China via Fodor’s, circa 1979

Now that the Olympics are over, and we in Beijing have nothing to talk about, it’s worth taking a look at how China was perceived through American eyes back in the day.

Recently, I was given a copy of Fodor’s People’s Republic of China, published in 1979. Written by John Summerfield, “a long-time resident of Peking,” the book captures the ambivalent and restricted role that foreigners had in China before Tian’anmen Square, before the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping, and apparently even before pinyin was used regularly by American travel writers–the book uses Wade-Giles and pinyin interchangeably.

When this book went to print, Hua Guofeng–who recently passed away–was the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and the leader of China.

While much of the book still rings true today, the listings information is of course very different.  I’m fascinated even by simple things such as how phone numbers only had five or six digits.  The number of restaurants in Beijng that serve Western food is five, and his reviews are all quite negative.  The Doing Business in China chapter is devoted largely to the annual Canton Trade Fair, which is now called the China Import and Export Fair, and it is literally a step-by-step description.

Below are some of the particularly interesting excerpts from the book:

On Chinese morality:

The Chinese people have a strict code of morality, and in their society, infringements are dealt with severely.  So as a visitor you should avoid any frivolous or flirtatious display of affection towards the opposite sex; it may be completely misinterpeted.

Visitors who trangress the code are normally expelled from China with indelicate haste.

On foreign students:

Foregin students in China get a closer glimpse of Chinese society than almost anyone else.  To begin with, many of them write and speak the language, and some are ideologically receptive to the Chinese Communist system.  Many returned students have provided an insight into student life in China.  It would appear that many students have become disillusioned with the system after living under it for awhile.

They do not appear to mind the Spartan living conditions, poor food, and lack of outside entertainment, but do object to the apparent attempt by authorities to prevent friendships from developing between themselves and the Chinese students.  Even their attempts to organize dances within the foreign student community itself have led to shouting confrontations between them and the university authorities.

Fraternization with locals is sternly opposed.  There have been two recent cases of a foreign female student wishing to marry a male Chinese student, and every possible obstacle was placed in the path of the couples.  Both marriages eventually took place, but only after pressure by the foreign governments at the very highest level.

Foreign students say they go through an emotional tunnel in China, beginning with initial euphoria and then passing successively through a phase of self-questioning, lurking doubt, determined goodwill, seething frustration and ending in either passive acceptance or open revolt.  The students frequently complain that the Chinese authorities  are evasive, secretive and self-righteous.  Some return to their home countries blaming themselves for taking China too seriously and for believing that it offered salvation for humanity and all its problems when, in fact, it is a country in search of solutions, just like any other.

Summerfield isn’t shy to include his own brand of humor in the book, which is what often makes it rather amusing to read. For instance:

On nightlife:

Foreign residents often tease tourists by asking incredulously, “Haven’t you ever been taken to the Red Mango?” Look for the glint in their eyes.

In brief: there is no nightlife, certainly not in the sense accepted in the non-Communist world. There are no nightclubs, cabarets, or floor shows. With two exceptions (Peking Hotel in Peking and Dong Fang Hotel in Canton) there are no bars, and even these are quiet plaes serving a limited range of drinks.

Some things don’t change and some things really change.

On  tipping and bargaining:

Tipping is not practiced in China, and you will cause embarassment, perhaps even offense, if you try to tip.

And never attempt to bargain.  You must either buy at the price indicated or not buy at all.

And finally, since this is quirkyBeijing, a note on travel restrictions in Beijing:

Unless you have special permission, your travel is restricted to an area encompassed by a 12-mile radius from the center of Peking.  However, you may proceed along specific routes outside this area without obtaining special permission.  These routes lead to the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, the Fragrant Hills, and the airport.  The Summer Palace may also be visited without prior authorization.

You are not permitted to stop on these specified routes or take any side roads.  There are also some areas within the 12-mile radius which are restricted, and normally Chinese guards will step out and indicate that you cannot proceed any further.  At the Ming TOmbs it is forbidden to travel from one tomb to another except by road.

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5 Comments on "China via Fodor’s, circa 1979"

  1. sumy
    02/09/2008 at 6:10 am Permalink

    wow! no bargaining – haha. that’s a pretty great book cover too.

  2. Cedric
    21/09/2008 at 12:00 pm Permalink

    Interesting! It’s always a little weird reading pre-Deng era books on China written by foreigners. The one that I read was “Two innocents in Red China”, a short volume written in 1960 by two Quebec intellectuals, one of which later became arguably one of Canada’s greatest prime ministers (between 1968-1984, less 1979-80), Pierre Trudeau. They were quite quirky in their book, quick to point out the non-nightlife – it was said in the book, however, Trudeau says, that he had a great nights out, when he slipped through security during the night to dance/drink with locals, etc, unseen from authorities (until the next morning). When he became PM, he made Canada recognize the PRC before the US did.

    Ah, we don’t talk about China anymore… It’s like if China does not exist in the local Canadian media since a month. And we’ve just been swept by a snap election, not to mention the US campaign… Ah, democracy…

  3. brae
    13/11/2008 at 10:46 am Permalink

    i want you to post again! i miss fiona thoughts!

  4. Luke
    26/04/2009 at 7:58 am Permalink

    What’s the book under the lonely planet? I know I went to the publisher’s website before, thought it looked good, but now can’t remember the publisher/title. It’s driving me crazy.

  5. Luke
    09/08/2009 at 12:38 pm Permalink

    To answer my own question, it’s the Insider’s Guide to Beijing.

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