In Touch with the “Middle Kingdom”
FOR years I had dreamed of visiting the “Middle Kingdom.” ‘Where is that?’ you ask. “Middle Kingdom” is the Chinese name for China. It reflects the traditional Chinese view of China as the center of the world, with all other countries on the periphery.
More people than realize it have been touched by the “Middle Kingdom.” The Chinese were the first inventors of paper and printing. The kites that delight children on windy spring days were first flown in China. Spaghetti and ravioli first tickled the palates of Chinese diners, while fine ceramics and what came to be used as gunpowder are other contributions of the “Middle Kingdom” to the outside world.
For four years my wife and I had been missionaries in Taiwan, but I had always wondered about the mainland. Finally the opportunity came to satisfy that curiosity when, at the end of 1978, the Chinese government cabled a visa for me to make a business trip to their country. I took the long flight across the Pacific Ocean, and as the plane made its final approach to Peking, my heart beat a little fast at the thought that soon I would be eating Peking duck in Peking, strolling along the Great Wall, and—to a small degree—getting to know the country that makes up one fourth of the human race. At last, I was about to get in touch with the “Middle Kingdom.”
The One Billion People
A few years have passed since that first arrival. But my days spent at the Ming Tombs and the Forbidden City are unforgettable. Cruises on the Yangtze River and mountain climbing in the Himalayas are likewise outstanding events in my life. However, in this ancient land I discovered something far more noteworthy than Mount Everest in the south or the Great Wall in the north. It was something in between those two monuments: the one thousand million people of the “Middle Kingdom.”
For years, the Chinese would rarely speak to the few foreigners allowed to enter their country. Not that they did not want to. The Chinese are by nature gregarious and hospitable. However, the political situation made them apprehensive. Happily, that era is by and large over. A simple after-dinner stroll through the streets quickly turns into a big event. Within minutes throngs of people come out to see and talk to the foreigner. The visitor taking in the sights quickly becomes a sight himself.
Nothing fascinates this crowd of new friends more than a snapshot of themselves from a Polaroid camera. When you run out of film, be prepared to explain what happened to about 400 disappointed Chinese.
One night in Szechwan Province, my friends and I decided to go to the opera—Chinese, of course. On arriving, I discovered I had seen the opera before. Knowing that everyone’s attention would be riveted on the stage, I decided to sit right at the back on a low, makeshift wall and just watch the local folk enjoying the show. As I looked out over their bright, smiling faces, I could not but reflect on their resilience. They have been through some very difficult times, and they are still very poor. Yet they are optimistic. They feel themselves well off compared with just a few years ago.
It was not long before a college student came up and said: “Sir, may I ask you, Where are you coming from?” I told him, and he went on to say how happy he was for us to be able to come to China and how much the Chinese enjoy seeing us in their country. He said they were honored by our interest in their customs and culture.
Of course, I am condensing a rather long and interesting conversation, but the sincerity of the young man was appealing. Our discussion ended far too soon, but not before he insisted on bringing me a cup of hot tea.
Although it is often difficult for a visitor to the “Middle Kingdom” to talk really in depth with the people, it can be done. The best opportunities usually arise at mealtimes—not at formal banquets but on those occasions when you are enjoying a simple meal with just a few people in an out-of-the-way place.
I remember a memorable conversation I enjoyed one winter high up in a mountain in central China. A small group of us had been climbing all day, and at nightfall we took shelter in a semiabandoned Buddhist temple. The temple was used only by an occasional Tibetan hiking in from some distant place to worship with the few relics left there by the government. After the caretaker greeted us, he eagerly whipped up a simple but delicious meal and our group began to talk.
We covered many subjects, but the most animated discussions revolved around the Bible. A young student in our group was full of political quotations, which he kept parroting whenever the conversation seemed to veer away from “orthodoxy.” When he had finally run out of quotations, everyone else had a chance to talk and ask questions.
It was thrilling to be able to speak about Jehovah to those people. The older ones knew Jehovah as the name of God from the days before the Communist revolution. Why? Because the Chinese Bible uses God’s name thousands of times in the Hebrew Scriptures. It was wonderful to see their faces light up as we openly talked about something they had not discussed for many years.
I found that similarly interesting conversations can be held with foreigners in China, particularly those who actually live there. Many of them are diplomats. Some are “foreign experts,” on hire to the government. The press has its assortment of reporters, and, of course, there is a mixed group of business people.
In Peking and Shanghai there are a few hotel coffee shops designed for foreigners, and since there is virtually no night life, many foreigners end up congregating in them each night. In the evenings the coffee shops look as though they are filled with characters from a movie! You will almost always find a Texas oil man there, complete with cowboy hat and boots. There will be Indian Sikhs with their turbans, and Africans wearing a large variety of national costumes. I had an interesting experience when I became part of such a scene one night in Shanghai’s famous Peace Hotel.
The Peace is an elegant hotel, old and filled with art decor that reminds one of an earlier age, when Shanghai ranked with Paris, Rome and New York in glamour. Two large Russian men entered the coffee shop, and since the only two chairs left were next to me, I invited them to sit down. It turned out that they were high-ranking Soviet diplomats stationed in China. The language we had in common was Chinese, so we began an interesting conversation.
When they had found out a little about me, they wondered what my religion was, that I could serve as a missionary in Taiwan at one point in my life and then do business with what they regarded as that country’s enemy later on. Their experience had shown them that most people with strong religious convictions also had strong political convictions and were unable to make such adjustments.
I told them that I was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and thus totally neutral when it came to political matters. I explained that my love was for the people of Taiwan and for those in the rest of China. They replied: “Tell us again the name of your religion, but this time in English.” I did so, and they went on: “Oh, yes, we have many of your people in our country. Now, tell us more. Explain the difference between you and the Baptists.”
After a two-hour conversation, including a long discussion about Christian love and neutrality, these diplomats said: “You don’t know how thankful we are for having this explained to us. This is the first time we have fully understood the position of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” It was now almost midnight. Following a warm invitation to come to dinner at the Soviet Union’s embassy, I said good-bye and went out to call a cab for the trip back to my hotel.
“More Impressive than the Great Wall”
It is difficult to say much about modern-day China without sounding like either an advocate or a critic of the government. Of course, I am neither. There are, however, at least two positive things that are noteworthy.
Although China has been an agricultural country for thousands of years, it is good to see the country’s increased ability to provide food for itself, thus avoiding the great famines that used to sweep through China. In addition, thousands of “country,” or “barefoot,” doctors have been trained to provide basic health-care services to the masses. These two achievements in food and health care are, in my opinion, China’s greatest accomplishments in modern times, far more impressive than the Great Wall, and certainly more important than the invention of paper or kites.
China is infectious. Since the days of Marco Polo, it has held an allure for Westerners. I finally had my opportunity to get in touch with the “Middle Kingdom,” but I found out that that sprawling, densely populated land had reached out and touched me in return. It had deepened my understanding of humanity. I doubt if my view of things will ever be quite the same again.—Contributed.
[Pictures on page 24, 25]
More people than realize it have been touched by the “Middle Kingdom”