Below are a few excerpts from a book that is still banned in China called Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang. The snippets below describe the author’s experience of talking to foreigners for the first time in 1975 in Zhanjiang and Guilin.
It was a time when China was still enduring its Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and there were rules to be followed when talking with “barbarians”. The rules were severely strict at the time but they are humorous by today’s standards. Before the early ‘70’s merely speaking with a foreigner was both forbidden and illegal – you could be thrown in jail.
But all that changed in 1972 when Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to visit the PRC – formerly America’s enemy number one. His visit ended 25 years of separation between the two world powers. The official line was that he had come “with a white flag.” Thereafter, censorship became somewhat relaxed and it became easier for the Chinese people to get their hands on foreign books and get a bit more up-to-date on the outside world. China’s government also didn’t want to “lose face” – official state policy encouraged everyone to learn and practice English and to become generally knowledgeable on America. Chang writes:
(The bold print in the quotations below is mine, and not the author’s)
“Learning English was now a worthy cause for ‘winning friends from all over the world’ and was therefore no longer a crime. So as not to alarm or frighten our distinguished [foreign] guests, streets and restaurants lost the militant names that had been imposed on them at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution by the Red Guards. In Chengdu, although it was not visited by Nixon, the restaurant The Whiff of Gunpowder switched back to its old name, The Fragrance of Sweet Wind.”
Here Jung Chang describes her experience of travelling with her classmates to the port city of Zhanjiang (close to Hainan) with the intent of practicing English with foreign sailors:
“Speaking to a foreigner was the dream of every student, and my opportunity came at last. When I got back from my trip down the Yangtze, I learned that my year was being sent in October to a port in the south called Zhanjiang to practice our English with foreign sailors. I was thrilled.
Zhanjiang was about 75 miles from Chengdu, a journey of two days and two nights by rail. It was the southernmost large port in China, and quite near the Vietnamese border.
It felt like a foreign country, with turn-of-the-century colonial-style buildings, pastiche Romanesque arches, rose windows, and large verandas with colorful parasols. The local people spoke Cantonese, which was almost a foreign language. The air smelled of the unfamiliar sea, exotic tropical vegetation, and an altogether bigger world […]
As the point of being there was to talk to the sailors, we were organized into small groups to take turns working in the two places they were allowed to frequent: the Friendship Store, which sold goods for hard currency, and the Sailors’ Club, which had a bar, a restaurant, a billiards room, and a ping-pong room.
Rules for talking with the sailors (1975):
“There were strict rules about how we could talk to the sailors. We were not allowed to speak to them alone, except for brief exchanges over the counter of the Friendship Store. If we were asked our names and addresses, under no circumstances were we to give our real ones. We all prepared a false name and a nonexistent address. After every conversation, we had to write a detailed report of what had been said which was standard practice for anyone who had contact with foreigners. We were warned over and over again about the importance of observing ‘discipline in foreign contacts’ (she waifi-lu). Otherwise, we were told, not only would we get into serious trouble, other students would be banned from coming […]
The moment the sailors sauntered in, we would leap up and virtually grab them, while trying to appear as dignified as possible, so eager were we to engage them in conversation. I often saw a puzzled look in their eyes when we declined their offers of a drink. We were forbidden to accept drinks from them. In fact, we were not allowed to drink at all from the fancy foreign bottles and cans.”
The Chinese teachers’ outlook on black sailors:
“When the first black sailors arrived, our teachers gently warned the women students to watch out: “They are less developed and haven’t learned to control their instincts, so they are given to displaying their feelings whenever they like: touching, embracing, even kissing.” To a roomful of shocked and disgusted faces, our teachers told us that one woman in the last group had burst out screaming in the middle of a conversation when a Gambian sailor had tried to hug her. She thought she was going to be raped (in the middle of a crowd, a Chinese crowd!), and was so scared that she could not bring herself to talk to another foreigner for the rest of her stay.
The male students, particularly the student officials, assumed responsibility for safeguarding us women. Whenever a black sailor started talking to one of us, they would eye each other and hurry to our rescue by taking over the conversation and positioning themselves between us and the sailors. Their precautions may not have been noticed by the black sailors, especially as the students would immediately start talking about ‘the friendship between China and the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.”
“China is a developing country,” they would intone, reciting from our textbook, ‘and will stand forever by the side of the oppressed and exploited masses in the third world in their struggle against the American imperialists and the Soviet revisionists.” The blacks would look baffled but touched. Sometimes they embraced the Chinese men, who returned comradely hugs.”
Reasons why Chinese must appear “inscrutable” to foreigners:
“I was terribly curious about foreigners, and was eager to discover what they were really like. How similar to the Chinese were they, and how different? But I had to try to conceal my inquisitiveness which, apart from being politically dangerous, would be regarded as losing face. Under Mao, as in the days of the Middle Kingdom, the Chinese placed great importance on holding themselves with ‘dignity’ in front of foreigners, by which was meant appearing aloof, or inscrutable. A common form this took was to show no interest in the outside world, and many of my fellow students never asked any questions.”
Rules for female students with talking with sailors – flirting was an “unspeakable crime”:
“Our political meetings now included an examination of how we were observing ‘the disciplines in foreign contact.” It was stated that I had violated these because my eyes looked ‘too interested,” I ‘smiled too often,” and when I did so I opened my mouth ‘too wide.” I was also criticized for using hand gestures: we women students were supposed to keep our hands under the table and sit motionless.
Much of Chinese society still expected its women to hold themselves in a sedate manner, lower their eyelids in response to men’s stares, and restrict their smile to a faint curve of the lips which did not expose their teeth. They were not meant to use hand gestures at all. If they contravened any of these canons of behavior they would be considered ‘flirtatious.” Under Mao, flirting with foreigners was an unspeakable crime.”
Chinese were even stopped by authorities if they said “Hello” or “Goodbye” to foreigners, in places such as Guilin (1975):
“On the way back to Chengdu, some friends and I went to the legendary Guilin, where the mountains and waters looked as though they had sprung from a classical Chinese painting. There were foreign tourists there, and we saw one couple with a baby in the man’s arms. We smiled at each other, and said “Good morning’ and “Goodbye.” As soon as they disappeared, a plainclothes policeman stopped us and questioned us.”
The above rules and conceptions are quite humorous by today’s standards. China has definitely come a long way since the 70s. Many middle-class English-speaking Chinese I’ve met in Shanghai are anything but shy when it comes to foreigners – especially if they are confident when speaking English. At the same time, however, you can still see traces of these old behaviors – which can actually come across as touching.
Even though Mao had a devastating impact on the country, part of present-day China’s “charm” lies in the remnants of these mysterious Mao-Era Chinese behaviors and their positive treatment towards foreigners.