China unglazed

Shanghai To Peking: A Canadian scientist’s notes from a journey through the Middle Kingdom

J. TUZO WILSON July 1 1973

China unglazed

Shanghai To Peking: A Canadian scientist’s notes from a journey through the Middle Kingdom

J. TUZO WILSON July 1 1973

China unglazed

Shanghai To Peking: A Canadian scientist’s notes from a journey through the Middle Kingdom


J. Tuzo Wilson, one of the world’s most eminent earth scientists, was recently invited for an extended visit to the People’s Republic of China. While he and his wife, Isabel, were there, they kept a daily journal of the places they visited and the people they met. In Shanghai, Yenan, Peking, Hangchow and in the countryside, they talked to factory workers, scientists, farmers and cabinet ministers, they visited antiquities and modern scientific institutes, and came away with a sympathetic and clear-eyed view of some of the more lasting changes brought about by the Great Cultural Revolution in all aspects of Chinese life. The following article is an excerpt from Professor Wilson’s book, Unglazed China, being published by the Macmillan Company of Canada Ltd. and Saturday Review Press.

Our train stood waiting in the sunshine, 16 green coaches headed by a great black steam engine impressive with its scarlet drive wheels and gold characters decorating its tender. Isabel and I climbed into our compartment and the train steamed off toward Peking.

The journey from Shanghai to Peking j takes 22 hours and first-class coaches of Chinese trains are designed to enable one to do it in comfort. They are built on the same lines as the European wagon-lit with four berths to a compartment. We had a compartment to ourselves and it was spotlessly clean. Buff cotton slipcovers protected the green plush upholstery, and lace antimacassars protected the slipcovers. A small bath towel was laid over the frilled and elaborately embroidered pillowslips, and a white cotton sham was tied around the huge satin quilt which was the only piece of bedding. There was a diamondshaped hole cut in the top of the cotton cover to enable one to enjoy the elaborate embroidery underneath. Below the window, on a small table, a blue glass lamp with a pleated pink shade and two Chinese mugs with lids stood on a lace doily. The attendant appeared at frequent intervals with relays of Thermos jugs filled with scalding hot water to make tea.

For the rest of the day we steamed steadily across a great plain broken only by occasional low hills and conical mountains. It was densely populated and intensively cultivated. The whole countryside was a vast rice field intersected by innumerable canals and rivers. There were few roads; sailing junks, or barges propelled by sweeps, take the place of carts and trucks. It was always surprising to look out from the train and see in the distance a procession of sails moving across the fields of rice. Many of the waterways were clogged with water hyacinths growing in great green mats. Gangs of men were cutting and carrying them to pits

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CHINA from page 37

along the banks, there to rot into humus

for the fields.

Unlike most of our activities, which were meticulously planned and presented to us in advance, the program for one of our afternoons in Peking had remained a great mystery. We learned with considerable excitement that we were to be received by Dr. Kuo Mo-jo, the distinguished president of the Academy of Sciences of China. He was one of those who, with Premier Chou En-lai, welcomed President Nixon to Peking.

We left our hotel with Mr. Li and Mr. Chu, of the foreign relations section of the academy, to drive the short distance across the Tien-an Men Square to the Great Hall of the People.

We were greeted by Dr. Kuo Mo-jo and his wife, Yu Li-chien, waiting against a background of interpreters and officials.

Dr. Kuo was small and slight with a wise but somewhat sad face; he did not look nearly the 79 years ascribed to him by Mr. Li. Yu Li-chien, his wife, was considerably younger but as small as he, though stocky where he was slight. She had a stern impassive face that lit up brilliantly when she smiled. She was dressed in black trousers and a severely plain dark bluejacket buttoned up tight to the neck. An uncompromising bobby pin held her short hair out of her eyes.

Dr. Kuo is an intimate of Mao TseTung. The Chairman has written poems to him and installed him as head of the Academy of Sciences at its foundation in 1949. He is held in wide respect in China both by fellow scholars and by the political hierarchy for he is also vicechairman of the Standing Committee, the Cabinet of China.

After introductions and handshakes all round, we were led into the Heilungkiang Hall, a rectangular room with a rank of high windows hung with dark green velvet. The arrangement of the chairs was such that all I could do was to turn my back on my wife and lean over the coffee table to carry on a dialogue with Dr. Kuo. In a like manner, Isabel turned her back on me to face Mrs. Kuo. Everybody else sat in silence, most of them busily taking notes.

