Skip to content Skip to navigation

My First Trip to China

December 30, 2013

My first trip to China was in May 1972, just three months after Nixon’s visit! I accompanied my husband, Jerome Cohen, who was the China adviser to a small delegation of the Federation of American Scientists invited on the first scientific exchange after 23 hostile years between the two countries. It was high drama crossing the Lowu Bridge from Hong Kong and entering the country of our “communist enemy”—the Red China previously forbidden to us by our government before the Nixon visit.

We dragged our luggage over the bridge from the Hong Kong border to the People's Republic of China to the Shenzhen waiting room with large leather chairs armed with antimacassars. Stacks of magazines in English and Chinese of the heroic workers, peasants, and soldiers who powered China’s modernization.

Surrounds of Martial revolutionary music engulfed us—we would hear the same martial music on the train, and throughout our visit to China. This music would accompany us—there was no way to turn it off.  During our anxious wait for the train to Guangzhou, we viewed the lush green rice fields of Guangdong Province and watched women in black pajamas and wide brimmed hats balance heavy loads on a yoke. When the women tended the fields, the hats were hung with black fabric—like curtains—to block sun and bugs. By the 1990s, those same fields would be covered by concrete bases for glass and steel towers being built to house the ballooning population of more than one billion people.

Smiling Pandas at Guangzhou zoo. Guangzhou, May 1972. Photo credit: Joan Lebold CohenWoman on surgical table. Guangzhou, May 1972. Photo credit: Joan Lebold Cohen

Our first stop in Guangzhou was the zoo—to view the famous pandas. Apparently the keepers had trained them to line up and smile. After this, we were taken to a hospital with a classic 19th-century glass domed operating theatre where we observed two operations from the balcony in their old-style medical arena. As the surgeon proceeded to cut a woman’s abdomen for a Caesarean section to birth her child, acupuncture was administered to relieve her pain. She did not cry out. The Chinese were showing off their traditional Chinese treatment—superior to Western anesthetics. Another patient had a tumor on his head. Because they saw me eagerly photographing the scene, they brought me his tumor on a tray for a close-up after the operation.

We flew to Beijing on a propeller aircraft that had camp chairs and no galley. So, the pilot landed on an airstrip mid-China and we were bused to a restaurant for lunch. I remember smacking my lips on Eight Precious Pudding, sweet rice with candied fruit, my first taste of a Chinese version of the food for the Gods. In Beijing, we were put up at the Nationalities Hotel. As a loyal mother of my passionate stamp-collector son, my first stop was to the hotel post office to buy stamps. I viewed commemoratives that featured blond, blue-eyed men. Who on earth were they? And what were they doing on Chinese postage stamps?  In the hotel elevator, I saw a group of tall blue-eyed, blond-haired young male models for the stamps. They were identified as basketball players from Albania! This turned out to be a fine introduction to applied Chinese politics. In 1972, China was extremely hostile to the Soviet Union and had only one ally. Albania’s dictator Enver Hoxha was Mao Zedong’s only friend. This gave special meaning to the many posters we saw in all the cities we visited showing giant pictures of multi-colored smiling faces that stated "We Have Friends All Over The World"!

High school welcome dance performance. China, May 1972. Photo credit: Joan Lebold Cohen

As a delegation of six, we were like a little island in a strange sea. We ate all our meals together. Even our guides were separated from us, if only by a curtain in certain venues. The food was okay without being great—hardly living up to the highly-touted cuisine we had known by reputation. We were taken to schools, factories, street committees, medical clinics, and a May 4 farm in the countryside. In each place we were greeted by the chair of the Revolutionary Committee.[1] We would then have a B.I. (Brief Introduction). This lasted about 20 minutes, followed by a general discussion. We were told that “China has no disabled or handicapped people,” and "no one needed to lock one's bike because there were no thieves in this communist paradise."

During our visits to all these units, we always saw an attractive welcoming sign, often on a black board and written in Chinese and English with colored chalk decorated floral flourishes. When we visited a middle school, I had brought a gift of a block of U.S. postage commemorative stamps with a picture of a U.S. astronaut standing on the moon in 1969 to give as a keepsake present. Teachers and students viewed them uncomprehending, unaware of this momentous event that took place three years earlier.

May 7th Cadre School. China, May 1972. Photo credit: Joan Lebold Cohen

We had a fine excursion to the Great Wall where our host, the distinguished physicist Zhou Peiyuan, told us what “a fine time” he had when he was sent down to the countryside during the height of the Cultural Revolution. The day we visited a May 7 Cadre School,[2] we were treated to a welcoming song and dance performed by the cadres, similar to the ones we had seen at all the schools and factories. In fact, when we visited Luoyang in Henan Province, we were taken to a tractor factory—there, the tractors danced! We were told that these cadres, who had previously been officials with supervisory desk jobs, had built their own housing, grew their own food, and studied the writings of Chairman Mao intently day and night for periods of many years. The only expression of interest in me by these “welcoming folk” occurred when I relieved myself in the open-air designated spot. What do you suppose they were expecting?

