China: So vast, a quarter of the world’s population, but so little understood, so little known. How many people still say this to me? Despite attempts to introduce China into educational curriculums, I still find a dearth of knowledge, even in my Scottish homeland. This I found sad, for ever since my early days with China I was aware of the country’s growth and potential influence on the world stage. I also became aware of my need to try and understand more of its complexities.
My knowledge developed mostly through having spent considerable time within the country – 33 years’ involvement, with an opportunity to witness close-up its transformation. The nation’s progression, for example, from intermediate technology, manufacturing low-value products, before emerging as a leader in high-value advanced technology.
In 1987, I came to China by train from Scotland. The final week of that journey, including three days in Beijing, involved traveling south from the border with Mongolia down to Hong Kong. I saw China mostly from the window of a train compartment. We moved much slower than today for there were then no high-speed trains. My initial impression was of geographic diversity, from the semi-deserts north of the Great Wall to the lush, sub-tropical rice fields of Guangdong. I increasingly realized how little I knew, even for example, of the massive rail/road bridge which carried our train above the Yangzi Rive at Wuhan. So much was new, so much to take in. My time too short to even start appreciating the multitude of seeming contradictions and differences I came across. Back in Scotland I was regularly asked to talk with organizations such as the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. There was genuine fascination, not least that I, a Scot, had started from the country’s largest railway station, Glasgow Central! Before departing Hong Kong I also visited the district of Aberdeen, the same name as Scotland’s third largest city!
As I talked to audiences, I could sense their interest in a country that few had visited. There were sighs when images of the Great Wall were shown but I kept feeling, as I also watched the photographs, of how little I actually knew about China.
When asked on a BBC Radio Scotland travel program about some overriding moments, I mentioned the Chinese people. Previously any contact had been in restaurants, in Glasgow, which served up westernized variations of Cantonese cuisine. There was however no social or personal interaction. Yet, my very first memory of China, from July 1987, as the train crossed the border from Mongolia, were the words “Welcome to China, you are welcome!” A fellow passenger welcomed me to his homeland. Mr Li was a journalist with People’s Daily, returning to Beijing from the former East Germany. In all my worldwide travels crossing borders, this was a first; indeed it more often was formal, at times unfriendly, checking of my documents. ’Welcome’ was a word I would thereafter hear frequently – on the train, visiting the Great Wall at Badaling, on a boat crossing Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace. It was such moments that increasingly I was viewing the Chinese as people, as individuals and not as one great uniform mass as was often the perception in the West. Yes, there are times, such as with the COVID-19 epidemic the country did come together, did act as one. However, living and working here over many years my perception of Chinese people has totally changed. They are individuals, they are friends, colleagues with whom I can share much in common. It is they who have continued to make me feel welcome.
Back to 1987, it was a hot, humid afternoon and I was sitting in a Hong Kong cafe. That evening I would be heading to Kai Tak Airport before the long journey back to Scotland. Tying to write about my experiences going through China, I realized I had much, much more to learn.
Whether I walking in Scotland’s countryside or just sitting in a cafe, China kept reappearing. I avidly read books on history, much more complex and difficult to understand than I had imagined. Attempting to master some of the language I attended Chinese language evening classes at the University of Glasgow. I am still trying! Ambitious plans evolved in my mind for heading across the country on trains hauled by giant steam locomotives. For me, there could be no better way of appreciating this vast land than by train.
I realized the only intensive way to attain some understanding about China was to actually be in the country, but how? I had a full time job but it was that that gave me my real opening.
I have talked often of coming to Guangzhou on a year’s provincial government exchange program. I would be based at Guangdong Foreign Languages Normal School.
I would be embedded right into the community, living on campus with my colleagues and students. Considering this was at a time of considerable change, through Reform and Opening Up, this proved to be an insight into China no holiday could ever provide. They would talk with me, telling me about Guangdong. I would learn, for example, of 19th century migrations from the Delta lands to the US and Australia. I was invited to hometowns, to be introduced to ethnic groups, such as the Yao around Liannan. I would appreciate rice cultivation and rural life around the villages close to Taishan. Of course Guangzhou and Shenzhen were at the heart of the country’s dynamic economic changes during the 1980’s and 90’s. I managed to spend three amazing weeks exploring tropical Hainan, later discovering the stunning landscapes of the Li River in Guangxi.
In June 1993 I gave a graduation talk to the students who I had been with over the past academic year. It was an emotional moment of parting, thanking them for our time together. My comments were on how I had found China’s doors open to me upon arrival and hoped they would remain open for my returns. They were and still are!
Returning to Scotland, requests followed for talks on A Year in Guangdong. There was a curiosity around stories of rapid economic growth within the Pearl River Delta bordering Hong Kong. People would ask for my impressions.
Yet more was waiting to be discovered with China, there were so many complex overlying and intertwined layers to put together.
Beijing really started for me in 1994. The capital then was not the modern, international city of today. Compared to Guangzhou, much of its traditional life remained, particularly where I was staying, on a hutong alley near the Lama Temple. I would walk across the city with camera and notebook always ready. Many articles followed for Beijing this Month along with daily features on the city for Radio Beijing, appropriately called Bruce in Beijing. Each work I finished was like another page or even chapter in the understanding I was desiring. Back in Scotland I would deliver more talks and photo exhibitions around the concept of Beijing 2000, a city with Olympic aspirations.
Visiting small towns and cities were fascinating, such as recent visits to Tongxiang, Zhanjiagang, Qinhuangdao, villages in Shanxi or beautiful coastal cities such as Yantai. Also, Qufu with its relationship to Confucius. Then there were the major cities: Shanghai with its contrasting river skylines of the Bund and Pudong or way up the Long River, the Yangtze, to Chongqing, that bustling river port so unlike anywhere else in China held me in awe for several days. Presently I focus much attention on Tianjin, a city where I am passionate about photo-documenting its many facets, layers of overlapping history, culture, and architecture.
People ask why I never wrote a book. I would not know where to start;, indeed China would require several books to describe the experiences. It is however by travel, by reading, by meeting people within their local environments that we can learn of a country, its achievements and yes, its problems. In today’s world with so much misunderstanding and mistrust it is even more important to visit, to learn. Indeed with China I realized early on its desire for friendship with other countries. Friendship was there everywhere I went. Even when there were difficult times between countries I would never experience any hostility.
The world can be a much better place when we reach out offering friendship, not hostility, to each other. That is what I started discovering in July 1987 with the words, “Welcome to China. You are welcome in China.” That is one reason why I am still here after 33 years!