For many years, I have thought of myself as a friend of China. What does it mean to be a friend of China? At the beginning of the Communist regime, China called a few westerners friends of China. Those included a Canadian doctor who had saved many Chinese lives and western journalists who had written articles favorable to the Communists.
I don't know what the current definition is of a friend of China, but I count myself as one. That does not mean that I endorse everything the People's Republic does, or that it has done. It does mean that I try to understand many aspects of Chinese history, politics, and life, and I don't automatically assume the worst. I try to have an open mind about China.
I have wanted to see China for as long as I can remember. My first introduction was when, at age 13, I read Pearl Buck. No, The Good Earth wasn't the first thing I read about China; it was the second. The first was Imperial Woman, a novel about Cixi, the empress who presided over China for much of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. As far as I know, it was the first book to humanize Cixi instead of seeing her as an evil woman who dominated her husband, son, and nephew when they were on the throne. Dominate she did, but her rule may have been better for China than many historians, both in China and the West, have said. (A recent biography, Dowager Empress Cixi by June Chang, asserts that Cixi was more pragmatic and interested in modernization than earlier accounts have acknowledged.) Women rulers have long been demonized in China. But I was intrigued by the idea that a woman had ruled such a vast country.
Buck's books also gave me a sense of comparative religion. I was raised Roman Catholic, and was struck by her message that people in China had been astonished when western missionaries told them that there was only one god and only one legitimate religion. The Chinese were used to tolerating many religions and fusing Buddhism and Daoism. (Confucianism is a philosophy, not a religion.)
I was not only interested in Buck's books but also in the transformation that had taken place in China in my lifetime. In college and graduate school, I took courses on the history and politics of China. I thought of becoming a China watcher, but the language was too much for me. I enjoyed classes in spoken Chinese, but learning the characters was overwhelming. I became involved in the U.S. feminist movement, and I realized that that had precedence in my life. Focusing on China would have taken all my energy.
But I was glad to have learned as much as I did. When others in the U.S. Left sometimes glorified the Cultural Revolution, I knew better. You could say that I followed Mao Zedong's dictum of "seeking truth from facts." I have always tried not to endorse anything unless I studied it. (That also applied to the Vietnam War, which I didn't decided to oppose until I took classes on Southeast Asia and learned that under the 1954 Paris Accords signed by nations of the West and the East, there was supposed to be an election in both parts of Vietnam; the election was never held because the French and the Americans knew that Ho Chi Minh would have won.)
The U.S. Left did learn from China. Consciousness-raising was a brilliant idea, and I am sorry that it faded away and hasn't reappeared in the women's movement. But criticism-self-criticism was a less pleasant heritage. I remember excruciatingly long meetings in which I and others were verbally bludgeoned for minor mistakes, imagined attitudes, and simple disagreement. Of course, those experiences were mild compared with criticism-self-criticism in China, which could destroy the life of the person being criticized. When I read accounts of the Cultural Revolution, I remember the comparatively minor experiences I had. I can imagine what public criticism would be like in a far harsher environment where the government or a party controlled one's whole life.
But China still had its lure. From studying, it became clear to me that China had no interest in ever invading the United States. China was concerned about preserving its own territory. (Its definition of its territory was a matter of debate. Tibet and Taiwan come to mind.) Therefore I believed it was in the U.S. interest to have relations with China. I fantasized being involved in developing those connections and was a bit jealous when Henry Kissinger beat me to it. (I never thought I'd read a book by Kissinger, but his book On China is an amazing study of those negotiations, full of direct quotes from conversations with Mao and Zhou Enlai. Kissinger really understood Chinese politics, and I hope that our present leaders understand China as well as he did.)
Visiting China is expensive. For many years, I wanted to go, but was consumed by my job (which didn't involve China), the women's movement, and my personal life. At first I plotted ways to get to China, such as founding a series of newsletters, one of which would be on China, so I could pay for the trip. Eventually, I gave up that idea. The thought that I might never see China saddened me.
But when my beloved partner, Mandy Doolittle, died and left me money, I could plan to go to China. When I retired, I had the time. I went there as part of a three-week tour in October 2014.
Actually seeing China amazed me. The first thing that struck me was the traffic as my cab driver negotiated the six rings around Beijing. Six circles around the city! And I thought the Beltway around Washington, D.C. was difficult! I was stunned that the cab's seat belt didn't work, and learned quickly that many people in China don't use seat belts.
