Jon Zatkin was an American citizen who lived in Beijing, China, for over 25 years. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, he was a full-time actor who played foreign characters in over 40 Chinese television series and films, the leader of a bluegrass band, and the headmaster of an expat children’s school, among other roles. He passed away shortly after giving this interview, in which he described his remarkable story and how his interest in China changed his life.
The complete recording of his interview is available here.
LL: What is your Chinese name?
JZ: 舒友民 (Xu You Min). It means “friend of all people.”
Could you tell me about the origins of your move to China?
The story begins on Thanksgiving in 1958, when I went to a Thanksgiving party with friends of my mother’s, who were Communist Party members. There, my mother met my stepfather-to-be, whose name was Julian Schuman.
Julian learned Chinese in the US Army during World War II and later worked as a journalist in Shanghai. He was not a Communist Party member, but he was a lefty and his friends in New York were Communists. He stayed in Shanghai after the Chinese liberation in 1949 and got a job with the China Weekly Review, which was the home for all the foreign journalists who worked or had worked in China, like Bill Powell and Edgar Snow. The paper ran stories about alleged germ warfare committed by the US against North Korea during the Korean War. He returned to the US in 1953 and was immediately detained by the FBI and investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee and was eventually indicted for sedition in 1956. The charge was later dropped.
My mother and Julian soon got married and we moved to San Francisco the following year. Julian had written a very interesting book called Assignment China, describing the changes which took place once the Communists took power, which I read. This was my introduction to China. Julian knew all about the real Chinese food in San Francisco — not chop suey, but the real stuff.
I was involved with the Labor Zionist Youth Group in San Francisco around this time. I used to hang out in coffeehouses in San Francisco and listen to local folk musicians. I moved to Israel after graduating high school in 1962. I worked on a kibbutz. To me, this was kind of like what was happening in China at the time. I moved out to the countryside and worked in agriculture for six years. During this time, my stepfather and my mother worked in Beijing for the Foreign Language Press and they would send me articles and I got more interested in China.
Did you learn Hebrew?
Of course. I was speaking Hebrew fluently within six months. That’s what gave me the confidence to learn Chinese later.
What was life like on a kibbutz?
I loved it. I did not like school and I was always into the real world and liked working. I used to deliver newspapers and when I left home, I had been working in a sweatshop in San Francisco’s Chinatown, to survive, to buy food. The kibbutz had 900 acres, about 300 families, right on the Mediterranean in northwest Israel. Beautiful. Western Galilee. There was basically no cash used on the kibbutz, which was fine with me. I grew bananas which were specially developed for the region. This kibbutz also had the second largest turkey raising operation in the country. I also started playing guitar there. In the winter, when there wasn’t a lot to do with bananas, we would shovel out the shit from the turkey houses and I loved it, I really loved it, until 1967. I was there during the Six Day War and basically all of the men and some of the women on the kibbutz were mobilized to fight. I was not in the army and I was left behind because I was the only one with a driver’s license.
Immediately after the Six Day War, the kibbutz members were given special permission to tour the West Bank. It was a tour through a battlefield. The tanks were still smoking, the roads were filled with refugees leaving the West Bank, which had just been conquered by Israel. Streams of people leaving with donkeys and carts and I couldn’t figure it out. Why? The Arabs in Israel had a much higher standard of living than they would have if they lived in refugee camps. Why were they leaving? Of course, I came to the realization that they didn’t want to be Arabs in a Jewish state.
During my time in Israel, I was living in this bubble. The kibbutz was sort of this self-enclosed world and this post-war experience punctured that bubble. I came to the realization that Israel was at a crossroads. They could set up a puppet state in the West Bank and give the Palestinians their autonomy, solving the problem, or they could go in the direction, which was becoming increasingly apparent, that this land was theirs, God gave it to them, fuck the Arabs. I realized this direction was just going to make more war and I couldn’t stay anymore, so I left in 1968. I came back to San Francisco and got into the Carpenters Union, which was the closest thing I could find to being on a kibbutz. I also got involved in radical left-wing politics.
San Francisco in 1968 was a legendary place at a legendary time. Where did you hang out?
When I first got back, I was homeless, so I lived at the Avalon Ballroom. On the weekends, I would stay after the shows and clean up, so I had a free pass to go there. I used to sleep in this really cool nook under the puppet stage. I saw Led Zeppelin on their first American tour, when they opened for Country Joe and the Fish. Led Zeppelin just blew everybody away.
I grew my hair long and became a Deadhead. I got a job as a full-time carpenter, so I was sort of a weekend hippie. I played rock music in the evenings. My roommate at this time was Chris Milton, who had attended high school in Beijing and witnessed the Cultural Revolution. He returned to San Francisco and got involved in radical left-wing politics. I was active in the Bay Area Revolutionary Union until 1970, when I got busted and spent a month in jail because they thought I was a bomber.
