A China Frontier: Once the Border of Borders

In 1961, when I first arrived in Hong Kong as an aspiring young China scholar, there was something deeply seductive about the way this small British enclave of capitalism clung like a barnacle to the enormity of China’s socialist revolution. Because it shared a border with Hong Kong, China seemed at once far away and very near. Its proximity to this British outpost gave the latter an exciting air of immediacy that it would otherwise not have enjoyed. But the boundary that demarcated the New Territories from the People’s Republic of China was actually one of the starkest dividing lines in the world. Most of those who crossed it were desperate Chinese refugees willing to risk death to escape their famine-plagued homeland for the uncertainty of life in the colony. And, because few Westerners did business there, and China hardly welcomed casual tourists, few expats had reason to cross the border. Indeed, many colonials referred to the Hong Kong-China boundary as the “frontier,” a wonderfully redolent term that suggested their presumption that the known world ended at this frontier, while something else almost ineffable began on the other side. So, in the 1960s, the idea of a “frontier” was able to grip the imagination with the idea that the world was still divided into starkly differentiated areas with no-man’s-lands in between which, if crossed, held the promise of ushering one into a completely different and fascinating parallel universe.

While so much of the rest of the world had been blurring its boundaries during the early stages of 20th-century globalization, here was China, defiantly maintaining its revolutionary identity and isolation, becoming not only a terra incognita for much of the world, but also conferring on it an air of mesmerizing impenetrability and unpossessability. Its haughty detachment, fierce dedication to self-reliance, and abject refusal to surrender to the outside world’s pressure paradoxically also made it a strangely alluring place … at least, for some of us! The book My First Trip to China chronicles the accounts of such people remembering their first passage into this world after Mao Zedong came to power in 1949.

In many ways the yearning of such Westerners to be able to take leave of the known for the unknown was a residual, if mutated, form of an older yearning that prevailed during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Then, the daring adventures of Western explorers like Richard Byrd, Henry Morton Stanley, Sven Hedin, Sir Richard Francis Burton, and Joseph Rock enthralled the “civilized world.” Since they transported people back home vicariously from humdrum, post-industrial lives to exotic, unknown lands, we voraciously devoured the exploits of these intrepid men recounted in the pages of magazines like National Geographic as they risked life-and-limb to the elements, pestilence, disease, and hostile native peoples (even cannibals!), trekking the world and filling in the last so-called “blank places” on the map in Africa, Tibet, the Amazon, and the North and South Poles. But, by the middle of the 20th century, there were virtually no more such blank places left to slake the undiminished longing of Westerners for “the faraway,” “the other,” and “the mysterious.”

These days, the word “frontier” has fallen into disuse, precisely because our globe has since become so homogenized that there are fewer real dividing lines between geographic places. As we approach international borders now, instead of having the sense of leaving one powerful gravitational field of culture and place for another, we hardly have a sense of going anywhere very different at all. Once strangely exciting, because it unsettled, travel has now been relieved of so much of its uncertainty that it is approaching the banal. We are assured that: English will almost always serve as a linguistic solvent wherever we land; familiar brand-name restaurants will be awaiting us; hotels with reassuringly recognizable names will welcome us; and CNN or the BBC will be available in our rooms.

Just as the last geographically unexplored pockets of our planet were vanishing and leaving us without our accustomed fix of exotica and romance, the second half of the 20th century arrived to produce a surprising new surrogate form of the forbidden. Out of the Second World War came the Cold War, re-dividing the planet into “the free” and “the communist” worlds, slamming shut the portals into socialist bloc countries with all the finality of the gates of Lhasa closing before the advance of Sir Francis Younghusband or Mecca for Westerners before Sir Richard Francis Burton succeeded in penetrating its mysteries. And, as soon as we Westerners found ourselves denied ready access, we began to transfer much of our old fascination with the geographically remote that had so animated the previous hundred years of exploration to the new “hermit kingdoms” of Communism. Because there was also a new sense of threat aroused in us by the fact that these newly closeted lands were now irrevocably locked behind the “iron” and “bamboo” curtains of our new Cold War enemies, our fascination was only enhanced. Feeling that democracy was in a race against Communism for the hearts and minds of the world, we were fired with a new competitive sense to learn how effective Communism actually was. Did they have new powers of organization that might make them invincible? Might socialist revolution actually work better than democracy, allowing these “bloc countries” to ultimately “bury us?” Since it was so difficult to gain access and see their inner workings, we were left with an uneasy sense of confronting a phantom adversary that made it tempting for us to project unwarranted abilities and powers onto them.

Of all the new “Communist countries,” there was none better able to foment such uncertainties within us and to goad us into generating such projections than Mao’s new People’s Republic of China. His distinctive brand of messianic, peasant revolution, his fierce determination to make New China resistant to any kind of dependence on the capitalist West, and his stubborn determination to make China “self-reliant,” all helped create something of a legend of defiance, inaccessibility, and even invincibility.

Orville Schell
The author pauses for a photograph while working in the Shanghai Elecrical Machinery Factory where he worked on large DC electrical power generators, 1975.

So, we young American China followers who found ourselves marooned in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan studying Chinese were left to feel something like Jews exiled from the Holy Land. So inexorably isolated from the object of our study (and desire) were we, that we could only envy those few French, Canadian, and British nationals of our acquaintance who had managed―per force of their country’s early diplomatic recognition of Mao’s government―to penetrate the Chinese veil. (Even if they had only been allowed a short and superficial visit.)

