The Forbidden Journey

Book review of Kin-ming Liu’s My First Trip to China

Wall Street Journal
March 4, 2013

by Melanie Kirkpatrick

Spend enough time around the bar at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club and sooner or later you’ll hear someone utter the words, “On my first trip to China…” That’s your cue to signal the barman for a refill, sit back in your seat and take in a story about a time not so long ago when China was an unknown world, inaccessible to all but a fortunate few foreign visitors.

Veteran Hong Kong journalist Kin-ming Liu had the inspired idea of inviting 30 early visitors to Communist China to write up their personal recollections of their inaugural trips. The result is “My First Trip to China,” an absorbing and entertaining volume. It is also an illuminating one—full of insights by old China hands whose first impressions have been honed by decades of experience, interaction and study.

The essayists are diplomats, scholars, businessmen and journalists. They are American, British, European and overseas Chinese. They include writers who admire Mao Zedong’s “new China” and writers who are critical of it. The earliest recollection comes from Sidney Rittenberg, an American Communist who first went to China as a G.I. in 1945. The newest are from the mid-1980s, when Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms were beginning to take hold and China was opening.

For the early visitors, Hong Kong was the usual jumping-off point. The China-bound traveler would board a train in Kowloon that carried him to the village of Lo Wu in the New Territories. There he would disembark and walk across a rickety wooden bridge to a farming village on the Chinese side of the border. (Today that village has been transformed into the dazzling industrial city of Shenzhen.) Next he would board a train to Canton, now Guangzhou. Foreigners traveled “soft” class, where the plush seats had white antimacassars on the headrests.

Jonathan Mirsky describes the excitement that he and fellow scholars felt in 1972 when they stepped into China for the first time: “As we reached the middle of the Lo Wu Bridge,” he writes, “we hugged each other.” It was the first time that any of these Sinophiles had set foot in the country they had studied from afar.

Several writers reflect on the beauty of a country untouched by development and pollution. Hong Kong entrepreneur David Tang contributes a lyrical essay about his 1979 visit to the Yellow Mountains, in eastern China, where he stayed in a monastery and awoke to an “ocean of clouds.” He describes his “first real contact with [the] motherland” as “like a moment of warm embrace after many years of separation.” British scholars Delia Davin and W.J.F. Jenner, who worked in Beijing in the 1960s, separately recall seeing camels delivering coal on the streets of the capital.

American businessman Thomas Gorman remembers the ever-present spittoons, which he cheekily refers to as “a unique feature of the design motif of meeting rooms.” The standard spittoon, he writes, “had a white enamel finish with a stripe of bright red trim around its mouth and a cheery blue floral pattern circling its bulbous midriff.” Another businessman, Helmut Sohmen, notes that “a visit before modernization had fully started was particularly memorable, as it has allowed comparing old with new, giving a yardstick to measure the speed of progress.”

Most of the essays revolve around the travelers’ interactions with Chinese people—minders, Communist Party officials, and, in some cases, ordinary people who were brave enough to speak to a foreigner. Columbia professor Andrew Nathan, whose first visit took place in 1973, writes of travelers’ efforts to “peer behind the façade of Maoist correctness for signs of real life.” (Mr. Nathan got in trouble for taking photographs of hand-drawn wall posters that criticized a government bureau.) Harvard professor Ezra Vogel, who also first went to China in 1973, movingly describes how a Chinese professor who had studied at Harvard took a moment when they were out of earshot of their minders to inquire about a friend he had known there.

In the volume’s most harrowing essay, social scientist Steven Mosher writes of his research trip to a Chinese village in March 1980, when China’s one-child policy was being implemented. Mr. Mosher grimly recounts how pregnant women were gathered up and forced to undergo abortions. When one woman refused to comply, Mr. Mosher scribbled down the village head man’s retort, which he himself heard: “Agree to an abortion or we will kill your baby at birth.”

Several essayists describe their disillusionment with what they saw—the privileges accorded to Communist Party officials in this supposedly classless society, the uniformity of thought, the brutal suppression of dissent. Many of the visitors chafed at being forced to travel “the Potemkin circuit”—William Overholt’s amusing phrase for the model farms, model factories and model apartments on the typical itinerary. They also resented China’s intrusive oversight of its “foreign friends”—bugged hotel rooms, guides who lied to them, security agents who followed them if they set off on their own.

Not so long ago, visitors to the Middle Kingdom spoke about going “into” China and coming “out.” The choice of preposition conveyed the thrill of the journey—an exploration to an exotic place that promised adventure, mystery and perhaps a hint of danger. “My First Trip to China” invites readers to relive those voyages of discovery and to reflect on the complexities of modern-day China, whose new openness, material progress and limited freedoms were unimaginable just a generation ago.

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