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Bridging two worlds
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Written on the desk of Sidney Shapiro is the Italian phrase "traduttore e tradittore"-"the translator is a traitor". For this US-born translator of some of China's most important literary classics, it would be more accurate to say: "The translator is the story".

Born and raised in a Jewish family in New York, Shapiro arrived in Shanghai in 1947, where he intended to set up a legal practice, but instead, he came to Beijing, witnessed Chairman Mao Zedong's proclamation of the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949, and became part of the historical events unfolding over the next six decades.

Shapiro lives a busy life in Beijing as he receives a fairly steady stream of visitors from East and West.

Sidney Shapiro enjoys a busy life in Shichahai, downtown Beijing.

"People from every corner of the world come to visit me asking questions on every conceivable topic related to China, from China's internal and international policies to everyday life," Shapiro says.

He also replies to the many e-mails he receives every day.

"I enjoy the busy life. Everyday is different-meeting guests, delivering lectures, attending conferences, receiving media interviews and writing and traveling," Shapiro says.

Serving voluntarily as a non-governmental diplomat, Shapiro, who was jokingly admired among his friends as "one of the best PR (public relation) men China ever has", has helped foreigners better understand how things have happened in China.

"I hope to continue doing my bit of impact as a particle in the centrifuge that created one of the most momentous changes in Chinese history. I am lucky to have the opportunity."

In a small compound near Shichahai Lake of downtown Beijing, the 93-year-old who became a Chinese citizen in 1963 feeds stray cats and tends flowers and plants every day at his home yard.

He loves to see the cats lying idly on window sills and the trees and plants swaying in the wind, which remind him of his wife Phoenix, a Chinese actress, who passed away in 1996 at the age of 84.

"Phoenix loved flowers and animals. Every spring when the first rose budded, we kept going into the garden to admire them," he says.

Their romance witnessed the ebbs and flows of Chinese history in recent half century.

Shapiro met Phoenix in Shanghai in 1947. She was doing the dangerous underground revolutionary work of the Chinese Communist Party and Shapiro became involved, helping her peers edit revolutionary publications and hide people blacklisted by the Kuomintang, for persecution.

They got married in 1948 and attempted to reach the Liberated Areas from Shanghai. But they were stopped by Kuomintang troops and then they entered Beijing and greeted the founding of New China in 1949.

During the American aggression against Korea in the 1950s, Phoenix refused to speak to Shapiro for a week because he is an American.

"I hate the American imperialists, I hate the Americans! And my husband is an American! I was utterly miserable," Phoenix wrote in her memoir.

"But Sha Boli (Shapiro's Chinese name) loved me, loved our home and loved new China even more. He had seen it built on the wreckage of the old society. He had shared the fruits of the life and work of a people who had risen to their feet. He stood firmly on the side of China. He unquestionably was a staunch friend of the Chinese people," she wrote.

During the "Cultural Revolution" (1966-76), Phoenix was kept under house arrest for four years and their daughter Yamei, who worked in a suburban factory, seldom came home. Shapiro had to do all of the housework himself.

"I learned to make two dishes, my specialties-tomato with eggs, and eggs with tomato," he jokes.

But the dark days did yield one accidental good result-since few writers dared touch pen, Shapiro was asked to translate Outlaws of the Marsh, one of the most important ancient Chinese novels.

Living in the scenic lake area, Shapiro often strolls around the lake in the mornings and evenings. Shapiro remembers that when he first moved into his house 40 years ago, the hutong was lined with big trees and beautiful ancient architecture was everywhere.

"Although there was no proper sewage disposal and sanitation like we have today, people were happy. Everybody knew everybody and kids played soccer and games on the lane after school," he recalls.

But now, they have no place to play as the lanes are jammed with vehicles. Some trees and old houses were pulled down to pave way for new buildings.

"There is a contradiction between the development and support of the Earth with the livelihood and ordinary daily life of local people," he says.

Shapiro expresses concern that many have placed morality and ethics on the back burner amid the drive to create wealth.

"Many interpreted the dictum that getting rich was not bad as meaning that any way you got rich was good, that you didn't have to be fussy about how," he says, adding that "crime graft and corruption grew. There was a flourishing of old vices, and a few new ones invented".

"To antiquated concepts left over from feudal society, the 'advanced civilizations' of the outside world were able to contribute twists made more interesting by their advanced technologies.

"When concern was voiced about this new foreign invasion, nonchalant freewheelers quoted Deng Xiaoping. Hadn't he said: 'When you open the window it doesn't matter if a few flies get in'?

"True enough, but he hadn't said you needn't swat the flies that did get in."

After his retirement from the China International Publishing Group in 1982, he began his new job as a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the country's top advisory body.

To better understand the country's situation, he, along with other CPPCC members, makes inspections and investigations down the grass roots across the country almost every year.

The outspoken man has put forward dozens of proposals to correct improper administrative measures of the government and suggestions to improve people's lives.

"Although we have no administrative power, we are very influential. We discussed matters of national importance, reflecting people's views," Shapiro says.

His latest suggestion was to urge local tourist departments to improve supervision of tourist pedicabs in hutong of the scenic Shichahai Lake area.

Since the pedicab tours started a few years ago, local residents had complained that they regularly sped and often parked in the entrance of narrow lanes.

He has raised the question at the CPPCC meetings and his proposal has reached Xicheng district government. Now the hutong tours are under better management and are running more smoothly.

Shapiro lives with his daughter. In the eyes of his granddaughter Stella, who received 10 years education in the United States, Shapiro is just "an ordinary grandpa".

"I have never thought that my grandpa is a foreigner, he is just a kind and caring grandpa," she says. "I thank my grandpa for giving me an opportunity to understand US culture, which has widened my horizons and career opportunities."

Stella, who works for a foreign-funded PR company in Beijing, married an American college classmate last year in Beijing.

Stella and her husband live in the courtyard and their home is just in the backyard of Shapiro's.

"Whatever Chinese or Americans, Jews or Han people, Communist or non-Communist, we live together happily," Shapiro says. "We would like to be internationalist, do good to the society and to the world regardless of which country we belong to."

(China Daily February 4, 2008)

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