Modern Chinese history

Reflections on China - 1933-1999

Modern Chinese history

Derek Bryan (Vice President of SACU) looks back over sixty years of understanding China. First published in SACU's China in Focus magazine (2000).
Derek Bryan lived and worked in China for most of his life. He spent ten years there from 1933, as a member of the British Consular Service, and witnessed an important period in Chinese history as warlord rule crumbled, Japan invaded and World War II commenced. After marrying Liao Hongying he briefly returned to London. A further five years work in the British Embassy in Nanjing followed after which he opted for early retirement and has spent the last forty years teaching English in Chinese universities and speaking and writing on Anglo-Chinese relations. He has lived in Britain since 1985 and last year took a memorable trip back to China.

Towards the end of April last year I was invited to go to China in May to do a film interview about the clash in April 1949 on the Yangtze River between the British warship Amethyst and the Chinese People's Liberation Army; this had occurred at the time of that army's advance southwards across the river in the course of its final campaign to overthrow the rule of the Nationalists under Chiang Kaishek.

The film was being made by the August First Film Studio (a CPLA enterprise) for the forthcoming fiftieth anniversary celebration of the People's Republic on Ist October. Entitled 'Nanjing-Shanghai-Hangzhou Campaign', it was to have as its dramatic climax the actual crossing of the river, in which Amethyst became embroiled. It was intended to include in the film a number of interviews with witnesses, historians and scholars, one of which would touch on western policies towards the Chinese government under Chiang Kaishek, then on the point of retiring from the mainland to Taiwan. My interview was expected to recall the British Government's responses to the 'Yangtze Incident' (the film later made in Britain under that name, I think, Gregory Peck in the starring role of the Amethyst's captain).

A Chinese film with the interviews proposed would have had considerable historical interest, not least by comparison with the earlier British film. I was happy to accept the invitation to take part, and prepared at short notice to travel to Beijing. Unfortunately, when NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade early in May, the film company were instructed by higher authority to cancel all the planned interviews. I learned a few months later that the film had in fact been completed in time for the October 1st anniversary but not yet generally released. As far as I know, this is still the situation.

When informing me of the change of plan, my official hosts, the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries said they hoped to invite me again some time in the future. In mid-August an invitation duly came, suggesting a short visit in late September for the 50th anniversary, in company with John Chinnery and his wife Chen Xiaying, both of the Scotland-China Association. We three individually were the Association's only guests from Britain. Dr Chinnery, the distinguished scholar of modern Chinese literature who established Chinese studies in Edinburgh University, has written about our visit in the journal of the SCA, of which he is President (see Sine, November 1999); his article is bound to interest readers of China In Focus and I shall try here not to go over the same ground.

Memories of 1959 amid Pomp of 1999

On arriving in Beijing on September 25th, I spent a few days (before moving to the Jianguo Hotel on the 5-day 'official' visit) on the campus of the Beijing Foreign Studies University ('Beiwai'). Here our old friends David and Isabel Crook (who had taught English there from its foundation in the old liberated area before 1949) live as greatly honoured retired professors. When it was first built in the 1950s, this institution, which over the years has retained so many people to use English well in the service of new China, was in the countryside, with uninterrupted views towards the glorious Western Hills. Now it is only one of countless institutional building complexes, in a key position on the Third Outer Ring Road. But despite all the new buildings it retains a pleasant green aspect; nearby, the old canal has recently been enlarged and now takes passenger boats to the Summer Palace, a more agreeable way of reach it than by road.

In 1959 my wife Hongying and I had been present at the State Banquet on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the People's Republic, so it was an interesting experience to attend a similar function forty years later. This time there were no such distinguished British guests as Dorothy Hodgkin and Herbert Read whom we were accompanying in 1959. More importantly, however, there was also no comparable presence as that of Nikita Khrushchev who in 1959 came to Beijing straight from his talks with Eisenhower at Camp David and harangued his captive audience with his views on peace, giving great offences to Mao Zedong.

In 1999 the parade and march-past of October 1st were clearly intended to impress the watching world with China's unity and strength. In this aim they were undoubtedly successful, whatever one's feelings about military spectaculars. The variety, precision, and huge scale of both military and civilian elements in the parade were graphic evidence of the scientific and technological achievements of China over fifty years, including the early period when the Soviet model for economic development had been followed. Nowadays the main credit for such achievements is invariably given to the 'open-door' policies introduced twenty odd years ago under Deng Xiaoping and followed by his successors. The well-known concomitant social and environmental consequences of the opening up, though generally deplored, are seen as an inevitable part of the cost of modernisation, through which China is irrevocably becoming part of the 21st century world.

