In 1995 I had the opportunity to go on a short tour of Beijing and Xi’an. I looked forward very much to seeing the differences between then and my earlier visit in early 1978.
I had an interesting start to my visit when we took off in a quite small China Airlines 747 airliner from Sydney. As soon as the plane had taken off and seat belt signs were off, heaps of Chinese people on board quit their seats, squatted or sat on the floor and started gambling. It was quite chaotic but the flight staff handled the various groups on the floor with aplomb while the gamblers had the time of their lives.
The real drawback was the smoking which wasn’t then banned. The Chinese on the plane were great smokers as well as gamblers and the cabin was soon thick with cigarette smoke which – as a non-smoker – I found very hard to handle. I was feeling quite under the weather by the time we landed in Beijing and, as with my previous visit, the city still looked grey and cold in the mid-winter weather – quite a contrast from the hot weather I’d left behind in Sydney.
I did wonder how commercialised China had become and soon found the answer in the lobby of the hotel our group was staying in. I’m not a fan of Christmas and all the shlock surrounding it – too commercialised, too money-grabbing, too cynical, too many buying too much and getting in debt, and so many people looking unhappy and desperate in the last-minute rush. So I’d boasted to my husband that I’d be leaving the Christmas “festivities” behind, in a rather gloating manner. Silly me. Our tour walked into the hotel to find a dirty great big Christmas tree and the soft, dirge-like sounds of Christmas carols, quite a difference from the last time I’d been in the city when there was no sign of Western Christmas bling at all!
Being realistic, tourism had grown tremendously since my first visit in early 1978 and the Chinese obviously have to cater for visitors and their tastes. Plus the Chinese need the currency exchange tourism brings, so I’m hardly in a position to criticise from the sidelines!
I really noticed the difference when I went for a walk in Beijing. There were far less bikes – they’d crowded the streets in 1978 – and a heck of a lot more cars. In 1978 most cars were for official business but now the streets were choked with all sorts of vehicles – cars, trucks, bikes, motor bikes – it was chaotic and road rules seemed completely non-existent although people seemed to somehow cope with the bikes and cars creating a sort of mad kaleidoscope of movement.
Gone too was the ubiquitous grey and camouflage green clothing that predominated the last time I was there. Now most people were dressed in bright colours, good quality clothing and lots of swish accessories. Young people particularly looked confident, well dressed and bright. The country had obviously made great strides since I’d first visited and it was good to see.
A lot of people would like China to have stayed in the relatively backward state it was in the 1970s as people were less hurried, less sophisticated and, I guess, a bit naive. But that’s like saying our Western civilisation should have stayed stuck in the 1970s too. Change happens and I really don’t have too much patience for those who say how wonderful life was “back then”.
We did go to see the Summer Palace in Beijing and that really was quite amazing. What really takes me aback when I’m in Beijing is the obscene wealth flaunted by the rulers in olden times compared with the poverty and hardship of the great majority of the population. The Summer Palace is composed of lakes, palaces and gardens and is included on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Here’s a link to Wikipedia’s coverage of the Summer Palace which gives some idea of the size, beauty and history Summer Palace, Beijing. We also admired the Marble Boat, Summer Palace, Beijing, a quite extraordinary construction which really embodies the excesses of the Chinese ruling class.
The Summer Palace was pretty much destroyed twice by Western powers, as explained in Wikipedia:
“In 1860 the British and French burned the palace down at the end of the Second Opium War (the Old Summer Palace also ransacked at the same time). The punitive action was undertaken in response to the torture and killing of a European peace delegation that included Thomas William Bowlby. The destruction of large parts of the palace complex still evokes strong emotions among some in China……
The Summer Palace was slighted a second time in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion when it was seized by the eight allied powers. The garden were burned and mostly destroyed. Many of the Palace’s artifacts were divided among the eight allied nations. These are still retained by various countries – such as France and United Kingdom – much to the annoyance of the modern Chinese government.”
