“My First Trip to China” may sound like a high-school writing assignment. Don’t get put off by the title. This collection of short essays by scholars, journalists and businessmen provides insightful and often entertaining early glimpses into the Middle Kingdom.
The book spans more than four decades from the pre-communist 1940s through the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution to China’s economic opening up to the mid-1980s.
For much of the world, so caught up in the here and now of contemporary China, this book shows what the country went through to get where it is today.
Hong Kong journalist Liu Kin-ming originally published the stories each week on the website of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.
They include 30 reminiscences from scholars Orville Shell and William H. Overholt; Sidney Rittenberg, who spent time in a Chinese prison and eventually became a member of the Communist Party; the widow of journalist Edgar Snow, author of “Red Star Over China” tracing the rise of Communist Party under Mao Zedong; and Fortune China’s chairman Thomas D. Gorman.
A ChinaFile Fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.- China Relations, Liu describes himself as “an amateur watcher of China-watchers,” and is a deft editor.
For the early visitor, China was a tantalizing final frontier, a fascinating, impenetrable and opaque nation, especially for Americans who were barred from entering the country until when President Richard Nixon made his historic first trip in 1972.
Veteran journalist Jonathan Mirsky recalls how his delegation was led around with “rings in your noses” on a carefully choreographed visit a few months later. While he saw little more than the Potemkin version his Chinese hosts had prepared for them to mask the true nature of the totalitarian regime, remarkably, they also met with Premier Zhou Enlai (after midnight). Such access to China’s top leadership today is unthinkable.
Jerome Cohen, a lawyer who also visited “the promised land” in 1972, offers an amusing anecdote where he unsuccessfully tries to engage locals in small talk at a soup stand under the watchful glare of a public security officer. His account of a demonstration of the Beijing subway which was mysteriously devoid of any passengers (the train wasn’t actually in service) is an example of Communist stage management.
Some visitors managed to pierce the veil, at times revealing harrowing discoveries.
Steven Mosher, the first American social scientist to conduct research in China, recounts an Orwellian nightmare. In 1980, local officials imposed forced abortions on women, some in their eighth month of pregnancy.
His gruesome description of a hospital Cesarean-section abortion where a baby in the uterus was first killed by lethal injection and then “a doctor soon pulled a tiny, limp body from her torn womb,” is unforgettable.
In a postscript, Mosher says Stanford University fired him after a five-year investigation into his China research.
W.J.F. Jenner, a British graduate student working as a translator for the Peking Review (an English-language propaganda magazine) in 1963, evokes the nostalgia of pre-Cultural Revolution Beijing.
Its beautiful narrow-laned Hutong neighborhoods were still intact under unpolluted skies. Despite suffering great hardships (as many as 45 million died of famine during the failed “Great Leap Forward a few years before) many people still had faith in the Communist Party.
Jenner also translated the memoirs of Pu Yi, and met the Last Emperor after its publication. By the time he returned in 1979, “belief in the system and its claimed values had gone.”
Ian Johnson, a Beijing-based journalist, looks back fondly on his life as a student in the early 1980s, the era before mobile phones, Skype and Twitter (or Weibo, its Chinese equivalent) where isolation made immersion possible.
His adventures on a bicycle -- including a stealthy ride through a restricted military compound -- evoke a very different China from the superpower it has become.
Some of the truths drawn from these early glimpses behind the Bamboo Curtain are still relevant: that the gulf between perception and reality (and the official Communist version of it) is as wide today as it was then.
(Frederik Balfour is a Reporter-at-Large for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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