Ihad no illusions—I was well aware that during an eighteen-day stay in China I would not gather enough material to write even a journalistic article, let alone a more serious analysis or essay. I had adopted a somewhat self-righteous attitude towards those who after their first short trip produce a Book on China. My knowledge of Chinese affairs had been scanty; ignorance of the language would, I knew, keep me excluded from life around me. Reliance on official guides and interpreters is frustrating in any country, but in China it is even more so as the English of these guides and interpreters is basic and limited to purely ‘touristic’ needs. Very often conceptual differences and differences of approach lead to misunderstandings; and attempts to discuss somewhat more abstract subjects end by talking at cross purposes. Preparing for the journey I kept promising myself and others that I would not write ‘On China’. Yet such was the impact of my experience that I could not refrain from keeping a diary, as I felt the need to make my impressions less ephemeral. In what follows no attempt is made to systematize information received or draw any general
The study group which I joined was medically oriented: it consisted of doctors, social workers, etc. whose professional preoccupations I could hardly share. However, it proved more tolerant of my interests than I had thought possible. We visited, within a short space of time, Peking, Nanking, Kweilin, Shanghai, and Canton, and also a small chunk of the countryside. Within China we travelled by plane, by train, by coach; within the cities occasionally by public transport.
At the time we travelled there were no direct London–Peking flights and we changed planes in Geneva, from where a Swissair DC10 took us to Peking. The DC10 was, we were told, the largest type of plane Peking airport was able to handle. The Arrival Building, grey and nondescript, reminded me somewhat of the old Croydon airport. Two or three armed soldiers in green tunics stood impassively; a group of guides awaited their charges. Over a long table a notice in Chinese, Russian, and English read: Customs. But we were asked no questions and had only to fill in a declaration of all ‘valuables’ brought into the country. As nearly all travel into China is by ‘groups’ or ‘delegations’, the procedure was simplified, and within an hour we were sitting in a well-upholstered coach. Of the three guides who accompanied us one was to be permanently attached to our group, one was to look after us in Peking, and the third, an official from the tourist office, was there to greet us. He did this in a most formal fashion, trying to overcome the rattling of wheels on an uneven road: ‘We are glad to welcome our new British friends. You are our new friends because we have old friends who have already been to China. And through you, our new British friends, we send greetings from our people to your people. We have friends all over the world.’ This last sentence can be seen quite often, inscribed on red banners, at airports and railway stations as if the Chinese felt the need to reassure themselves and others that their long period of isolation and ostracism by the outside world was over. After the ritual of greetings, the guides applaud us and we applaud them.
We are now passing through green flat countryside with rectangles of winter wheat and peach and cherry orchards. Very little traffic on the road; here and there a lorry, some cyclists and some peasants carrying their loads in baskets suspended on bamboo yokes across their shoulders. We are approaching the city along wide avenues lined with trees.
The hotel is a big, sumptuous complex of grey heavy buildings four or five storeys high; only in its roof line is traditional Chinese architecture preserved. It is placed in a park-like enclave surrounded by a wall, with sentries at the imposing gate. The public rooms are enormous and characterless; our accommodation consists of a large bedroom, equally large ‘salon’, and bathroom. The furniture is heavy, huge armchairs with brownish loose covers decorated or protected by crocheted anti-macassar lace-work. Nondescript curtains hang desolately from a primitive piece of wire. By the table two ubiquitous giant flasks, one with boiling water for brewing tea, the other with cold drinking water.
This enclave, we are told, was built for (or by) Soviet experts to house them and their families; it was opened in 1957 but soon afterwards the experts ‘were withdrawn’, and although their work was not finished ‘we could manage everything by ourselves’.
Impatient to see something of Peking, we venture out. After wandering a little we realize that we are nowhere near the centre of the town. Consulting the plan of the city, we see that our ‘Friendship Hotel’ is in the Haidian district some eight miles north of the centre. And we remark wistfully that at least two luxury hotels, among them the famous Beijing Hotel, are within walking distance from Tien Mien Square where we would like to be. But our party is neither an important ‘delegation’, nor does it consist of rich tourists or businessmen or the privileged (and rich) overseas Chinese.