Wednesday, Mar 29, 2017, 7:04 PM CST – China

History

1972 Student Exchange

A Taste of London Fog

At the height of the Cultural Revolution, a small band of rural Chinese students were hand-picked to study abroad in the UK, making them young ambassadors at a time when China’s doors were still closed to the West

Lei Yunxia (front row, center) with her classmates Courtesy of the interviewees

Qi E’hong, one of the first 15 Chinese students to study in the UK after the onset of the Cultural Revolution Courtesy of the interviewees

Studying abroad is nothing novel to the Chinese youth of today. In fact, the topic is unavoidable. Posters advertising study abroad agencies plaster subway station walls, shopping malls and high school bulletin boards. Young salespeople giving out pamphlets for foreign language schools dot urban sidewalks; bookstores’ bestseller sections overflow with vocabulary textbooks and SAT study guides. It’s fair to say that Chinese students today have study abroad mania. About 459,800 studied abroad in 2014 alone, an 11 percent increase over the previous year, according to China’s Ministry of Education. With those kinds of numbers, it might be hard for today’s self-funded, foreign-educated students to imagine what it was like for their predecessors in the 1970s.

In 1972, six years into the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and while China’s schools and education system were in complete disarray, the government sent small groups of young people to Western countries to study. The UK was one of their destinations. Generally smart, industrious, patriotic and devout in their belief in communism, these young students, born and bred at a unique time in Chinese history, went through a variety of cultural and ideological shocks when they temporarily left the East to live in the West. Coming from a country whose doors were closed tightly to outsiders, these young students would kindle the beginnings of modern China’s relationship with the rest of the world.

England Bound

After the People’s Republic of China (PRC) regained its seat at the United Nations in 1971 and then US President Richard Nixon paid his famous visit to China the following year, the country established diplomatic relations with a large number of countries in a short period of time. Yet China’s relationship with the UK had begun much earlier. The UK was one of the first Western countries to recognize the PRC, making the announcement on January 6, 1950. The two countries first exchanged diplomatic representatives in June 1954. On March 13, 1972, half a month after Nixon’s China visit, the PRC and the UK upgraded their diplomatic relations to the ambassadorial level, launching the China-UK student exchange program shortly after. Both China and the UK expressed a strong willingness to have students study abroad to better understand the other’s language and culture.

Selecting the right students was a major concern for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) at the time. During the Cultural Revolution, Chinese students stopped receiving an education, as all schools and colleges had closed to make way for “revolution.” In 1968, millions of “educated urban youths” began to answer Mao Zedong’s call for young students to “go up to the mountains and down to the villages,” a movement that entailed relocating to the countryside to labor beside, and be “re-educated” by, poorer rural villagers. Under these circumstances, choosing a group of students with a grounding in foreign languages was a difficult task.

One cohort of young people stood out as potential candidates. These were students who had previously studied a second language at one of the country’s eight foreign language secondary schools, all of which had been founded by 1963. Their studies came to a halt as the Cultural Revolution revved up, and these students, like their peers, had been sent to rural areas for labor.

The MFA’s first step was to find the students, who had been scattered across the country. They then took a language test to further whittle down the candidates, and eventually about 40 students were selected. Lei Yunxia was one of them.

Lei had graduated from Beijing Foreign Languages Secondary School in 1966 after studying English for three years. In 1968, she left Beijing to go “down to the countryside” in Hulin Town in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, working as a medical assistant in the No. 33 Regiment of the Heilongjiang Production and Construction Corps. Day after day, the 21-year-old Lei nursed patients and bound wounds, until the early spring of 1972, when she received notice of the MFA’s call for foreign language students.

Lei Yunxia was sent to Beijing to receive a preparatory training course conducted by the MFA. Political studies and language classes were the two main parts of the training. The significance of patriotism had been stressed repeatedly to these students. Since they were the face of all Chinese students who had experienced the Cultural Revolution, they needed to know how to communicate with foreign students “correctly.” For instance, they were taught how to answer questions on touchy subjects, such as Lin Biao. Lin was Mao’s second-in-command during the early years of the Cultural Revolution; after an alleged coup attempt, he defected in 1971 and died in a plane crash on his way to the Soviet Union. The students were instructed that the proper response to questions about Lin’s demise was: “It was no more than an inner-Party power struggle.” If asked if they were Red Guards, they were to reply: “Yes, we are, but we only use verbal criticism, never violence.”

But it wasn’t until the end of the training sessions that the students learned they were to be sent abroad. Lei Yunxia was floored. “England! Never in my life had I imagined that I could go abroad one day,” she told NewsChina. “I had never dared to think of it.” Lei’s family was extremely excited about this unbelievable news. They helped Lei prepare for her journey and bought her several Dacron shirts, the most fashionable clothing available at the time.

Qi E’hong was another chosen student; at 26, he was a bit older than the rest of them. He loved reading literature, especially foreign works. The news of the UK exchange thrilled him. As he told NewsChina, he remembers being interviewed by a journalist from Reuters before departing from the Beijing airport. When asked if anyone had read books written by English authors, Qi was so excited that he exclaimed loudly in English: “Of course! I’ve read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Oliver Twist.”

