Bound Feet

An elderly woman with bound feet on a city sidewalk in Xi'an, 1982. © Patti Isaacs

An elderly woman with bound feet on a city sidewalk in Xi’an, 1982. © Patti Isaacs

Just today a friend posted a short video about foot binding on Facebook. Living in interior, rural China in 1981-82, I often saw elderly women with bound feet; the practice continued longer in the country’s interior than in the big coastal cities of China’s south and east.

In an earlier post, I mentioned elderly women with bound feet who nonetheless made the arduous climb to the top of Mt. Huashan not far from Xi’an. It was a challenging climb for me with my youth and big feet. I was doubly impressed by the women, many in their 70s and 80s, who picked their way  up 5000 vertical feet on lotus feet.

View the video here:

Scroll’s Facebook video of bound feet


The Worst Place on Earth

Black sludge pours into the lake - one of many pipes lining the shore (Credit: Liam Young/Unknown Fields)

Black sludge pours into the lake – one of many pipes lining the shore (Credit: Liam Young/Unknown Fields)

Just today I came across an article on the BBC Website—frighteningly on their “Future” page—about the Inner Mongolian city of Baotou, about 500 miles north of Xi’an. There’s little that I can add; it’s a must-read and will make you think hard about your desire for another smartphone or other electronic gadget.

The name of my blog, Time Travel in China, springs from my observation that within China, a traveler often feels transported in time as well as space. Visit a remote village where homes still rely on charcoal heaters and are equipped with outhouses, and you’ve gone back to the turn of the American 20th century. Visit Shanghai with its skyscrapers and Maglev trains and you are in the most modern city in the world. Visit Xi’an or Beijing and experience air pollution that lies ahead if we’re not careful. Visit Baotou and glimpse an apocalyptic future.

Under the Dome

I’ve posted this photo before. It was taken in Xi’an on a rather ordinary day in 2005. The sun is a faint orange dot visible above and to the right of the small rectangular building on the horizon. I really enjoyed my return to Xi’an, but after two months I was dying to get home, primarily to breathe some clean air. I saw blue sky about 20-30% of my time there, but mostly it was gray, hazy, and nondescript.

SunnyDayIn Xian

A movie about air pollution in China, “Under the Dome” was released just a few weeks ago. I wanted to link to it because it explores the concerns of ordinary Chinese people about their polluted environment in much greater depth, and from their point of view, not mine as an outsider. has a great summary and short clip of the movie if you don’t have time to watch the whole film:

The Upworthy summary highlights many of the same things my Chinese friends discussed with me. I told them that we used to have prodigious pollution in the U.S. as well, citing big industrial eastern cities like Pittsburgh. They wanted to know how we cleaned up the air.

Technology initially played a big part in it. But now we’ve taken care of much of our pollution problems by outsourcing them, along with our manufacturing jobs, to China—but that’s another issue, and it’s addressed in the full movie. If Upworthy is too radical for your taste, you can watch the entire movie on YouTube—with English subtitles, but not the summary—here:

And the movie gets into topics like alternative fuels, urban planning, and public policy in a very accessible way that anyone can understand.

The Communist Party’s central propaganda department ordered the movie removed from Chinese websites after 300 million views. Edward Wong of the New York Times wrote about it here:

Brilliant Cultural Revolution Photos

A Cultural Revolution era poster

My photographer cousin, Steve Penland, alerted me to a New York Times book review of images taken by a Chinese newspaper photographer during the Cultural Revolution in the city of Harbin in the northeastern part of the country. Photographer Li Zhensheng knew he was witnessing history and had the courage and foresight to stash negatives under the floorboards in his house. Here’s a link to his publisher’s website.

The Cultural Revolution, characterized by violent swings in policy and violence against those perceived to be “counterrevolutionaries,” ended several years before Gauss and I went to China in 1981, but the damage it did—physical and psychological—remained. Fear of standing out from the crowd, and thus risking criticism or punishment, crippled policymakers and ordinary citizens. History’s impact shaped the choices our friends and colleagues made and directly affected the trajectory of their lives.

Quiet City

August, 1981

I was surprised as the plane began to descend. I saw no cues that we were anywhere near a city: no street lights in sight, no ribbon highways of white headlights and red tail lights, no neon signs. Shouldn’t we be in the city of Xi’an? What was going on? Only when we got within feet of the ground could I see a string of lights casting a weak glow on the runway. It was 9:00 p.m.