He touched lightly on the visit of Robert Stanfield, the Leader of the Opposition in the Canadian parliament, and Dr. Kissinger, Mr. Nixon’s personal adviser who had left China the day we arrived, and then launched into a long account of the recent events in China. He said that great achievements had resulted from the Cultural Revolution. The most important was that the north of China was now self-sufficient in grain due to the introduction of improved strains, the use of fertilizers, the killing of pests and the increase in irrigation. (Traditionally northern China had im-

ported grain from the south and it was the reason for the extension of the 1,000mile-long Grand Canal to Peking in Ming times.)

Such achievements, which he attributed at frequent intervals to the wise leadership of Chairman Mao, had raised the standard of living of the Chinese people.

He then touched on Mr. Nixon’s visit, at that time a matter of the greatest interest as it had just been announced. He said the visit had two objectives, either of which might be accomplished, although both might turn out to be failures. The first was to normalize relations between the two states and establish some better method of communication than secret flights by Mr. Kissinger. He did not think that this would necessarily involve full diplomatic recognition in the immediate future. The other objective was to start to solve the problems

that exist between the U.S. and China. Foremost among these was Taiwan and the steadfast refusal of the United States to accept it as an integral part of China, the garrison of 9,000 troops they still maintained there and the very heavy investments they had in the island. The U.S. had flung a cordon around China with their troops in Vietnam, Taiwan and South Korea and with their continued support of Japan. Then he added, with a slight smile: “At least the Seventh Fleet is now patrolling the straits between Taiwan and the mainland only at irregular intervals instead of continuously.”

“Chairman Mao has promised us that we shall never start an aggressive war,” said Dr. Kuo, but he went on to say that China felt threatened because of the cordon maintained by the United States and the million Russian troops along their northern border. From time to time the Soviet Union had talked of preemptive strikes and had, in fact, attacked across the Amur River a few years before. Up until 1956 the border with the Soviets had been unarmed but, unhappily, since that time this had ceased to be true. Now talks with the Russians were underway in Peking and perhaps something would come of these. This was the hope of all the Chi-

nese people; they passionately wanted peace; but they had every right to prepare to defend themselves and he made no bones about the fact that they were doing so.

I sensed that it was time to go. Isabel looked relieved. She had had no experience carrying on protracted conversations through an interpreter and had found the hour with Mrs. Kuo unnerving.

We stood up and started to move toward the door. Dr. Kuo asked how long we had left in Peking, and when I replied that we still had two more days he said that he would arrange a tour for us of the Great Hall, which is closed to the public.

It was a gracious gesture and we shook hands and thanked them before driving away. Dr. Kuo impressed me as a fine patriot and a self-sacrificing one who, at 79 years of age, was still driving himself as hard as he could. The burden of trying to change a 2,000-year-old civilization was great, however, and he had commented sadly on how much still remained to be done and how many problems still needed to be solved.

The charm of China’s landscape in large part lies in its blend of the expected interrupted by the shock of surprise. Everywhere modern innovation intrudes upon the ancient ways; we saw men carrying baskets dangling from either end of a bamboo pole, ladling water out of ditches or working a treadmill; later we passed fields irrigated by modern pumps and sprays. Rows of men and women still work their slow way across the fields hacking at the heavy earth with hoes and mattocks, and men still plow with oxen, but occasionally we saw a tractor at work. So, too, although religion is strongly discouraged in China, old graves surrounded by their few guardian trees are still left inviolate in the midst of the fields.

We drove some miles into the country near Hangchow to the Mei-chia-wu Tea Production Brigade under the jurisdiction of the West Lake People’s Commune. It was clearly a showplace, one of the sights shown to visitors. The main street followed the edge of a charming little stream where some of the village women were busily engaged in skinning eels and washing clothes.

The car stopped outside the former landlord’s house where Mrs. Ching, the vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Committee of the Production Brigade, greeted us and led us into a fine paneled hall furnished with carved chairs and a beautiful old table. Mrs. Ching, a handsome and ardent revolutionary, told us that this brigade covered 1,501 acres, most of which was forest, but 90% of their income came from the tea plants of which they had 173 acres. In the past

two or three years they had also reclaimed 25 acres of paddy fields by the river. The tea they produced was a very famous green variety which brought them in a good income and had completely transformed the life they had known in the old days when they had been but a poor mountain village. The brigade was comprised of 251 households of 1,344 people. In those bad old days, the landlords and tea merchants who constituted only 5% of the population forcibly occupied 80% of the land so that the great majority of the poor families lived under oppression, worked for the rich as farmhands and frequently had very little to eat.