I have referred to this in detail because we in the West like to pontificate on how China should organise itself and what it should do and how it should behave. This completely fails to take into account the way in which foreign, mainly Western, powers have historically interfered in China and caused immense hardship to the Chinese people. Westerners need to study Chinese history in order to understand what goes on in China today and why lectures from Western governments get up the noses of leading officials and the Chinese people.
A bit of modesty and self-restraint wouldn’t go amiss and this was re-affirmed to me when we were in Xi’an. Thankfully, when we took off from Beijing Airport for Xi’an, the fighter pilots who had flow the aircraft when I first visited in 1978 had now been replaced by modern-trained pilots, so we took off at a normal speed instead of rocketing up into what felt like space when we flew in China in 1978!
We visited a museum in Xi’an which hadn’t been open long when I visited the city with its draw card, the Terra Cotta warriors and horses. It had a reconstructed version of a 5,000-year-old village which had been excavated in Shaanxi Province and our tour guides were very proud to inform us that this had a matriarchal social structure.
We looked at the most beautiful artifacts over the 5,000 year old history portrayed in this museum and it reminded me that China had a flourishing culture and creative outlets when nothing like this existed in early Europe or Britain. American Western culture which US leaders are proud to boast about only started up at a comparatively recent past, in 1776. And saying this does not include the extensive history of Native American/First Nations cultures which was ignored for so long and subjected to many attempts to destroy it completely.
Visiting the Terra Cotta warriors and horses is really a quite humbling experience. Here were ranks upon ranks of warriors, each one crafted individually, and designed to protect the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. They were buried with him in 210-209 BCE, with the aim of protecting him in his after life.
The existence of this army was forgotten until 1974 when a peasant digging a well during a time of drought hit one on the head while excavating. It is a quite extraordinary experience when you walk into the great hall housing these terra cotta figures as each one is crafted individually. In the slight haze of dust in the air, you can almost imagine them moving and coming alive. It’s estimated that more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses were buried in the area, with some still being excavated.
As you drive around Xian you see mounds all over the place which denote the burial places of ruling figures including relatives. We asked our guides why they hadn’t been excavated and they told us that, while they knew which figures were interred where, they were in no hurry to open up tombs until they had the expertise and knowledge to do the excavation work properly and efficiently. This went particularly for the tomb of the Emperor Qin which still hasn’t been opened up. They were adamant that Chinese specialists would be in charge of any excavations and it was clear that there is still a great sensitivity to the actions of foreign countries in the past as well as the plunder of Chinese artifacts which are displayed in Western museums, an affront to the dignity and self-respect of the Chinese people.
I left China on my last visit with a profound respect at what had been achieved since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. People who criticise the country forget the devastated country that existed after the end of World War 2 and the way in which the nation has pulled itself up by its bootstraps. We’re fed a diet of constant criticism in the Western media when a bit of self-examination of what’s happening in Western nations wouldn’t go amiss – particularly the huge and growing gap between the super-rich and the rest of the people.
Do I think everything’s hunky-dory in China? No, of course not. I don’t look at the country through rose-coloured glasses. But I do look with respect at what has been achieved and the great strides forward in the well-being of the people. I watch Western governments like the US and UK bang on about human rights in China but, to me, it’s simply an attempt to interfere in China’s affairs. If Western leaders were so concerned about human rights, they could look in their own backyard, take responsibility for the awful carnage that has erupted in the Middle East after the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, criticise the perfectly dreadful human rights situation in Saudi Arabia (but hey, they’ve got oil) or stand up for Palestinian rights to self-determination.
And with that final little rant under my belt, I’ll wind up my series of posts on my visits to China. I still have very good memories of the goodwill of the people I met, the wonderful sense of raucous humour and the patience with curious tourists who really must drive those in the tourist industry right around the twist on many occasions. So I will finish with a toast of “Ganbei” to the achievements of the Chinese people and memories of skulling the Chinese liqueur mao-tai which, quite rightly, was described by CBS’s anchor, Dan Rather, as “liquid razor blades”. He could also have mentioned the smell of burnt rubber!