After landing, we walked out into cool, misty air and then into a building that made me think of a small-town armory, bare and lit with naked fluorescent tubes. Like other “nice” places we’d seen during our first week in China, the airport looked like a worn out version of a pretty place, with high ceilings, fancy moldings and unused decorative light fixtures. It was furnished with crinkly brown vinyl sofas. Papers, apple cores and other refuse littered the floor. Chairman Mao smiled down from a prominent place. We had finally arrived in the city that would be our home for the next year.

A posse consisting of the university president, a driver, and two handlers from the Foreign Affairs office had driven out in a single car to greet us. Counting Gauss and me—and the handler dispatched to Guangzhou to fetch us—we now totaled seven. Incredibly, since we were going to one of China’s leading technical universities, nobody had considered the logistics. There was not enough room in the vehicle to take us back to the campus. At this time of night, and this far from town, there were no taxis. We would have to make the trip in installments.

Gauss and I waited for another hour in the shabby terminal with half our luggage until the car returned with only a driver and one handler. We had left Minnesota weeks ago, driven across the United States, flown across the Pacific, and spent several days in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. The day’s flight from southern China had been delayed several hours, and by now we were dead tired and ready to finally be getting to our new “home.”

Crammed in the thickly upholstered back seat of a tubby little car reminiscent of a relic from my childhood, we bumped down the pitch-black streets with the headlights off. The driver periodically flashed them on for a second or two as if to get a quick mental picture of what was ahead, and then shut them off again. We were too tired to ask why, and in any event, we had seen much that puzzled us. There were more questions to ask than there was time to answer them. We seemed to be driving through a ghost town: the roads were devoid of pedestrians and any other vehicles, and we were unable to see beyond the ten-foot walls that lined the boulevard. I was too puzzled to find this alarming or worrisome. Instead, I gulped in snatches of visual information when I could.

Occasionally in the distance, I saw a single bulb casting a circle of light in the middle of an intersection, the adjacent streets swallowed by the darkness. Our car took several turns, the last one through an opening in one of the high walls. Finally I could see low brick apartment buildings, a few windows glowing dimly. The car slowed to a crawl and pulled up onto the dirt behind one of them.

White Rabbit

August, 1981

On our last morning in Guangzhou, the car took us to the airport for a noon flight that the CTS personnel had booked for us. The Jiaotong University representative would be accompanying Gauss and me to Xi’an; Yang was to make sure all three of us got on the right plane.

The terminal, a single open room with a barrel ceiling and full-length windows that looked out onto the tarmac, was a tropical-latitude version of the World War II-era airport that served my home town of Minneapolis until the early 1960s. It was not air-conditioned. Fans turning lazily overhead stirred up the sticky air; benches were cool woven rattan.

At the ticket counter, we learned that our flight had been delayed for at least four hours. Most passengers seemed well-prepared for the lengthy wait: surrounded by a hodgepodge of parcels and luggage, they would periodically root through to extract an orange or some cookies for a snack, alternately snoozing, visiting, and smoking. Men and women alike were comfortably dressed in light cotton shirts and dark cotton pants, nearly indistinguishable from the peasants we’d seen tending the rice paddies. Chinese society was so homogeneous that even those rare individuals in a position to fly on airplanes dared not stand out by dressing ostentatiously. A few flight attendants who worked the international routes looked startlingly chic by comparison, slim young women in narrow, knee-length gray skirts and fitted blouses.

There was no restaurant in the terminal. Our stomachs growled, and Yang, knowing he had time to spare, left the building to find some food. He returned half an hour later with lychees, oranges, and crackers.

Finally, at 4:30 in the afternoon, we were directed out onto the blistering runway and up the stairs into an ancient Russian Ilyushin 18 propeller plane. The aisle was flanked by two rows of sagging seats covered in white sheeting that refused to assume the full-upright position. Some had seat belts made of army-green webbing and leather, but most people didn’t use them.

The cabin looked like someone’s messy living room, stuff piled every which way in the aisles and on the unused seats: big cardboard boxes, net bags filled with pineapples, grapefruits, and stinky durians; rattan cages of chickens; mysterious bundles covered in white sheeting. The percentage of the Chinese population in a position to fly was small indeed—high-ranking civil servants and academicians, perhaps. There was little economic stratification, and few goods were transported from one part of the country to another. Anyone lucky enough to be traveling from the wealthy south to the isolated north used the flight as an opportunity to stock up on hard-to-find items.