“In May 1949,” Mrs. Ching said, “the People’s Liberation Army, led by the People’s Communist Party, liberated this area, since which time the people have stood up and become masters of their own fate. Under the leadership of Chairman Mao the poor people organized themselves and took the road which makes everybody better off by gradually becoming collectivized.” This process took place step by step: in 1952 the people formed mutual aid teams; in 1955 they grouped themselves into People’s Production Brigades, and in 1958 People’s Communes. Under the “Three brilliancies of the three red banners — the Great Leap Forward, the People’s Communes and the General Line of Chairman Mao’s thought”—production increased, the collective economy was greatly strengthened and living conditions improved.

After giving us many examples of how the economy of the area had grown, she proposed taking us out to see the factory, but first asked if there were any questions about the Brigade. From her answers we obtained the following information. All the children go to elementary school in the village and there is also a junior high school course. Some children go to senior high school in Shanghai and board there, coming home on the weekends. Few students get to college, but some have been selected from the West Lake People’s Commune. Housing has been slightly improved and some houses have been enlarged with the help of neighbors.

We asked how wages were distributed, and she surprised us by replying that the distribution depended entirely on the principle that the people get paid according to the amount of work they do. Since the Brigade produces^ a cash crop that is sold to the state, it receives a large sum of money at the end of the year from which certain deductions are made. Thirteen percent of the total is put in a public accumulation fund, where it is used for capital expenditures and, apparently, also for welfare. Fifteen or 16% is put aside to cover costs of production including such items as seed,

fertilizers and electric power. Seven percent is paid to the state as an agricultural tax. (Although no one would admit it, this clearly amounts to an income tax on a fixed scale.) The remaining 64% or 65% of the money is distributed among the people in the brigade according to the following system — for every day’s work a man or woman can get a maximum of 10 work points, and the proportion of these 10 points each person receives is decided at meetings held in the evening. At these meetings the person whose case is being considered first states his own opinion about what work

points he should receive, then the whole group discusses the case and settles the matter. Last year a man or woman who got the full 10 work points received 56 cents for one day’s work; however, the people pay no rent, food is cheap and welfare and equipment are all bought from the public accumulation fund. Mrs. Ching said, furthermore, that since they grow a valuable cash crop the people of this brigade are better off than most.

She then stood up, looking very neat in her black corduroy jacket, blue shirt, beige trousers and black cloth shoes, and

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led us out to a building close by in which a “barefoot” doctor ran the village clinic. His office was a single room on the walls of which were hung acupuncture charts, showing the critical spots on the front, side and back of the body, cases of medicinal herbs and bottles full of Western medicines. He had a stethoscope, and showed us books that recorded the medical history of every individual in the village, the dates of their regular physical examinations, their inoculations, their medication and treatment in accordance with the practice of preventive medicine.

We walked down the village street and past the kindergarten. A group of moppets about three or four years old with white pinafores covering their jackets and trousers stood in the doorway to sing some Chinese songs for us.

We walked on to the central square of the village, picking our way among big sheets of rice matting on which grain had been spread to dry, walked over the stream by a humpbacked stone bridge ornamented with carved lions, and climbed up the hillside to the nearest tea plantation. Three girls in wide straw hats tied under the chin had been sent out to demonstrate the picking of tea, although it was long past the regular season. They picked the smallest leaves with great dexterity and speed, using both hands, but even so it would take a very long time for them to fill their large baskets. A nearby factory held 250 large deep metal bowls, each heated electrically to dry the tea. Two men took the freshly picked leaves and stirred a few handfuls around and around in the bottom of the pans to demonstrate the technique. It seemed simple if tedious, but they impressed upon us that to obtain the best quality the drying tea had to be stirred by hand.

On our way back to the cars Mrs.

Ching took us into the village shop, which was rather sparsely stocked with a few common household goods and notions. It was four o’clock. In the square men and women were packing the dried grain into bags and rolling up the straw mats. Trucks were bringing loads of people from their day’s work home to the village.

At 6.15 we were awakened in our hotel in Yenan by martial music echoing round the square punctuated by a voice beating out commands like a metronome, but no one in our vicinity seemed to pay the least attention to this invitation to exercise. Several cars were drawn up in front of our hotel and their drivers had the hoods up tinkering with the engines. In this country every driver is his own mechanic and on the least pretext takes some part of the carapart and puts it together again. It was explained to us that the weather was so bad that all thought of flying had been abandoned and we were to drive to Sian.