I also discovered how hard it was to communicate. I had taken a crash course in Mandarin before I left. I hoped that I would be able to negotiate a few simple transactions, but that was even more difficult than I had imagined. At least I understand a few words like "mei you" (don't have, as in don't have seat belts), and could greet people and thank them. I tried ordering in a hotel restaurant the first night and learned that was much more difficult than I expected. I found out later that the word I had learned for "waiter" was obsolete. I was also unable to communicate that I wanted some of the food packed up so that I could take it to my room.
I had arrived before my tour group so I could adjust to the time. My first full day in China I adventured alone, going to parks recommended by my tour guide. Even though I had taken several language lessons on getting a cab and giving directions, the only way the driver could understand me was through directions from the hotel's concierge and, on the return trip, a card from the hotel showing its name and address in characters.
Walking on streets where almost everyone was Chinese delighted me. It was a great thrill to see parks north of the Forbidden City alone. A gilded Buddha sat in a pavilion overlooking the Forbidden City. People climbed to offer incense sticks to the Buddha. I was to see far more Buddhas than pictures of Mao in China.
In that park I saw my first Chinese birds — black-billed magpies, just like the ones in the American West, and azure-winged magpies, whose cry was more delicate. The Tang dynasty poet Wang Wei wrote, "Birds take flight, return to evening mist." But there are not many birds in China, a reminder of Mao's policy to kill all the birds because they ate grain. They also ate insects, so killing birds did not improve harvests. As a person who grew up in the country, he should have known that.
I saw a few more birds on China's rivers. I kept finding a black-and-white bird known as a magpie-robin that is neither magpie nor robin. On the Li, I saw huge crows with white bands around their necks, appropriately named collared crows. Thank goodness I brought a book on China's birds, though it was heavy and there was a strict weight limit on luggage.
China was overwhelming. That should go without saying because the nation is so vast and varied, but still there is even more "there" there than I imagined. Thank goodness my tour group organized everything excellently, and our Chinese guide was so charming and helpful that I almost fell in love with her.
What amazed me most politically was that I didn't see any pictures of Mao, except on every denomination of the currency, and the portrait in Tienanmen Square. I also didn't see any pictures of the current leaders, so I suppose the cult of the personality is over. In Shanghai, I saw one statue of Chen Yi, who had been major of that city. He had been overthrown in the Cultural Revolution, so I was pleased to see that he had been rehabilitated. Some people had their photos taken next to the statue. One western tourist I spoke with thought it was a statue of Mao, and I suspect many other westerners make that mistake (the name was in Chinese, but the dates were in western numbers and were wrong for Mao).
But even though the cult of the personality may be over, repression of dissent is not. The New York Times reports that President Xi Jinping is cracking down on professors, journalists, and anyone who questions the leading role of the Communist Party. Although the atmosphere is nothing like that in the '60s, of course the Party is in control.
My biggest surprises:
The prosperity: I had read about it, but I was still amazed to see how many people have cars and how many fancy stores there are.
The beauty of Shanghai: It has many attractive neighborhoods, nice local parks, and more interesting modern architecture than I have seen in any one city in the U.S. It felt like New York. Shanghai's lights at night are beautiful, as you can see in the photo above.
The openness of our tour guides: I had thought that their every word would still be monitored, but they talked pretty freely about China, and I learned a great deal. Yes, I noticed a few gaps in the information, such as not mentioning when we went to see the terracotta warriors in X'ian that the Emperor Chin Shi Huangdi had killed scholars and burned books. I suppose that would have invited comparisons with the Cultural Revolution.
I learned so many miscellaneous interesting things about China. My tour guide has a son, and she thinks she's going to need to save money her whole life to pay for the things that a middle-class, urban prospective wife probably will demand: a computer, sets of gold and jade jewelry, a condo, and a credit card. And a large sum of money for the bride's parents. Our guide said that though people told her she was lucky to have a son, she wasn't so sure, because a woman's parents might wind up better off than a man's parents because the man's parents have to give them so much. And though traditionally sons and their wives supported only the son's parents, now children of both sexes are legally required to support their old parents if the parents need it.
I learned that the government controls heat and air conditioning. Our hotel rooms in Beijing were hot in October, but no business or home north of the Yangtze River can have air conditioning that late in the year. (I'm sure there are a few exceptions for high officials and the wealthy.) Another interesting detail is that, by government dictate, buildings with seven or fewer floors don't have elevators. I suppose both of those measures were instituted to save energy.
My greatest joy in China: Climbing the Great Wall. I felt that I was truly in China, on a pilgrimage into Chinese history. That delight was heightened by the throngs of mostly Chinese people who were also excitedly climbing it. It's easy to get up on the Great Wall, but harder to climb from one station to another once you are on it. The steps are steep and the railings intermittent.