Three-fourths of the plane’s fifty or so occupants smoked cigarettes, which they did not extinguish for takeoff. The air was blue with smoke. On this domestic flight, our cabin attendants were young ruddy-faced women wearing baggy white shirts and even baggier navy trousers. One of them, a sturdy, pigtailed girl, sealed the door with a little grunt trapping in the stifling air and picked her way around the parcels in the aisle to her seat the back of the cabin. The plane taxied to the end of the runway and then the pilot started to rev up the engines, causing the aircraft to shudder until I thought the wings might shake loose. Then the brake was released, but instead of shooting down the runway as I’d expected, the plane slowly started to amble down the tarmac: putt…putt…putt. I wondered if we’d really get airborne. After what seemed like too long to have any runway remaining, we finally left the ground, ascending at a painfully shallow angle.

Ilyushin II-18. Original image at

The plane had little round windows with free-hanging aqua blue curtains that swayed as we banked. Occasionally a precariously placed parcel would fall, eliciting a screech from one of the chickens and further blocking the aisle.

There were no in-flight facilities for serving food; instead, we made an unscheduled meal stop in Changsha, the birthplace of Chairman Mao, where everybody deplaned and walked across the runway and a street to a dining room to eat. This was the most basic place we’d eaten in yet: battered vinyl cloths on the tables, a stack of badly chipped bowls and well-worn chopsticks, rice with pebbles in it, some kind of stir-fried mystery food with chunks of fat and bones, and people spitting those pebbles and bones on the floor everywhere.

After about 45 minutes, we were herded back aboard to resume our flight to Xi’an. Once airborne again, the cabin attendants elbowed their way through the junk in the aisles, passing out sticky White Rabbit brand taffy and damp wash cloths. Unlike commercial flights back home, we never flew higher than about 8,000 feet. We watched the landscape beneath us until the light faded altogether.

Free For All

August, 1981

Gauss’s status as a Foreign Expert qualified us for a three-day tour of Guangzhou. Although we were becoming weary of traveling, the stopover would help us adjust to this new environment.

On the flight to Asia, I had written in my diary: While I understand very keenly that I am leaving my family, my friends, my possessions, and my home, I have trouble imagining the life I will be going to. Europe I can picture in my mind. China, I cannot.

Each morning, we were met at the front door of the hotel by a little black car that looked like a cross between a ’57 Chevy and an old Volvo sedan. The seats were covered in woven rattan and sheer black polyester curtains hung in the windows. The representative from Jiaotong University and a sprightly young male tour guide named Yang always accompanied us. Counting the driver, the little car was always packed.

Driving was a free for all, with motorized vehicles at the top of the pecking order. The only consistent rule was to swerve to the right if things got really bad. Passing was done whether there was room or not, accomplished by everybody squeezing a bit and driving three abreast—or not accomplished when everyone slammed on the brakes a few feet before the front bumpers made contact.

We were taken to scenic waterfalls and paper-cutting factories, then a porcelain factory where, despite the diligent handwork each piece received, the finished products came out looking kitschy and garish. We were clearly on China’s new tourist circuit: at the beginning of each tour was a tea room, at the end, a trinket store.

The factory tours wore thin. I found them less interesting than simply walking down the street, watching people go about their daily business in ingenious, low-tech fashion: making chalkboards by applying black paint to plywood; collecting bottles for recycling in baskets on the back of a bike; constructing ladders of bamboo. I looked forward to settling down in Xi’an where I would be a teacher, not a tourist.

Painting a Blackboard, Guangzhou

Recycling bottles by bicycle, Guangzhou

Getting to Guangzhou

Guangzhou, 1981, ninety miles and decades removed from the nearby British colony.

August, 1981

In 1981, the world was still gripped by the Cold War and divided into two spheres, Free and Communist. China and the United States had established diplomatic relations only two years earlier, and there were few commercial flights between the two countries. To get there, my husband, Gauss, and I first flew to Hong Kong and then took the train through densely forested hills of the colony’s New Territories toward the People’s Republic.