What I personally find remarkable, and deplorable, is the way in which the Chinese Communist Party, while accepting apparently uncritically many of the crudest aspects of contemporary U.S.-led capitalist consumer society, yet hangs onto old bureaucratic forms and ways. Some of these have traditional Chinese roots but more apparently descend directly from early Soviet Russian models. Ironically, the style of organisation, conduct of meetings and of public address introduced from Russia in the 1920s by Sun Yatsen into the Nationalist (Kuomintang) Party in China, now seems to have suffered a mortal blow on Taiwan, where it had taken refuge; one wonders how long it can last on the mainland.

Dynasty Relics Recovered

After the official celebrations of the 50th anniversary ended, our hosts arranged for us to see a spectacular Western Han dynasty tomb recently excavated at Dabaotai, south-west of Beijing. The next day, even more evocative for me, we visited Fa Hai Si, a little known Buddhist temple on the edge of the Western Hills. Here, sixty-six years earlier, half a dozen consular Student Interpreters had spent the hottest summer months. I am not sure how strictly the solitary young monk who rented us our simple accommodation observed the vegetarian rule; we ourselves did follow it as we ate under the eaves of the great hall of the temple.

Hidden away behind the Buddha were some magnificent Ming Dynasty frescoes. Thanks to official protection by the State Council, these were among historic artefacts that survived the Red Guard iconoclasm of the 1960s, but they remain in need of conservation.


After saying goodbye to our Friendship Association hosts and to the Chinnerys, I left Beijing on October 4th for a 12-day round of private visits. Going first to Shijiazhuang, where 1 stayed with friends first met in England, and was once again living in an extended Chinese family. Shijiazhuang, (seat of the Hebei Provincial government, and in 1948-49 headquarters of the Communist Party, from where the first land reform campaign was conducted) is known as the burial place of China's Canadian hero, the surgeon Norman Bethune. It is also a big industrial city, but for the few days I was there we concentrated more on antiquities. However, I met friends of the family who had grown up in the days of desperate struggle against the Japanese invaders - particularly intense in north China - and later played leading parts in the economic development of the old Border Region. A couple living some way out of the city who had made themselves experts in viticulture, and stayed with it despite the hard time each of them had had in the Cultural Revolution, commanded admiration.

On another sunny autumn day we visited the historic segmental arch bridge at Zhaozhou, about 50 km south of the city, and the Buddhist temple Bai Ling Si adjacent to it. This has been well restored and has many priests to maintain its service, under the auspices of the Chinese Buddhist Association, with crowds of visitors bringing offerings. The following day we visited another, possibly even better known shrine, Da Xing Si, popularly known as the Big Buddha Temple. this had also had big sums spent on repairs, largely subscribed by organisations and individuals, but by contrast was treated as an ancient monument and looked after the local Cultural Bureau, with no visible priestly presence. However, probably against the wishes of the civil authorities, some visitors burned incense here too.

'Soft' Sleeper To Chengdu

I left Shijiazhuang reluctantly on October 8th, travelling by train for some 30 hours to Chengdu - a tiring but always interesting journey - with three companions in the 'soft' sleeper, young middle-aged men, each wish his mobile phone. As generally throughout my month in China, talk was uninhibited, especially on the subject of prices and the cost of living and, perhaps slightly more circumspectly, of corruption and the necessity of paying bribes in order to get things done. An elderly foreigner travelling alone is always the object of friendly curiosity and there was an easy camaraderie in the sleeping compartment; local delicacies were passed round as a matter of course.

Throughout the evening, as we travelled South-westward through Hebei, countless little fires of burning cornstalks lined the trackside. Around midnight, at Zhengzhou, our route left the BeijingWuhan-Guangzhou line to travel west on the Longhai line through the loess country, following the Yellow River (some miles to the north but not in sight) upstream as far as Tongguan, and continuing westwards through Xian to Baoji. Here the line to Sichuan branches spectacularly south-west again through the Qinling Mountains, along the long route of the imperial couriers down to Chengdu, where we arrived late next evening.

Chengdu today, with its teeming population, its network of roads cut through the old city and its innumerable high-rise blocks (many built as a speculation, and only half finished, or unoccupied) is barely recognisable compared with 1994, the last time I was there, let alone earlier. I was glad to be met and escorted by Hongying's nephew to the familiar surrounding of the West China Medical University guesthouse.

During a brief three-day visit I saw many old friends and colleagues of Hongying's and enjoyed the company on the lone English teacher on the campus (who is supported by British Quakers). As in the city as a whole, there is much new development, as befits one of China's key universities, but the handsome buildings of the old missionary university have been refurbished, and something of the green environment survives.