We didn’t stay long in Guangzhou before flying to Beijing. In those days the domestic planes were flown by air force pilots so we shot along the runway at an amazing speed and walloped up into the sky so fast we all thought we were heading off to the moon. Similarly our landing at Beijing Airport was just as speedy but we did arrive safely, much to our relief after this white-knuckle flight.
We stayed in the Peking Hotel, a very posh place, where we had the delight of watching Senator Ted Kennedy strutting around with his entourage – nothing like a US Senator expecting his due from the minions around him! The hotel was on the main boulevard and was centrally heated, a fact we really appreciated as it was bitterly cold in Beijing and we’d flown out of Australia in mid-summer.
The Beijing Hotel was also handy for shopping in the many little outlets we found in the old centres of the capital city. I think we were lucky as I’ve read that many of these have now been bulldozed and replaced with modern buildings, so we had a chance to look at old China before the new appeared.
I do feel nostalgic for the rather mysterious places we saw except that the people there were obviously living in poverty with very basic living structures. It’s easy for us in the West to be romantic and regret the loss of historic housing – except we didn’t live in them with their overcrowding, poverty, lack of sanitation and dirt alleyways.
We were there in winter, and Beijing looked grey, foggy and rather austere, but incredibly busy. Tienanmen square was huge with sightseers from the provinces, but it was such a big space the people on it still looked quite sparse. But all around you could see the roads absolutely full of bicycles and very few vehicles. Cars in those days were mainly for official use, the traffic was utterly chaotic but somehow cyclists and drivers managed to mesh quite well together.
The Chairman Mao Mausoleum hadn’t been open long when we were in Beijing. Mao Zedong had died in 1976 and, although he wanted to be cremated, a decision was taken to build the Mausoleum in the middle of Tienanmen Square, with it being finished in early 1977.
I looked up the history of the Mausoleum on Wikipedia and was fascinated to find that it was a collective effort from around China:
“People throughout China were involved in the design and construction of the mausoleum, with 700,000 people from different provinces, autonomous regions, and nationalities doing symbolic voluntary labour.[ Materials from all over China were used throughout the building: granite from Sichuan province, porcelain plates from Guangdung province, pine trees from Yan’an in Shaanxi province, saw-wort seeds from the Tian Shan mountains in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, earth from quake-stricken Tangshan, colored pebbles from Nanjing, milky quartz from the Kunlun Mountains, pine logs from Jiangxi province, and rock samples from Mount Everest. Water and sand from the Taiwan Straits were also used to symbolically emphasize the People’s Republic of China’s claims over Taiwan”.
We were very lucky to be allowed to join the queue of those paying their respects to the embalmed figure of someone so respected and revered in China. There were long queues, people waited quietly and patiently, and it was quite awesome to finally enter the Mausoleum and see the transparent, crystal coffin with Mao Zedong’s embalmed figure inside. The Chinese people passed by the tomb with great respect and with many in tears as they paid their homage to a man who had helped establish the People Republic of China in 1949.
In the mornings you’d look out from the windows of the hotel onto cold, grey scenery enlivened by so many people practising Tai Chi on the streets. It was fascinating to see the slow, deliberate movements being performed by so many, and interesting that this was a very popular keep-fit exercise carried over from olden times. We also saw many practising Tai Chi in the mornings when we were staying in Shanghai.
We had the opportunity of visiting a farm just outside Beijing and it was a reminder of the feudal past of this huge nation. There were only dirt roads, very small houses, roofs covered with sweetcorn cobs drying out in the winter air, lots of geese, chickens and animals such as pigs. People were obviously poor as nation-building had really only begun in 1949 after the ravages of the war and Japanese occupation, plus the military action to oust the US-backed Chiang Kai-shek forces from the mainland. But wherever we went we were greeted with such warmth and friendship that my memories of my 1978 China visit remain a lovely memory for me. I might also mention the honesty – a couple of us left things behind in our hotels, but we’d find them turning up eventually wherever we’d moved to, having been forwarded from the previous hotel we’d stayed in.
