Sixty-four years ago, Sidney Shapiro, a young American lawyer-turned soldier, enrolled on a Chinese language learning program with a plan to partake in an overseas assignment.
"Little did I know, as they say in the Victorian novels, that the decision I had made was the first step along the road to a life and a career in China," Shapiro recalled decades later in his biography, I Chose China, published by Hippocrene Books in New York. (The book's Chinese mainland edition, entitled My China, published by the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing.)
This month, when he celebrates his 90th birthday in Beijing, Shapiro, who became a Chinese citizen in 1963, describes his life as "a particle in the centrifuge that created one of the most momentous changes in Chinese history."
For all his modesty, his 58-year career as a magazine copy editor, translator and writer, has won him respect and both critical and popular acclaim, in China and overseas.
Before his retirement he worked as a copy editor improving the English version of Chinese Literature magazine and China Pictorial.
Meanwhile, through his literary translations he has remained at the forefront of helping people overseas learn about China's past and present. His literary translations, which range from the classical to the modern, include the Ming Dynasty masterpiece Outlaws of the Marsh and the well-known 20th century outcries against bigotry and backwardness such as Ba Jin's The Family and Mao Dun's Spring Silkworms.
He gave a particularly authentic English translation of Deng Rong's biographical work, Deng Xiaoping and the Cultural Revolution a Daughter Recalls the Critical Years, whose Chinese mainland edition was published by the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing in 2003 and the overseas edition was published by Bertelsmann, which arrived in major bookstores early this year.
As a prolific writer, he was the first to delve into the lives of the Jews in Old China, with his work Jews in Old China: Studies by Chinese Scholars whose expanded paperback edition was published by Hippocrene Books in 2000. Other examples of his own works include The Law and the Lore of Chinese Criminal Justice, Ma Haide: The Saga of American Doctor George Hatem in China and A Sampler of Chinese Literature from the Ming Dynasty to Mao Zedong, not to mention his autobiography I Chose China.
Throughout his career, he has been working to make modern and contemporary China be understood throughout the world, with the use of his own unique perspective as an American-born translator and writer.
In his translation of Deng Rong's biographical work, he skilfully worked through the political jargon that became so common during the chaotic era between 1966 and 1976 in China. He successfully leads the reader through the then existing political situation and the emotions that so influenced Deng Xiaoping during those critical years, that gave him the resolve and courage to start the reforms in opening China up to the outside world.
He also added his own introduction to Deng Rong's translated book. Having endured the hardships of the "cultural revolution" himself, he offers his own insight into the social and political events in modern China, thus adding a valuable reference to Deng Rong's biographical work.
Shapiro's autobiography I Chose China is especially intriguing, since he gives a vivid narrative of one who witnessed and experienced the dramatic changes that took place in modern China and their impact on the world over the past five decades.
He offers his own answers to the reader's questions such as why Old China under the rule of the Kuomintang had to end and why New China had to undergo so many trials and tribulations.
He also talks about his own personal life in the book, telling the reader about his wife Phoenix, a Chinese actress-turned writer and magazine editor. Lighter points in the book talk about how he came to know and fall in love with her.
Phoenix joined the revolution, risking her life to work for the founding of New China, yet Shapiro stood by her.
"I asked her to marry me. The word that first struck me as I got to know her was 'gallant.' It took guts and devotion to run a Communist-backed magazine under the nose of a fascist government, and this lady had plenty of both," Shapiro recalls.
"I admired her even before I came to love her. Here she was, a girl from a genteel background, risking imprisonment, or worse, in a city of sharks. I wanted her to be my wife."
In late 1948, he had to dodge the Kuomintang in order to join his wife to work for the overthrowing of Old China. He tells his story in an amusing yet nail-biting manner as he also found himself in life-threatening situations throughout his own existence.
There were difficult times, especially during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), when he endured periods of loneliness and anxiety.
Phoenix was forced to "study" in her office day and night, and then sent to work on a farm for "re-education." For several years she was not allowed to return home.
His teenage daughter was given a job in a paper mill in the suburbs. He rarely saw his daughter and his wife not at all.
Despite the difficulties, Sha Lao, as his Chinese colleagues fondly named him, helped his younger Chinese colleagues improve their English during his hours-off.
"We gathered together to listen to broadcasts via his shortwave radio, such as Voice of America," Huang Youyi, deputy director-general of China Foreign Languages Publishing & Distribution Administration, recalled during a dinner party last week to celebrate Shapiro's 90th birthday.
He has stood by his adopted nationality as a Chinese citizen. He has promoted the good, but has also been honest in pointing out the wrongs in contemporary Chinese society. He has taken this task on as his duty, since he has served as a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference China's highest national advisory body since 1983.
Although his decision to accept the US army's recommendation to learn Chinese was made in haste (he claims he had no time to think about it), he has become "more Chinese than the Chinese," in the words of several of his long-time colleagues and friends.
They envy Shapiro because he has managed to keep a simple but fruitful life in a traditional siheyuan in a part of uptown Beijing an area that maintains its traditional ambiance.
In Eric Lee's review of Jews in Old China: Studies by Chinese Scholar, he comments that Shapiro knows more about modern China than any Westerner, including armchair Sinologists.
"He writes with wonderful scholarship plus intimate knowledge about the country he loves," Lee writes.
As Phoenix in her memoir Recollection of Eighty Years Looking Forward to Our Golden Wedding Anniversary, 1993, quoted Shapiro as saying: "I've lived longer in China than I have in America!
"I'm more deeply attached to China than to the land where I was born and raised. Every three years, when I visit America on home leave, I come hurrying back before my leave is up. Why is it that I can't bear to be away from China? I don't understand it myself!"
He concludes his biography:
"Can my miniscule presence have had even a shade of impact? I would like to think it has. Certainly the influence of the Chinese revolution on China and the world is beyond question. It has brought a better life for the Chinese people, a better chance for peace and prosperity for people in other lands.
"I hope, in the time that remains, to continue doing my bit. I consider myself lucky to have had this opportunity."
(China Daily December 22, 2005)