by Julia Sommer
When statistician Xin Liu found himself enrolled in a social anthropology graduate program in London by mistake, he didn't argue.
It had taken him too long to get the education he wanted during China's Cultural Revolution. Besides, by that point he was accustomed to doing what he was told, said Liu, who joined Berkeley's anthropology department this fall as an assistant professor.
Born in Beijing, Liu was 9 when Mao Tse Tung's Cultural Revolution threw China into massive upheaval. His brother and sister went to far-away provinces to work the land and be "re-educated"; his father, labeled a counter-revolutionary, and mother were confined to labor camps for 10 years.
Schools weren't really functioning, so Liu did what he could to educate himself. Books were scarce.
When he was 18, party authorities told Liu he was to be a barber--a lowly occupation--because of his suspect family background. Liu vented some of his creative energies as a storyteller with a propaganda team that performed at factories. His parents had both been administrators at Beijing's famous Central Drama College.
With the death of Mao in 1976, China's Cultural Revolution started to wind down and disbanded universities began to regroup. Liu studied at night for university entrance exams that hadn't been given for 10 years.
His ambition was to study literature or philosophy in Beijing. Finally, in 1978, he was told he could study at Shanxi College of Finance and Economics, 300 miles away. "I didn't want to be a barber the rest of my life, so I went," he recalls, with no trace of bitterness.
Studying economics in China then meant studying socialist doctrines of planned economy that were becoming outmoded. Liu switched to applied statistics. In 1982 he moved back to Beijing for graduate work, where he was finally reunited with his parents and sister.
Liu received his master's in 1985 and wanted to continue for a PhD, but was told that he was needed full-time as a lecturer in statistics at People's University in Beijing. He taught there for four years.
In 1989 Liu won a coveted three-year Sino-British Friendship Scholarship to study in England. As he was trying to make arrangements for it, student demonstrations in Beijing escalated and foreigners. including those at the British Embassy, left.
Student unrest culminated in the Tiannamen Square massacre of June 4 and Liu was unsure what would happen next. On Sept. 4 he received an unexpected plane ticket for England. He left China for the first time two days later.
Liu had applied to study econometrics or sociological methodology in England, but due to miscommunication found himself enrolled in a social anthropology program at London's famous School of Oriental and African Studies.
"I wasn't used to arguing with the authorities, so I started studying social anthropology. It was an excellent change," says Liu with a smile. "But I didn't understand the language or the content, which was very embarrassing."
Liu frequented pubs to learn colloquial English, where he soon moved from orange juice to lager "because it lasted longer." Aspects of London that initially shocked him (open homosexuality, the pub environment, scanty women's attire) became interesting from his new anthropological point of view.
Liu received an master's degree in 1990 with a dissertation on Chinese hero stories, making unexpected use of his time on the propaganda team. In 1991 he returned to China to do a year of field work for his PhD dissertation: "Zhao villagers: everyday practices in a post-reform Chinese village."
During his seven months in the village of Zhaojiahe in Shanxi province, Liu plowed with oxen, helped build houses of mud brick, spread manure in the fields and wrote in his room at sub-zero temperatures. The only source of heat was a brick oven under the bed. There was no phone or running water.
"I didn't take a bath for six months," says Liu. "There was a saying in the village that you only take a bath twice in your life: when you're born and before you get married."
Electricity came to the village in 1989, TV the same day. The first thing villagers got to watch was the Tiannamen Square uprising.
Liu was there when family planning authorities came in the middle of the night to take women for forced