Who busted you and why?
One day, this guy I knew who was a cab driver invited me over to his place. He was a hardcore drug dealer, though I was not into hardcore drugs. He said he had this connection who could make synthetic pot and he invited me over to his house to try it out. We smoked some of this stuff and it was bunk. Anyway, so while we’re sitting there wrapping it, a knock came at the door and this guy came in and his name was Sonny Barger. He had a bag of cocaine and he sat down and said “Hi” and we do a line. He said “Hey, you got a dollar?” so I took out a dollar bill and he took a spoon, put some coke onto the bill and folded it up really cool into this little thing. I put it in my pocket. We sat around there for a while and then I left because I had a date and was going to see the Grateful Dead that night.
I went to my date’s place and there was this big fight going on. Her landlord was trying to kick out two other renters who were also underground members of the Bay Area Revolutionary Union. They had all these guns, as well as a package labeled “dynamite” in the refrigerator. They didn’t want to leave and threatened the landlord with a gun, so somebody called the cops. Twenty or thirty SWAT cops showed up and put us up against the wall. Six of us were busted, placed in cuffs, and taken to the station. I realized they were going to ask everyone to empty their pockets, and I thought “Shit, I’ve got this dollar bill with like two or three grams of coke in my back pocket.” So I reached around behind me, found it, and spilled the cocaine out. But they never called me to the booking counter.
Well, I noticed that there were some people checking me out from behind the glass partition at the booking counter. Then I was driven over to police headquarters and was placed in a cell before meeting with a police sergeant and an FBI agent. The FBI agent said, “I want to show you some pictures to see you if you recognize anybody.” I said, “I’m not answering any questions until I get a lawyer,” and he said, “Just look at the pictures and see if you recognize anybody.”
I looked through the pictures and didn’t recognize anybody. Then I saw this one picture and said, “You think that’s me, right?” They said “Ha ha ha. We’ll know soon enough.” Apparently, the man in the picture was a fugitive member of the Weather Underground, who they thought was me. I was charged, along with the others who had been at the house, with Conspiracy, Possession of Narcotics, Possession of Marijuana, Possession of Illegal Weapons, blah blah blah. I spent Thanksgiving there and a month in the city jail before charges were dropped against me. It was like $250,000 bail, or something like that. The gun owners ended up doing a year in county jail.
When did you first go to China?
In 1975. My mother was invited to visit by the Foreign Language Press to visit my stepfather, so that’s how I got to come. I went there with her and my brother. I spent a few months traveling all over Beijing and China. That’s when I started learning Chinese.
What were your first impressions?
I had a picture in my mind because I had been reading all this stuff. I was a lefty and China was the “workers’ paradise.” I didn’t really know what had gone on during the Cultural Revolution, but I was a believer in Chairman Mao and thought he was doing the right thing, getting rid of the bureaucrats so that we could establish a real communist society or whatever the fuck we believed in those days.
When I got here, I found it wasn’t really like that. We got the special foreign guest tour, so we still didn’t really know. They showed us what they wanted us to see. I still had a great first impression. I really felt at home here, especially in Beijing.
We visited a commune, factories, and a new port that was being built in Tianjin. We visited some poor villages in the mountains of Jiangxi that the Chinese Communist Party had operated in before liberation in 1949. People were working, everybody had clothes, everybody had food. Maybe they didn’t eat meat every day, but it was totally different than how it must have been in 1949…. We also spent a week in a May 7 cadre school, though we didn’t really realize what that was.
What’s a cadre school?
It was an organization in the countryside for Chinese intellectuals who were being criticized for their political views. They were sent to work on farms and received political indoctrination.
How was the school?
It was fun! I begged them to let me work. I mean, there I was at the workers’ paradise and I was a worker who wanted to work with the Chinese people. I was finally able to work, but I was working with these Chinese intellectuals who hated every minute of it. They weren’t able to go home.
Why didn’t you stay in Beijing at that time?
I couldn’t get a job here because I didn’t have a college degree. The Foreign Experts Bureau told me they couldn’t give me a job. I visited again a few years later, during the Beijing Spring.
This was the most amazing time to be in Beijing. Deng Xiaoping had just taken over; he liberated the countryside. He allowed the peasants to have their own plots and to produce their own handicrafts, which had been illegal before then. All students were allowed to return to Beijing from the countryside. The college entrance exam was reinstituted. There was a Democracy Wall in Xidan, which some young writers posted pro-democracy messages on. It was like 10 years of winter and suddenly the sun came out. That’s what it felt like. That lasted six or seven months before it was closed down.
