By William Harms

Guy Alitto has seen the modern history of China develop before his eyes.

He was there from the start, sitting near President Nixon as the chief interpreter for Chinese delegations first visiting the United States in 1972. Since then he has often traveled with Chinese delegations as their interpreter and was called upon to interpret amid a 2001 international incident in which a U.S. spy plane was downed in China.

As a scholar, Alitto, Associate Professor of History, has devoted his career to studying Chinese history. He was among the first Americans invited to visit the Communist country in 1973, and in 1986, he opened the first site for rural research. He has witnessed remote villages blossom into communities with modern infrastructures and industrial plants.

But it was Alitto’s biographical work on Chinese philosopher and reformer Liang Shu-ming that endeared him to the Chinese people and helped create a minor industry on the topic. Millions of copies of his book have been sold in Chinese translation. Alitto is now somewhat of a celebrity in China, and the foreign media frequently rely on him as an expert—most recently, as a commentator on President Obama’s inauguration.

“It’s satisfying to know that I am able to help the Chinese understand Americans,” says Alitto, whose affable chuckles seem to go naturally with his generous mustache. “I’m happy to be available to them and to provide an American perspective.”

As Told Through Eyes of ‘Ai Kai’

Alitto’s interest in China began while a history student at King’s College in Pennsylvania, where a professor suggested that Alitto choose an area of specialization in which few American scholars were focused, like India or China. Alitto spent a summer reading about both histories and became fascinated with China. “I was impressed by the length and continuity of Chinese culture.”

He received an MA in 1966 in Far Eastern Civilizations from the University of Chicago and a PhD in History and East Asian Languages in 1975 from Harvard University. Along the way, he studied Mandarin in Taiwan and quickly became proficient. Government representatives learned of his abilities and hired him to interpret for the first official Chinese delegations visiting the United States in 1972 after Nixon’s visit to China.

“I went with all the early delegations to visit the U.S.—there were scientists, doctors, and others. The first delegation met with the President, and all met with top government officials and leaders in their fields,” Alitto says. “But in addition to the official conversations and professional briefings, the delegates were very much interested in how typical Americans lived. As I was with them 24 hours a day, I became their major source of information about American life and society.”

Since these were the first person-to-person contacts between the two countries in nearly a quarter-century, Alitto was one of the few Americans they encountered who could converse with them in Chinese. When the delegations returned to China, members gave lectures about what they had seen in the United States as told to them through the eyes of “Ai Kai,” Alitto’s Chinese name.

“When in China in 1973, I took my wife to a hospital to deal with a small injury, and the entire medical staff came out to talk to us. After a few minutes of conversation, one of the doctors said, “You must be Ai Kai.” For better or for worse, my version of the U.S. had reached China before me.”

Six years after joining the Chicago faculty in 1980, Alitto traveled to Zouping County in east China’s Shandong Province, where rural land reforms had recently allowed residents to keep profits from their labors. “The change unleashed Chinese entrepreneurial instincts,” Alitto says.

In just a few years, the county town that had just one sidewalk became a small city. People bought televisions and began discussing hip-hop music with him, and in 1991, they were congratulating him on the success of the Chicago Bulls. As the country prospered, people began opening up and Alitto freely interviewed people throughout the county.

Alitto had published a biography of the county’s “patron saint” philosopher and rural reformer Liang Shu-ming, who had also been a mediator during the Chinese civil war. The book, The Last Confucian: Liang Shu-ming and the Chinese Dilemma of Modernity, was first published in 1979, with subsequent editions in both Chinese and English in the 1980s and 1990s. Liang was regarded throughout the Chinese world as part of the dust-heap of history until Alitto’s biography appeared; now publications about him have become a minor industry. After the first edition was published, Alitto had interviewed Liang in a series of recorded meetings, and published the transcripts in 2006.

“It blew my mind that the book did so well. It was No. 1 on China’s best-seller list for two weeks,” he says.

Enjoying Life in the Public Eye

Alitto’s language skills have served him well in negotiating difficult situations as well as to interpret and analyze events for the Chinese media.

He was again called on to interpret in 2001 when a Chinese fighter plane collided with a U.S. electronic surveillance plane and forced it to crash land on Hainan Island off the southern coast of China. The Chinese would not permit the U.S. plane to be flown out of China; instead, they demanded that it be crated in parts and carried out on another plane.

“Although the atmosphere was extremely tense at the outset and both sides were extremely hostile, I was actually having great fun,” Alitto says. “Aside from interpreting, I considered it my job as to provide some levity, to get people to lighten up as I thought that would be the only way we could succeed in the mission.”

Through small jokes and smiles, Alitto helped guide both sides through to the final removal of the U.S. plane on a Russian carrier, the largest in the world.

His language skills and his scholarship have made him a popular interviewee for the Chinese media. In January, 15 minutes after President Obama’s inauguration, a Chinese news website reporter called for his comments on the speech.

“They knew I lived in Hyde Park, not far from Obama’s home, so they thought I would have a special perspective. But the Chinese were really fixated on the concept of the first 100 days. I had to explain that it wasn’t magical, that things would not really change that fast,” he laughed.

Originally published on March 9, 2009.