HE is called No. 6 in his family at Suzhou, where he's the youngest of six children, but at Peking, where he's an assistant professor of English, he is called Liu Ping. He's to be our host during our visit and asks if I will write something about China. ``Yes,'' my husband answers for me, ``and I will take all the profits.''
Mr. Liu grins. ``No,'' he says, ``I will take the profits and I'll give you a commission.''
They have both read ``Iacocca.'' The autobiography is a best seller in China.
No. 6 was born in the early 1960s, just before Chairman Mao set the stage for the Cultural Revolution. ``My parents didn't know what was happening,'' he tells us. His oldest brother and sister joined the Red Guards; they stopped going to school and went to meetings and parades. The rest of the children still went to class, but their teachers were either absent or afraid. Then there were the educational camps in the countryside, formed, Liu tells us, to help the farmers who did not want to be helped. And after the camps there was the Army. ``I planted trees on a hillside where there was no water,'' Liu says. That was why the trees had died.
``And your parents, what did they do?''
``They waited. My father sat on the fence, he sat on the fence for 10 long years!''
Liu finished high school just after the Cultural Revolution, he says. ``I didn't know anything, but neither did anyone else.'' So No. 6 set himself to studying on his own for two years. Then he took the entrance exams for the University of Peking and passed. He's the only one in his family to go away to school from Suzhou.
His brothers and sisters are all married; the oldest lives at home, the others live close by. Each has one child, each a daughter. ``It makes me very nervous when I go home,'' says Liu. ``My father is looking for a grandson.''
Liu has a girlfriend in the last year at the same university. She is the only child of an intellectual who lives in an old courtyard house behind the walls of the Imperial Palace. ``Her parents like me, they chose me,'' says Liu, standing still straighter. ``I spend the weekends at her house, but I have to be very careful. Her parents are watching us!''
The first day in Peking, Liu takes us to the Temple of Heaven, where the feudal emperors worshiped heaven once a year.
At the top of the stairway to the 15th-century temple, a mother is trying to take a picture of her two-year-old son in bright orange pants with a bright orange jacket and a green Army casquette falling down over his small eyes. His father, an Army officer, is trying to get him to stand up for the photo.
At the Summer Palace, the official guide is wearing her hair piled in curls on her head, her makeup is perfect, her nails are long and pink. We ask Liu if he noticed anything special about her looks. He says no. The next day at the Imperial Palace the official guide is wearing her hair short and straight; she has no makeup, no nail polish. ``You see,'' Liu says afterward, ``They look alike.'' I try to disagree. ``Makeup doesn't change anything,'' he asserts. ``What counts is underneath.''
When we talk about socialism, Liu becomes pensive. He sees the progress, but he's worried about the pushing to get to the top. ``Socialism is one big pot,'' he says, ``and I am only one small potato.'' He takes us on the crowded buses and into the crowded subway. We move in the same direction as everyone else; we have no choice. ``Either one is poor and pushed upon,'' Liu explains, ``or one is rich and then respected.''
As we climb a tiny portion of the immense Great Wall, there is music on the loudspeaker and I start humming along. I realize it's ``Auld Lang Syne,'' Robert Burns on the Great Wall at Badaling! I tell Liu. He nods his head and listens. ``Why not?'' he asks accommodatingly.
On the last day of our visit, we go back to Tian An Men Square, the Gate of Heavenly Peace Square, in the heart of the city.
The 15th-century walls that once surrounded the Imperial City have been replaced here to build the underground subway. Only the old Ming Gate remains, and next to it is the modern gray stone subway entrance, its form duplicating the base of the Imperial Gate. From afar it is hard to distinguish one from the other.
We follow the crowd to the middle of the square. Ahead of us is the Tian An Men Gateway, the entrance to the Imperial Palace, open only to the guests of the emperors until the end of the last feudal dynasty, in 1911. Behind us is the Memorial Hall of Chairman Mao, with its twin roofs and massive columns, built in 1977. We take our place in the long line of people waiting to visit it. One dynasty after another. One emperor after another.