We also visited the Forbidden City, a place of quite stunning beauty and art treasures. It’s hard to describe the splendour in which the old feudal leaders had lived – the Emperors with their huge wealth, courtiers, living in isolation from the peasants who weren’t allowed into this huge complex – hence the name “Forbidden City”. We saw a huge marble staircase which some poor sods had dragged hundreds of kilometres for it to be installed in what is the biggest palace complex in the world. I could go on and on about this place, because it’s absolutely staggering in its size, history and artistic wealth. I’ll just provide a link to a longer description in Wikipedia Wikipedia – Beijing’s Forbidden City.
We were given an extended history of the Forbidden City by one of the historians responsible for the complex in one of the very ornate rooms. As we were given details of how the complex had come into being, the creation of its treasures and structural wealth, we were given the ubiquitous jasmine tea to drink while we listened. We clattered away with the cups and saucers, nonchalantly filling our cups from the very graceful teapots which were topped up continuously by helpers – that is, until the historian casually mentioned that the tea service we were banging around so unceremoniously was around three hundred years old. There was instant silence and we all froze, suddenly holding the cups with both hands, putting them very carefully on the saucers, and then giving away the tea-drinking in seconds!
I almost forgot our visit to the Great Wall of China – absolutely fantastic to walk along this historic edifice, to look at the length of the wall extending far into the distance and know that we had just a very small glimpse of this amazing construction. It was also a bit humiliating – you don’t realise how steep the wall is until you start climbing up the slope, so there we were struggling along, only to be overtaken with great ease by obviously older men in the uniform of the People’s Liberation Army cruising past us, along with other older Chinese men and women who left us in their wake! And the ache in the back of my legs the next day was excruciating as we’d been leaning at such an angle to walk up the wall!!!
From Beijing we flew to Dalian, a fishing town, which I really don’t remember much about. I do know it was perishing cold but again the hospitality was extraordinary, as it was wherever we went. People seemed delighted we were offering the hand of friendship and they were only too willing to return that friendship. I did have lots of photos but got rid of most of my whole collection – family, holidays, etc., – after we’d done some travelling, lugged big albums around with us on our various moves, and because I got fed up when my family back in the UK indicated they didn’t want to meet me when I went back for a holiday in 1994.
I will also add that the Chinese people have a wonderful, earthy sense of humour. We were prepared to be very serious and respectful as, really, when we visited China it was only just opening to the world and no-one knew much about it. But the Chinese we met loved jokes, would roar with laughter when we told them jokes and were endlessly amused by our gallivanting around the various places we visited.
We flew back to Beijing (again with flights resembling fighter jet landings and takeoffs!), and after a short stay, set off for Shanghai. It may be a fascinating city but I can’t say much about the place, because I got bronchitis quite badly so ended up in my hotel bed for most of our stay. I was treated by local doctors who provided me with antibiotics but also very interesting Chinese medicines, lots of packets of various herbs in tiny pillules which I had to swallow by the dozen. It was very effective as I was up and about pretty quickly, in time for us to set out to Shandong province and visit an oil field where we met a women’s brigade.
In my next post I’ll cover the ‘burbs, so to speak: Shandong, Changsha in Hunan Province, and finally Guangzhou again.
Enough of the childhood clear-out and back to my travels!
I saw a photo today of racks of sweet corn cobs drying in the air, and it took me straight back to the first time I and my husband visited the People’s Republic of China, aka China from now on.
In 1978 my husband and I had the opportunity to tour China at a really low price (as it was early days in the tourist industry) for three weeks. We stayed with friends in Sydney, saw the start of the Sydney-Hobart Boat Race on New Year’s Day, then flew to Hong Kong , where we stayed overnight.
We were one of the first groups to visit China when it started opening up and it was less than thirty years since the PRC was established in 1949. We did a bit of the tourist stuff in Hong Kong with all its glitz, glamour and kitsch. The next day we caught a train to the border, got out and walked across the border. Suddenly we were faced with rather stern-faced Chinese soldiers in uniform and you realised you were in a completely different world. We climbed on to another train which took us to what was then Canton and is now Guangzhou.
