In 1972, a man named Jack Chen showed up in New York. He was the younger son of Eugene Chen, who had been an associate of Sun Yat-sen’s and intermittently foreign minister for various GMD governments. Jack’s mother was Trinidadian. He grew up there and did not speak much Chinese. At some point he had gone to China and made a career at the Beijing Foreign Languages Press. Then he came to New York, for reasons I think none of us in the U.S. fully understood. He and his wife, Yuan-tsung Chen, subsequently wrote several books that explained parts of their story, including how they suffered during the Cultural Revolution. He became associated in some way, if memory serves, with Columbia, and then later became an advisor or consultant with the Department of Education of the State of New York, helping to develop curricular resources about China. In that capacity, Jack arranged for a group of New York State college teachers to visit China in July, 1973.

The trip was called the New York State Educators’ Study Tour and involved about a dozen of us from Columbia, Cornell, Hunter, the University of Rochester, and other institutions. Like all foreign visitors at that time, we were overwhelmed with curiosity. We were seeing in person for the first time a vast and strange society we had known before only from the outside. We were accompanied everywhere by guides from the national and local offices of the China International Travel Service, who smothered us with a protocol that bore a faint edge of hostility. We responded with a respectful attitude of learning from the Chinese about their country’s wonderful advances and visionary experiments in human organization and economic development.

On the first day we crossed the short bridge between Lowu and what was then called Shumchun (now Shenzhen) by foot, seeming to leave the real world behind and enter, as I wrote in my notes, “a kind of poster art; the costumes, the signs, the murals, are all exactly as one has seen them in posters.” We went to the second floor of a damp, airy, fan-cooled concrete building and sat in white slip-covered chairs sipping tea while our luggage was inspected. We met our national-level guides, had lunch with plenty of watery beer, and boarded a train for a two-hour ride through the emerald countryside to Guangzhou. The following day began a three-week program of visits to production brigades, factories, industrial exhibitions, neighborhood committees, department stores, schools, universities, and the occasional classic tourist site, moving from Guangzhou to Beijing, then to Shanghai, Hangzhou, and back to Guangzhou. At each unit we sat in an arc of chairs or around a table, received a jiandan jieshao (simple introduction) from a “leading cadre,” took detailed notes, asked earnest questions, and walked through the facility trying to peer behind the façade of Maoist correctness for signs of real life.

In Beijing, we were summoned one afternoon to a reception hall in the Nationalities Museum to meet with Chi Qun, the deputy head of the Science and Education Section of the State Council. After the fall of the Gang of Four Chi Qun was revealed to have been one of their top followers. According to my notes, he was a slight young man in a full Mao suit, a silvery watch, and plastic sandals. The notes continue:

There was much of the imperial in the manner in which we were received by Mr. Chi. The meeting had no date fixed in advance; it met in a place that one would not have expected it to meet in, a reception room at the Nationalities Museum; all the trappings of power (the elegance of the setting, the waiters pouring soda, the large body of retainers, and even the Mercedes limousine) were present to awe the visitor. Mr. Chi affected imperial elegance as he languidly sat upon the couch and put in occasional questions (“is it true that Columbia is the biggest university in New York?”) to set his visitors at ease. Our submissions [ideas about exchange programs] are accepted but no answers are given. We are not even certain with whom we are dealing. Questions will be passed on to the “proper authorities,” but we are not to know who these authorities are, nor are we to confront them directly.”

Going around the circle of guests, Chi invited me to describe my research, which at the time focused on late Qing reform ideology. After hearing part of my presentation he interrupted me. “You may be aware,” he said, “ that there was an attempt to make reforms in 1892, but the Empress Dowager cut off the heads of Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao.” Someone at his side whispered to him. Chi then resumed, saying that the reform took place in 1898 and that the Empress Dowager wanted to cut off the heads of Kang and Liang but since they fled, she cut off the heads of their followers instead.

