Search using this query type:

Search only these record types:


Advanced Search (Items only)

China Vignettes



China Vignettes


Article by Warren Phillips on the 1972 press delegation to the People's Republic of China by members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Photographs by John Duprey.


China--Social conditions--20th century
Phillips, Warren, 1926-
Zhou, Enlai, 1898-1976
Mao, Zedong, 1893-1976
American Society of Newspaper Editors


Phillips, Warren, 1926-




Queens College Department of Special Collections and Archives (New York, N.Y.)




This material may be protected by the U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.). We welcome you to make fair use of the content accessible on this website as defined by copyright law. Please note that you are responsible for determining whether your use is fair and for responding to any claims that may arise from your use.


1113405 bytes








Week Ending November 4, 1972
Page 22


By Warren H. Phillips

CROSSING into China from Hong Kong we walk the length of the covered railroad bridge at Shumchun and approach a half dozen People's Liberation Army men collecting passports at the far end.
I hand mine to one of them. "Okay," he says in English.
On the two-hour train trip to Canton, where we are to board a flight for Peking, the villages, bamboo groves, water buffalo, and green rice fields of the eternal China race by outside the window. But most of our attention is fixed inside the car on Soong Wen-hua, 30, our guide and a representative of the new China. He's responding to questions about his life.
His salary is set at group meetings where his coworkers judge him on his ability, attitude to his work, and loyalty to the principles of Chairman Mao's ideology, he says. Does he earn overtime pay when he works late? He laughs. "We in China take pleasure in our work."
Soong spends 10 hours a week participating with his coworkers in political discussions - indoctrination sessions required of students, factory workers, farmers, soldiers, government officials, everyone. Elsewhere, they generally run four to seven hours a week.
He and his wife have a three-year-old son. What are their dreams for him? "I want to make him something useful to the people," says Soong. It's a predictable, programed response we are to hear dozens of times from others over the next three weeks.
"I don't have a very good background myself," our guide says apologetically. "My father was a shopkeeper-petit bourgeois." Since the 1966-69 Cultural Revolution chances of being admitted to college or advancing in life have become slim for those whose parents weren't workers, peasants, or soldiers.
Soong takes his three-year-old to nursery school every Sunday afternoon and picks him up again the following Saturday afternoon. We are surprised at this live-out arrangement for one so young. It's optional, to help working wives, and roughly a third of the parents with whom we talk in the weeks ahead avail themselves of this option and profess to see nothing unusual or harmful about it.
It's in the nursery schools, whether of the day-care or boarding variety, where a lifetime of political indoctrination begins, with songs such as this one:
We're called little Red soldiers,
We listen to Chairman Mao's every word.
We want to be revolutionaries even when we're young,
We want to be workers, peasants, soldiers, when we are grown up.
* * *
Visiting the historical sites in and around Peking, politics is never out of mind. On the way to the Ming Dynasty tombs we pass one of the ubiquitous red billboards with white characters: "Grasp Revolution and Promote Production." Near the tomb we visit are exhibits showing how the people of that day were exploited to create the emperor's wealth and final resting place.
Signs tell us 35,000 men worked on the tomb for eight years, with every family in the country providing an average of six or seven man-days. The emperor's clothes are displayed and contrasted with the clothes and living conditions of the workers who produced his wardrobe. Dioramas and paintings show peasants being forced to sell their daughters for tax money and other oppression by sinister-looking landlords and agents of the emperor.
Outside buses and open trucks bring a steady flow of sight-seers to view the tombs - and get the message.
The Forbidden City, with its palaces of the Ming and Manchu dynasties, also is crowded with visitors, almost all in the standard blue Mao-style tunics and trousers. Some 300,000 a month walk through the grounds. In the lovely royal garden, with its small and delicate red pavilion, there's another big red sign with white characters saying all this culture is the landlords' culture and came out of the sweat of the exploited people.
Will the steady diet of Maoism and Marxism - in the schools, in the factories, in the press, in the theater - keep the young and rising generation sold on their system and fired with revolutionary zeal? Or will the monotony of it all, combined with the new generation's lack of personal experience with the "bad old days" of widespread destitution, hopelessness, and corruption in China, lead to diminished ardor?
One man's opinion: So long as living conditions and educational and job opportunities continue to improve, most Chinese will subscribe to the ideology. If there should be prolonged deterioration in the standard of life, ideology alone won't withstand the pressure for changes. Individual freedom has been so unfamiliar to the Chinese experience that it is not the vital consideration to most Chinese that it would be to Americans.
For the present, life is improving here, and the enormous majority in this nation of 800,000,000 are able to identify their own material self-interest with the Maoism that preaches subordination of the individual's interest and selfless service to the collective society.
* * *
Not all signs in the Forbidden City's palaces and grounds deliver the Maoist message. In the small Hall of Union, which was built in 1420 and served at different times as the empress' throne-room and a storage room for imperial seals, there's a small white tablet at the far end bearing two characters wu wei. They mean laissez faire, and represent one of the political ideals of ancient China, refraining from central government action whenever possible.