My other greatest joys were traveling on China's Yangtze and Li rivers. The Three Gorges of the Yangtze are gorges still, despite the building of the controversial dam. Going along the river past hills partially covered by mist thrilled me. And the Li River in Guilin is even more beautiful, with limestone formations called karsts that are the strangely shaped mountains one sees in Chinese scroll paintings. The Li (below) is truly a world treasure like the Grand Canyon.
My meetings with Chinese people were mixed. Mostly scripted visits to homes arranged by the tour company, but the homes were various. We met an artist who lived in a hutong (an old Mongolian-style courtyard-based neighborhood) in Beijing, whose home had been confiscated in the Cultural Revolution, but who now has part of it back.
In Shanghai, we visited a home in a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood where the homeowner and neighbors prepared a feast for us. And a se nior center where women come for classes. A glee club of old women sang for us. Several people told us that retired women like to take classes, but the men prefer to watch television or play mahjongg.
In Fengdu, a city along the Yangtze, we met a man who had been among the 1.5 million people moved to make way for the dam. I was surprised to learn that people were given a choice whether to farm higher ground or to become city residents (city residents have more rights and privileges than rural residents). This farmer had a large house and seemed to do well on his small plot of land. (Farmers are allowed only one-sixth of an acre per person.)
In X'ian, we visited a farmer's home where we were served a meal of noodles and dumplings. We also visited a class of fifth graders who greeted us warmly and sang for us, and we sang back to them.
I was delighted that groups of school children I saw in parks burst out with "hellos" when they saw me. They smiled broadly when I said "hello" and more so when I said "Ni hao." Many schools teach English, and this was a chance for the children to practice. Also, their enthusiasm convinced me that they weren't being taught that all foreigners were "foreign devils."
We met few people except our guides and drivers and the people whose homes we visited. But we did hear the story of a man who had been struggled against as a class enemy in the Cultural Revolution. I had read books about the Cultural Revolution, but actually seeing someone who had gone through it moved me to tears. After that, whenever I saw people my age or older, I wondered what their experiences in the Cultural Revolution had been. Schools at every level were closed for 10 years, so China has a lost generation.
Not all of the people were wildly friendly. Most were just doing their jobs, serving meals, selling things, and so on. But I think of an old woman sitting on a doorstep in Shanghai who smiled broadly at me and flashed a victory sign. I wasn't certain what she meant, but I assume it was because seeing tourists in her city indicated that times were better than they had been in the not-so-distant past.
We visited open air markets in several cities. Our guide said that the Chinese eat everything on the land except cars and everything in the air except airplanes. That appeared to be true. We weren't served any extremely unusual dishes in restaurants, but we did see unusual sea creatures in the markets. Near one market, I saw small children playing at a roller skating rink.
We visited temples that had been closed during the Cultural Revolution. The monks had returned to some of them, but others were just tourist attractions.
There was far more to learn than I can recite here. While we were traveling, I read a Kindle book, Gao Wenqian's Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary.
Zhou Enlai was a hero to many people. Gao wrote Zhou's official biography, then used the material for this decidedly unofficial one. Though Zhou always supported Mao, he tried to moderate Mao's more extreme schemes and saved some party leaders whom Mao had unseated. But Mao evidently resented Zhou, and at the end of Zhou's life refused to give him appropriate cancer treatments. That shocked me. Yes, I know that Mao was responsible for many deaths, but letting such a major figure die, apparently so Mao could outlive him, struck me as particularly horrendous. Mao had wanted to die second so he could keep in place his policies of permanent revolution. He did die months after Zhou, but a couple of years later Deng Xiaoping was able to institutionalize economic modernization, a policy Mao abhorred.
What can one say of a country where so much has happened? Its people are fed, clothed, and housed, and the quality of all the necessities of life has been improving. Women can earn money and many have positions of responsibility, though not the top jobs. Those things alone are great accomplishments. I heard a Chinese woman say that Chinese people know they don't have what we westerners have, but they compare their lives with what they had before, not with what we have.
What didn't I see? College students. Artists. Intellectuals, except for the man who had survived the Cultural Revolution. They probably would have different tales to tell. Nor did I see any of China's 55 minorities, except for one show about the Tujia people, China's largest minority, who have been removed from their beautiful homeland along the Yangtze. I wish I had met minorities, but I had deliberately chosen a tour focusing on Han (the overwhelming majority of Chinese are Han) areas. Three weeks is a short time for glimpsing the culture of one of the world's major ethnic groups and its incredible history. The main evidence of minority groups was dances and costumes in museums. Rather like U.S. museums about Native Americans.
