EARLIER THIS SUMMER while helping tidy my father-in-law’s basement, I stumbled on a 1972 Newsweek copy headlined, “The China Nixon Will See.”
It was an enthralling, touching, and at times hilarious period piece. China was still very much closed off to the West, and Newsweek recounted tales by early visitors describing “a land without drug addiction or pollution, without crime or venereal disease; a land where there are no slums, no alcoholics and not even any bosses.”
The recently published My First Trip to China is a collection of early visitor accounts. Covering the 1960s–1980s, when China was just opening up, it is of course written with the benefit of hindsight that the Newsweek piece lacked, when 30 years of breakneck economic growth, massive pollution, and rampant corruption have contrived to overturn Mao’s utopia.
Written by a veritable who’s who of China watchers, these are nostalgic recollections conveying the powerful emotions of first love and the inevitable descent to disillusionment.
Academic Delia Davin, for example, first encounters China as a 19-year-old newlywed in 1963. The Peking she knew then was Xanadu-like, filled with moats and giant gated towers. Coal came on camelback. Neither she nor then-husband W.J.F.Jenner — who translated the memoirs of China’s last Emperor — had any inkling that the Cultural Revolution would break out a year after their departure, turning friends and colleagues into prisoners or killers. Wrote Jenner: “I allowed myself to remain in the dark about much of what really happened in the rest of China.”
In the most harrowing account, activist Steven Mosher writes of his 1978 entry to China as a PhD student. At that time, he wrote, he had been taught by Stanford professors to view China as socialist paradise, but his idealism vanished after he witnessed a series of forced abortions that signaled the beginning of China’s one-child policy.
Mosher recounts visiting the local medical clinic, where women with near-term pregnancies were given abortions in an “assembly-line fashion,” after which the local gravedigger would pile the fetuses in a handcart and head to a mass burial site, “making sure he had not been followed by some grieving family member.” (Mosher’s exposes of these practices, published in Taiwan, led to his subsequent expulsion from Stanford’s graduate program in 1983. The decision was controversial, with the university facing allegations it had acted under pressure from Beijing. Stanford denied it. Mosher went on to become a respected academic and head of an anti-abortion NGO, the Population Research Institute.)
Many accounts are by foreigners who visited as part of state-sponsored trips and were dogged by minders and allowed very little contact with real Chinese. These contributors often express frustration with the parade of merry peasants and staged collective utopias placed before them. There are Potemkin villages, Potemkin apartments — even, as Hamline University professor Richard Kagan discovers, a Potemkin library. In 1975, Kagan visits a political school in Changsha where cadres boasted of intensive study. However Kagan sneaks a quick library visit and discovers the books have uncut pages, signifying that no one had even leafed through them. “Furthermore, these cadres who had been working in the fields, with the pigs, and the wells, had not left any dirt on the pages. The books were squeaky clean,” he wrote.
For University of Madison-Wisconsin professor Edward Friedman, two months of intensive field work in a Chinese village went down the drain when he discovered “some 95 percent or so of what we thought we had so cleverly unearthed by our shrewd interviewing was little more than the story the village readers and their patrons had put together.”
Journalist Jonathan Mirsky was disciplined like a naughty child by Chinese minders after he took an unsupervised walk. On that walk, Mirsky discovers the shabbier reality behind a seemingly prosperous home of a “typical” Chinese worker family he’d recently visited. After returning, Mirsky refused to tell his minders where he’d been, so “they picked me up under the arms, carried me into the lift and to my room, which they locked from the outside telling me I would be let out when I apologized,” he said.
At times dispiriting, these accounts of initial ignorance and then dawning awareness are nonetheless the book’s chief strength. To these Sinologists, linguists, ethnic Chinese returnees, that first visit to China represented humility, the recognition that their years of study or cultural heritage were, in the end, inadequate preparation for understanding modern China. Those initial trips were for many the spark that led to years of distinguished work interpreting and explaining China to the world.
“Our first encounters with China […] are rarely as grand as we hope,” writes Pulitzer-prize-winning contributor Ian Johnson. “That is the nature of exploring foreign countries; all we can hope for is that our first steps are sturdy enough to carry us forward.”
My First Visit should be enjoyed like a box of assorted chocolates, randomly perused rather than read through at one sitting. Although editor Kin-Ming Liu has made efforts to collect a variety of perspectives, a certain repetitiveness permeates many accounts in part because the narrow window of opportunity to visit China then meant visitors were mostly upper middle class, mostly white, and mostly men.
Women may have held up half the sky in Mao’s China, but My First Visit has only three women contributors out of the roughly 30 odd essays: Delia Davin, Canadian professor Josephine Chiu-Duke, a specialist in Chinese intellectual history, and Lois Wheeler Snow, wife of journalist Edgar Snow. (Snow’s fascinating vignette recalls standing on a Tiananmen Square balcony with Mao so close “I could have touched the mole on his face [... ],” as the Chairman faced adoring masses, “just like with the Beatles, Sinatra, Michael Jackson.”)
A more diverse set of contributors would have enriched the book. Indian-born academic Porus Olpadwala’s remembrance of a 1985 Cornell study tour is a refreshing example of this. Raised in Calcutta, Olpadwalla viewed China differently from his tour mates. “Where I saw almost everyone housed, they noticed the drabness of the housing; where I saw everyone clothed they observed sartorial monotony; where I saw shops stocked with basics, they remarked on the lack of variety [... ] it was clear that we were reacting to our own values, life experiences, and a priori expectations of China.”
You might ask, with some justification, the value of reading the accounts of a set of privileged foreigners who largely saw China in protected cordons. But that would miss the point of such reminiscences, which, faulty as they are, provide a yardstick for viewing China’s emergence as a major global force. Reading accounts of those first visits, before China’s modernization fully began, give “a chance to marvel at what collective effort chasing ambitious targets can achieve in just one generation,” writes businessman Helmut Sohmen.
In those days, China’s visitors depended on eluding state minders and snatched contact with ordinary citizens in order to get beyond the carefully controlled image of the country presented to them. Now, thanks to social media, we are deluged with China information, but digital Potemkin villages and misinformation still proliferate. My First Visit serves as a check against the arrogance of thinking we know so much more now.