Encountering China

This essay was commissioned as a review of Kin-ming Liu’s edited volume, My First Trip to China: Scholars, Diplomats and Journalists Reflect on their First Encounters with China, Hong Kong: East Slope publishing, 2012. As it turns out, The China Story offers a more commodious destination for these reflections. My thanks to Linda Jaivin and Gloria Davies for their comments on draft versions of this essay.—Geremie R. Barmé


In the summer of 1966, as China’s Cultural Revolution gained momentum, Mao’s call to destroy the old world of feudalism and the bourgeoisie and to create a new, ideal social order ignited a nationwide rebellion. Inspired by a small group of classmates in Beijing who called themselves the Red Guards of Mao Zedong Thought, students converged on the Chinese capital. Massing in Tiananmen Square in their millions they strained to catch a glimpse of the Chairman, the ‘Reddest Red Sun’ 最红的红太阳. (Although Mao did shine down on eight mass rallies over that summer, he would mostly direct the action, and infighting, of the Cultural Revolution era from Liu Zhuang 刘庄, his villa by West Lake in Hangzhou.) Thus fired up, the students dispersed to spread revolution throughout the country. Given free travel and accommodation to aid their ‘justified rebellion’, they set off with a sense of heroic purpose.

Millions of urban youth in the Red Guard movement took part in the new ‘long marches’. They succeeded all too well in visiting upheaval and destruction on the provinces. But the marches also had an unintended side effect: they brought the Red Guard generation, who’d grown up under seventeen years of state socialism and carefully modulated propaganda, into direct contact with the physical realities of China. It was an encounter that most of them never forgot.


Jinggang Shan: the road from Shaoshan 韶山——井冈山公路. Source: Renmin huabao 人民画报, no.5, 1970.

In their treks through the nation’s vast hinterland, many Red Guards retraced the history of the revolution itself, visiting the ‘sacred sites’ of the communist movement. These included Shanghai where the Party was founded; the former guerilla base in Jinggangshan, Jiangxi 江西井冈山; and Shaoshan in Hunan 湖南韶山, ‘where the sun first rose’ (i.e., Mao’s birthplace). Following this, many embarked on a truncated version of the 1935 Long March, travelling southwest to Zunyi in Guangxi 广西遵义, where Mao became the Party’s chairman, and finally reaching Yan’an in Shaanxi 陕西延安, the ‘holy land’ 革命圣地 of the Communist resistance against Japan (and the Nationalist government) during WWII. There, many would scoop up handfuls of soil to keep as relics of their pilgrimage along the red via sacra.

The Red Guards were often shocked by what they encountered in the China that they claimed as their revolutionary inheritance. Rather than the uplifting visions of a New China fed to them by teachers and political commissars, they discovered grinding rural poverty, sullen submission to local Party bosses and a country that looked for all intents and purposes untouched by the twentieth century. For the Red Guards, and many of China’s present leaders, this ‘first trip to China’ influenced the rest of their lives and determines still the breakneck development policies of the People’s Republic.

It is only in retrospect that foreign and overseas Chinese visitors to Maoist China might appreciate that their encounters with a country of hyperbole and myth, possibility and deception parallel in many respects the experiences of China’s educated youth. The Party’s dream-weaving propaganda industry, at the centre of which loomed the demiurge Mao Zedong himself, beguiled and inspired both Chinese and foreign revolutionary aspirants.

In many respects, from the early 1950s onwards, China had become a terra incognita for urban dwellers. The agrarian revolutionary society that Mao and the Party leadership were creating was certainly as mysterious for the travelers among whom were journalists, diplomats and scholars, including no small number of ‘political pilgrims’. Their reflections are gathered in Kin-ming Liu’s My First Trip to China. As one of the early US observers of late-Mao and Deng-era China, Orville Schell, points out in his Forward:

While so much of the rest of the world had been blurring its boundaries during the early stages of 20th century globalization, here was China, defiantly maintaining its revolutionary identity and isolation, becoming not only a terra incognita for much of the world, but also conferring on it an air of mesmerizing impenetrability and unpossessability. Its haughty detachment, fierce dedication to self-reliance and abject refusal to surrender to the outside world’s pressure paradoxically also made it a strangely alluring place … at least, for some of us! [pp.10-11]

Liu’s collection takes us back to the 1960s, when a few scholars like Bill Jenner and Delia Davin worked in China as ‘foreign experts’. Most of the accounts, however, come from visitors allowed in as a strategic, albeit fitful, opening up to the world began under Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai in the early 1970s. This era saw the emergence of a publishing mini-genre of books by ‘one trip wonders’ following ‘study tours’ during which they were introduced to a supposedly revolutionized populace in ‘model agricultural communes’ such as Dazhai 大寨; monumental socialist construction projects like the Red Flag Canal in Henan 河南红旗渠; as well as school and factory visits that featured mind-numbing ‘short introductions’ to production statistics and rote politics over tea, sweets and acrid cigarettes. The reflections presented in My First Trip offer an informal history of a particular time in China’s relationship with the outside world. Having been an exchange student in China from 1974, I would hope a future collection (already being planned by the editor) might broaden to include essays by some of my classmates from European countries (including Albania), Africa, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Villages in Zhejiang province enthusiastically participate in the mass movement to ‘Learn from Dazhai’ 延浙江省农村轰轰烈烈地开展‘农业学大寨’的群众运动. Source: Renmin huabao, no.12, 1970.

