Ian Johnson (張彥) is a correspondent based in Berlin and Beijing. He won a Pulitzer Prize in international reporting in 2001 when working as the China bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal.
When I began thinking about writing this piece, my first trip to China in 1984 had seemed like a disappointment. Unlike today, this was the China of Great Events: the launch of bold reforms and an era of intellectual ferment unlike any since. Before arriving I had read about the foreigners who had come to China in the Mao era and seen nothing; I had fancied that I would do better. And yet I had spent most of my time tooling around the north of Beijing on a bicycle talking to a hodgepodge of foreign students and oddball Chinese. What had I really seen?
I softened my views after reading my diaries from that period, the first time I’d looked at them in a good 15 years. I realized that if I hadn’t experienced the sweep of events unfolding in Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) China, my idiosyncratic experiences were in some ways a mirror of this time. Compared to today’s budding superpower, this was a messier, odder China, like an old house full of memories that hadn’t yet been spruced up for sale. It was also a country that was still really quite exotic in the best sense of the word: a place a long way from home, where one could get lost for months at a time and, despite one’s best intentions, disappear from friends and family.
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I went to China as a 22-year-old senior at the University of Florida who had spent too much time working and too little time studying. I had taken Chinese as a lark: I had grown up in Montreal and knew French and figured I would meet my language requirement by trying a non-European language. I had seen a note on a bulletin board that Introduction to Chinese needed a student to fill out its section. I decided that person was me and wasn’t disappointed. I had a great teacher, the linguist Chauncey Chu (屈承熹), and his lectures on Chinese grammar made it seem like a fascinating puzzle. I signed up for another year and then another. But by the spring of 1984 I knew all the uses of “le” (了) and “ne” (呢), but couldn’t speak much Chinese. And I was sick of journalism, which I had been doing for four years straight to put myself through college. So I applied to a study-abroad program called AIFS and headed off that autumn to study at Peking University, or Beida.
There were only two of us in AIFS’s China program and we basically were left to fend for ourselves. No one met me at the airport when I arrived — I had to beg a ride to Beida in the middle of the night — and no one helped me get registered; in fact, the university wasn’t really sure what to do with me. I ended up in a tiny language class of misfits. My most memorable classmate was Sasha, a burly middle-aged Russian who never mastered more than a handful of Chinese words. The rest of the time he smiled pleasantly and nodded his head. Word has it that he was the minder for the Russian students, the first group to study at Beida since the Sino-Soviet split of the early 1960s.
But all of this turned out to be a blessing because I ended up falling in with a group of western graduate students who were infinitely more determined and savvy than I was. The key was my roommate, Lawrence “Chris” Reardon (李道明), a Columbia University graduate student researching the history of China’s newly launched economic reforms. Chris and I both wanted Chinese roommates but the university had no intention of allowing us “laowai” to pollute the minds of the country’s future elite. So we were stuck with each other. From my perspective it was the best thing that happened to me.
Chris didn’t just help me with the logistics of life in China; he and other graduate students adopted me, even though I was far below them in every aspect. Through lunches, dinners and long evenings with these very focused Americans, Canadians and Australians, I began to understand something about China, from literature and linguistics to economic theory and politics. They lent me their books and organized their own trips around the city and country that I joined. By the end of my stay I realized that academics usually had a far better understanding of China than the Beijing-centric journalists I would also meet during my stay.
I was also befriended by a few eccentric Chinese. I say eccentric because you had to be a bit odd to make friends with foreigners at that time. Getting onto the Beida campus required signing in at the front gate and essentially admitting that you were going to see foreigners, which was potentially risky. China had only just begun to open up and given the xenophobia and brutality of the previous three decades of Communist rule, a prudent person would have avoided too much contact with foreigners.
This wasn’t the case with Lao Zhang, or Zhang Anqing. He was in the early 60s, and I got to know him through Chris, who bumped into him at the post office outside the campus. Lao Zhang said he had been friends with the deposed emperor, Pu Yi (溥儀), or maybe his brother Pu Jie (溥傑). Or a cousin? Or was it that he’d walked past Pu Yi’s house once? He was vague about the details but charming in an intense and unsettling way. He said he had learned finger painting from the royal household. He would come to our place for hours to talk and sometimes finger paint, usually blotchy pictures of shrimp. He would make smudges with his thumb and then, using a fingernail, etch long antenna.