I note the reference in a guide book and point out the stone tablet to an interpreter, who had not mentioned it. "Do nothing," he translates with obvious distaste.
* * *
Every meal is an adventure - webbed ducks' feet, sea slugs, sharks' fin, snake soup, turtle, fried sparrows, and lotus root, along with excellent chicken, pork, duck, noodle, vegetable and other dishes. It all tastes much better than it sounds. We note grilled ice cream listed as the last course on one menu and are in a state of suspense throughout the meal. It turns out to be baked Alaska.
The Peking Hotel surprises us with apple pie, to which we deftly apply our chopsticks. We also introduce some names of our own for Chinese fare. Mao-tai, the potent sorghum whisky in which the Chinese drink numerous toasts, is quickly dubbed "the eternal flame." We have a little too much one evening. "You glad table," says the waitress.
Premier Chou En-lai receives our group of American editors at 10:30 one night, a week after our arrival, in a reception room of the Great Hall of the People. There is the usual soldier with rifle and fixed bayonet on guard at the entrance to the buildings and a handful of soldiers in the shadows on the sidewalk in front. Otherwise there's no outward sign of security.
The premier shakes hands with each of us as we enter the room. A photographer records each handshake and the pictures are distributed later as souvenirs. What appears to be a small grandstand is at one end of the room. It's to elevate the rear rows for a group photograph. All very organized.
After the picture-taking we sit in a large circle, sip tea that's been placed on small tables covered with white plastic cloths, and wipe our hands and faces with hot washcloths provided for that purpose. Chinese Panda cigarets, in blue packages with pictures of two pandas on them, also are laid out on the tables. There's no health warning on the package.
For more than an hour, the premier seems bent on a filibuster, Questions are answered with long, blow-by-blow accounts of the history of the Communist Party of China. Or lengthy recitals of Mao's political philosophy.
The premier suggests a short break, gets up and goes to the men's room, and when he returns the conversation suddenly turns fruitful. He talks about the abundance of potential leaders he thinks China has for the future and indicates collective leadership rather than a single successor will take over when Mao dies. He speaks of the country's economic policies and his expectation of a larger grain crop this year, and he talks of a 1958 Khrushchev proposal for a joint navy with China and of his satisfaction with the way Sino-U.S. relations are developing.
He spends considerable time explaining why former Defense Minister Lin Piao, who was Mao's chosen successor, allegedly plotted to seize power last year and how failing, was killed in a plane crash while trying to flee the country. His explanation: Lin sensed his policies were being repudiated by the Communist Party's central committee and figured he would never be allowed to succeed to the top spot if he didn't move quickly to take power. When he was unsuccessful and feared detection, he secretly obtained a plane and fled in such haste that he left without a navigator or radio operator.
The editors still raise questions. The premier says it's all much clearer than the Warren Report on President Kennedy's assassination and expresses his conviction that Lee Harvey Oswald couldn't have acted alone.
"You just have a conspiratorial mind." J. Edward Murray of the Detroit Free Press, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, tells him. The premier laughs. Later we learn the interpreter softened the remark in translation.
At 10 minutes past 2 in the morning, the meeting breaks up. The editors file out bleary-eyed and yawning. Chou En-lai, who is 74, is bouncy and wide awake.
* * *
China's leadership changes have been so frequent that the Museum of the Revolution, across Tien An Men Square from the Great Hall of the People, was "temporarily closed" at the time of the Cultural Revolution and has yet to re-open. First Liu Shao-chi, the chief of state, was ousted, then Lin Piao and a number of others in the next tier of their top leadership.
Apparently the personnel and doctrinal shuffling moved faster than Chinese history could be rewritten and the museum's exhibits reconstructed.
* * *
At Peking University we are told about the effort to bridge the traditional gulf in China between those who work with their minds and those who work with their hands. The mandarins, the scholar-officials who long ruled China in the name of the emperors, used to grow their fingernails long as a sign of disdain for manual labor.
Today no high-school graduate is considered for admission to college until he has put two years on a farm or in a factory. While in college he must spend three months of each year doing such physical labor to "reintegrate" himself with the masses and stay in touch with their thinking. After graduation chances are good he will be assigned to a rural area, where over 80 per cent of China's population lives.
I asked if they had heard of the World War I American song, "How You Goin' to Keep 'Em Down on the Farm, After They've Seen Paree?" American farm youth have been migrating to the cities. Won't China's educated youth, after they've attended universities in cities like Peking and Shanghai, be reluctant to go back to the fields?
Most of the 1,000 to 2,000 Chinese who flee to Hong Kong each month are not so much disillusioned with communism as they are disillusioned with being assigned to farm work rather than professional work in the cities. Might not the two-year and three-month stints on the farms breed distaste for such labor rather than respect for it and eagerness to return?
Replies Li Chia-kuan, a Communist Party official who's now a top administrator at the university: "As the Han scholar Ssu Ma-chien said, 'The worth of some people's lives is weightier than mao-tai, the worth of other's lives is lighter than a feather.'"
* * *
