Thursday, June 26, 2008

The fascination that is China

Not long after his 50th birthday, in 1974, George Bush senior went to China to take up a diplomatic position. On the way there, he began dictating a diary, and this has now been published for the first time. China seems to be a popular place for Westerners to indulge in a spot of diary writing: a few years back, the UK’s Prince Charles ended up suing a national newspaper for revealing some of his (private) China diary; five centuries ago a Korean official wrote an impressive journal about journeying across China; and, more than a millennium ago, a Japanese Buddhist monk wrote one of the very earliest of travel journals, yes, to China.

George H W Bush was Vice-President of the US from 1981 to 1989 under Ronald Reagan and then President from 1989 to 1993. Having made a fortune from oil before his 40th birthday,he turned to politics during the 1960s. In 1974, he became head of the US Liaison Office in Beijing, and, on the way out to China that year, in October, he started recording a diary. This has now been published by Princeton University Press with a slightly overblown title: The China Diary of George H. W. Bush: The Making of a Global President.

A few pages of the book are available to read on the Amazon website. In the first chapter, called Everybody in the United States Wants to Go to China, this president-to-be muses a bit. It’s 21 October 1974: ‘Am I running away from something?’; ‘Am I leaving what with inflation, incivility in the press and Watergate and all the ugliness?’; ‘Am I taking the easy way out?’ The answer I think is ‘no’, because of the intrigue and fascination that is China. I think it is an important assignment; it is what I want to do; it was what I told the President [Gerald Ford] I want to do; and all in all, in spite of the great warnings of isolation, I think it is right - at least for now.’

The publisher says Bush reveals ‘a thoughtful and pragmatic realism’, one that would ‘guide him for decades to come’. Not only does he, in this diary, formulate views on the importance of international alliances and personal diplomacy but he even describes his explorations of Beijing by bicycle, and experiences with Chinese food, language lessons, and ping-pong. Heady stuff.

Also heady stuff is this: Chinese diplomats being described as ‘appalling old waxworks’. According to the BBC, this allegedly comes from a private diary written by Prince Charles during a visit to China in 1997. In 2005, the UK’s Mail on Sunday printed extracts from the diary, and, then, when the Prince sued, lost the legal battle. According to The Guardian, the Mail on Sunday said ‘it had acted in the public interest by publishing the diaries because they contained the political beliefs of the UK’s future head of state’. Apparently, Prince Charles regularly writes journals of his official visits and then circulates around 100 copies to various relatives, friends and contacts.

Keeping a diary on a trip to China has been fashionable for centuries. Five hundred years ago, in 1488, a high-level Korean official called Choe Bu was shipwrecked on his way back to the mainland from the island of Jeju. Washed up on the coast of China, Choe Bu made his way overland to Beijing. During the journey, he kept a diary which modern historians find invaluable for its perspective on Chinese culture in the 15th century and for the information on China’s cities and regional differences. According to Wikipedia, his ‘description of cities, people, customs, cuisines, and maritime commerce along China’s Grand Canal provide insight into the daily life of China and how it differed between northern and southern China during the 15th century’.

And going back even further, a Japanese Buddhist monk, Jikaku Daishi or Ennin, travelled to China in 838 to act as a Japanese representative to the T’Ang court. He stayed for 10 years, travelling to monasteries even though Buddhists were being persecuted at the time. Among the many books he wrote is a diary of the time in China. This was translated into English by Edwin Reischauer, a US ambassador to Japan. Reischauer claimed it - Ennin’s Diary: The Record of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of the Law - was one of the world’s three great travel books.

Just for the record, when George Bush senior was heading for Beijing, my own diary records that on 21 October 1974 I was not that far away, in Penang, Malaysia, visiting a snake farm: ‘I . . . bus out to the university it’s fairly modern, with a nice hilly setting in the forest-covered hills around Penang. In 1980, I learn, the main language will change to Malay. I bus a bit further out to the snake temple - a small Chinese temple which, a long time ago, became a refuge for snakes. A few are now kept on twigs inside the temple - poisonous pit vipers - hardly worth the trip except maybe to see a tourist with snakes on his head and a photographer looking happy.’ But no China diary from me, at least not yet.

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