A China Journal

“A China Journal,” Ensign, Aug. 1972, 11

A China Journal

I looked down through the cold February air, and China appeared in green and brown patches. Muddy canals interspersed the fields and farm houses made of mud, straw, and stone seemed to protrude as extensions of the land.

Brown splotches drifted with the current of the Yangtze River, and farmers working in the fields looked up at our approaching aircraft only with passing interest. We wondered if they had known of our coming.

Our plane touched down at Peking in the late afternoon of February 21, the day before President Richard M. Nixon’s arrival. I noticed huge propaganda billboards at either end of the runway and in the terminal.

The ride from the airport gave me my first and most lasting impressions of Peking. The skies were overcast, and there were no leaves on the trees. The air was heavily polluted from the soft coal that is burned in the factories. The buildings were gray, and most were hidden behind high, gray walls that border the main street. All men and women were dressed alike in blue or gray baggy pants and shirt-jackets. The atmosphere was one of austere drabness and sameness. The only bright colors anywhere were on the huge billboards that proclaim revolutionary slogans in white characters on red backgrounds. The contrast between these signs and the grayness of the surroundings stunned the senses.

We proceeded down Peking’s main street, “The Street of Lasting Peace.” It has six lanes, three in each direction. Of those three, two are for the exclusive use of the thousands of bicycles. Only the inside lane is used for the limited number of government cars.

Our rooms were in the Nationalities Hotel, where the White House Press Office had been set up. The purpose of the trip for me was to conduct the business of serving the press and the President in as normal a manner as possible in a foreign situation—a twenty-four-hour-a-day job.

We sensed that we were participants in a historic event. We all had a role to play in being the first Americans in twenty years to visit China. We were guests and were treated as guests. In all official events for the President we took an active part.

Our most formal and extended contact with the Chinese people at any one time was at the banquets and social functions in the President’s honor. An integral part of each banquet was the toasting. Members of the American party became accustomed to the numerous toasts and even returned them. We were careful, of course, to propose toasts only to friendship, health, happiness, and long life—never to the success or promulgation of Communist philosophy or policy.

On one of the menus appeared such exotic dishes as sea slugs, pigeon eggs with tendons, dumplings in pea syrup, and shark’s fin—all mascarading under the innocent heading of “Cold Dishes in Eight Small Plates.”

Here is a menu for one of the official banquets: a basket of flowers (hors d’oeuvres arranged in the shape of a filled basket), cold dishes in eight small plates, Hangchow roast chicken, west lake fish in sweet and sour sauce, shrimp with green leaves, fried duck with spices, chicken squares with peanuts, onions and peppers, bamboo shoots and mushrooms stewed in peanut oil, scallops in ham soup, chrysanthemum cakes, shaohsing egg rolls with sugar and sesame fillings, lotus seeds in rock sugar, fruit.

Another menu was made up completely of duck. Every part of the duck was served—from duck egg soup to even the bill and the webbed feet. A Chinese man sitting next to me told me that eating the web feet is a great delicacy. I did not share his enthusiasm for the dish!

On our third night in Peking, we attended a sports show in a huge gymnasium on the outskirts of town. Chairman Mao, a physical fitness enthusiast in his youth, encourages the Chinese people to exercise and participate in sports and gymnastics. Emphasis is placed on good sportsmanship and excellence of execution rather than on winning.

An illuminating crack in our tightly organized visit happened as we arrived at the stadium for the gymnastic event. It was a bitter cold night. We were escorted from our cars to one entrance of the gym by the ever-present official. There seemed to be confusion: “Are we entering at the proper door for the Americans?”

After much discussion, our Chinese host started to lead us away from that entrance. But because we were shivering in the cold, he consented to let us enter through the “wrong” door.

Plunging through swarms of milling Chinese spectators, we threaded our way through hallways of wall-to-wall people to the other side of the building. Then we passed a barrier and entered a much more elaborately decorated anteroom. It had its own entrance. Obviously, the Chinese had intended to conduct us here so we would see only the more pleasant section of the stadium.

I also attended the revolutionary ballet, “The Red Detachment of Women.” Classical dancing techniques and traditional music have been preserved. However, the arts are used as a medium to express the triumphs and virtues of the Communist revolution. Ballet is designed to entertain and indoctrinate simultaneously. It seemed strange to see the ballerinas wearing toe shoes with their army uniforms and carrying pistols and bayonets while doing leaps and pirouettes.

I looked forward to visiting the Great Wall, but before I dared brave the mountain cold, I needed to buy some warm boots. Chinese factories operate twenty-four hours a day, and department stores and grocery markets are also open round the clock to accommodate the workers. An interpreter accompanied me to the department store to buy the boots. The store was swarming with buyers, and wherever we went we attracted a large group of onlookers. Many of the people had apparently never seen a woman wearing a dress and high-heeled shoes, and they stared openly at me. Store officials dispersed the crowd, but within a few minutes another group had gathered to watch our curious entourage.