It was clear that Lao Zhang had been through a lot. He had lived in China’s oil center, Daqing, and during the Cultural Revolution had been severely beaten. We never knew how much to believe but he walked with a limp and his ear was badly scarred. And he did odd things like come by and sleep in our room for hours at a time. He didn’t speak English but had beautifully precise handwriting and would carefully choose a few characters for me to look up, communicating through them complex ideas. Once he wrote the Chinese words “erzi huoche xinjiang bu huilai” (兒子火車新疆不回來) or “son train Xinjiang not return.” I thought about the implications of that for days.
Chris and I went with him on bicycle trips, once riding our heavy steel Flying Pigeon bikes 55 kilometers each way to the Marco Polo Bridge and then the Peking Man site at Zhoukoudian. Beijing was a much smaller city then and it was a trip through North China’s hardscrabble countryside, where we caught glimpses of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms: free vegetable markets, small “getihu” businesses and snatches of colorful clothing that slowly were replacing the blue and green tunics of the Mao era. We ate in restaurants that required grain coupons and when one of my tires blew, Lao Zhang lashed my bike to his and the two of us rode on his several kilometers to the nearest village.
Lao Zhang also taught me lessons in how to skirt the military that still occupied most of western Beijing’s suburbs. One day in November, he and I rode out to the Eight Great Sites (八大處) along a country road and just before arriving at a corner, he pulled over, plunked his enormous fur hat on my head, pulled up my collar and said to ride with my head lowered. I did so and we passed the bored guards standing at the side of the road. Once past the guards he ordered me to look up — everyone would assume I was supposed to be there if I was there, he wisely said. Soon after we rode out of the military zone. I asked him why the area was restricted and he said that some military dormitories lay on that stretch of road, something of a disappointment as I’d assumed we’d slipped by a top-secret nuclear testing facility.
It wasn’t the greatest subterfuge but it taught me about the paranoia of the state. I learned that restricted sites in Chinese are often only out-of-bounds to people who look different. The people who devised these silly rules (some of which one still encounters in China) never seemed to consider that a blond-haired, blue-eyed person like me would be the last sort of person a foreign intelligence agency would employ to spy on the Chinese military. If you looked Chinese you were a “neiguoren” (內國人) and that meant you were okay. If you didn’t, you were a problem. On a practical level, it was a lesson I’d draw on many times in the future when slipping past guards — big hat or hood, look down, walk briskly and act like you belong.
What I noticed most from the diaries is how much I was off campus on these endless bike rides. Beida at that time was in the suburbs, almost the countryside. Outside the west gate was farmland and we would bike every few days to the Summer Palace, Fragrant Hills or further afield. Haidian, now a busy commercial district, was a small town linked to the city by a two-lane street lined with trees, Baishiqiao Road — now a busy north-south artery. There were buses downtown but mostly we rode. At least once a week I’d ride the 20 kilometers each way to Tiananmen Square, the Beijing Hotel or the new Jianguo Hotel, which had a decent bakery.
Sometimes I was alone but often I traveled with friends like Chris or Bob Saunders, who was studying Beijing dialect, and especially Kim Besio (金葆莉), who was writing her doctoral thesis on Dream of the Red Mansion. We explored the hutongs, most of which are now gone, and I made my first forays to temples that would later mean so much to me, especially White Cloud Temple, the Daoist temple in the city’s southwest. We ventured further afield to Luoyang, Xi’an, Hangzhou and Suzhou. And with government permission — much of China was closed off to foreign visitors and we needed a permit — we ventured to smaller cities like Datong and Shaoxing.
One of our favorite games was to use an old copy of Nagel’s Encyclopedia, a Swiss guidebook written by French graduate students on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. It had essays on everything from Chinese chess to Daoism, but most importantly it offered interesting descriptions of sights that would later be attacked and destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. We ignored the local guidebooks or maps, which had only a handful of reopened sights, and used Nagel’s to find dozens of temples, halls and palaces that officially didn’t exist. Few were open to the public but we often could talk our way in — gatekeepers, we found, were happy to show off their grounds to earnest foreign students. It was a reminder of how weak China’s cultural and religious organizations are; even today many temples and mansions are occupied by government agencies. Many others have simply been torn down.