To say we – and all the others on our tour – were excited and nervous would be an understatement. President Nixon had visited the PRC in February 1972 and Australian Prime Minister Whitlam had normalised relations with China when he was elected in November 1972. But China was still a bit mysterious, not very well known, and really quite exciting since no-one knew what to expect.
We got settled in our hotel rooms in Gangzhou (which were lovely and comfortable, in case you’re wondering what accommodation was like in those days), and found waiting for us flasks of jasmine tea, something which greeted us in every hotel we stayed in and every function we attended. We then met our tour guides in the evening. And all our preconceptions about stuffy Chinese officials went right out the window. We had four guides – the head honcho, his deputy, a young woman obviously being trained as an interpreter and guide, and a fourth man whose interpreting abilities were brilliant. As I’ve done simultaneous and consecutive translating at university when I studied French and German I could see that this interpreter had an intuitive gift to translate Chinese into everyday English, not simply translate the words which results in rather wooden conversation. We also thought that, as there’d been a period of turmoil in China just before we went on our tour, this guy was being rehabilitated from past difficulties under the previous regime, known as the Gang of Four.
Our translators/guides entered a meeting room with a trolley of drinks and hors-d’ouevres and proceeded to talk to us, crack jokes, and dish out the booze and tucker. One of the first things we tried was called Mao Tai, a spirit which tasted and smelled like rocket fuel and had to be sculled down to avoid the stench of the drink. Our translators quickly put us at ease, were great, convivial hosts, and much to our surprise, created a really pleasant atmosphere. They also looked on with slight smiles and benign gazes as one of our number, who’d downed four Mao Tai shots in a row and who was very voluble, suddenly went silent and keeled over on his side, skittled by the rocket fuel!
It’s such a long time since I visited China in 1977 that I can’t remember all the details. We were on the go from 9 in the morning until 10 at night and by the end of the tour we were completely knackered as each day became a blur. The Chinese seemed determined to stuff as much as possible into our visit, which was wonderful as we saw and experienced so much, but it was quite exhausting by the end.
We visited Peking (now Beijing), Shanghai, Shandong Province, Changsha, Dalian and finally returned to Canton (now Kwangchou). We saw schools, factories, potteries, artistic centres, villages, communes during the day, visited oil drilling sites, and in the evenings we watched movies or other cultural events. The one thing I really remember is the way the children were treasured and cared for. Although adults had pretty functional, dreary clothing, the kids were dressed in bright colours, padded clothing, looked like little dolls in their bubble-like parka jackets and were so delighted to greet and entertain us when visited their schools.
At communes we were taken around agricultural and engineering production centres and made so very welcome. People took great pride in their achievements and opened their homes and centres for us. I do remember visiting a private house and being amazed at the bright colours of the interior – as if the functional dress most people wore was balanced out in the privacy of the home by bright red, orange, gold, turquoise, blue and green bed covers, wall hangings and so on. I also remember plonking down on a bed (all the places we visited were very compact) and feeling like I’d jarred my spine from top to bottom. There was only a mattress stuffed with straw which was incredibly hard, a far cry from the interior sprung mattresses we were used to at home in Australia!
One of the noticeable features of that early tour was how people worked together collectively as labour was plentiful and cheap. We were in a small coach in one area where a whole heap of people were pushing up a telegraph pole. It was obvious that they’d never seen foreigners before as they stopped, looked at us, dropped the telegraph pole, and ran to the road to smile and wave cheerfully at us. We felt like kings until further down the road where we saw people in the approaching village scattering from a truck in front of us. We found out soon enough why they dived for cover – it was a truck collecting sewage (night soil) which had sprung a leak gifting us and the village with a most appalling stench.
In the following posts, I thought I’d break down our visit into Beijing, and then the provinces we visited, as well as one about food in China (yummy mainly but challenging on the odd occasion!).