What foreigners visiting Mao's China said and heard

Michael Schoenhals's picture

A colleague recently asked me where, if anywhere, one might find contemporary Chinese records of visits by foreigners (including tourists, professional delegations, journalists, “foreign friends,” etc.) to Mao’s China? What he had in mind, I believe, are such things as notes on questions that foreign visitors posed (as well as on what they were told in response, I guess) while visiting this or that People’s Commune, neighborhood committee, factory, or kindergarten.

At the time, visits to the PRC were thoroughly organized, and records of foreigners’ statements and observations were indeed produced and passed on to Perception Managers and others with a “need to know.” Today's historians interested in the 1970s should seek out and consult the SBU (Sensitive But Unclassified, i.e. 内部) 《对外宣传参考资料》edited and distributed at irregular intervals by the 新华社对外新闻编辑部 starting in January 1972. By August 1975, some 33 issues of it had appeared. Particularly interesting because of its broad coverage is a convenient compilation (in eight installments appearing from January to August 1974, in issues nos. 16–25) called “国外人士在我国各地参观访问的反映”. For the pre-Cultural Revolution years, I do not know of a similarly convenient source, but I suspect the NCNA – aided, perhaps, by the China International Travel Service – would have produced one. Perhaps other members of the PRCHISTORY list have suggestions and information that they would be prepared to share with us?

In the past one would have been able to access some of the raw pre-1966 reports in the archives of the 中华人民共和国外交部.  Typically the reports show up in folios related to specific visits, i.e. would be searchable based on the (transliterated) name of the individual or delegation involved.  I'm not sure if this lead is particularly helpful though, Michael, because of recent restrictions on searching and viewing of previously declassified 外交部 archival holdings.  But it's in those archives that I've seen the kind of sources that you're referring to.

Matt is indeed correct that you could find some fairly rich materials at the FMA on the visits of various foreigners during the 1950s and early 1960s. During stints in previous years I saw numerous files on:

1. Data on journalists admitted and denied entry (by country, and at times by name as well)

2. Reports on visits of Cultural, Scientific, and Sporting delegations (I believe Amanda Shuman collected several bulletins reporting the activities of various international sports delegations). 

3. Detailed reports 访华简报, often filed daily or every few days by handlers 接待员, of visits of several well known figures. (For instance, I found a fantastically detailed 70 odd page long 简报 on the three-week visit of the Indian statistician and economic planner P.C. Mahalanobis). 

4. Instructions on how to deal with foreign delegations, and much more

I have used 'could' instead of 'can' advisedly. As Matt notes, access has changed substantially over the past year. I wrote a brief summary of the changes I encountered last summer for Dissertation Reviews. It can be found here: http://dissertationreviews.org/archives/5411


This is a wonderful topic. Thank you for the resources listed.
Apologies for the shameless institutional self-promotion, but our series Assignment:China focuses on the work of journalists for American news organizations and is obviously related to the matter of "what foreigners said about China." The series begins with the KMT/CCP civil war and will eventually run to the 21st century. We've thus far screened

Civil War (late 1940s)
China Watching (1950s-60s)
The Week that Changed the World (ping pong diplomacy & the Nixon visit)
End of an Era (1972-76)
Opening Up (1979-83)

These films include interviews with journalists as well as those who sought to manage them, plus archival broadcasts and still photos.

All of the above are available at http://china.usc.edu/assignmentchina . Our segments on the mid-1980s through 1989 will be screened beginning in April and will be available at the website later. The Nixon segment also has an extensive collection of annotated documents and other materials.

Getting to Beijing http://china.usc.edu/ShowArticle.aspx?articleID=2483
Getting to Know You http://china.usc.edu/ShowArticle.aspx?articleID=2705

Clayton Dube
USC U.S.-China Institute

Firstly, I just want to thank Clayton and his colleagues at USC for sharing those wonderful visual resources with us: my students will love them!

Secondly, still on the topic of foreigners in China, I want to advertise a new site concerning the Jewish (actually Polish) “old China hand” and revolutionary Stanislaw Flato, an ex-military intelligence officer who served as counsellor in the Polish embassy in Beijing between 1957 and 1964. On my site http://projekt.ht.lu.se/rereso/sources/stanislaw-flato/ visitors will find CMPS (Central Ministry of Public Security) transcripts of what Flato is alleged to have remarked at the time about the unfolding Sino-Soviet split and more. The transcripts should be of some interest, I believe, if nothing else to students of Sino-Polish relations.

For those who haven’t seen it (or who want to see it again) --- Wang Shuibo’s documentary, They Chose China, is available online through the National Film Board of Canada website.  (It’s free to watch the streaming version of the film, and they charge a nominal fee for downloads.)

The film is here: https://www.nfb.ca/film/they_chose_china

The documentary remembers the American Korean War POWs who refused repatriation to the U.S. and moved to the PRC instead.  It includes interviews and rare footage from the 1950s, as well as more recent interviews, all of which highlights the experiences of these particular foreigners in Mao’s China.

I assign this film as part of the "reading" when I teach the Korean War in my Modern China survey.


Thanks to Mindy for the link!

I am sure most of you know this documentary already but, to add to what Mindy wrote, I too use it in my Modern East Asia course and it usually sparks an interesting discussion among the students. The documentary touches not only on issues of "propaganda," "false consciousness," patriotism and thought reform but also, directly and indirectly, on racism in the US, justice, just war, etc. And it stretches to the period of the Cultural Revolution (and for one of the prisoners, beyond that). 

I sense – from some of the questions I get from my students – that it is by no means easy to develop a “feel” for something as intangible as what the “mood of the times” may have been some forty, fifty years ago. I am thinking here about the Cultural Revolution, and for example what people in Western Europe thought and said about it at the time. When I am asked about Mao, I like in order to “thicken the plot” to bring up what Sweden’s current king Carl XVI Gustaf remarked in an interview about the Chinese leader everybody these days likes to compare to Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler. Published in a women’s weekly in 1972, the interview with the then 26 year-old Crown Prince appeared under the headline “Mao is my idol!” and included the following memorable exchange:

Ladies’ World: Which individual has made the biggest impression on you?

Crown Prince Carl Gustaf: Mao Zedong! An incredible man. Think, when he and all of his followers just wandered about day and night in China and fought to reach their goal. What an achievement! Furthermore, he’s written nice prose and excellent poems.

Ladies’ World: Are you interested in literature? Or music?

Crown Prince Carl Gustaf: I am intensely fond of 18th Century music. I like to read the latest books. And some classics. But perhaps we should not emphasize these interests too much…

(translated from Damernas Värld [Ladies’ World], No. 34, 1972, p. 44)

At the time, needless to say, Carl Gustaf had not yet visited China, so whatever he said would have been based on reading “the latest books” and second-hand impressions. After becoming king in 1973, he visited China for the first time in the autumn of 1981. But by then, China was already quickly becoming “a different place…”