In Shanghai we visited Fudan University. With elderly professors seated in a row in back, we were briefed by a young man identified as a “leading member” of the revolutionary committee. He told us,

“Before the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the struggle of two lines was acute, especially in universities. This school was basically going the revisionist road. Before 1962 especially, the authorities of the university intended to turn it into a Moscow University of Asia. Teaching methods, texts, and school organization followed the Soviet system. This made it impossible to train intelligent proletarians. So revolutionary teachers and students rose up in 1965-66 in opposition, and following the teaching of Chairman Mao, called for a shortened period of schooling and an end to the dominance of the educational field by the intellectuals.”

Upon leaving this meeting, I gave one of the senior professors a copy of the Columbia graduate school catalogue and a recent publication of mine, a small research guide entitled Modern China, 1840-1972: An Introduction to Sources and Research Aids (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1973). About an hour later I was surprised to be called out of my hotel room by one of our guides from the national guide team together with the guide who had conducted us around the university. According to my notes,

They handed Modern China back to me. “As soon as you left, Prof. Hu looked this over and he noticed this”—pointing to an entry entitled Gongfei qiejuxia de Zhongguo dalu fensheng ditu (A province-by-province atlas of the communist bandit-occupied Chinese mainland)—a Taiwan-published item that I had listed in the geography section of the bibliography. “Seeing such language he felt very angry and cannot keep the book.” I said, “I am sorry to have caused Prof. Hu any unpleasant feelings. This choice of words is not mine, but is simply the title of an item which I thought had value, and so included.” “We understand that”—here they nodded and assumed friendly expressions to imply that no fault was imputed to me personally. Next morning on the bus the guide from Fudan makes a point of sitting with me and making small talk.

During a two-and-a-half hour train ride from Shanghai to Hangzhou I interrogated two of our guides.

“Is the man in blue riding the train a Public Security person?” “Yes.” “Why?” “Because we still have class struggle, and this is an important communications route, so they ride every train. There are two sections in public security, the jiaotongjing and the minjing. They are armed. They help kids and old ladies, help people locate relatives, register births, deaths, and changes of residence, and are the people’s friends not oppressors.” … “When you Americans ask where are the Liu Shaoqi elements in every unit, we must laugh, because there are no such things. Cadres are mostly good. We don’t throw them out for one or two errors but help them mend their ways.” … “What will happen when Mao dies?” “He’s still in good health, for one thing. Secondly, we are now strengthening proletarian dictatorship and have driven out Liu Shaoqi. The danger of capitalist restoration still exists, but can be avoided by efforts now underway.” “But what if Mao had died in 1964, Liu would have been in charge.” “Yes, but he didn’t die then.” “Who will issue directives to solve problems?” “We have a Party Center, you know.’”

Arriving in Hangzhou, we are taken by bus to the center of town and allowed to walk around.

Strolling, I stumble upon a series of about six freshly plastered dazibao (big character posters) on a wall. I get photographs of two only. There are about five older ones, already torn and unreadable. The thrust of them, as I hastily read them, was that the danwei (work unit) of the Dianxinju (Post and telegraph bureau) contained a capitalist jituan (group) which was not giving equal work for equal pay and was not following the policy of “educated youth to the mountains and countryside.”

That night:

Mr. Huang phones [my hotel room] and asks to see me. He is acting as an intermediary for the Shanghai comrades [guides from the Shanghai office of CITS had accompanied us to Hangzhou]. Several of the broad masses have called the hotel to say that a foreigner with a beard and glasses and short pants took a picture of a big character poster this afternoon, and shortly thereafter two other foreigners came by and also took photos. [So far as I know, this latter had not actually happened.] Since the matter discussed in the wall poster is an internal affair, some of the masses are opposed to our having these pictures and for the sake of future friendship and to make future U.S. travel to China easier, the Shanghai CITS asks for my film, which they will develop and cut out the offending picture.

I explain that wall posters are a sign of democracy. I bring out Hongqi #6 [which contains an article] on unity and openness. (Huang laughs before I locate the spot on the page and says, “I know what you are going to say.”) I explain about preprocessing [when I purchased the film I had also paid for processing]. Huang says apologetically that it is not he but the broad masses of Hangzhou who want the film. I ask if I can just have a copy of the textual content of the picture. “Not very practical.” My final question is only whether I can make the remaining 30 exposures on the film before handing it in. He’ll ask.

