Nearly a year ago, I wrote a lengthy post about my experiences on my first visit to mainland China - an extended holiday in the spring and early summer of 1994, mostly based in Wuhan, an industrial city on the Yangtze, slap bang in the middle of the country. That proved to be one of my most popular pieces ever on the blog, and it's still picking up the odd random drive-by from search engines or whatever today.
My fascination with China, though cemented on that trip, far predates it. My relationship with China stretches back through most of my lifetime. Chinese folks I meet are fond of asking the obvious question "Why did you come to China?", and I always struggle to give them a straightforward, easily-digestible answer. My reasons aren't very straightforward; the 'China bug' goes a long way back.
So, I have been meaning for nearly a year now to write a follow-up post on the origins of my interest in China. Here it is, at last.
I think perhaps I'll work backwards from 1994. The reason I was in China then was that I was visiting one of my best friends from university, who had been in the country for nearly four years and had recently married a Chinese girl. Oddly enough, our relationship had perhaps become even closer and more affectionate since our college days, and even during the period of our separation after he'd gone to China. He'd fallen into the habit of writing long letters to me fairly regularly (ah, the days before e-mail!), at least once every month or two, and sometimes twice a month; and I'd done my best to respond in kind, and to send him little 'care packages' from time to time, useful selections of newspaper and magazine cuttings he could use in his teaching, or books for his own pleasure (I like to think that I was one of the first people to introduce a copy of Chang Jung's Wild Swans [this edition] into the country!). That had built up into a substantial correspondence over four years. His letters, of course, with their snapshots of life in the Chinese countryside at a time when the great economic takeoff had barely started (on his first two-year tour of duty with VSO he had been posted to a teacher-training college in a small town out in the wilds of Hubei province; he was rewarded for his rare willingness to sign on for a second term with a job at a small university in the bustling - but still very primitive - metropolis of Wuhan), were far more interesting than my jaded accounts of my first teaching job at a small private school in the south-west of England.
That friendship had given me the specific motivation, the opportunity to visit China in person; but my attachment to the country had long preceded that. Indeed, I fancy I may have been at least partly responsible for my friend's choosing to go there. Partly - he doubtless had his own complex reasons for being drawn to the country. As an experimental first career out of university he had briefly been a member of the London Metropolitan Police Force, and his beat had often covered Chinatown: that had left some deep, though not always very positive, impressions of Chinese culture on him; and much of that experience he had passed on to me. From my side, the school where I was teaching had an unusually high proportion of Chinese students - some British Chinese, some from other Asian diaspora communities like Singapore and Malaysia, but the vast majority from Hong Kong (still at that time a British colony, but now moving towards the 'handover' back to the PRC). These - especially the Hong Kong students - felt a close attachment to China; but there was usually a strong dichotomy in their feelings: an effusive adoration of the country itself and its history, but a fierce dislike of the ruling Communist Party regime. That was a mixture of attitudes that chimed closely with my own inclinations. Spending so much time with these Chinese teenagers added a lot to my understanding of the country and the culture, and reinforced my longstanding interest, my desire to one day go there myself. And I wonder if some of my China obsession rubbed off on the friend who pre-empted me in moving there in the summer of 1990.
That was a particularly emotional time to be developing such a close interest in China. In the summer term at the end of my first year of teaching, the Tiananmen Square protests came along. My Chinese students and I watched the television coverage each day with a mixture of anxiety and exhilaration. Yes, the protests were naive, immature, unfocused, chaotic. But they were impressively non-violent, and this was developing into a mass movement on a quite staggering scale. There was something irresistibly charming about the innocence and optimism of those few weeks. We were beginning to hope that this might be a threshold moment in the development of China (and the other Communist countries), that the government could not possibly deny such a large-scale, nationwide outpouring of discontent, and would have to start accelerating the economic liberalisation and allying it at last also to a political liberalisation - the beginnings of some democratic representation, more meaningful constitutional guarantees of human rights, and the eventual dismantling of the one-party state. Oh yes, we were starting to have hopes: hopes that the more reasonable and far-sighted members of the CCP hierarchy like Zhao Ziyang and Bao Tong might prevail and start leading the country on a new path to the future; hopes that those kids on the Square would be singing the Internationale every year from then on to celebrate the breakthrough, the turning point in their country's modern history. How devastatingly those hopes were dashed. I wept as seldom before or since when I watched the news on June 4th. My Hong Kong Chinese students were incensed - spewing torrents of the most savage abuse at the hardliners like Li Peng, advocating armed resistance, hoping that the UK would renege on the Hong Kong handover. Yes, that was a very emotional time.