Chinese men and women wear the same kind of boots—ankle height, rubber soles, and bulky black corduroy lace-up tops. The inside is quilted and down-filled to keep one’s feet warm for hours. After I tried on several pairs to get the correct size (would you believe size 37?), I inquired if the boots were also made in brown to match my coat. I was apologetically informed that they come only in black. I considered the boots one of my most interesting souvenirs and the cost was only five yen, or $2.50!

It snowed quite heavily in Peking the night before our visit to the Great Wall, but by morning thousands of Chinese had swept off the road with hand brooms and shoveled the entire thirty-five miles.

What can one say about the Great Wall? It is an awesome sight. It was constructed in the third century B.C. by the first Chinese emperor, linking up existing fortifications, to ward off attacks from nomadic tribes to the north. Three hundred thousand men labored ten years to complete it. The wall was rebuilt and extended by later dynasties, the last major restoration being done in the sixteenth century. The wall extended as far as I could see—some 1500 miles across the very steep mountains of northern China—and was twenty-two to twenty-six feet high and twenty-one feet thick at the base.

The Chinese were eager to provide every convenience for their guests. Although the Chinese women do not need beauty shops because of their short, straight haircuts, there was a barber-beauty shop in our hotel, open twenty-four hours a day.

After completing work at three o’clock one morning, I decided to have my hair washed. An appointment was not necessary since I was the only customer in the shop. Three Chinese men shampooed my hair. They used no water until the final rinse, all the time lathering shampoo on my dry hair. A lengthy head massage was included as part of the shampoo. After rinsing my hair, they poured over it a red liquid that fiercely stung my scalp. I have no idea what this was or its purpose.

After much consultation and gesturing, the three hair stylists proceeded to set my hair on rollers. After placing each roller, they looked at me anxiously, seeking my approval. I smiled and nodded, and they proceeded.

While I sat under the dryer, they brought out a Chinese-English phrase book and hesitantly indicated they would like me to help them with the pronunciation of certain words. I gladly drilled them on how to say the words. After a while, fearing they might be tiring me, I suppose, they closed the book and sat on chairs facing me, smiling at me, the whole time my hair was drying. The comb-out resulted in a less than perfect hair style, but I nodded and smiled, and they sighed in obvious relief that I was pleased. Even after I was finished I stayed a little longer to help them pronounce more English words.

We flew between Peking, Hangchow, and Shanghai in a Russian-built Chinese turbo-prop airliner. The temperature in the plane was very cold, and we had to wear our gloves and coats during the entire trip. A member of the press corps asked the stewardess, who was wearing the same uniform of blue baggy pants and coat, if she could turn up the heat a little. She replied that the thermostat was set at “regulation temperature” by officials, and she was unable to change it.

In our hotel rooms in Shanghai, the Chinese had placed satin boxes filled with Chinese-made cosmetics—lipstick, rouge, eyeliner, foundation cream, powder, nail polish, and perfume. The name on the label was Budlet. Since Chinese women use no makeup, it was another indication of their concern for our needs.

Our last night in China, the Shanghai Revolutionary Committee presented each member of the American party with ten pounds of Chinese candy, packed in beautiful brocade boxes. They delivered the candy to each person’s room at 2:30 A.M. Those already in bed were rousted out for the friendly presentation. Since I was still working, the candy was simply left at the foot of my bed, so I missed the proud looks on their faces as they gave the American guests a sample of their excellent candy.

Throughout the week’s visit we dashed from one place to another and could not really assess the nature of a society of 800 million people. During our stay we had complete freedom. But freedom is a relative thing when time is short, when language is a barrier and the only interpreters and transportation are provided by the People’s Republic. However, the organized tour and activities were really the only practical way, under the circumstances, of seeing the places of interest.

The people we met were cautious but generous, direct, and hospitable. They were reserved yet eager to win our approval, and apologetic if they could not meet our needs and requests.

None of the Chinese people or officials ever asked what life is like in the United States. Astonishingly enough, I was always asked if this were my first trip to China!

According to those Americans who knew the old China, there are many material improvements: no beggars, no people in rags, no children with signs of fear and starvation in their faces. The stores seem well stocked with necessities.

Most depressing are the regimentation and control of the people’s lives—the blind allegiance to Chairman Mao and the Communist party. The dedication and morality of daily life is admirable, but the totalitarian method of attaining these virtues forms an unforgettable and unacceptable counterpoint.

Departure time. Chinese laborers were helping to load the President’s plane, Air Force One, and the press aircraft, under the direction of a member of our transportation staff. By following his example, the Chinese hauled baggage and parcels to be loaded into the hold of the airplanes. But we also had some material that was to be boarded topside.

The Chinese, following the American staff members, started toward the stairs of the plane. As the Americans climbed the steps, the Chinese stopped. They put down the items they were carrying, and a questioning and frightened look came into their eyes. Only a few feet away, officials had placed a Red Guard to make sure no citizen of the People’s Republic boarded the aircraft and failed to get off.

As we taxied out and waved goodbye, I wondered if the time will ever come when an ordinary Chinese citizen will board an aircraft without the scrutiny of a Red Guard.

Connie Gerrard