I rather think our tour of China in 1978 was a bit of trial and error for the Chinese as conducting tours was a very new venture. All I can say is that we concluded back in Hong Kong, after the tour ended, that we had never worked so hard in our lives – we had breakfast at 8am, out on the road by 9am with two visits to schools/factories/handicrafts factories, back for lunch at midday, a 30 minute rest period, then off again at 1.30 for two more visits. Back for dinner at 5.30pm, and then off to see movies or an orchestra or some other aspect of culture in the evening. This went on for three weeks.
At each place we visited during the day we’d be given a tour of the school or factory or whatever we were visiting, we’d meet the people and children, if we went to schools, we’d sit down and be given a history of what we were visiting, and then we’d enjoy a cup of jasmine tea and a general chat.
The Chinese had a great cultural life which I think we found surprising as the image of this enormous nation had, up until then, always been of a rather drab and dreary culture. China had been so closed to the outside world that really we had no idea of what we’d encounter or the rich cultural life of the country.
But going into a movie was a great experience – we didn’t understand a word but the Chinese audience had the time of their life and often the movies were very gruesome which they watched without turning a hair while we Westerners flinched and shut our eyes. I mean – people getting cut in half by a sword; a concubine disappearing and re-appearing floating in a huge pot with her arms and legs removed; someone else getting beheaded in incredibly realistic battle scenes. All very colourful and also an introduction to the various ways in which people were killed in feudal China!
We were taken one evening to see a Chinese orchestra and, I have to be honest, we were pretty bored. We weren’t used to the instruments or musical sounds of Chinese music but, while we sat there quite quietly, the Chinese audience had a terrific time, applauding noisily and having the time of their lives. Nevertheless, it was a great experience to see Chinese culture at such close quarters and to see the pleasure of people in the audience. We found that film, music and other cultural events were widespread, cheap to go to, and very, very popular with Chinese people.
We visited various handicrafts factories where the work was exquisite. In one pottery factory we saw mass-produced dinnerware which was an interesting process to watch, but we also saw fine, individual pottery production which required great attention to detail and a very steady hand. In one place we saw artists painting scenes within tiny glass snuff bottles. It was quite awesome as the artists had incredibly fine brushes bent at right angles so they could get the brush inside the bottle, then paint the scene from the inside. We found out that people who did this had to retire early as the incredibly close work required ended up damaging people’s eyesight. I’ve included below photos of this painting technique – I do have a painted glass bottle in a lovely lined box but my camera’s in for service so I’ve had to use images form the internet.
We visited one diesel locomotive production factory where we were struck by the pride of workers at what they were creating. They were involved in all aspects of the locomotives’ production and design, and you could feel the satisfaction they got at being part of the whole process. We got to get into the cabin of one of the huge locos (we did this in small groups) and trundle along part of a rail section – quite extraordinary to be so high up in such a huge machine and have such a wide view around the whole area. One of our tour members when I was in the cabin was poking a button and asking what it was for, and the Chinese interpreters had great fun telling her she was the one responsible for the diesel’s hooter going off continually!
Towards the end of the tour we had the opportunity to meet a group of artists and actors which was quite an honour. Except we nearly caused a diplomatic incident! One of the artists started describing an incident with the Gang of Four, a group which had been in control of China but which had been displaced just before our tour. She told us how the Gang of Four didn’t like a painting of a single huge cock. There was silence in our group and then our tour leader leaned forward and said: “Actually, in Australia, we prefer to use the words ‘rooster’ or ‘cockerel'”. However, the artist missed this completely as she was intent on her story and continued telling us about this huge cock stretching up to the sky with its one beady eye peering upwards. We were pretty exhausted and overwrought by this time and had a hard time not laughing. One of the interpreters asked a tour member who was sitting at the back why we were all acting so strange so he drew a picture of male genitals to try to explain we used different terminology, but we all decided afterwards that the sketch was pathetic, and so it took some time to explain what was going on.
In the meantime the artist was still going on about the huge cock and how the Gang of Four didn’t like the look in its one beady eye. Finally the dam broke. We started howling with laughter and on the Chinese side there was a startled silence. Gradually we calmed down after our hysterical outburst and looked at each other appalled – we’d surely created a diplomatic incident and we’d be deported and get into all sorts of strife on our return to Australia. We were actually very over-tired and over-wrought after what had been a gruelling tour which explained our cackling away like demented kookaburras.
Our tour guide had finally realised what the problem was in terminology, walked forward and whispered into the artist’s ear why we’d been laughing our heads off. We sat there frozen – then she turned to the rest of her Chinese colleagues and told them the problem with cock/rooster/cockerel phraseology and, to our amazement, they all burst into great gales of laughter, slapping their knees and rocking back and forth with glee. We were so relieved, everyone heaved a great sigh and calmed down, but it was also a lesson to us that the Chinese have a raucous, earthy sense of humour which was totally unexpected to us.
One thing I had forgotten was the honesty: if we accidentally left stuff behind when we left hotels and moved to new cities or towns, we would – within a couple of days – find the item forwarded to us and waiting in our rooms.
What we came away with after our tour of China was an abiding sense of awe at the ingenuity of the Chinese people, pleasure in their care for their kids, and great respect for their dedication to rebuilding their country. We also ended up with an abiding respect for their ability to knock back the Chinese liqueur, Mao Tai, as I said in an earlier post like drinking rocket fuel which we drank with great caution and they swigged with apparent impunity.
We also experienced great delight at their wonderful sense of humour and ability to joke around and have a damned good time, with no sign of rigidity or stuffiness. Given how nervous we were at the start of our tour, when we left China we did so with an awareness of how lucky we were to have seen the country at its then stage of development, and also how privileged we’d been to encounter the friendliness and kindness of the Chinese people.
In my next post I’ll get to the really important part – Chinese food! And then I’ll wind up with a final blog about my return to China in 1995 when I visited the Hidden Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang at Xian and saw all the changes in China since my first visit in early 1978.