I had brought only 30 rolls of film with me, and had taken many photographs. I hated to waste most of a good roll of film. After a short delay, permission to finish up the roll was granted. The next day, my Columbia colleague Jim Morley and I took a walk in the hills around Hangzhou. I filled the film with pictures of the scenery and handed it in to Mr. Huang that night.

Three days later the senior guide accompanying us from the national CITS office, Mr. Yu, who seldom dealt with us directly, asked for a private meeting with the head of our delegation, Ward Morehouse of the N.Y. State Department of Education. (Our group had been required at the start of the trip to designate a leadership structure so that we could fulfill the protocol requirements of our visit.) “Since it has to do with Nathan, he should leave,” Mr. Yu told Ward. Ward resisted but eventually agreed, stipulating however that he would share with me whatever was discussed. Coming out of the meeting he told me that only thirty shots had come out when my film was developed, all of them scenes of our walk in the hills. The six shots of the wall posters were missing.

Next I was called in to speak directly with the number two national guide, Mr. Huang:

He accuses me of cheating them. He says I must think the Chinese are not bright enough to know the difference between the beginning and the end of a roll of film. He rejects my offer that he can develop all of my film. He only wants the “right” roll. He and Mr. Yu are very angry, especially Mr. Huang, who keeps waving the developed roll and pacing. He explicitly accuses me of trying to get away with handing over a wrong roll, of hiding the “correct” roll, which they accuse me of knowing how to find among my films. Everyone [else in my group] comes up from waiting for the bus. Mr. Huang tells the whole story to them in agitation. Refusing the offer of all rolls, he stalks from the room.

Ward, as group leader, had already protested the taking of my film during two of the many formal meetings we held with the guides to negotiate aspects of our program. His line had been that “the incident reflects unfairly on Nathan and the group as a whole since it seems to suggest that we have some less than honorable purposes in visiting your country.” To this, Mr. Yu had responded, “As the representatives accompanying you for the whole trip we regard this as a small issue which never extended to the whole of the group. But I must say that I receive many foreign tourist groups but most are only tourist sightseeing groups. Very few are like this group. Of course this is a new experience for us, so in our work there will inevitably be shortcomings.”

Now that a crisis had emerged, our group split. Several members urged me to stop playing games and hand over the right roll of film. Ward and my Columbia colleague Jim Morley, among others, accepted that I was telling the truth when I said that through some technical glitch—honestly one that was hard to explain—I didn’t have any pictures of the wall posters. I have never known for sure why this happened. My best guess is that I had loaded the film improperly, so that it didn’t advance when I moved the lever, but that some jostling had settled the film onto the sprocket by the next day, so that it started advancing normally. We all waited nervously to see what would happen now. My notes continue,

Next day, we leave by air for Canton [Guangzhou]. Mr. Huang asks me to help hand out the boarding passes. The Shanghai CITS comrades seem neither to seek nor to avoid shaking my hand on departure.

The rest of our trip went without incident and a week or so later we crossed back into Hong Kong with a feeling of giddiness at its brightness and buzz.

All of us learned a great deal on the trip, about how various kinds of institutions functioned and about ideological conformity. But a note made in Hangzhou crystallized my most lasting impression.

This is the long-desired trip to China, but there is quite a sense of boredom and frustration in the group. Our rate of learning has plummeted as units and briefings begin to be repeats of basic types. Access to the populace is out because one simply cannot be inconspicuous. As we walk around, many compounds that we pass are out of bounds—PLA units, government offices, etc. Even the former Yue Fei tomb, still called Yue fen on the bus stop sign, is now an “exhibition on class struggle” and is for “neibu canguan” only—no foreigners allowed. The photo incident suggests how the society as a unit keeps its eyes on us. Nobody will talk freely. I, for one, am reduced to interviewing our more articulate guides for applications of the latest line to specific issues.

Nandehutu (where ignorance is bliss it is a folly to be wise), says an ancient piece of Chinese wisdom. To make sense of this first trip to China became for me a project of many years.