Kim Kyung-Hoon / Courtesy Reuters A visitor takes pictures of a model of Beijing's downtown at the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall, November 5, 2013.

In Search of the Real China

Outsiders Still See What They Want to See

In This Review

My First Trip to China: Scholars, Diplomats, and Journalists Reflect on their First Encounters with China
East Slope Publishing Ltd. (Muse, Hong Kong), 2013
316 pp. $28.00

My First Trip to China: Scholars, Diplomats, and Journalists Reflect on Their First Encounters With China. 
Edited by Kin-Ming Liu. East Slope Publishing, 2012, 316 pp. $28.00.

Over the last decade or so, historians and journalists have chipped away -- some with sledgehammers, others with mallets -- at several long-standing myths about China’s past. China wasn’t all darkness and pain before the communist revolution of 1949, and Western efforts to change the country, long portrayed by historians as a tragic dead end, have been far more successful than anyone could have ever dreamed -- to cite just two. The weight of these and other revelations should demand a fundamental reassessment of China’s position in the world, both in the past and going forward. But don’t hold your breath. China scholars and average citizens alike still cling to their own personal notions of the “authentic” China, deeply rooted in the soil of their imaginations.

A good example of this complex comes from My First Trip to China, a collection of 30 vignettes from a veritable who’s who of China experts relating their initial encounters with “the Promised Land,” as one of the contributors describes the country. Disillusion and nostalgia flow through the book like a river. The course of China’s history was supposed to run across exotic and revolutionary terrain. But sadly, many of these authors seem to say, it hasn’t.

One of the fascinating things about My First Trip is how little the latest research into China’s past has changed the views of the contributors. It’s an indication of the tenacity with which many of us China watchers cling to our beliefs -- no matter how outdated -- about the place. And so the book forces one to ask why so many have harbored such overwrought expectations for China and its revolution, why so many still hold on to those ideas, and why so many react with such vehemence -- or incredulity -- when they are proved

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