Occasionally, we caught glimpses of bigger events. We saw Beida students protest the administration’s decision to turn off their lights at 11 pm. It seemed like a minor issue but for them was symbolic of their poor living conditions and lack of independence. They threw bottles — a homonym for the given name of the country’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping — out of their dorm windows, a sign of the disgruntlement that would flare up five years later.
More memorable was the Oct. 1 parade on Tiananmen Square for the 35th anniversary of the People’s Republic. It featured the first military parade since 1960 and, despite some of the anger, students still called out “Xiaoping, ni hao!” (How are you, Xiaoping!) when he passed by in a limousine. Five years later, of course, the students and Deng collided and this almost naïve era ended in a bloodbath. But at this point Deng and the government were popular for having unshackled China and given people the first taste or prosperity in decades.
I wandered around Tiananmen Square, watching the spontaneous dancing, clapping, singing and shouting. It wasn’t exactly Woodstock — alcohol was banned and the marchers segregated by sex — but the feeling of elation was genuine. We were supposed to be grouped by our university department but order soon broke down and people mingled freely, singing songs and watching fireworks. I roamed the square until our buses left at 11 pm, 12 hours after we had arrived. I was excited by what I had seen, writing “Chinese don’t make good ballpoint pens or toilet paper…but they have a great country.” I think this is one of the few insights from my diaries that still holds.
I also kept busy researching my senior thesis on North American journalism in China, biking down past Tiananmen Square to the Qijiayuan and Jianguomenwai diplomatic compounds to visit foreign correspondents. Among others, I interviewed Amanda Bennett from the Wall Street Journal, David Aikman (艾克敏) with Time and Julian Baum (包竹廉) of the Christian Science Monitor, as well as fellow Canadians Alan Abel of Toronto’s Globe and Mail and John F. Burns with the New York Times. These correspondents candidly said they didn’t travel enough outside Beijing and wrote too many of the same stories — down to the same people and the same anecdotes. Much of this was due to restrictions journalists faced: they couldn’t travel freely and had little access to information of any kind. They were also stuck in a cocoon of “ayis” and drivers, cooks and translators.
Compared to back then, journalists today are much more free and of course benefit from the Internet and so on. But it strikes me that many of the issues remain the same: too much time spent in one’s comfort zone in Beijing, too many rushed trips to the provinces, and too many similar stories. If in the past a lack of information forced foreign correspondents to pursue the same leads, today the flood of information seems to create a pack mentality, with everyone trying to match each other and rush back to Beijing to file.
Another maybe obvious point is that this was an age of primitive telecommunications. We had no cellphones, no email and no Skype; all that was available was a landline to one special telephone room in the foreign students’ dorm. This was a huge advance over having to go to the telegraph office, but making calls still required going to the phone room and ordering up a call. Receiving calls was tough because the person calling would have to know that you were in the telephone room. That meant I had on average one telephone conversation a month back home. The rest of the time I never touched a telephone, an amazing statement in today’s networked world. Mostly I wrote letters, hundreds of them, and post cards. Six weeks into my stay it hit me how cut off I was when I woke up one day to realize I’d forgotten my girlfriend’s and my father’s birthday. I hadn’t written or called. It was a terrible feeling but I had been immersed in China: I had been talking to my friends about China, meeting Chinese friends and studying the language.
This might sound a bit pat but I believe that the isolation made the immersion possible. I don’t think it would have been the same if I’d have been able to have chats, Skype calls or cellphone conversations with my parents or girlfriend. Even today I find I only get good material when I switch my smart phone into “airplane mode” and am forced to deal with the reality around me. The problem is this works for a day or so but inevitably the switch is flipped back and the babble of information restarts. I don’t want to say I wasn’t ever distracted back then but I was more focused on China than at any time in my life.
After looking through my diaries I see I did miss so much. I never talked to the Beida students to find out more of their grievances — it never even occurred to me that I, a journalist with scores of bylines under my belt, could go up and talk to Chinese people and write about them. I somehow had the sense I wasn’t qualified to do so and that the gap was too large. How was I supposed to convey all this back home? I was years away from knowing how, or maybe from having the arrogance to think that I could.
But a kinder way of looking at it is simply to realize that our first encounters with China or any foreign country are rarely as grand as we hope. That is the nature of exploring foreign countries; all we can hope is that our first steps are sturdy enough to carry us forward.