Henry Kissinger “On China,” and at the Opera

The ever-prolix Henry Kissinger has a new book on U.S.-China relations forthcoming, entitled On China.  Advance copies reviewed here by the New York Times; Kissinger is interviewed by NPR here.

Since copies of the text will not be available to we mortals on the Northwest for another week or more — even those of us with Japan connections in the form of a Kinokuniya Bookstore — it might be useful to review for a moment some of the former Harvard professor, National Security Advisor, and Secretary of State in his writings on China.

And thus to musical diplomacy!

Thanks to his extensive briefing books (which are available to researchers in the Nixon Presidential Library materials currently housed in Washington, D.C., and which I have consulted), during his trip to China in October 1971, Kissinger was supremely attuned to messages intended for him in cultural shows presented to him by the Chinese Communist government.  Thus his attendance at “The White Haired Girl” by the CCP, a revolutionary ballet performed by the Central Ballet Company of China, merits a bit of analysis.

The White Haired Girl (Bai Mao Nü, 白毛努) tells the story of the suffering life of a peasant girl who is saved from a life of servitude by the revolutionary leader.  This sought after story had been portrayed in the movie before the ballet and was extremely effective in provoking hatred feelings to the old system.[1]  The government was impressed by the impact of the movie, like many others, the CCP artists sought to transform this most moving story into the other artistic sphere of ballet.  However, in his memoirs concerning this performance (White House Years, p. 779), Kissinger panned the opera:

On the evening of October 22 we were taken to the Great Hall of the People to see a ‘revolutionary’ Peking opera — an art form of truly stupefying boredom in which villains were the incarnation of evil and wore black, good guys wore red, and as far as  I could make out the girl fell in love with a tractor.

Now that is an acid pen!

Of course, at the time, he was highly complementary to the CCP leaders about the show and even described its message in some detail in his dispatches debriefing Richard Nixon about the trip.

Later, Kissinger would open the way to a trip by the Philadelphia Orchestra to China in September 1973, which itself was the result of Zhou Enlai’s victory in the internal debate with Jiang Qing, over the role that Beethoven should play in the musical and ideological life of the Chinese elites in Beijing and Shanghai.  Kissinger describes the action iduring his fifth visit to China in February 1973 in his Years of Upheaval, p. 45.

Of course, when Zhou Enlai is saying things like the following to Kissinger directly, recalling the failed attempt on the Chinese Premiere’s life in 1955 on his way to Bandung, it is hard to imagine that he also had energy to take on the cultural bureaucrats in Shanghai, but he did:

As for international hijacking, we do not approve those activities.  It’s too unreasonable.  Such adventurous acts are not a good practice, regardless of the motives behind it, whether it is revolutionary or of a saboteur nature.  I say these not as superfluous words but to explain how people of the world think of the CIA.  As for we ourselves, we are not very much excited by the CIA..[Memorandum of Conversation with Zhou Enlai, Henry Kissinger and Winston Lord, 21 October 1971, Beijing, Foreign Relations of the United States 1969-1976, Vol. XVII, pp. 503-504.]


  1. I am up to the early 1970s (p. 197) in the Kissinger text. Dude completely ignored my argument about Xinjiang vis-a-vis Sino-Soviet relations in the 1950s! Besides that glaring omission, I think he also adopted a too Mao-centric view of Chinese foreign relations and is too trusting of Mao’s own rhetoric. He takes what Mao says for granted (for example, Mao’s comments about Stalin’s semi-colonies in Xinjiang and Manchuria. He quotes at length from Mao in other areas, but without really critiquing any of it). Additionally, while Kissinger stresses the significance of China’s ‘century of humiliation,’ he fails to consider that China itself was an imperial power. There is a definite contradiction between the victimization narrative and China’s own actions on the frontier, but Kissinger seems to once again just accept at face China’s narrative of its own history.

    1. Thanks Chuck. I remember also your rapid reading of the diary of Zhao Ziyang….there was certainly plenty of Soviet Union in that. Does Kissinger make any inroads into an expanded understanding of Sino-Soviet dynamics, or is this not a John Lewis Gaddis kind of book? Very curious about number of footnotes, etc., as it promises to be at the very least a rather vigorous read. Were they passing out advance copies in Foggy Bottom?

      1. “On China” is a pleasure to read, but it is a work of synthesis. For his treatment of Sino-Soviet relations in the 1950s and the Korean War, Kissinger relies largely on CWIHP publications, Chen Jian, Goncharov/Lewis/Xue, and the works of Shen Zhihua/Yang Kuisong/Yafeng Xia in translation.

        That said, I have not yet read the parts on Sino-American rapprochement, so perhaps there are still some bombshells awaiting me.

  2. Can’t blame that quote on Mr Kissinger, but it was a prize named after him, and president Clinton referred to former chancellor Helmut Kohl – the laureate – as the most important European statesman since World War II.

    If he had said that Kohl had presided over Germany’s most corrupt government since WW2, it might have been worth some consideration.

    Kissinger may just have applied some flattery on Mao in the 1970s – the wise man flatters the fool. But I’m wondering if he has since flattered himself for his China diplomacy.

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