By 8.30 we had packed, eaten a substantial breakfast of porridge, toast, dumplings, sliced ham, fried eggs and cold deep-fried fish, swathed ourselves in borrowed great coats, and piled into a convoy of seven identical cars with a party of Algerians and Italians. One car was an empty spare in case of trouble. This proved a wise if inadequate precaution for the car carrying two of the Algerians died half a block beyond the hotel gate, and the convoy halted until passengers and luggage were transferred to the spare.

The country was incredibly dissected and as we climbed up valleys, rolled over the top of plateaus and dropped down again into steep gulleys, we had frequent views of valleys like miniature grand canyons and wonderful vistas of distant cultivated terraces. It was an arid

barren country with virtually no old trees. At this time of year the many young ones had no leaves and scarcely affected the scenery. By immense labor many of the hillsides had been terraced, but most of the terraces still sloped. At intervals, teams of men and women were improving these little fields by leveling and by facing them with stone the better to hold the moisture from snow and rainfall. In the valleys, where occasional streams enabled green vegetables and even rice to grow, they were enlarging the patches of irrigated land. The little villages fitted perfectly into the landscape for many of the houses were caves cut in the loess and others were built of mud brick or, more rarely, stone with tiled roofs or cornstalk thatch on the barns. Livestock was evidently important and there were animals around every village as well as small herds of cows, sheep and goats being tended in the ditches and on the rough hillsides. The people were all warmly dressed in padded clothes with the traditional frogged fastening, the women and children in gay colors. The Mao jacket and cap did not seem to have penetrated these mountains and, whenever we stopped, the people who clustered about to stare were familiar from the picture books of one’s childhood: old gentlemen with chin whiskers and wide straw hats or black satin skullcaps, their longstemmed, tiny pipes hung round their necks on a cord with the tobacco pouch dangling from the other end, and little boys with soup-bowl haircuts and the backs of their heads shaved. The women kept close to their houses.

We had excellent opportunities to examine the local fashions at close range because our convoy stopped regularly for a few minutes every hour or so. Once the car carrying the ill-fated Algerians suffered some calamity to its braking system and we sat for three quarters of an hour at the edge of the road in a small village while the six drivers took the whole brake assembly apart and put it back together again, to the entertainment of the entire population.

At this point I climbed some steps to the fields above the road where a young man engaged me in conversation. He seemed extremely puzzled that even though he spoke Chinese as slowly and distinctly as he could I still didn’t understand him. An old fellow dressed in black with a big straw hat on his head and a shovel over his shoulder came up and demonstrated his superior sophistication by repeating a word which I eventually understood as “Englishman” and, to his delight, I repeated it. I indicated “No” and said “Canada” repeatedly to him and he, in turn, eventually was delighted to comprehend. I was less successful with the women and children who, for the most part, kept a safe dis-

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tance and, indeed, when I first appeared from the road the smaller children ran away screaming and from a distance gesticulated and pointed at me as at a strange apparition.

At the height of the Roman Empire, the Chinese Empire was its equal. Then, as now, China occupied approximately the same territory and had a quarter of the world’s people. The Chinese have been united most of the time for the past 2,000 years under a single ruler with a more or less common language. It is not surprising that the Chinese call China “The Middle Kingdom” which, I think, would be translated with greater truth if less precision as “The Hub of the Universe.” Such an achievement has given the Chinese people themselves a sense of

proud tranquillity and self-satisfaction.

Mao Tse-tung is a great hero in China, with a tremendous following. Even had his government for these past 25 years been inefficient and corrupt, he would still hold a residual share of affection as the liberator of China.

He has thrown the invaders out; he has restored national pride; he has replaced a century of inept government with strong leadership. His leadership has enormously improved the economy and reduced a poverty that was the worst among the larger countries of the world; his emphasis upon the countryside and agriculture has banished starvation. He has introduced universal education and for the first time in its history there is a sense of equity throughout China.

So many Chinese have strong national pride and enthusiasm, so many have escaped from fear of starvation and absolute poverty that the country is in the same state of mass enthusiasm that prevailed in Britain after the defeat at Dunkirk in 1940; the national dedication carries everyone along with it. Life in China may be dull, but it is secure. The masses are being educated. The wealthy and autocratic have been humbled, but the poor no longer starve.

We should recognize that the Chinese are now poised on the verge of a renaissance such as Japan experienced in the 1930s. Anything the Japanese have done, the Chinese are capable of doing eightfold, and it would be the greatest folly to underestimate their possible achievements during the next 50 years. ■