Audrey Topping remembers chatting amiably with Chinese Premiere Zhou En-Lai over breakfast. It was the early 1970s, and the ruler of the world's most populous nation was voicing his concerns about the future. "He said the biggest problem for China would be pollution," she recalls. "As it turns out, he was absolutely right."
Few people in the world have had this kind of personal interaction with history. In fact, one of the few other Americans you might find with a comparable depth of experience is Topping's husband, Seymour.
As one of the most respected foreign correspondents of the post-World War II era, Seymour Topping covered international hot spots from Beijing to Hanoi to Moscow. Traveling on assignment with her husband, Audrey gained an international reputation as a photojournalist, submitting cover stories for National Geographic, Life and New York Times Magazine. She was the first Western journalist to report on the army of 8,000 life-size terra-cotta soldiers discovered in north central China in 1974, a legacy of the first Chinese emperor from the third century B.C.
This weekend, the Toppings bring their considerable experience and insight to Richmond as keynote speakers at the China-America Festival of Film and Culture (CAFFC) at the University of Richmond. Rose Nan-Ping Chen, founder of the festival, is uncharacteristically enthusiastic when she talks about her featured guests. "I feel that [they] are the most knowledgeable people about China's history for the past 100 years," she says. "They witnessed all the major events, befriended the major players in both the Communist and Nationalist parties, and have intimate information as well as behind-the-scenes stories."
The participation of one of the first media power couples is only one highlight of the CAFFC. As part of the festival's ongoing mission to promote cross-cultural understanding, several internationally acclaimed films will be screened, including award-winners "Still Life," "Tuya's Marriage" and the 2005 film from director Zhang Yimou, "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles." The festival kicks off Wednesday, Oct. 3, with the documentary film "Neptune: Making the Myth," the story of a colossal statue made in China by local sculptor Paul DiPasquale and then installed in Virginia Beach.
Both of the Toppings assert that events like the CAFFC are vitally important. "Cultural exchanges [like CAFFC] are essential in shaping the attitudes of young people," Seymour says. "With China and the United States, there is ignorance on both sides and a real danger of misunderstanding."
He's seen firsthand some of the dangers inherent in misunderstandings between people. He was on the ground reporting from Nanking when Chiang Kai-shek's capital fell to the Communists in 1949. In 1950, he was the first correspondent for the Associated Press in French Indochina and watched as the groundwork for the Vietnam War was laid. After more than 30 years at The New York Times, he eventually retired to teach classes at Columbia University to young journalists on how to report on regional and ethnic conflicts.
Though both of the Toppings are well over the age of retirement -- Seymour is 85, Audrey 79 neither of them seems to be slowing down. Seymour, the author of historical novels set in China and Vietnam, is hard at work on a historical memoir. Audrey is the author of six books and regularly exhibits her photographs from the exotic locations she's visited over the years.
CAFCC organizer Chen says the Toppings "will be able to offer audiences a rare perspective about China's past and present from a vantage point that is totally unique." Seymour is hopeful that events such as CAFFC "can act as a bridge between the two cultures," and he and his wife will be helping Richmonders to cross that bridge this weekend. S
Audrey and Seymour Topping will speak at the China-America Festival of Film and Culture Friday, Oct. 5, at 7:30 p.m. at The Oates Theater at Collegiate School. The festival runs through Oct. 7. The Full festival schedule is available at www.therosegroup.org.