We arrived at the shaved-off strip of countryside that marked the barrier between the “free” world I had grown up in and totalitarian China. An enormous wall topped with razor wire, punctuated by guard towers at every peak, marked the frontier. Our train slowed to a crawl and then stopped for several minutes as armed guards walked the aisles. I could almost hear the Bamboo Curtain part and then swoosh shut behind us. I felt very far from home, enclosed within a foreign place in a way I had never experienced before.

As we pulled away from the border, the desolate no-man’s land gave way to rice paddies and tree-cloaked hills, and then, surprisingly, to a patch of naked brown earth where a cluster of high-rise buildings was being constructed. This was the nascent Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, designed as a portal for China’s planned commerce with the rest of the world. In the last couple of years, at the very highest level of Chinese government, a policy shift had taken place. Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, had given his blessing to the development of a market economy, and Shenzhen was one of the early signs of that shift.

Then our train went over another hill, and all signs of modern development disappeared. We were back among livestock and barefoot peasants. The countryside was beautiful and pastoral in a way that was markedly unlike rural America: the fields, all hand-tended, were beautifully groomed and painstakingly terraced. Every square foot, every odd-shaped or hard-to-reach spot, was used. Rice grew in lush green carpets, and each field was outlined with a raised dike like trapunto quilting on a green velvet jacket. Banana trees sprouted around the perimeter.

The fields were dotted with people in wide straw hats wearing light cotton shirts and dark pants rolled at the knees. Children rode water buffalo. Clouds suddenly materialized and rain poured down, soaking farm and farmer; then skidded away as quickly as they came. The sun returned, and the vivid green landscape glowed again, shimmering in the moist tropical heat. Small villages cropped up here and there, some brick with red tile roofs, some made of rattan and covered with thatched straw.

An hour or so later, when out train pulled into Guangzhou (Canton), we were met by a helpful young China Travel Service (CTS) employee whose job it was to greet Foreign Experts. She was supposed to protect us from “bad elements”—and also to make certain that we, and any dangerous ideas we might have, remained insulated from the average Chinese. Nothing was left to chance.

She whisked us through the various checkpoints and to a waiting van. It was not empty. Inside were various helpers, among them a representative sent hundreds of miles from our University who would accompany us to the city of Xi’an where we would live for the next academic year. There was barely enough room for us and our luggage, but luckily the ride was short: just a few kilometers to a hotel where we would stay for a couple of days while we toured the city, courtesy of the Chinese government. Americans were a novelty, and our arrival was a big deal.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong, 1981

July, 1981

Direct flights from the U.S. to Mainland China were still scarce, so like most travelers to China, we entered through Hong Kong. Descending to Kai Tak airport, I couldn’t imagine how we could land. Mountains loomed up before us; we would have to turn or we’d be squashed like bugs on a windshield. The plane banked hard, and as I looked down it seemed that the wing would almost clip the roof of one of the buildings. We were close enough for me to see the laundry hanging on the balconies. A minute later, we were skimming over the water with no runway in sight, mere feet above the surface. Only when the wheels bounced onto the tarmac were we certain that we made contact with the narrow runway that extended out into the bay.

The plane slowed to a stop and the door opened. A blast of hot, sticky air whooshed into the cabin and even though I’d changed into a light cotton dress en route, I was immediately bathed in sweat. We walked, squinting, into the intense midday sunlight, across the black pavement that radiated heat, towards the terminal where double doors slid open to admit us.

Hong Kong was very western in some ways: English double-decker buses plied the streets, and all kinds of products were available: Revlon and Estee Lauder cosmetics, Goody Hair barrettes, Burger King and McDonalds, loads of stereos, cameras and watches, and Kodak, Kodak, Kodak. The place pulsed with activity: shopping, hustle, construction projects, traffic, congestion, pollution, noise.

Young people were fashionably dressed in the latest western styles: Levis and tube tops, cowboy boots and high-heeled Gucci shoes. But most of the middle-aged and elderly people looked worn down and bent, dressed in baggy pants and tired cotton shirts, shuffling around in black cotton slippers.

Everywhere we went, there were sweating, pressing crowds of toothless old men, skinny, boisterous children, chic young women and dudes with sunglasses. I smelled perspiration and cigarettes and felt damp flesh sliding across my own as I herded my way onto a ferry or across the street. In the midst of the pressure, I thought about the miles of uninterrupted cornfields at home, the bright blue sky and the brisk prairie wind. I dreamt about cracking lightning and torrents of rain that would sweep the air clean. Part of me was looking forward to the more leisurely pace of life in the mainland.