Orville Schell
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Literary Arts

Orville Schell

Past Event: Monday, December 8, 1997

A journalist who follows his instincts, engages himself in his topic, and assumes intelligence on the reader’s part, Orville Schell practices what the best of his profession is all about.

One of America’s most respected and trusted voices on China, Schell has produced 14 books; hundreds of articles for prestigious magazines; documentaries for PBS’s “Frontline”; and Emmy Award-winning editions of “60 Minutes.” Whenever experts on China are rounded up in the media, Schell is likely to be among them.

Schell made a rather unconventional entry into the career he has practiced for some 30 years. While an undergraduate student at Harvard, he spent a summer at Stanford studying Chinese. Seeking something more adventurous than returning to school, he shipped out as a galley boy on a Norwegian freighter, embarking from San Francisco to the South Seas. A passenger who was a writer struck up conversations with Schell and encouraged him to try writing.

Schell’s first piece, composed during a stopover in Tahiti, described a small outdoor movie theater and an audience seemingly oblivious to pigs running under benches. “I discovered . . . the way that an ordinary person experiences something and the way a writer experiences something is entirely different. A writer is like a camera, always filing it away. And it became obvious to me that this was a very interesting way to see the world, to have a purpose, afterwards, to write about it.” A break came when the Boston Globe gave Schell a column called “Our Man in Asia,” which enabled him to travel throughout Indochina and report on the Vietnam War. Later, when relations between the United States and China opened, Schell secured permission in the mid-’70s to tour the country. Hearing of Schell’s impending trip, William Shawn of The New Yorker invited Schell to write on China for him. Schell describes himself as having come of age as a writer under the tutelage of Shawn. At The New Yorkerand the Atlantic Monthly he was supported by caring editors who guided him through the slow and thorough process of honing his prose. Not surprisingly, given Schell’s background, reviewers of his work praise his clear, measured prose and the stylistic grace of his analysis. His frequent trips to China since that first 1975 visit contribute to the depth of his reportage.

His expertise on China notwithstanding, Schell shows an eclectic set of interests. He has written a biography of Jerry Brown, an exposé on the meat industry (Schell raises cattle organically on his Bolinas ranch and markets chemical-free beef), and a book on Bolinas counterculture. He is an active member of Human Rights Watch.

Schell lives in the Bay Area with his wife, Baifang Lui, whom he met on a trip to Beijing, and their children. In 1996, Schell’s career took a turn when he accepted the position of Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at U.C. Berkeley. He wrote, “Journalism is in peril for many reasons and it will not be possible for one or even many schools to change that, but what is possible is to send young journalists out into the world with at least the ability to know what writing with integrity is. And, yes, they might have to churn out the journalistic equivalent of Big Macs from time to time, but at least they won’t confuse Big Macs with Filet Mignon.”

Excerpt from Mandate of Heaven: The Legacy of Tiananmen Square and the Next Generation of China’s Leaders (1994)

China’s penchant for trying to reform a part of the existing system while clinging with stubborn conservatism to the other parts echoed back to the waning years of the Qing Dynasty in the nineteenth century when reform-minded officials lobbied to adopt Western technology while maintaining the structural integrity and spirit of the old Confucian state. “Self-strengtheners,” as they were known, advocated a policy of zhongxue weiti, xixue weiyong (use Chinese learning to support things pertaining to essence, and use Western learning to support things pertaining to function). It was as neatly divided a dichotomy as Deng’s formula of borrowing capitalist techniques to reform the economy while maintaining China’s Leninist system in matters of essential politics. The only problem with the equation, as Qing officials had discovered, was that reform had a way of refusing to be corralled within such a clearly defined perimeter. As China’s whole ancien régime began crumbling, many early “self-strengtheners” ended up recoiling from their advocacy of reform to become deeply conservative. Although more determined than most of his precursors, Deng, too, waxed hot and cold on the scope of reform and the pace at which it should be pushed forward, and over time this ambivalence helped create a pattern of repetitive epicycles. The seventy-five-year-old exiled editor of the New Observer, Ge Yang, liked to recite a ditty spoofing these cycles. “Once things come alive, they fall into chaos. Once they fall into chaos, the government tightens up. Once the government tightens up, everything dies. Once everything dies, the government loosens up again.”

What drove this unique dialectic in circles was not just the unresolved tension between reformers and hard-liners, but a deeper tension between the needs of the Leninist state and its dependence on expanding markets. While the hard-liners had been weakened as a bloc by Deng’s manipulations at the Fourteenth Party Congress, they had not vanished any more than had China’s age-old penchant for authoritarianism. After four decades of revolution, China still found itself relying on one larger-than-life leader rather than on a formal political system to mediate between warring political factions and contradictory interests. This particular Big Leader seemed convinced that economic development could somehow be quarantined from the country’s existing political system. However, others felt that this presumption was problematic at best. For all their paranoia and myopia, this was one crucial cause-and-effect relationship that the hard-liners understood. After all, twice in recent memory economic reform and “opening up to the outside world” had, in fact, led to major political protest movements, and then crackdowns. By lurching from one extreme to another, then trying to settle somewhere in the middle, Deng may have imagined that in some novel way he was attaining the golden mean. But even as he was solving certain fundamental problems by economic growth, he was generating new and grave contradictions that would ultimately have to be resolved lest they lead China into yet another confrontation with itself that was even more disruptive than 1989.

Selected Work
Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywood (2000)
Mandate of Heaven: The Legacy of Tiananmen Square and the Next Generation of China’s Leaders (1994)
Discos and Democracy: China in the Throes of Reform (1989)
To Get Rich is Glorious: China in the 1980s (1984)
Brown (1978)
In the People’s Republic (1977)

PBS interview with Schell