficult.

I think in English, always have since I can remember, but have had limited formal education I guess my ‘method’ was simple and easy to understand. I admit it wasn’t possible to remember everything since memory is selective.

margaret sun
“With husband, ca. 1985, Xinjiang U. Resident area. Bldg. 23, 2nd floor, after a stretch in a hospital due to very low heart rate. I was assigned to the 4th floor, but the Dean of the Math Department (now in Xiamen University) was kind enough to offer me his 2nd-floor one because I had trouble climbing stairs.”

How has life changed with the arrival of the Japanese in Shanghai?

Was too young to notice much change, but the August 13 Incident of 1937 did make us ‘refugees’ when we had to leave Hongkew to settle across the river where we stayed thereafter. The sight of Japanese soldiers with guns and bayonets were intimidating, but they never bothered us as we were law-abiding citizens.

margaret sun
“One with permed hair was taken in 1954 or thereabout, in blue seersucker cheongsam. The other was taken in 1958 or ‘59 in Hami when I had gained a lot of weight due to overly enjoying ‘keptirgan kaimak (Kazakh), lamb and nan. I had already been in Hami for over two years and was about to ask for home leave.”

With the arrival of communism in 1949, what happened to the Shanghai society? What happened to the whole elite of that society and all the micro-stories and social relations dating back to that period?

The transition of Liberation was smooth in the sense that power, water supply, and all the necessary things of life were not cut. I think my awareness of the change came a little later when our school principal was denounced, and new teachers came.


Also being taught North Korean, East European songs and see Soviet movies and so on. It was in later years when the political movements came one after another and the witnessing of suicides that really was disturbing.

Also, my father’s predicament left me much unsettled because I could see myself in his role as time progressed. Also, the residents’ committee had some ‘progressive elements’ which went elbowing their way around the neighborhood, and since it was no secret that we always had foreign visitors like the many aunties and uncles who sometimes came, and that sort of made us ‘different’.

margaret sun
“Taken around October 1945 by a G.I. who passed by me every day on his way to the Navy Y a few steps away. A similar picture was confiscated when our home was ransacked in one of the earlier political movements in 1952 or thereabout. I came across this one at a friend’s place in Richmond, Va. at Christmas 1986 when he showed me his old album, and I saw this old picture that my father had sent him in earlier correspondence. See my father’s writing on the back of it.”

How did you manage to train your English in the years of China isolationism of the mid-20th century?

I have had limited formal education. The English I know is mostly from church (Sunday School and Young People’s Group) and from much reading in later years (before ‘56), and after I came to this school end of 1978 I have tried to read as much as I can to upgrade my ‘education, and since I always think in English, so it just had a permanent nook in my think box.

I think I did a lot of ‘rehashing’ of what I know of the language during the years from ‘56 to ‘78 and helped to ‘solidify’ if. Even to this day, a word, any word, could always spark up the line of a song, chorus, or hymn. In a word, anything with a tune just stuck in my mind.

margaret sun
“Taken around October 1945 by a G.I. who passed by me every day on his way to the With Nobel Laureate Dr. Norman E. Borlaug outside a winery somewhere north of Urumqi, Manas, if I am not mistaken. He came at the invitation of the Ministry of Agriculture with two other scholars, Dr. Tso, and Dr. von Osten of the World Bank’s Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and came to Xinjiang for a week-long or 10-day survey. We visited agricultural areas from Urumqi all the way to Kashgar. I was assigned their interpreter and was with them from beginning to end.”

How has China changed since you were a girl?

I think it has become materially advanced but morally decayed.

margaret sun
“In 1995, on the 40th anniversary of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, I was made an Advanced Worker (equivalent to Model Worker for blue0collar workers). There were two people selected, one an ethnic person, one a Han, and a man and a woman, according to the rules. Each faculty and office of the U. had to submit two such persons to hand into the panel of the U. leadership. My Dean submitted my name and the required accompanying material since all our work is quantified. I made the short list first, then the finals. I think it was more for the quantity of work than for quality. With that honor, I received an 80 yuan increase in my pay each month and other minor benefits whereas blue-collar workers who made the list received a 1,000 yuan award and that was all, in other words, I have been drawing this 80 extra yuan for the last 24 years.”

How did your family react to the book? Were they aware of all these stories?

No one in the family except my brother in Beijing (who came to visit today) knows about the book, when I sent him a copy, but he has trouble reading it because he has to refer too often to the dictionary. You see, none of my siblings know English.

My daughter did not know of it until after I had sent Graham Earnshaw the manuscript. She does not know sufficient English to read it. In fact, no one, except one or two close friends and former student in the US knew about it.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Sun, Special thanks to Earnshaw Books

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