I had to press very hard to visit the Forbidden City, which was closed during the Cultural Revolution to preserve it from destruction by bands of Red Guards who had been taught to “destroy the old to create the new.” Jerry asked to join my visit. Our escort said pityingly that Jerry was "henpecked" into wanting to see the Forbidden City, implying that no man would be interested in seeing this vestige of a corrupt and non-revolutionary China that was the product of women's work. We were alone in this vast series of courtyards, audience halls, and apartments—trying to comprehend this city within a city. The southern sections had housed the guards, officials, eunuchs, and storage of many treasures. Progressing north without a guide, I approached the three great throne rooms. Continuing north beyond a great east-west dividing passage way was the residential section with apartments for emperors and concubines, gardens, and treasure houses.

On the west side of the palace, there was the most thrilling exhibition “Treasures Unearthed During the Cultural Revolution.” It was specifically organized to prove to the world that China had not destroyed all its old cultural objects. The exhibition stars were jade funerary suits and a bronze winged horse. Ultimately this extraordinary exhibition toured the world to convince people that China still has great treasures.

I requested to see art and meet artists and was extremely fortunate to see some old paintings in the Palace Museum and one contemporary show, in one of the only art exhibitions during the Cultural Revolution. It featured prized propaganda art, much in the style of Peasant Painting with politically correct styles and subjects. My requests to meet artists were rebuffed with "they are all in the countryside undergoing reeducation."  After 1979, I would learn from the artists that that really meant they were exiled to remote spots to undergo political reeducation and perform hard labor in the countryside for six months to ten years.

I had pressed our hosts to let me visit Luoyang and Xi’an because of my interest in Chinese art history. And because of the “thoughtful monitoring” of conversations between Jerry and me in our hotel room where we expressed great disappointment in being confined in our travels, our original itinerary was revised to include those ancient capitals. On visiting the Buddhist caves in Luoyang, I asked where the Buddhist priests were who used to live in those caves. The guide knew that I worked at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He retaliated by showing the blank wall in the cave where the sculptural frieze in the Metropolitan Museum had been hacked out and also the place where the frieze now in the Kansas City Art Museum had once resided. There was no convincing him that the preservation of these sculptures was important considering the defacement of art and antiques during the Cultural Revolution, not to mention the history of repeated anti-Buddhist destructive tirades that periodically had destroyed many more of the sacred caves since the 2nd Century!

The treasures in the Luoyang Museum were a great treat. There was a young attendant to whom I asked a question. An old guy leaped out from the shadows and said: “She is much too young to know….” We also visited an ancient painted tomb that provided the context for me to understand some materials I had seen at the Boston Museum. I was thrilled.

On the train to Xi’an, Dr. Marvin Goldberger, the head of our delegation who is a famous scientist, felt as I did—that it was our duty to sample all the alcoholic drinks in the bar car. They were assorted varieties of Maotai and gaoliang. [3] I thought I had burned a hole in my throat.

Separating wheat from chaff at Xi'an Hotel entrance. Xi'an, May 1972. Photo credit: Joan Lebold Cohen

Our entrance to the hotel in Xi’an was unusual. Wheat straw completely covered the front courtyard—usually the place where cars were parked. Farmers were pounding the golden straw to separate the wheat from the chaff. At this time, hotel conditions were limited in Beijing but in Xi’an one would have to wait more than a decade before it would have its first clean, heated hotel and restaurant with a menu. We were thrilled to view its many ancient wonders and overlooked the imperfect conditions. A visit to the tomb mound of Empress Wu allowed us to view a panorama of fields of wheat and the spring bloom. We also saw cave dwellings such as the ones we had read about in the Communist Party’s headquarters in Yan’an. We also visited to the Huaqing Hot Springs where Chiang Kai-shek was captured by his own subordinate, Zhang Xueliang, in 1937 and forced to sign a united front agreement with the communists to fight against the Japanese. This had been a favorite spa of a Tang Dynasty emperor and his famous consort Yang Guifei more than a thousand years earlier.

We flew to Shanghai and stayed at the elegant Peace Hotel on the Bund. It was built in the late 1920s, designed by a British architect. Wood paneled rooms were decorated with carvings in the style of the Dutch-English master carver of the late 17th-early 18th centuries, Grinling Gibbons. In Shanghai, after several days of required visits to the industrial palace and factories, we insisted on some personal time to explore and shop. We found a theatre shop where we could buy costumes from The White Haired Girl and The Red Detachment of Women, the famous ballets created during the Cultural Revolution, supervised by Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife and the cultural czar of the Cultural Revolution. When one of our group bought an outfit from the White Haired Girl in that tiny shop, we attracted a huge crowd who wanted to examine us foreigners up close. It was difficult because we had exiled our minders and there was no one there to push the gawkers away.

