A Mormon Looks at Mainland China
James Gardiner, “A Mormon Looks at Mainland China,” Ensign, Aug 1972, 5
Several Latter-day Saints recently visited China as a result of the much-publicized visit of U.S. President Richard M. Nixon. Their report of what they saw and heard, as well as their impressions of this isolated land, will be of widespread interest. Brother James H. Gardiner spent about six weeks in China coordinating the installation, operation, and maintenance of six videotape recorders for American television networks. He is employed by NBC and resides in Glendale, California, where he teaches Sunday School and is stake Explorer adviser. Connie Gerrard also accompanied the presidential party during its eleven-day trip. She works as personal secretary to Ronald L. Ziegler, President Nixon’s press secretary. Since 1963, following her graduation from Brigham Young University, she has worked at the White House. She has participated on numerous official tours, including the more recent tour of President Nixon to the Soviet Union.
In late December 1971, I received a startling request: “Jim, how would you like to go to China to cover President Nixon’s visit?”
China! I was thunderstruck. I suddenly recalled all the stories I had heard of Chinese revolution, of upheaval, of the cruel treatment of foreigners, the unpopularity of “imperialist Americans,” the unknown health hazards. I felt a little uneasy. I thought I’d better take the proposition home over the weekend for a little consideration.
As I look back on it now, it seems foolish that I ever hesitated, even for a moment. The more I thought about it, the more groundless my fears became. The fascination of going to an unknown land, visited by so few Americans in the past twenty years, was too alluring.
China! Of course I would go.
The three major television networks were to pool their efforts for the coverage of President Richard M. Nixon’s China visit. Each was responsible for a few phases of the total operation. My assignment was in the area of videotape recording. I was to tape and play back anything required to facilitate the reporting of events. Both live pickups and recorded coverage were to be transmitted back to the United States by way of a new communications satellite.
January 1972 was a month to envy. It was crammed with hectic preparations: securing passports, enduring uncomfortable inoculations, shopping for clothes and luggage, buying tools, camera equipment, and film, recruiting substitutes for duties at home and at church—and then there was chopstick practice.
On the morning of January 29, our flight from New York to Peking was delayed by a hijacker. The excitement intensified as the hijacker held another plane on the runway and blocked the take-off of our near-capacity load of broadcast equipment and personnel.
After waiting two hours, we finally took off, with stops at Los Angeles to pick up a few network people and a crew to man the satellite ground station, and at Hawaii, Wake, and Guam. Then, in Shanghai, we had our first taste of Chinese hospitality and food. After a short stay, we left Shanghai and touched down at Peking Airport a few minutes after three in the afternoon.
Problems began almost immediately. Our freight pallets, occupying the fore and mid-sections of the aircraft, had been loaded in New York by forklifts. The Chinese did not have forklifts, and the plane had to be unloaded a piece at a time. I was to assist the Chinese with the unloading and to keep a record of some of the freight as it was removed. Then the Chinese indicated we were to leave our hand baggage in the terminal, unattended. My first reaction was, “You really don’t expect me to leave my valuable camera equipment here in this public place!” That’s what they expected. And that’s what we did.
At nine o’clock, when we returned to the terminal, we found our hand baggage exactly where we had left it, untouched.
With the unloading completed, we were taken to our quarters at the Nationalities Hotel. The facilities were very good. My room was warm and spacious, and there was plenty of hot water for bathing and shaving. Boiled water for drinking was provided along with fresh fruit and candy. The room was furnished with a comfortable bed, a desk, two easy chairs, a closet, a combination desk/chest of drawers, and a dressing table. There was no shower, but there was a good bathtub.
The food, which was excellent, consisted mostly of vegetables, pork, duck, chicken, fish, and soup, with a great variety of seafood and fresh fruit at the end of every meal.
The Chinese were quaintly charming with regard to our meals. One or two of them always acted as host at the round tables, which seated from eight to ten. The hosts helped by serving us and urging us to eat “all you can, please.” At the dinner, toasting was an important ceremony. The dignitaries went to each table and toasted with the individual guests. Some were a bit appalled at my toasting with “juice,” a carbonated, orange-flavored drink; they urged something stronger. However, I noticed that there was nearly always one Chinese host who kept me company by toasting as I did, with “juice.”
The first weeks of February were spent installing radio and television equipment in a new broadcasting building the Chinese had constructed especially for the coverage of President Nixon’s visit. The Chinese broadcast management was vitally concerned with one question: “Who is the responsible person, please?” Each day our responsible person would meet with his counterpart. The Chinese would inevitably ask, “What is your plan for today, please?”
Of course, unforeseen difficulties came up. When they did, the Chinese approach was to “have a consideration.” On one occasion we found no suitable place for the air compressors for each of the six videotape machines. To have the compressors in the same room with operating personnel was irritating because of the noise. We suggested putting the units next door in the utility room. But this was used by building service personnel. Then the Chinese had a “consideration.” They decided they would put the compressors in the crawl space beneath the building.