Past Struggles Remembered In Nanjing

From Chengdu to Nanjing the rail journey would have been too slow, so I went by air and was met by a representative of the Amity Foundation. This organisation, which will be known to many SACU members and readers of China In Focus, was started in 1985 by Chinese Protestant Christians to do health, social service and rural development work in the neediest areas of China; it is commonly seen as one of the best of the non-governmental organisations (NCOs) working in China. I had been an admirer of Amity's work for some time, and wanted to see some of it at first hand.

Most unexpected was a visit to a hospice for terminal care, located in foothills some way out of the city. This had been set up in the sprawling buildings of a disused 1960s-style state radio factory by a dynamic woman, a retired doctor, who still ran it. Its unpretentious, rough and ready appearance reminded me strongly of the way old temple and other buildings in unoccupied China had been adapted to meet urgent practical needs in the years of the struggle against Japan. The place looked primitive, but it was obviously fulfilling its purpose. Besides simple home-made physiotherapy apparatus there was modem equipment such as a Japanese-made scanner. Most impressive were the forty or so residents, some were far gone, but others were very cheerful and welcoming; altogether an inspiring place.

In Nanjing I stayed for a modest sum in a 4-star hotel, the Gu Nan Du (Old Southern Capital). In local dialect pronunciation this became 'Gulandu' (the Grand), and it did not belie its name. To one not used to living in such luxury it seemed more than adequate, with a variety of menus on offer, including Japanese. I believe it was a joint venture with Japanese capital, much of which seems to have been invested there; this is a somewhat delicate matter, in Nanjing of all places, with its memory of the 1937 massacre.

As a capital Nanjing has had a sombre history, but it is a fine city, still possessing much of the magnificent Ming city wall, with the Yangtze River to the north-west and the Purple Mountain to the east. A somewhat bizarre experience for me was visiting the former British Consulate General and ambassador's house, now re-decorated in grand style and used for high level official functions.

I spent my last day in Nanjing with a retired teacher in the Forestry University who had lived with us in Norwich in 1982-83 with her husband who was also retired from the same institution. They lived in a comparatively modest, but still adequate flat built less than 10 years ago and allocated to them by the University. It was interesting to compare this with the more modern and spacious apartment recently occupied by a retired cadre in the Chengdu Municipality. In each case, the building had been constructed by the 'work unit', and had to be bought by the occupant from them, at a relatively modest price.

'Hard Class' To Beijing

From Nanjing I made my last train journey, overnight to Beijing. Although by so-called hard' class, this was comfortable enough, in a modern open-plan coach. The only slightly jarring feature was the English-language wording outside the lavatory: 'No occupying while stabling'. Public English is not a strong feature of contemporary in China, but this particular example almost defies belief.

21st Century Hong Kong

Three days later, after a 2-hour flight from Beijing, I was in Hong Kong, staying with friends, first in one of four elegant modern blocks together known as South Horizons, on the edge of Hong Kong Island, and then in a brand-new development on the mainland among the rocky hills of the former 'New Territories'. The resumption of Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories (i.e. the whole of the former British colony) had taken place two years earlier, in mid-1997, but seemed to have no visible effect on the pace of development. The great new airport, built on the island of Lantau and linked with Hong Kong Island by causeway, has at last relieved many thousands of people in Kowloon of the continuous menace of planes flying in over their heads, almost at rooftop level it seemed, to land at Kai Tak.

New to me also was the very extensively expanded network of the Mass Transit Railway, efficient and comfortable, and everywhere spotlessly clean; it certainly takes the shine off London's system. Even more startling was the disappearance of much of the old central waterfront of Hong Kong, now buried under a new reclamation, marked by the twin towers of the Macau Ferry terminal. The dense Hong Kong traffic circulates remarkably freely through the maze of roads, tunnels and flyovers that now occupy so much of the territory - and have to co-exist with continuous new construction, both of roads and buildings.

In the course of five days in Hong Kong I met and was entertained by many friends, most of whom seemed to think that Deng Xiaoping's 'One country, two systems' is working adequately, despite political and economic uncertainties. Both the central government in Beijing and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region authorities clearly intend to preserve for the foreseeable future the immigration controls, which in practice are hardly distinguishable from those of pre-handover colonial days.

On the last morning of my visit I attended the small but cosmopolitan Hong Kong Quaker Meeting, held in a building belonging to the Anglican Cathedral, with its very large congregation milling around the grounds. This was followed by a walk through a beautiful park (apparently created on land formerly occupied by the British military garrison) to a typical Hong Kong dim sum lunch, only a few hours before my flight back to London.

As everywhere else in China today, I found people very ready to speak their minds. A Chinese-American reporter (who ten years earlier had been one of the CNN television team in Beijing at the time of Tiananmen) had spent October 1st this year in Shanghai; she had remarked how ready people were to respond to impromptu questioning on the street. This was a new experience for her; I think it is one that bodes well for the future of China.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2000, reprinted from SACU's China in Focus magazine Issue 8, 2000

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