As we rolled through Kwangtung Province toward Canton, Dad was surprised to learn that the girls serving tea, as well as the passengers from the south, all spoke Mandarin, rather than Cantonese. In former days, the only southerners who knew Mandarin were the wealthy and well educated. When Dad talked with one of the attendants, everyone stared at this gray-haired giant of a man who spoke their tongue like a native (which indeed he was); then they began to exchange jokes and old Chinese riddles with him.
Thus, all through the journey, Dad eased our reception among ordinary Chinese. He was calling on firsthand experiences in China from the 1890's to the 1950's. He was born in Fanch'eng in 1894, during the reign of the Manchus. When he was 12, he left for the United States and later went to Canada, where he married Inga Horte, my mother, then brought her and an infant daughter, Sylvia, back to China.
Between 1922 and 1927, when the warlords dominated the country, Dad taught school in Fanch'eng and Peking, until chaotic conditions forced him to return to Canada. He went back to China in 1945 as a Canadian diplomat, during the civil war period when power passed from Chiang Kai-shek to Mao Tse-tung. Dad advocated recognition of the new government, but when the Korean war ended that possibility, he closed the embassy and returned to Canada.
Change Visible in Every DirectionAs our train sped toward Canton, Sylvia and I were enchanted by the countryside. The barefoot peasants plowing fields behind shiny water buffaloes were still there, and so were lotus-filled ponds and distant pagodas. But a new setting frames these scenes from eternal China. The fields are big compared to the small private plots of former days. The clusters of mud-and-straw huts where peasants once lived with their chickens and pigs have in many places given way to tile-roofed brick houses, with detached chicken coops and pigsties. Communist slogans in large red characters cover walls and houses: "Down with U. S. imperialism," "Long live our great leader Chairman Mao," or, simply, "Be frugal, diligent, and honest."
We knew that these changes on the land had not been accomplished without convulsive changes in the society. The new rulers took farms from the landlords and gave them to the tenants. In mass trials, vast numbers of landlords and others deemed counter-revolutionaries were executed. When the communes were first organized in 1958, the forced pace of collectivization caused dislocations, food shortages, and some peasant resistance. But gradually the collective system took hold and began to prosper.
When we got off the train in Canton, we were surrounded by curious but friendly Chinese, all staring at us. They responded immediately to our smiles and hellos. They were all pictures of health and carried themselves with dignity. Dad remarked that this was a pleasant change from the old days, when we would have been assailed by hungry, ragged beggars.