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Prisoners of Liberation

January 29, 2010

Adele and Allyn Rickett. Prisoners of Liberation. New York: Cameron Associates, 1957.

Ellen Huang (2003)

The history of Western discourse on China has been characterized by an “Othering” of its subject, reflecting a wider cultural bias that has been theorized by, among others, Edward Said in Orientalism (1978). This common critique, which sees unequal power relations in all historical relationships and processes, paints a desolate picture of the world. Those of us who want to be encouraged to continue to strive for the ever-elusive goal of “international understanding” should read the story of Adele and Allyn Rickett, two American Fulbright scholars who spent several years in a Chinese jail undergoing “thought reform.”

Published in 1957, Prisoners of Liberation is Adele and Allyn Rickett’s autobiographical account of their transformation from staunch nationalists/anti-Communists to sympathizers of the causes and logic behind the 1949 revolution in China. As such, it is also a story about overcoming conceptual hostilities and bridging intellectual gaps between two foreign nations. Arriving in 1948 to China as researchers, the Ricketts were arrested on espionage charges in 1951. While they did not suffer any physical torture, they did experience four years of incarceration including study groups, collective self-criticism, and systematic interrogation.

The exact nature of the Ricketts’ espionage activities is never explained. Rather, in their narrative, espionage plays a secondary role to the book’s major theme. What is highlighted is their transformation from self-interested people to humans of a “higher social morality” (284). Thus, the portrayal of events and their attitudes leading up to their sincere repentance stand in stark, and perhaps exaggerated, contrast to their narration of their post-incarceration reformation. They emphasize prior character flaws of dishonesty, selfishness, and self-righteousness and give weight to the universalist and humble aspects of their new outlook. The real issue is not whether their four years in prison actually atoned for their crimes of espionage: more important than criminal retribution was their personal growth. About this Allyn Rickett writes, “it had taken me four years in prison to understand that the personal happiness of the individual could be assured only when he was willing to identify himself with the happiness of society as a whole” (284).

At the time of publication, this book was appreciated for its first-hand account of prison life and thought reform in Communist China. It contains many valuable insights into the tasks of consolidating political power undertaken by the Communist Party in the immediate years after 1949. Reviewers also recognized the book as being the “first written from the sympathetic” perspective of “converts” (Constantine, Pacific Affairs, 32.2; Wright, JAS, 17.2). The Ricketts wrote to answer questions regarding their change in view and to challenge suggestions that they were “brainwashed” (268). For the most part, the reviewers remained skeptical.

The Ricketts’ story makes several important points. By narrating their imprisonment and self-criticism experience in the context of moral improvement, they effectively question the notion of “thought-reform” itself. Instead of focusing on the details of their espionage activities, they focus on the difficulties of achieving “real understanding between two countries” (260). They admitted that even collecting information on such seemingly innocuous issues as deterioration in Chinese student diet could foster animosity and mistrust between China and the United States (260). Chinese espionage laws maybe unjust, but their story reveals the moral ambiguousness of espionage itself. As academics who entered the field of China studies to foster understanding and peace, the Ricketts’ realized the difficulties of achieving such noble goals. Their moral transformation reminds us of the importance of humility, suggesting that a willingness to admit past wrongs can contribute towards international understanding.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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