Villages in Zhejiang province enthusiastically participate in the mass movement to ‘Learn from Dazhai’ 延浙江省农村轰轰烈烈地开展‘农业学大寨’的群众运动. Source: Renmin huabao, no.12, 1970.

Many foreign travelers in the 1960s and 1970s encountered a revolutionary China that represented the high point of Maoist-style socialism. Few, however, saw it as the apogee of a revolutionary era that began early in the twentieth century. It was not until 1995 that the writers Li Zehou 李泽厚 and Liu Zaifu 刘再复 would publish their famous essay, titled ‘Farewell to Revolution’ 告别革命, questioning nearly a century of revolutionary rhetoric, radicalism and uneven development in China. For all the trumpeted revolutionary aspiration and idealism, young people and zealots, firebrands and ideologues were finally having to confront the fact that the one-party state had created a secretive and self-serving nomenklatura whose shrill rhetoric and public Puritanism disguised privileged lives and vicious infighting (something that the Red Guards had also discovered when they ‘smashed the old world’ of Party control and broke open the files). It is a reality with which observant first visitors to China even today must also come to grips.

The vanguard that first discovered revolutionary China in its wartime holy land of Yan’an travelled there from the country’s urban centres in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Among them were writers like Wang Shiwei 王实味, Ding Ling 丁玲 and Ai Qing 艾青 (father of the internationally celebrated free-thinker Ai Weiwei 艾未未) who criticised and lampooned the grim realities and hidden prerogatives of the revolution in stories, essays and poems. They’d pay for taking liberties. Wang Shiwei, the most outspoken critic of Party privilege and corruption and author of an acerbic work titled Wild Lilies, was denounced by Mao himself, in his influential talks on culture in 1942. Those talks remain the bedrock of official Chinese cultural policy today. (The Nobel laureate Mo Yan 莫言 was among those who participated in celebrations of the seventieth anniversary of the culture-crippling ‘Yan’an Talks’ last year).

Like many of the authors in My First Trip to China, Wang Shiwei journeyed to revolutionary China with high hopes of experiencing a fresh way ahead for humanity and a radical new way of organizing society. While most of the memoirs in Liu Kin-ming’s interesting collection end with thoughtful reflections, or in some cases self-justification, Wang Shiwei did not survive his adventure. When the Communists retreated from Yan’an in 1947, they had him beheaded.

The first encounters with revolutionary China and the long farewell to the Chinese revolutionary experience should be considered in tandem. Of course, it was hard for most travelers – be they internal acolytes or international visitors – to discern the realities that were so carefully disguised from them. Besides, they wanted to think that here in China the impossible was perhaps coming true in ways different from the Soviet Union and the countries in its thrall. Most Chinese would concur in presenting that false view of reality – whether they believed it or not. No dissent was brooked. We now know that a few courageous individuals like the student Yu Luoke 遇洛克 (executed in 1970) and the economist Gu Zhun 顾准 (d.1974) secretly recorded their insights into the system of hyperbole and lies, but most people, even China’s best and brightest, had learnt the harsh lessons of the punitive ideological campaigns that began in the 1950s: they burned their letters and diaries and learned to parrot the Party line (a powerful account of the constant pressure under which thinking people were placed can be found in the extraordinary collection of the journalist Xu Zhucheng’s personnel file records, published in late 2012: 《徐铸成自述:运动档案汇编》, 北京:三联书店).

For one young man named Zhao Hang 赵珩, the discovery of China moved along an entirely different path. It was a rare individual who managed to make use of the public journeys of the Red Guards for entirely private purposes. Zhao had grown up in a secure Party compound in Beijing where his learned father oversaw a vast historiographical project at Mao’s behest (his great-uncle was Zhao Erzhuan 赵尔撰, the head of the Qing Dynastic History Office during the Republic, which was in charge of compiling the Draft History of the Qing Dynasty 清史稿). Home educated, Zhao Hang studied maths and science and under his father’s guidance he steeped himself in the Confucian classics, traditional poetry, prose and fiction. Assuming the costume of a Red Guard he took advantage of the free train travel and accommodation to visit a China he knew intimately from classical poetry and prose, a China of the mind and the heart. The great translator and Sinologist Arthur Waley is noted for not wishing to sully his appreciation for cultural China by visiting the modern country. The very year Waley died, young Zhao Hang began his travels. He was able to see beyond the seemingly immutable ‘Red China’ (quanguo yipian hong 全国一片红) of the Mao years to travel in a world of letters and ideas, literary allusions and poetic imagery. It was a reality that both pre-dated and has outlasted the passions of political fervor.