Department store shopping was limited to bamboo framed thermos bottles, decorated enamel covered wash basins, and revolutionary red T-shirts with slogans. The only other shopping venture we had was to the Friendship Store for foreigners. There, we found Chinese opera costumes and theatre props such as warrior staves and spears and colorful capes. Much later, we realized that these items must have been seized during the Cultural Revolution from people who were branded bourgeois and counterrevolutionary by the bands of Red Guards during their reign of terror.

We visited a commune in the countryside that grew rice—my first personal view of Chinese rice culture. Those words that had little meaning until one sees it up close! We watched an old man coax an ox to pull a plow through the flooded paddy field, and rows of women wading in the field with water up to their thighs, transplanting the seedlings. This process demanded bending over in the muck for hours. I was transfixed by this scene, and while photographing and balancing on a narrow dyke on that edge the paddy,I slipped into the muck.

One is tempted to characterize our departure from China as being “shanghaied” in Nanchang. Our plane was headed to Guangzhou but that exit city was socked in by clouds in China's pre-instrument flying era. So our plane was diverted to the inland capital city of Jiangxi Province. Our small plane held fewer than 20 passengers, our group plus minders and some Brits masquerading as minority people of the U.K. (Scottish, Irish, Welsh). In the spring of 1972 China was welcoming minorities to do business. The airport “terminal” was small and narrow, about the size of two trailers end to end, where we were confined for several hours. The weather was steamy hot and the city was "closed" to foreigners, which meant we could not enter.

Meanwhile, after three weeks of official speak, our minders began to let their hair down in this unscripted delay. There was even some talk approximating personal. We visitors chortled about having bought terrific ten-dollar watches in Hong Kong. Our revolutionary guide contemptuously crowed that her husband had bought her a Rolex abroad. The Chinese wanted to know if we had cars? And did we sleep in them as they had been told. Finally a decision was made to take us to the hotel in town. En route, we insisted on stopping at the Friendship store to buy toothbrushes since our luggage remained on the plane. It seemed that most items for sale were Mao buttons.

We arrived at what purported to be the best hotel, of course, one without air conditioning. We all agreed the only solution to the suffocating heat and our dilemma was alcohol. One from the British “minority” delegation had brought some tonic water from the British Embassy in Beijing and we could buy gin at the bar! How could we manage without ice? My husband's Chinese served him well and he was able to get ice—the key to survival at this “no exit” hotel. Triumphant, we could all passed out, deshabille, on our woven bamboo bed matts.

At about 2:00 a.m., a loud knocking on our door woke us out of our stupor. A tongue tied messenger circled his arm as if cranking something, while muttering into an invisible receiver he was holding to communicate that Jerry had a phone call. All the hotel rooms were around a courtyard, and many awakened to this comic drama. It was a call to return to Beijing—unstated but implied--to meet Premier Zhou Enlai. Indeed when Jerry met the premier, he asked where I was and said, "we invited her!" Jerry said, "She had to return to care for our three children in Japan. School is out and they are unsupervised." "Oh, yes," the premier said. "In your country, parents still have to take care of children."

On my return to Japan, I felt confused and let down concerning China. By chance, the film "55 Days in Peking" with Ava Gardner and Charlton Heston was being shown in Kyoto. I took the children to see it and then I realized that my China was the cinematic version, not the real People's Republic of China.

[1] The highest authority in any locality during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), consisting of Party, military, and government authorities.

[2] Set up in 1968 by an order from Mao Zedong, May 7 cadre schools were farms where cadres and intellectuals from cities performed manual labor and received ideological reeducation.

[3] Both Maotai and gaoliang are strong liquors distilled from fermented sorghum.

Joan Lebold Cohen

Joan Lebold Cohen is an art historian and photographer who has photographed and written about Asia for almost 50 years. Her two most groundbreaking books are The New Chinese Painting, 1949-1986 and China Today and Her Ancient Treasures, coauthored with Jerome A. Cohen.

  • Smiling Pandas-Guangzhou Zoo
  • Using Acqupunture anesthesia baby delivered by Casearian section
  • High school welcome dance performance
  • May 7th Cadre countryside re-education camp
  • Xi'an Hotel entrance separating wheat from chaff

Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at /var/www/ in /var/www/ on line 1501

Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at /var/www/ in /var/www/ on line 1505

Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at /var/www/ in /var/www/ on line 1505

Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at /var/www/ in /var/www/ on line 1505
Error | Human Rights in China 中国人权 | HRIC


The website encountered an unexpected error. Please try again later.