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As If Getting a Venereal Disease Weren’t Bad Enough…

Chas Freeman had an extraordinary career in the Foreign Service. He accomplished the unparalleled feat of becoming nearly bilingual in less than two years of training and served as one of President Nixon’s interpreters on his historic trip to China.

He then helped open the Liaison Office in Beijing in the 1970s, where he had a range of responsibilities, including helping the Marine Security Guards posted there. In this excerpt he describes how one MSG got into a rather prickly situation. You can read more about Ambassador Freeman and his experience as President Nixon’s interpreter. Go here to read other Moments on China.


FREEMAN:  This group [from the State Department] set off into terra incognita to open an office….There were many occasions for contact with Chinese officials outside the immediate America-handling and administrative crowd.

Of course, this was the Cultural Revolution, and people had been taught in China not to reveal their identity or their work unit or whatever to foreigners. This was a matter of national security. The papers would routinely identify those who attended meetings as “responsible persons of the department concerned,” and you really couldn’t get much more identification out of people.

So one of the things I did, which wasn’t easy but became a good move in terms of opening up these officials, was to go out to the local printing press, where calling cards could get printed, and after about six days of negotiation with them, I succeeded in getting them to print a card that said, on one side, in English, “Responsible Person of the Department Concerned,” and on the other side it said, “Youguan Bumendi Fuzeren,” in Chinese.

So when they would ask me who I was, I would say, “Allow me to present my card.” They would look at this thing for a minute, and some of them would just break down laughing. It was a good introduction….

I became the sort of custodian of the Marines. There were several things that were quite interesting about that. I ended up measuring for the curtains in their apartment. Nobody could speak Chinese in the Marines, of course.

I ended up taking them to get their hair cut. I can remember the barber, a very old man, saying to this Marine, “Are you really a Marine? Oh, I’m so glad to see you!” So there were some in China who remembered the Marines fondly.

But the most embarrassing element of that was that the Chinese had not only great sensitivity to the Marines, but they also had great sensitivity to anything overtly sexual. They had claimed, and probably they had more or less succeeded, that they had eradicated venereal disease in China. And indeed, as I say, maybe they had.

One of the Marines turned up with the clap, which his girlfriend had given him….The question was: What do we do with this? You know, this is rather embarrassing. The Marines are remembered ambivalently because of their sexual prowess, and here is the first Marine to set foot in China after a quarter of a century, turning up with the clap.

We debated whether to send him out for treatment, and concluded that that was too expensive and that we couldn’t do it. So we took him to the Chinese for treatment.

The medical people we took him to were delighted; they hadn’t seen a case of gonorrhea for years. They called an all-North-China medical conference to examine this, so that everyone could see this strange disease.

This poor, poor young man was thoroughly humiliated and I’m sure was much more careful in the future. But he was cured, and life went on.