I also didn't see any signs of political activity. It can't be true that no one remembers Mao fondly and wants to go back to a more militant system. None of the western tour companies seem to offer visits to Yanan, where the Red Army was headquartered during the war with Japan and the Kuomintang, but there must be Chinese tourists who go there.
Can such a huge part of China's history be buried? Won't it resurface? Much as I enjoyed seeing shows about the Tang Dynasty, I would also have been interested in seeing one of the revolutionary operas, such as the White-Haired Girl, that I suppose are now considered unwelcome reminders of Mao's ultra-militant wife, Jiang Qing, if only for purposes of comparison.
I saw only five beggars in China. All had severe disabilities. China has only begun to consider working on discrimination against people with disabilities. Deng Xiaoping's son was crippled when he was thrown off a roof by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, and he began work for persons with disabilities.
I didn't see lesbians or gay men, as far as I know. Before taking the journey, I went to a presentation in Washington by a Chinese lesbian, a Chinese gay man, and a white American gay man who had headed the LGBT institute in Beijing. I was surprised that there was any such institute. I heard that the United Nations and, amazingly, the World Bank, have been trying to foster LGBT visibility in China and other countries.
At that talk, I learned that discrimination against lesbians and gays has been illegal in China since the late '90s, and that the Chinese psychiatric association declared in 2001 that LGBT are not sick. But heterosexual marriage is still virtually imperative because of the Chinese historical emphasis on having children. The speakers said that most discrimination against lesbians and gays comes from their families. That often includes beating and even psychiatric "treatment" to change their sexuality. But the lesbian speaker actually publishes a magazine! And we saw two lesbian and gay underground films from China.
All nongovernmental groups are supposed to register, and there are many obstacles in the way of registration. It is very difficult and dangerous to protest.
I saw many old people on the streets in China. The retirement age is generally 60 (sometimes 65) for men and 50 (sometimes 55) for women. (Clearly that doesn't apply to high officials.) Younger women work, while grandmothers take care of children. Many young children on the streets were with their grandmothers.
Pensions are small, and are only for urban workers. China's equivalent of Medicare is only for registered urban residents. But old people get free passes to parks, many of which have entrance fees. So many old men sit in the parks playing mahjongg. It's good to see ordinary people in parks where only emperors and courtiers used to walk.
And, oh, those parks! The Summer Palace, rebuilt by Cixi, is far more beautiful than European palaces, at least to me. There are lakes, willows, pavilions, rockeries, gates, courtyards, and an arched walkway where she walked every day. Everything is open to the air and surfaces are painted in the most exquisite taste. The one ridiculous touch is the marble boat she had built; of course, it cannot float. Her rebuilding of the Summer Palace, destroyed by Europeans and Americans in retaliation for the Taiping rebellion, drew criticism from many Chinese who believe that if the money had been spent on the navy, China would have been able to defeat Japan when Japan attacked it. That may be true, but it is hard today to think that preserving this beauty was a mistake. And it's certainly a major tourist attraction that brings money to the nation.
China is an excellent place for tourists, certainly for those who go on an organized tour as I did. We ate at government-owned restaurants, which may have the highest standards of cleanliness, according to our tour guide. We shopped at government-owned stores, which guaranteed the quality of their silk and jade, which other stores do not. We saw productions aimed at tourists, with English subtitles and scenes from famous operas, rather than the whole thing, which someone decided would be too long for tourists. I enjoy Chinese food, arts and crafts, and music, and didn't mind getting versions aimed at tourists.
So am I a friend of China? Yes. I don't think the U.S. should automatically side with Japan over disputed islands that are closer to China than to Japan. We must remember the devastation Japan wrought on China in the '30s and '40s, massacring many thousands of Chinese and carrying out medical experiments just as heinous as those conducted in Nazi Germany. And we should understand how important it is to the people of China, Korea, and many other countries that Japan is backing off from acknowledging its war crimes.
I think we should all learn about and respect China and the Chinese people. We should at least try to understand the perspective of its government in international affairs.
What part of China am I befriending? The answer is easy for me as an American who doesn't plan to live and work in China, or to report on it like Times reporters who have been unable to get their visas renewed because their investigative reporting pushed too far. As an American, I can say that I want to be a friend to much of China. To care about the people, though I have met few of them. To resist stereotypes and to learn what I can.