In the city of Sian, capital of Chinese dynasties from the Eleventh Century B.C. to the Tenth Century after Christ, and now the capital of Shensi Province, we are treated to an evening of music at a local theater. A male soloist sings "We Poor People Follow Chairman Mao." A flute soloist plays "Hearts of the Frontier Guards Turn to the Party." High point is a rendition on the two-stringed fiddle of "Up the Mountain Come the Manure Carriers."
* * *
Between culture and serious political-economic reporting, we have a chance to work in some shopping. Bob White of Mexico, Mo., and I each purchase hats appropriate to the Siberian frontier. They consist of huge masses of fur. Our colleagues suggest we mate the two hats and produce little fur hats for everyone in the group. Next morning John Hughes of the Christian Science Monitor complains that White's hat kept him awake all night howling.
* * *
Egalitarianism is the rule these days in China, unlike Russia where a privileged, urban-based managerial class sits above the ordinary folk. Part of the purpose of the Cultural Revolution was to rid China of such "revisionist" tendencies. Today factory managers live in the same apartment buildings and in the same size and quality of accommodations as their workers, get along without cars for their personal use, and spend a day a week on the production lines to keep their empathy with the workers operative.
But there is nothing egalitarian about the treatment accorded our group of visiting editors. A Russian-built twin-engine Antonov-24 aircraft is put at our disposal for part of our travels around the country; later it is replaced with a British-made four-engine Viscount turbo-prop. At another time we are transported by private train.
It is ironic that after decades of ranting against the special privileges foreign imperialists carved out for themselves in China in the past, the Chinese are now so effusive in their hospitality to their guests that they volunteer very special privileges indeed.
* * *
Everywhere we go in Peking, citizens gawk at us. They have seen far fewer foreigners than we had assumed and drop whatever they are doing to stare at our strange faces and even stranger clothes. In cities and towns away from the capital, large crowds follow us down the street and clap in greeting, or rush to the roadside to wave and clap as we drive past.
The warmth of our welcome is unmistakable. Not only officials but ordinary citizens to whom we speak at random express admiration for America and the hope of friendship. Either strong latent feelings of friendship for America survived 20 years of hostility and propaganda attacks on us, or the regime is remarkably effective in turning its people's feelings on and off as the party line changes.
Why have we and others been invited to visit China at this time? Partly it's to promote mutual understanding and relax relations with the United States, so the Chinese don't have to worry about us militarily while they dig air-raid shelters and worry about the Russians massed across their northern frontier.
Partly it's in the hope of sympathetic reporting that will depict China as stable, rational, and respectable. This is an image that could not only help enhance China's influence in the world but could further reduce opposition to an eventual switch in diplomatic relations from Taiwan to Peking and eventual absorption of Taiwan by the government on the mainland.
The Chinese mobilized to see that we received the best possible presentation of their system and what they are doing - within limits, of course. We visited showplace factories, schools, and communes, as expected. But this was not purely a Potemkin Village tour.
More often than not, the Chinese were candid in answering our skeptical questions. They made no effort to prevent us from talking to students, workers, farmers, and housewives whom we selected at random. We saw much of the bad side - the poverty, the pervasive totalitarianism - as well as the good.
Also, it should be noted, foreign citizens of Chinese extraction are being permitted to visit here in increasing numbers; many of them not only know the language but have friends and relatives here with whom they can probe more deeply into the realities of Chinese life today.
All this reflects a confidence that, despite the many frustrations of life here, the vast majority of their citizens are satisfied with their progress to date and widespread distaste for the present system is not to be found. The Chinese people have no basis for comparison with foreign systems, only with what they knew before.
* * *
In Shanghai, Tin Shu-chen, a textile worker, her husband, who works at an electric-power station, and their four children live in a single room and share a kitchen and bathroom with another family of five. This is not unusual.
In a farm commune in Linhsien County in Honan Province, Mao Tsai-chin, who hasn't been out of her village of Ta Tsai Yuan in all her 50 years, has four members of her family living at home. The total income that three of them earned from working in the fields last year was 300 yuan ($130) plus their grain needs.
Yet both profess to feel they are well off.
Mrs. Tin has a bicycle, a radio, a clock, and a sewing machine - and these are the ultimate status symbols to which everyone in China seems to aspire these days.
Mrs. Mao has electric light, which wasn't available in the village until 1964, and a new irrigation project is making the fields more productive than previously. "When I was a young girl," she says, "we had many meals of husks. Now life is much better. We have all this corn and wheat." She points to clusters of corn hanging on the wall outside her house to dry in the sun.
* * *
Whether future generations will be as easily satisfied is one of the questions for the years to come. One of the impressions a visitor carries away from China is of large numbers of children in the village streets, children in the city parks, children marching to and from school, children everywhere. Every seven years there are as many babies born in China as the total population of the United States.
How successfully China feeds, employs, and satisfies its sea of humanity - now one-fourth the human race and still growing fast - is a fundamental question for China's future and that of the world.