Indeed, while in Taipei in the early 1960s, I had a classmate from Canada who had actually managed to visit “Peking” for a day or so while traveling on a ship to Hong Kong that just happened to stop in Tianjin. We Americans, who felt so terminally shut out of this beckoning land, treated him as if he were a pilgrim who had kissed the sacred hem of the pontiff’s robes in the Vatican. Because he had sojourned―however briefly―in this red celestial kingdom, we enthroned him as a minor god.

As a substitute for actually being able to go there, our small band of overseas students in Taipei would sometimes take weekend trips to a lovely little fishing village south of Keelung facing the Taiwan Straits. There we would sleep on the white sand beach under the dazzling stars and surreptitiously tune into the bombastic radio news programs that crackled in from Beijing over our small battery-powered transistor radios. We would fall asleep feeling connected for the moment to that exciting but elusive revolution that was aflame just a hundred miles across the water.

There was also, of course, something about the fact that the Chinese Communist Revolution was so well-personified―we would now probably say “well-branded”―by Mao Zedong’s larger-than-life quality that made China all the more mesmerizing. Mao seemed to have accomplished a historical impossibility: to have awakened the Chinese people from a century of deep torpor and then to have animated them with an uncharacteristic élan, mass fervor, and energy. Where all of the turmoil would take China was another question. However, as we contemplated his revolutionary drama from afar, it was not difficult to be drawn vicariously into it.

But our fascination was not born so much of sympathy for Mao’s whole madcap experiment as curiosity. What I think drew us powerfully was China’s apparent disinterest in us, indeed, in any kind of Western intrusion, even visitation. Like aspiring young swains who discover that the object of their desire is utterly disinterested in their attentions, we were, in a sense, a group of forlorn Swanns in love. And, like Marcel Proust’s anti-hero’s unrequited passion for Odette, our infatuation with China was only made more ardent by the hopelessness of any possibility of attention, much less consummation.

As my plane looped in over Hong Kong Harbor that day in 1961 on my first trip to the Crown Colony and then descended over the rooftops of Kowloon to land at the old Kai Tak Airport, I remember the excitement I felt at actually being able to glimpse the faraway South China coastline for the first time. But, once in Hong Kong, with its plummy, colonial British expat culture, China had a curious way of receding from consciousness, only to burst back into consciousness as some explosive event happened across the border.

Later, during the Cultural Revolution, when China was aflame with class warfare and Wuhan was in a state of civil war during 1967, I recall standing in the Kowloon train station near the Star Ferry dock one day looking down the glistening railroad tracks that headed north to the “frontier,” and trying to imagine China. Of course, as Americans, we were still forbidden from traveling there. Indeed, our U.S. passports were stamped with an explicit prohibition forbidding such travel. But, for me, those tracks were like a magic highway to not only the unknown, but the unknowable.

It was not until almost ten years later that in 1975 I finally boarded a train to the border for my first trip to China at that same station. Filled with a certain delicious apprehension and excitement (the kind that makes the whole experience of “travel” more than just commuting), I set off, at last, for the “frontier” myself. And, as so many other China specialists in this volume so well describe, more rapidly than imagined, our train halted at an unprepossessing railway bridge near Shenzhen. Now a massive city and Special Economic Zone, it was then a rural fishing village. Here, because there were not yet any thru-trains to Canton, we were required to disembark. Following a simple black and white sign that said TO CHINA, we wrestled our own baggage across the Lowu Bridge under the watchful eyes of armed PLA soldiers stationed along the tracks. Their presence gave an added sense that we were, in fact, crossing from one universe to another. For, on the other side of that bridge was New China, where Chairman Mao still lived in Zhongnanhai, the Cultural Revolution still continued, and where there were no advertisements, private cars, fashion magazines, or private property. China was a society as seemingly different from the West as one could get and still be on planet earth. Indeed, when we landed at Beijing’s Capital Airport a few days later, after flying from Canton on one of China’s recently purchased Boeing 707s, there was not a single other aircraft moving on its runways. And, when our plane’s engines finally shut down and we stepped out onto the tarmac, except for the sighing of a soft spring breeze that blew and a few dim lights in the distance, it was as silent and dark as a tomb.

My First Trip to China contains a series of narratives by some of those early Western pilgrims who made odysseys to China when it was still a world apart. Their trips, and their accounts now, stand as benchmarks for just how far China, and the world, has come since. The book is the brainchild of Kin-ming Liu, a Hong Kong journalist and editor who astutely recognized that for so many of us non-Chinese who have been drawn to China, these moments of first contact were among the most important in our ongoing professional lives. What made these moments of crossing so important for us was that with our entry into China, we imagined that we would finally pass over from the world of exclusion to the world of inclusion, that having crossed that once seemingly impassable frontier, we would, at last, become privy to China’s secrets. But, as it turned out, the boundary that divided “us” from “them” was a lot more impenetrable than we had ever dared imagine from the outside. We may have at last managed to get physically inside China, but as “foreign guests,” we were in so many ways irrevocably still on the outside.

And so began another quest, this one dedicated to divining exactly what really animated this provocative country whose geographic periphery we had at last managed to breach, but whose essence continued to remain so frustratingly opaque and elusive. But, perhaps it is this unfathomable, unpossessable aspect of China that has made it all the more beguiling to those of us who, decades after our first superficial encounters, still find ourselves today trying to make sense out of its curious progress into the modern world.