There were touchy subjects in our work. The rich red Chinese flag gave me some trouble. Some responsible Chinese technicians had gathered to view the live pickup in the transmission area. It was before airtime, and the camera was showing the Chinese flag waving in a brisk breeze. Suddenly the Chinese reacted with horror. Their flag was blue on the screen!
Tracing back to the source of the trouble, they were directed to the videotape recording area and me. They were very upset. I tried to explain: the phenomenon was caused by the passage of the television signal through one of our idle tape machines. This was a normal shift in color. It would not occur when the machine played back. I assured them their flag would be red when the signal was broadcast.
They left soothed but understandably apprehensive. “We must not,” they cautioned, “broadcast a blue flag. Our flag must be red.”
The interpreters also had trouble. Their task of keeping up with our slang, not to mention the onslaught of hundreds of technical terms, was immense. However, they were very persistent and patient. They never gave up until they understood. Two of our interpreters were preparing, on their own, a dictionary of technical English terms, translated into Chinese. Much of the dictionary came from their experience at the broadcast center.
Throughout the process of installation, our hosts took almost every opportunity to expose us to the show places in and around Peking. Our first sightseeing trip was to the Great Wall. We were staggered by its size. The average height is 22 feet, and its width is near 20 feet. It runs a total length of nearly 2,000 miles. There is a 40-foot-high two-story tower every few hundred yards.
We were also taken to the Park of the Temple of Heaven built in a.d. 1420. Here the emperors of the Ming and Ching dynasties worshiped heaven and prayed for good harvests. I asked if people still prayed for good crops.
“There is no such superstition,” I was told. “It was only done to deceive the people.”
Later, when I noticed the curious repetition of threes in the construction of the Temple of Heaven—three gates together, three tiers in an altar, three stones in the center of an altar and in the floors, multiples of three everywhere—I asked about it. I was told that the ancient builders had considered three a lucky number. When I asked if three was still considered lucky, I was surprised with the interpreter’s ironic answer: “Yes.”
In the Imperial Heavenly Vault, in the Park of the Temple of Heaven, the emperors would display their genealogy for heavenly inspection (rather like a visit to the ward genealogy examiner). There still remain many dressing room areas where worshipers once changed clothes before entering into the holy places.
We also visited a commune that embraces 9,100 households and has a population of 41,000. The people there are divided into 12 production brigades, which are subdivided into 137 teams, one agricultural station, three workshops, and one small coal pit. Elections to choose leaders are held every three years.
What about the lazy person in the commune? No work, no eat! Each day each person is credited with work points for what he has accomplished. The average earning per year is 158 yuan per head. At the present average exchange rate of 2.2 yuan per U.S. dollar, that would be about $348 a year. Some workers get paid as much as 700 yuan and get their food and water free. Workers are paid 60 percent of their wages during the year and the balance at the end of the year.
Medical and dental insurance runs 1.2 yuan per year for each person and is paid by the individual or his family. Support is provided for the infirm in mind and body of all ages. With the wages they save, people like to buy bicycles, watches, radios, and treadle sewing machines. At the commune we visited a home where the sixty-year-old grandmother summed up her outlook: “Before the revolution, we had eight people and one quilt; now we have seven people and ten quilts.”
Rent for the state-owned housing is from three to four yuan a month, sometimes less, depending on income. The state owns all the homes, and permission is required to make any sort of move to a different one. The state provides upkeep on the houses.
Shoes cost from two to nine yuan. Some of the better shoes we saw were very well made and of high quality leather. Cotton Mao jackets cost about seven to nine yuan, depending on size. Cost of automobiles is astronomical.
There are three Chinese coins, all aluminum: one, two, and five cents. All other denominations are in paper bills: ten, twenty, and fifty cents, and one, two, and five yuan. Except for the fifty-cent bill, all their money is clearly marked in familiar numbers.
There is no bargaining for price in China. The prices are fixed by the state. If I wanted to get a new bicycle, I could not sell the old one to a private party, but would have to sell it to the state.
Let me say a word about hairstyles. Most of the men are very neatly barbered, with short haircuts. I asked one young Chinese man if he thought some of our long-haired lads needed a trim. As I asked the question, a shoulder-length example walked by. The young Chinese grinned and said, through the interpreter, “to each his own.”
Most women wear their hair in a short bob, some tapered nicely and others ending abruptly. Others wear long double braids. They wear no makeup. I never saw an immodestly dressed Chinese woman, including those who participated in and those who attended the gymnastic displays and the ballet. We noticed that nearly all Chinese women seem to associate very closely with their own sex.
