Published: May 2008

Return to Changing China

Chinese Schoolgirls

(Originally published in the December 1971
National Geographic)

By Audrey Topping
Photograph by Audrey Topping

Until recently, few reporters have been permitted more than brief, carefully guided visits to the world's most populous nation. One of the first to move widely in China was Audrey Topping. Her perceptive account reflects both two years of experience in pre-Communist China as a college student and the viewpoint of a Canadian, whose country has traditionally maintained a tolerant stance toward the land of Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai.
—THE EDITOR (Gilbert M. Grosvenor)

Every morning for a week my sister Sylvia woke up to exclaim with a look of utter amazement, "Well, here we are in China!" She knew, and I knew, that she sounded naive, but I think I would have exclaimed in the same way, except that Sylvia always woke up first.

It was hard to comprehend that we were actually back in China—to us almost our ancestral land, for our grandparents had lived much of their lives here and our father had been born here. Sylvia had spent her early childhood in China, before I was born, and I had lived here in my teens. We were both eager to compare the new and old Chinas.

We found at once that the new China is highly visible—even palpable. The air seemed to bear an electric charge. There was obviously a job to do, and the Chinese moved with a sure step, vigor, and a look of determination to get it done. They were the first to admit there is still a long way to go and no time to waste. Portraits of Mao Tse-tung were everywhere, and the "little red book" of his sayings was in every pocket, from nursery school toddlers' to army soldiers'.

But old Cathay, that exotic, enchanting land, was still around, too. The gold-tiled roofs of the imperial palaces glowed in the Peking sun. The Great Wall gamboled like a dragon's back over the northern hills. Thousands of Buddhist pagodas and Confucian temples spotted the landscape. Gone, however, but not grieved for, were the camel caravans laden with tribute silks and treasures for the emperors; gone too, were the mandarins, embroidered robes, bound feet, terror gangs, beggars, robbers, and opium dens.

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