I visited the Foreign Experts Bureau in Beijing again and begged them to let me have a job. I didn’t want to go back to the States. I got the same answer and had to go home. So, at age 34, I took my SAT and got into San Francisco State University. I got a BA in English, with a minor in International Business. It took a year to get permission to marry my wife, who is Chinese. We got married in 1983 and then we moved to Beijing in 1987, when my daughter was born. Been here ever since.
Usually, when you read foreign media reports about China over the last 30+ years, you hear about the huge changes that have taken place. I’m curious about what hasn’t changed in this country since you first visited.
Not much. I mean, there’s a living aspect of Chinese culture that you learn as a child that you never think about. All this day-to-day stuff, like how to use chopsticks, how you wipe your butt, all these things you say, how to treat people, there’s a million things they never think about that they learned as children, that only Chinese do and Americans do completely differently. When you go to a foreign country and you see people doing all these things differently, that’s what culture shock is about. Culture shock isn’t about the arts and architecture, it’s about the living culture. If you’ve never been out of China, it’s hard for you to be aware of that.
When you ask me what hasn’t changed, I’d say the living culture, what it means to be Chinese, though a lot of that has changed, too. When I came here in ’75, Chinese people were poor, but they thought Americans were poor, too. Chinese people I met thought the US was like a Dickens novel. They didn’t believe me when I told them all Americans had TVs. Americans still have no idea what life is like in China.
What sort of work have you done in China?
I first worked for computer and software companies for a few years. Then I taught English for a year at Beiwai University, where I met some people who were founding a bilingual international school. They hired me to run it and I became headmaster in 1996. It was a comprehensive elementary through high school for the children of expatriates who were working in Beijing. I spent 10 years either running or consulting at that school.
What was your guiding philosophy as headmaster?
The school curriculum was half Chinese / half foreign. We had a foreign teacher who would teach them in English and a Chinese teacher who would teach them in Chinese. The Chinese teachers were also responsible for teaching Chinese culture, like calligraphy, music, holidays, and stuff like that. The other international schools emphasized only a foreign curriculum and foreign culture, with no education in the Chinese language or culture. My school was different.
Now I’m a full-time actor.
How did you get into acting?
I volunteered to play Uncle Sam at a Fourth of July event at the American Embassy. I organized a parade of the children who went to the event. A local producer heard about it and asked me to play Uncle Sam in a film that included a scene at the American Embassy. I ad-libbed some jokes for 30 seconds and it really impressed the director. I hadn’t acted before, but I had the greatest time.
The following year, the same producer put me in touch with well-known Chinese director Yīng Dá 英达 , who created the first Chinese sitcom, I Love My Family (我爱我家). He gave me a part in a TV show about Chinese restaurant workers in LA. My first major role was in a made-for-TV movie about the disappearance of the Peking Man fossils. I played a real guy named Franz Weidenreich, who was a German Jew who fled from the Nazis and ended up studying and trying to protect human fossils in China in 1937. That was great. I loved that. Not only did I love the acting, but I loved living with and being part of the crew. Everybody was working together with real esprit de corps. It was like being on a kibbutz.
How many productions have you appeared in?
About six or seven films and 40 TV appearances.
What are your most memorable roles?
Well, that [the Franz Weidenreich role] was one. In 2005, I had my biggest role yet — 200 scenes in a TV series about the first Chinese police to participate in UN peacekeeping activities, in East Timor. I played a retired detective from New York who joined this peacekeeping effort and runs into friction with one of the Chinese members. We had a love/hate relationship. I played a girl chaser, but all the women I was going after were into him, even though he wasn’t interested. That was really a great one.
In 2007, I had roles in three major productions. I had a minor part in The Legend of Bruce Lee (李小龙传奇), which more people have seen me in than anything else. Same director as the peacekeeping movie. In real life, I actually first learned Chinese by going to the movies in San Francisco and watching Chinese films. I loved martial arts ones, so I saw all of Bruce Lee’s movies when they first came out. In the show, I played a professor who was interested in promoting Chinese martial arts.
That year, I also had over 100 scenes in Heroes Struggle on the High Seas, a costume epic that takes place at the end of the Ming Dynasty. I played a Dutch East India Company ship captain in Taiwan. The agent for the company was really evil, but my character was just sort of semi-evil.
Have you played any other villains?
A few. Last year, I shot this one where I play a guy who’s pretending to be a priest in a Chinese orphanage but is actually a spy for the Japanese. One of the nuns finds out that I’m a spy, so I murder her. One of the orphans witnesses it, so I kill her too. I flee and then I get killed in a shootout with the police. Working on that one was so much fun. It should come out at the end of this year.
Do Chinese people ever recognize and stop you on the street?
