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Diplomatic Dynamo Links China, U.S. Creative Worlds

September 07, 1987|DANIEL SOUTHERLAND | The Washington Post

BEIJING — Winston Lord, the American ambassador to China, is fond of telling how he was greeted by a Chinese in one of this country's most remote provinces. "I know who you are," the man said. "You're the husband of Bao Boyi, aren't you?"

He is, indeed, and proud enough of the fact not to mind sometimes being overshadowed by the celebrity of his wife in this, the land of her birth. Bao Boyi, as she is known in Chinese, is Bette Bao Lord--novelist, hostess, diplomatic dynamo.

Bette Lord, born in Shanghai but raised in the United States from the age of 8, first toured China as an adult in 1978, a visit that provided the background for her best-selling novel, "Spring Moon."

That trip became a search for her past among the ancient and honored customs of Chinese society. Today, having become a focal point in Chinese-American relations during her two years at the embassy here, she is finding her place in the present as a vibrant, powerful link between America and China's sometimes disaffected, often discouraged community of authors, artists and performers.

She presides over dinner parties for writers, collaborates with Chinese film makers, arranges regular showings of American movies for hundreds of Chinese intellectuals. She has arranged with friends and organizations in the United States to send American books for distribution here, and she has helped send Chinese writers and artists to study in the United States.

This she carries off, despite the pressures of her official diplomatic duties, with grace and seeming effortlessness. Still, she is in constant motion, moving with the swift fluidity of the dancer she once was, looking sometimes out of place in stiff, staid Beijing.

"Chinese who interview me are always surprised because I don't act like an official person," she said recently. "I don't just sit there. I move my hands a lot and I like to laugh. But if you're an official in China, your face is supposed to be devoid of expression."

A recent issue of a Hong Kong magazine carries a picture of the slender, 5-foot-4 Lord dancing to a disco beat with a man in a Mao jacket. He was none other than Wang Meng, China's minister of culture.

"Having fun in China is not easy . . . but I think I've been able to create an atmosphere where people feel at ease to do something like sing and dance and go a little crazy," she said.

A Two-Way Street

But her relationship with the Chinese is a two-way street. If she gives them a glimpse of life as seen through American eyes, her friends here provide the ambassador and other American diplomats with insight into the mysteries of China not available otherwise.

Scores of her relatives also help keep her in touch with Chinese reality. When she arranged a recent family reunion, 60 members of her Chinese family--including some great-great-aunts--showed up at the embassy.

"I love being here, because it's a wonderful time to observe China trying to change what has been," she says. "I'm a writer and, of course, I'm a novelty. . . . If I have a role here, it's because Chinese feel at ease with me and I feel at ease with them."

Lord, 49, had originally planned to work on her fourth novel during her diplomatic stay here, but official commitments and her involvement in local arts affairs have forced her to postpone that project.

Lately, the most enjoyable and perhaps most important part of her day is after the routine round of protocol is over. She's been staying up until 2 or 3 a.m. working with Chinese friends on her latest project to bring a little spontaneity to one of the world's most somber capitals--a Chinese version of the Broadway revue "Ain't Misbehavin'."

She sees in the show--a 24-song presentation of the music of Harlem jazz great Fats Waller--a chance to break down the artistic walls of conventional Chinese theater and to open Chinese minds to what she calls the "drama of diversity."

Ordinary People

Lord, who says she will finance the production with royalties from her writings, plans to take the show where professional American theatrical productions have not yet dared to go in China--to ordinary people in schools, factories and local theaters.

There have been only four Chinese productions of American shows here since China was opened to Western culture 16 years ago. As Mrs. Lord explains it, each of these was a one-shot deal, available only to select Chinese audiences.

Zhang Xinxin, 34, a popular story writer and stage director who is working with Lord on the production, says many Chinese may have trouble appreciating a musical that has no deep message and is meant only for enjoyment. Translating the lyrics into Chinese and finding actors who can sing and dance is proving difficult.

But if Zhang is worried, it's only because Lord is at times too confident.

"She has a Chinese face but an American style," Zhang said. "We have to keep reminding her that China has problems and that you can't always do everything that you want here."

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