Our inquiries into Chinese family life were very rewarding. Just before the four-day Chinese Spring Festival, I asked one of our Chinese co-workers whether there would be a great parade and public display. He assured me there would be some firecrackers, but the main celebration would be in family gatherings. He pointed out the heavy food shopping taking place prior to the holiday and said it was to help celebrate in the home. In China there is still much family solidarity.
The legal age for marriage is twenty years for the males and eighteen for females. However, most females marry at about twenty-three and males at about twenty-seven. When young ladies wed, they do not change their names. When we called one of our married lady interpreters “Mrs.,” she indicated that she was to be called “Miss.” The children take the first name of their father as their first name. This is the surname.
Most children spend their nights at home, either from school or from the nursery. Parents still hold themselves very much responsible for the conduct of their children and take parenthood seriously.
In China there is great social pressure for small families. One day at lunch, I found myself the only American in a room full of Chinese. My hosts were giving me lots of advice on my chopstick technique and serving me more and more food against my better judgment. Then one of them asked me how many children I had.
“Eight,” I answered.
There was a stunned silence. A pause in the eating. I discovered later that a one-child family was preferred by Chinese who worked with me.
Children are supported in school by their parents. However, if the family is in financial trouble, the state contributes support. There is no need to pay back this funding.
Students go from the middle school to the country or the factory for practical work experience. This lasts two or three years, and the students are paid according to the living standard of the people with whom they work. From here some students may go on to university. They may also go from factory or country into the army. There is a waiting list of young people anxious to get into the army. We saw many examples of magnificent young Chinese guards. The army takes only the best.
What about the aged? According to national law, sons and daughters take care of their parents when parents are no longer able to support themselves. Childless, elderly people have housing, medical insurance, food, clothing, and burial taken care of by the commune.
I thought the people of China seemed generally happy. Many of them sang during their work. Our bus driver was frequently singing or humming as we boarded our bus in the morning. Many people who supplied the building services at the hotel and at the broadcast center went about their tasks humming softly, and they smiled very easily. The army sentries were the greatest challenge, but some of them smiled back at a wave and a grin from us. The children and teenagers were the most free to wave and smile as we passed in our bus.
The Chinese have a remarkable code of living. One of their main personal rules is to “serve the people wholeheartedly.” The fine young man who took care of our laundry at the hotel was proud of the service he gave. We had only to put our dirty clothing into a bag hanging behind the bathroom door, and it would be returned that evening cleaned, neatly pressed, and folded. It was never returned unless I was there, or the service wouldn’t have been complete. The clean clothing was always handed to its owner along with a big smile. As we expressed thanks for a fine job, his smile got wider. He was serving wholeheartedly, but he also appreciated our genuine thanks for his efforts.
Another motto is “walk uprightly.” The hotel had a post office in the lobby where stamps, cards, and glue were available. The glue had to be applied to the stamps with a brush. Stamps are not pre-gummed. Many of us got carried away with the gluing process and often left our change at the counter. The long-forgotten change was always returned to us, even as much as three days later.
I kept an accurate record of all my expenditures while in China. After a few weeks, I balanced my purchases against my exchange notes and the money I had on hand. It came out to the penny. I had most often just handed the clerks my Chinese bills and accepted without question the change they had figured on their abacuses. Many of us left money in our rooms. Not a cent was ever lost.
When the honor guard was marching to the airport for President Nixon’s arrival at Peking, they were singing heartily. Our interpreter told us they were singing the “Three Main Rules of Discipline” and the “Eight Points for Attention.”
Taken from the quotations of Chairman Mao Tsetung, the “Three Main Rules of Discipline” are: (1) obey orders in all your actions, (2) do not take a single needle or piece of thread from the masses, and (3) turn in everything captured.
The “Eight Points for Attention” are (1) speak politely, (2) pay fairly for what you buy, (3) return everything you borrow, (4) pay for everything you damage, (5) do not hit or swear at people, (6) do not damage crops, (7) do not take liberties with women, (8) do not ill-treat captives.
At the first dinner given by the Chinese, one of their leaders said, in effect, “Some of you are here for the first time. Some of you are here for the second time. Those of you who are here for the second time look very familiar to me. In fact, those of you who are here for the first time also look very familiar to me. All Caucasians look alike to me.”
I once asked a co-worker, through an interpreter, if religious freedom existed in China.
“Yes. One may believe as he wishes.”
“Can you go to church if you desire?”
“Yes, but very few attend church.”
“Do you believe in God?”
“No. People make the difference in the world.”
“Do you know anyone who believes in a God or a life hereafter?”
“Yes. My grandmother is very superstitious; she believes in a God and that there is a life beyond. She is unhappy with the way I believe.”
“I, too, believe in a God and in a life after death. What do you think of that?”
There was a pause. Then: “We can still be friends.”