Time Travel in China

Introduction

In 1981, I lived in the city of Xian, Shaanxi Province in China. Mao had died only five years earlier, and although his successor, Deng Xiaoping, had given approval for the first steps toward a market economy, most of the country still operated under the old collective economic system. I was witness to the last days of Communism and the very beginning of China’s emergence on the modern world stage.

In 2005, I returned to Xi’an to work for two months. I was able to revisit many of the same places and document, in photographs, how they had changed. I also found several of my former students; people who, as it turned out, were among the architects of China’s modern economic miracle.

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The road running along the east side of Xi’an Jiaotong University. A farming commune occupied the land to the left. This was the edge of the city. This was the edge of the city; the Qingling Mountains south of Xi’an were visible on this rare, clear day. Photo © 1981 Patti Isaacs

The same road in 2005. Jiaotong University has developed the land to the right; the land to the left became Shapo Village, an ad-hoc development of businesses and apartments that accommodated the influx of people from the countryside. In the years since this photo was taken, Shapo village has been razed and replaced with modern high rise apartments. Photo © 2005 Patti Isaacs.

A Cold War View of China

When I was a child, China was both beguiling and frightening. When I thought of China, I pictured the colorful and elaborately carved lanterns that hung in the few Chinese restaurants we frequented in Minneapolis. At the same time, world maps in the pages of our Weekly Readers had great red and yellow arrows that swooped from Asia across the blue waters of the Pacific and Arctic Oceans and into our borders, implying that if we let down our guard, the Yellow Menace would invade. Articles in Reader’s Digest warned that Russia and China had secret police and torture chambers; they were ruthless and godless, a threat to our way of life.

My Italian husband, Gauss, and his family had not lived with the Cold War paranoia that gripped the United States. Communists had been part of the coalitions that formed the Italian government since the end of World War II. Gauss viewed them as a normal part of the political scene and didn’t automatically shrink from their ideology.

But by the end of the Vietnam War, some left-leaning Americans began to view China as a classless utopian society, a Workers Paradise free from corruption and the Military Industrial Complex. Gauss was hopeful, and I was curious. We knew that by visiting the place, we were in for one of life’s big lessons. In spite of any fears I might have, it was a privilege to be able to go.

Our journey to China took us first through San Francisco, where we met up with Gauss’s old college friend, Marston, home on leave from Shanghai’s Fudan University as a Fulbright scholar. Gauss and Marston had studied Chinese together at both the University of Minnesota and the Stanford Center in Taiwan. Marston would return to Fudan for the upcoming academic year, so we expected we would see him while we were in China.

“The bureaucracy in China is unlike anything you can imagine,” he said, a hint of a smile curling the corners of his mouth.

Beyond the sly smile, he didn’t give too many details. “You’ll have to find out for yourselves,” he said. His cryptic delivery made me a little nervous.

Why Time Travel?

The title of this blog, Time Travel in China, refers to how traveling to China from the U.S. in 1981 was like visiting an earlier period in our history, and going back in 2005 was a peek into the future. Traveling within China, too, can transport one ahead and back in time, depending on the region and location one travels to.

Interior of a general store in northeast China, 1982. Photo © 1982 Kent Orgain.

The day after arriving in Xi’an in 1981, my first excursion was to the store down the street from our apartment. The dimly-lit space was sparsely stocked, mostly open in the middle save for a couple of squat metal charcoal burners and a few iron kettles. I immediately thought of the utilitarian general stores I saw in old photographs of the American West. Glass-fronted display cases held a hodgepodge of household needs—bolts of fabric, china bowls, writing paper, canned fruit, tools, cigarettes—and access to those goods was only through a sales clerk.

Later on, a visit to the university clinic transported me back to an American hospital from the 1940s. Nurses administered injections with reusable steel hypodermic needles; a green painted metal behemoth of an X Ray machine lurked in the corner. I traveled farther back in history when I consulted a traditional Chinese doctor, who diagnosed me by comparing the pulses of my left and right wrists. The prescribed medication was an assortment of twigs, bark, and fungi boiled in a sand pot, drunk twice a day.

After a long day’s climb, pilgrims arrive at a Buddhist temple at the top of Hua Shan. Photo © 1982 Patti Isaacs. 

The title also reflects how traveling within China, sometimes as little as twenty or thirty miles, can transport one from a futuristic world of high-tech industry and skyscrapers to sleepy agricultural villages where life is still lived as it was a century ago.

A trip to Hua Shan in China’s interior, one of the country’s sacred Buddhist peaks, gave me a glimpse of what life may have been like in the European Middle Ages. Weary travelers made their way into a torch-lit courtyard after a day-long climb up the mountain, the sound of their own voices the only entertainment. There was no running water, no electricity. Food was carried up the mountain by shoulder pole.

Sunny afternoon in downtown Xi’an, December 2005. Look carefully for the faint orange disk in the center of the photo. © 2005 Patti Isaacs.

If China of the 20th century was a look into the past, China of the 21st Century is a peek into the future, and not always a pleasant one. Population pressure and an explosion in the use of fossil fuels mean that even on a clear day, the sun is an orange ball that can be viewed through the smog with the naked eye.

An expressway ramp ends abruptly at a dirt road leading to a farming village. The freeway is at the top of the photo. Yellow color in the village is corn being dried on the roofs of houses and corn garlands hanging from the eaves. Photo © 2005 Kandace Einbeck.

China has rapidly built a system of expressways. Away from the city, is not unusual to blast off the 21st century freeway onto the rutted dirt roads of a 19th century village where peasants still draw water from a well and dry grain on their roofs.

As I compare my experiences living in China on two occasions a quarter century apart, I will write about what this period of transition has given to the people of our two countries—and what it has taken away.

To subscribe to Time Travel in China and to read updated reports, click on the Blog tab.

One thought on “Time Travel in China

  1. Patti, I’ll send this to my friend Lin, who also lived in china at different times. I know he’ll be comparing his experience with yours!

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