Sidney Shapiro, an “old China hand” who lived an unrivaled life that even veteran China watchers can only dream about, passed away on October 18th in Beijing, just two months shy of his 99th birthday, and after having spent more than half of his life in China.
Reuters reports that Shapiro was born in New York in 1915, and began his relationship with China when the U.S. Army chose him to learn Chinese during World War II. He finally arrived in Shanghai on April Fools’ Day, 1947, with a bit of Chinese knowledge and $200 in his pocket, and stumbled right into one of the turbulent times in recent Chinese history.
He married a popular Chinese actress, Feng Zi, who was also an active supporter of the Communist Party. Later, his wife ran afoul with Mao Zedong’s wife, leading to a not particularly enjoyable time for the couple and China. You can learn more about the pair’s love story in this CCTV documentary:
Shapiro didn’t just ride his wife’s coattails. He became a Chinese citizen in 1963, one of the very few Westerners to be allowed to do so, and was appointed to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in 1983. He won his fame through English translations of the Chinese classic “Outlaws of the Marsh” and modern novels like Ba Jin’s “Family.”
Unsurprisingly, Shapiro was quick to bite back when his homeland attacked his new home. As Reuters reports:
“Democracy in America, which was won by the public through long-time struggle, had started going downhill in the 20th century,” Xinhua quoted him as saying on the sidelines of that year’s annual meeting of parliament.
“In the States today, the intelligence agencies have even got the power to tap citizens’ phone calls and inquire what books a person is borrowing from the library,” he said.
However, he never joined the Communist Party, unlike some other Westerners who were equally committed to the cause of modern China.
“I was still too much of a maverick, reluctant to accept any organizational strictures or discipline. But I had the greatest respect for the Chinese party, and fully supported its principles and goals,” he wrote in his autobiography “I Chose China.”