Manuscripts/Mixed Material Interview with John H. Holdridge
HOLDRIDGE: Oh yes, starting with Shenyang and then going down to Beijing and Nanjing and so on. We wondered what kind of future we would have, would we ever get into China at all? And that was a big question, but nevertheless we were in the program, and we persevered. By the way, I started to say that Harvard's emphasis was on the classics. Francis Cleaves was one of our leading lights. He was known to his Chinese friends as Ke Wanshih—”ten thousand stones.” He was always going after Chinese rubbings of ancient calligraphy. There was also a teacher by the name of Hightower. At Harvard, if you didn't know Legge's classics, the translations or even the originals of the classics, why, you were at something of a disadvantage. The problem with Fairbank was he tried awfully hard to make a program about China, and there were about thirty or forty people who were studying in this group...
Q: Not just Foreign Service?
HOLDRIDGE: Not just Foreign Service. We were just this small enclave. Others came in and what Fairbank tried to do was to bring representatives from various departments in to give lectures to us on their perspectives about what was going on. The problem was that none of these people could speak the same brand of the English language. I remember a social scientist would talk his social science jargon. We would have an economist who came in and talked his jargon. At one point, one of my colleagues, of Chinese origin, got up and said, is this stuff so esoteric, sir, or is it that I'm just stupid—I don't understand what you are saying. Actually, we got a good deal out of Harvard in terms of learning about China, and I think it was useful to study Chinese and some of the classics, that was fine. But it did not give us the more practical approach which is what we got from Cornell. The one thing that I deplored, that neither one taught us sufficient spoken Chinese. I mean if you're studying the Chinese classics, it's like taking the Bible and turning it into telegraph form.
Q: I guess the problem is when you turn in over to an academic institution, for the most part, you get an academic approach. You almost have to go to a Berlitz or an equivalent.
HOLDRIDGE: That is true. And therefore I spent the next ten years or so trying to learn from experience, rather than from books. The book learning was good, no doubt about that, giving you a solid foundation in Chinist culture and political history. But what you want to do is to have some degree of contact, if you'll excuse the expression, interface with Chinese.
Q: Now you more or less completed the Harvard thing when?
HOLDRIDGE: About the end of September 1950. By this time I had married my wife and was ordered to Bangkok, Thailand, where there was a large Chinese population.