The bitter disillusionment of 1989 did not destroy my affection for China. Chinese citizens often struggle to distinguish their country from its government; for most laowai, this is a very elementary distinction - our attitude toward the country (and its people) has absolutely nothing to do with our opinion of its government. If anything, the 6/4 crackdown intensified my affection for the country: my long interest in and respect for its history and culture was now overlayed with feelings of profound sympathy and a furious rage against injustice. I wanted to see China recover from this nightmare, see its wounds heal, see it get back on a forward path. I wanted to see the government acknowledge its fault in having resorted to military force, and to apologise to its abused and betrayed people. And of course I wanted - still want - to see the 'mistake' righted, to see the reforms we hoped for in 1989 one day come to pass.
That wasn't my first disillusionment with China's government. I'd taken a close interest in Hong Kong for many years. In fact, for a while my first serious post-University career plan had been to sign up for a stint in the Royal Hong Kong Police (I'd seen an excellent documentary series about the force on BBC1 in the late '70s or early '80s: that had been another of the key formative influences in my increasing interest in China). Although I didn't necessarily oppose returning Hong Kong to Chinese rule, I was disturbed at how the Chinese had played hardball in the initial negotiations with the Thatcher government, and subsequently proven to be petulant, unreasonable, and untrustworthy in the discussions over the transitional arrangements. In the late '80s and early '90s it was difficult to be anything other than extremely anxious about the prospects for the people of Hong Kong retaining their personal and political freedoms under Communist rule. And I decided I didn't want to be involved in a law enforcement role out there during the difficult last few years before handover; I was worried that the job might become more and more about riot control rather than fighting crime.
The other main influence - cultural rather than political - on my 'China love affair' during my student days was the Chinese Arts Centre, a small shop on the Oxford High Street. It was a cornucopia of delightful oddities. Mostly, it was the usual run of mass-produced scroll paintings, cloissoné and lacquerware, faux Tang dynasty pottery horses and so on - but rather better quality than you typically see these days. However, it also carried some much more out-of-the ordinary stuff: old propaganda posters (some of them originals, I think) and Cultural Revolution memorabilia, and (somewhere, in one of my storage boxes back in the UK, I think I may still have this) a wonderful little early 1970s Mandarin phrasebook which included such useful expressions as "How many tractors does your factory produce each year?" It was run by one of those great English eccentrics, who, like me, had felt a strange attraction to China from an early age, and had become one of the first foreigners to start making regular visits there, even before 'reform and opening'. It vexes me that I can no longer remember his name. During my undergraduate days I bought nearly all of my birthday and Christmas presents for my family there, and would drop in for a chat with the old chap once every week or two. Alas, both he and his wonderful little shop are long passed on now.
Even the marvellous Chinese Arts Centre, though, was not wooing me for the first time; it was working on an established propensity. As so often with me, I think cinema was one of the earliest and most powerful influences leading me down this path. During my 1970s childhood The Sand Pebbles, the Steve McQueen adventure story about an American gunboat running into trouble on the Yangtze in the 1920s, seemed to be shown on ITV at least once a year; and I watched it every time, absolutely loved it. There were other films set in China that enraptured me too - Yangtse Incident, The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness, and 55 Days At Peking - but it was The Sand Pebbles that most got under my skin. None of these were wholly positive portraits of the country, yet somehow I latched on to the positive more than the negative. There were many films about India I saw at the same time - most notably North West Frontier, a marvellous train film starring Kenneth More - which excited my young imagination as much if not more, yet they never inspired me to want to visit the country: the impression they left on balance was of too much heat and dust and squalor and violence. My impressions of China - despite the cruelty, anarchy and xenophobia so prominent in those films - were primarily of beauty, mystery, exoticism, vibrancy.... well, I don't know quite what it was, but it was something. From the time I was about 8 or 10, I just knew that China was a place I wanted to see with my own eyes.
Ah, but there was one more influence even earlier than those favourite childhood films. When I was still in Primary School, only about 7 or 8, we had a teacher who would occasionally take the class to the television room - just to give himself a break for 40 or 50 minutes. He didn't do it on a regular basis, to let us watch a complete series of programmes from the BBC Schools service. He didn't even consult the schedules to find something appropriate to our age range. He just took us to watch whatever might happen to be on, so that he could enjoy a little respite of peace and quiet. Some of the programmes, perhaps most of them, were decidedly age-inappropriate: I remember being fascinated, baffled, and embarrassed in roughly equal measures by a very technical biology programme about sex which was surely intended for pupils at least 6 years older than us. One of these inappropriate TV 'treats' that resonated even more strongly in my memory, though, than these models and animations of human genitalia was an episode from a series on 20th century history - the one about Mao and the Long March. I was blown away. I had no idea who this guy was, but I could sense his charisma from the grainy old black-and-white footage; and I knew that his followers had done something amazing, something impossible, but I didn't understand why. I think that's where it all began. I wanted to know WHY. I wanted to understand what this event signified, why these people had done it, how this leader had inspired them. Soon afterwards I began reading everything I could find about China. I haven't stopped since.