As Zhao recalls:

I simply wanted to live that dream of the ancients; having ‘read 10,000 books’ I wanted to ‘travel 10,000 li’. I never read any big-character posters – best not to pollute your eyes with that sort of language. I stayed in the hotel on the peak of Mount Tai [in Shandong] for three days. It rained for two days non-stop. When I woke on the afternoon of the third day, the sun was shining through the window and the whole mountain was bathed in shimmering green light. I felt the truth of [the Tang Dynasty poet] Du Fu’s line about ‘at a single glance … all the other mountains grow tiny beneath me’ and I realised that when [the Tang-dynasty artist] Li Sixun created ‘gold-and-green landscapes’ he was not exaggerating at all.

After that I went to Suzhou eager to take a boat up the Grand Canal to Hangzhou so that I could experience for myself that famous poetic line [by Zhang Ji of the mid-eighth century] ‘And I hear, from beyond Suzhou, from the temple on Cold Mountain,/ Ringing for me, here in my boat, the midnight bell.’ But I ended up going in the opposite direction – from Hangzhou to Suzhou.

Zhao did not entirely escape the Cultural Revolution. In 1969, he was sent off with other urban youth whose Red Guard days were over to be ‘re-educated by the poor and lower middle peasants’. Like the awakening of those who traveled the path of the revolution only to discover how little socialist China had delivered to the peasantry, so the movement to send young people ‘up the mountains and into the countryside’ confronted countless idealistic pro-Party students with a second opportunity to become acquainted with the grim realities of rural China.

Zhao too was rusticated but after a year he snuck back to Beijing:

[I] lived ‘a life of leisure’ at home. I didn’t worry about not having a residency permit. I spent my time punctuating the History of the Han Dynasty. I had the cheapest Zhujian Studio edition and I punctuated and annotated it from cover to cover. Then I started working on the Records of the Historian [by the Han-dynasty writer Sima Qian], but didn’t manage to finish it. In the three years I remained unemployed at home, I also copied out Confucius’ Analects in formal small-script calligraphy on a long scroll, which I eventually had mounted. I still have it. I also reread all of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales and stories with my wife – ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, ‘The Flea and the Professor’, ‘The Silver Shilling’… . On Chinese New Years Eve in 1973 my family all got together, ‘trimmed the wicks of our lamp, ground some ink and made a painting together’. I painted [the vanquisher of ghosts and demons] Zhong Kui, my mother added the background scenery and my dad composed a poem and wrote it in calligraphy on the painting. It was to repel evil spirits big and small. We really were out of step with the times.[1]

The New Vista of Yan’an 延安新貌. Source: Renmin huabao, no.10, 1970.

The New Face of Yan’an 延安新貌. Source: Renmin huabao, no.10, 1970.

My First Trip to China contains stories from three categories of visitors: fellow travelers, people of Chinese descent, and business people. The editor also divides the essays according to the period the authors first encountered the People’s Republic: during the Mao era (which he puts in the category ‘bamboo curtain’), the years after US president Nixon’s 1972 trip, and the opening up under Deng Xiaoping. Foreigners were readily accused of ‘not understanding China’. It is a charge, a declamation that is still leveled at visitors and commentators, thinkers and activists, Chinese or foreign, who disagree with the prevailing political line. To be ignorant of ‘China’s unique national conditions’ 国情 or the abiding value of ‘Chinese exceptionalism’ is, according to the party-state and its propagandists, to be denied the right to an opinion. In the stentorian tones of commentaries in People’s Daily, editorials in Global Times, and essays published by Xinhua, the rest of the world is constantly admonished how to understand ‘accurately, correctly and objectively’ Chinese realities. Fortunately, the Internet and the Weibo-sphere of recent years have made the furtive samizdat writings of the past a common right for Chinese citizens.

The great twentieth-century Chinese writer, Lu Xun 鲁迅, remains perhaps the most insightful and effective critic of his country’s politics and culture; his work still sets the tone for those who question authority, decry the vestiges of authoritarian Confucianism, and despair that submission to power and narrow material goals define the country. He once remarked that China was like a banquet, one that attracted foreigners to gorge themselves. He was also scathing of the pseudo-leftists he encountered in the 1920s and 1930s. Fortunately, most of those who recall their first trip to China in the pages of Liu’s collection were wary of the lavish banquets they were fed, as well as of the steady diet of ersatz information provided by their hosts.



[1] Zhao Hang, ‘1949-2009: Sixty Years Out of Range’, an oral history interview by Sang Ye, translated by Geremie R. Barmé, China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 19, September 2009.