Not a lot, but it certainly happens. “Aren’t you that guy? I know you!”
Do you do anything else besides TV and film appearances?
When did you begin playing? What’s your style?
I started playing guitar in Israel in 1962 and learned a few songs written by a friend there. When I got back to the States, all I could do was strum. I heard Bob Dylan play “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and I fell in love with finger-style playing and found a teacher.
I hung out in coffeeshops, had all these songs in my head, and I played on and off. In 1996, I got back in touch with the guy from Israel and told him I still knew some of his songs. He asked me to record a tape. I worked for a year to get my chops up, started playing a lot, and then got interested in bluegrass music. Then in 1999, I formed a bluegrass band with a Chinese bass player and a Japanese mandolin player. We were the Beijing Bluegrass Boys. Later we disbanded, but I was addicted (to playing). I couldn’t quit. I’ve been playing singer-songwriter / folk music every Friday at a Yunnan restaurant for the last seven years. I’ve played at many events and some music festivals as well.
Which English-language songs draw the strongest reactions from your audience?
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, a lot of American pop music came to China, so many Chinese people know songs from then. Everybody knows “Hotel California.” That’s probably the biggest one. “Country Roads, Take Me Home,” “Yesterday Once More,” “The Sound of Silence,” they know. If I just play English songs, I’ll lose the audience, so I also play some Chinese songs. What I’ve gotten good at is getting the audience going and getting them into it. It’s not just the Chinese people who were around at that time who enjoy those songs, the young ones do, too.
Do you ever plan on living in the US again?
I’ll stay in Beijing as long as I can, but you never know what’s going to happen. I still visit San Francisco every summer.
Do you think it’s possible to become Chinese?
No, because of what forms us. All these little things I grew up with that are American, not Chinese. I know kids with foreign parents, who were born and raised here, and they’re not really Chinese, even though they grew up here. We just don’t have the same cultural mother’s milk that they have.
I mean, I’m very Chinese, for a foreigner. American-born Chinese people I’ve met all say I’m more Chinese than they are. I’ve lived Chinese since 1975, 24 hours a day. My wife is Chinese, I speak Chinese all day, I eat Chinese food. I never really had anything to do with the foreign community here except when I was running the international school and had to promote it.
I’m spending all my time with Chinese people, many of whom don’t know me. I meet customers at the bar where I perform and they invite me for a drink. They initially treat me like a foreigner, but within 10 minutes they don’t treat me like a foreigner anymore. I can be socially accepted, but I’m still not Chinese.
Am I the first foreigner you have spoken with in a while?
How have your beliefs about communism, socialism, and capitalism evolved over time?
My favorite saying is, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” That’s what I think about socialism. In theory, it’s wonderful and certainly the Communist Party has done great things for China…. Without Deng Xiaoping, China would still be as fucked up as it was in 1959. Overall, I think they’ve done great things. I’ve become much more pro-entrepreneurial and a believer in free markets.
The thing is, I learned something in Israel. The kibbutz is the most socialist, cooperative organization in Israel, and the people who live there choose to live there because they like that lifestyle. They constitute about 4% of the country’s population. That’s all. Only a small minority of people will choose to live a communal lifestyle, and the rest of them won’t. They might unite and give their all for the cause for a period of time under certain historical conditions, but when those conditions move on, then they’re not. That’s just the way it is.
Marx wrote that the difference between capitalism and feudalism is that capitalism socializes labor. When labor is socialized, workers come to learn their power. History is the history of class warfare. The serfs and workers never really rose up. Labor unions gained strength, but then became corrupt because capitalists found a way to live with the existence of unions. The struggle is still going on, and I don’t know what’s going to happen with it.
Lenin said imperialism is the final stage of capitalism, and what he meant was the takeover of everything by finance capital. We are now in the middle of the destruction wrought by finance capital. Finance capital is based on playing games with money and produces nothing of social value. If we’re just considering the basics, meaning free markets, then I’m all for that.
At this point in your life, having invested so much time in Chinese language and culture, do you identify with a particular nationality?
That’s a hard question. I left the US in 1962 because I didn’t want to be American. I’m not anti-American anymore and am much more appreciative of America. But I’m not very fond of nationalism. It has its place in certain times, but it can more easily be a destructive force than a constructive force.
So, I love the United States and a lot of things about American people and at my core, I am American. There’s no way to change that. That’s one of the things I learned in Israel after years of trying to become Israeli. I am American, but I’m a very flexible guy and I’m able to absorb a lot of other things, too.
[Editor's note: This oral history was published in its original form on the author's blog.]
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Liam Litchfield is a freelance journalist/roamer who is currently based in Beijing. He is the founder of The Face of China, a public interest journalism website featuring interviews with Chinese people from many walks of life.