‘Like Alice in Wonderland’

On December 4, 1972, the first group of trained students, 11 men and four women, finally set foot on British soil. The 15 were the first Chinese students sent abroad since the start of the Cultural Revolution. Lei Yunxia and Qi E’hong were among them, as was a 22-year-old Wang Guangya, current director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council.

 Their arrival attracted considerable attention from the London press. After landing, the students were astonished to find that they were greeted by a long line of flashing cameras. Lei Yunxia remembers hearing a phrase muttered frequently by reporters — “Red China.”

The students first had a short tour of the city, as arranged by the local Chinese Embassy. Qi E’hong said he felt “like Alice in Wonderland” during the early days of their sightseeing trip. The students were impressed by the modern metropolis: its shiny glass skyscrapers, lofty cathedrals, crowded movie theaters, restaurants and pubs. Everything was new. They had never seen kids feeding pigeons as in Trafalgar Square; street performers singing, playing guitar or performing tricks in the London Underground; young hipsters in studded leather jackets showing off tattoos on their arms or chests; or a couple kissing across the street. Apart from visiting the typical tourist spots such as Big Ben, the British Museum and the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, the Chinese students, a group of firm believers in communism, also visited Karl Marx’s tomb in Highgate Cemetery, guided by staff from London’s Chinese Embassy. Harboring a great interest in these young guests from what they called “Red China,” journalists reported on the students’ London trip. One publication posted several photos of these students sightseeing with the caption, “A Taste for London Fog.”

After several months of language training, the students were admitted to the United College of the Atlantic in Wales on Easter Day in 1973. The local newspaper published an article detailing their first day at the college. Qi E’hong still has that clipping, the headline of which was “Chinese Students Check In.”

While their British peers tended to be rebellious, bohemian and keen on The Beatles, the Chinese students stood at the opposite end of the spectrum. When their British classmates were having fun, the Chinese students spent all their time in the library, staying up late doing assignments and wading through books on their recommended reading lists, recalled Lei Yunxia. Each of them treasured this rare chance for an education. “It was like a refreshing rain after a long drought,” she said.

Their diligence touched the college staff. Although the Chinese students often broke the dormitory’s “lights out” rule, their supervisors chose to leave them alone. “They never squandered money or idled time away, never smoked or took drugs, and always got to class on time,” said David Sutcliffe, president of the college at the time.

As devout communists, ideological conflicts were an unavoidable issue that they had to cope with during this period. Could they, as atheist communists, enter a Christian church? If they visited, should they pray as the Christians did? Such questions were often discussed during their weekly meetings. Besides industriousness and self-discipline, cautiousness was another prominent characteristic among them, especially in dealing with issues concerning faith and politics. They wanted to avoid any social faux pas, even though they were in a foreign land. If they were uncertain of how to proceed in a given situation, they would ask the Chinese Embassy for “instruction.”

On the church issue, for instance, the Embassy told them they could visit the church, but there was no need to pray. Not until they actually set foot in the religious institution, however, did they find out that in church, people not only pray, they also sing hymns. Qi E’hong, an unshakable atheist, refused to join in, for he believed that singing the hymns would violate his beliefs.

Along with the cultural differences were things that brought the students and their British peers closer together. For example, their college offered Chinese language courses. The Chinese students recorded several tapes with standard pronunciation so that the language students could listen to a typical Chinese accent. Qi E’hong also conducted a Chinese course once a week, mainly teaching British students simple daily expressions. 

Great Expectations

Self-discipline and perseverance assured the students academic success. In late 1974, many were admitted to various universities to further their studies. Eight of them, including Qi E’hong and Lei Yunxia, attended the University of Bath. Wang Guangya and Cong Jun went to the London School of Economics. Five of the younger students stayed at the United College of the Atlantic to continue studying.

In the following years, the MFA continued to send groups of students to study in the UK as well as other Western countries.

Great expectations awaited these young adults on their return. Many of them have made significant contributions to Chinese diplomacy or cross-cultural communication. Along with Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office director Wang Guangya, other major players in Chinese foreign affairs also had the experience of studying abroad during the Cultural Revolution, such as State Councilor Yang Jiechi, former foreign affairs minister; Sha Zukang, former head of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs; Long Yongtu, China’s former vice minister of trade who took a leading role in negotiating China’s entry into the WTO; and Zhou Wenzhong, the secretary general of the Boao Forum for Asia and the former Chinese ambassador to the US.

Dickens reader Qi E’hong, now a retired English professor of PLA Nanjing Political College, still loves literature. In the decades since his time in the UK, he has become a noted literary translator, keen on introducing Chinese readers to famous international works of fiction, such as those by Agatha Christie and Sebastian Faulks. Every now and then, the 69-year-old indulges in nostalgia, recollecting those golden days in a foreign land which still resound in his memory. And, of course, he still remembers that first taste of London fog on a misty, quiet December morning.

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