Occupying most of this page is a rather long travel journal about a very large country. The reporting carried Warren Phillips over 4,000 miles through five of China's provinces.
Intriguing observations, through the eyes and ears of a most interesting wanderer. The energetic Warren Phillips wrote this article, plus eight shorter ones for our sister publication, The Wall Street Journal, in transit. He pounded his portable typewriter late at night, after attending evening functions. He rose as early as 4 a.m. to hit it some more. He typed aboard Chinese trains. He was still typing during his long plane trip home. In other words, he's a regular working newsman.
I stress this point - because he needn't be. Warren's no staff writer for either publication. He's top brass of our parent corporation, Dow Jones - weighted with at least three titles, Executive Vice President, General Manager, and Editorial Director. So most of the time, naturally, he's pretty busy executing, managing, and directing. But his news instincts remain irrepressible.
And that's because he - like Bill Kerby, our company President - really is a newsman, who spent years reporting events and editing copy before undertaking the executive role. As editor of this weekly, I find it comforting that The Observer's budgets and policies are reviewed by men who understand what it takes to turn out a news product of quality and integrity. As a reader, this has significance for you too.
I've known Warren ever since 1947, when he was fresh out of college and joined The Journal. Soon he was in Europe, as a dashing foreign correspondent, while I was stuck in New York editing his yarns. Later on, our functions reversed; my wife and I were happily living in Paris while Warren was editing. Our house in Brooklyn Heights being empty, Warren and wife Barbara moved in. They and we emerged from this landlord-tenant relationship without rancor-which proves, I think, that we're all amazingly amiable. The Phillips family eventually bought another Brooklyn townhouse, and still lives there. Barbara looks as beautiful as ever, doubtless because of keeping herself busy teaching high-school English and caring for daughters Lisa, Leslie, and Nina.
Warren manages to fill his free moments too. Often he's outdoors, on his sailboat, the Leilani. Or indoors, meeting with other trustees of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. Or traveling on behalf of the journalistic profession. He's President of the American Council on Education for Journalism, which accredits college programs. He's Treasurer of the American Society of Newspaper Editors; it was as a member of an ASNE delegation that he has just toured China.

Original Format

Newspaper article
16.5 x 23 inches (419 x 584 mm)


Phillips, Warren, 1926-, “China Vignettes,” Queens College Archives and Special Collections, accessed March 19, 2019,