Lifetime of dialogue with China

By Feng Shu Source:Global Times Published: 2013-1-18 9:03:01

Isabel stands with a cotton factory worker in Shanghai, 1974. Photo: Courtesy of Isabel Hilton
Isabel stands with a cotton factory worker in Shanghai, 1974. Photo: Courtesy of Isabel Hilton

Born in 1949, the year when New China was founded, Isabel Hilton, a Scottish writer, columnist, broadcaster and documentary producer, saw her life become closely intertwined with China over the past 40 years. 

It all started when she lived here for two years back in the early 1970s when the country was in the middle of its own internal upheaval. Hilton, then a young Sinology major student from the graduate school of Edinburgh University, was one of the first 12 British students who came to China to study after the start of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Today, as a graceful lady in her 60s, Hilton still remembers vividly the scene of Beijing she laid eyes on when she first set foot in China in October 1973. "It was puzzling, it felt like another world, remote and enclosed," Hilton wrote in her own memoir.  But it is the very feeling of "strange" and "uneasy" that perhaps best describes her early life in Beijing as soon as she started her Chinese studies at the Beijing Language and Culture University. "The campus was very empty and there was almost nobody there… I was never able to go out on the street without a crowd gathering to stare at me, as people were astonished to find a foreigner loose on the street," said Hilton in a phone interview with the Global Times from her London home.

Toiling in factories

Hoping to come to China to study Chinese literature, Hilton later found this to be impossible as most of the 20th century Chinese literature she wanted to study was banned during the Cultural Revolution, including the works by her favorite writer Lao She, the famous Chinese writer who took his own life in 1966 following repeated persecution. "I dreamed of reading his Beijing stories in the city that had been his own inspiration, mastering the mysteries of the Beijing vernacular that he loved," Hilton's memoir reads. "It was indeed very frustrating that in the classroom, we could only discuss poetry by Chairman Mao…and the only entertainment was to watch a handful of Jiang Qing's model operas." 

Tired of the "mind-numbingly" boring classes in which politics were the most important factor in evaluating a student's academic performance, Hilton and her fellow classmates, proposed leaving the campus and, at least for a while, work in farms, factories and communes as other Chinese students did. Despite back-breaking labor, Hilton says she felt fortunate to have the experience of working in a biscuit factory assembly line or cotton-spinning in a cotton factory.  "It was great and interesting, as it offered me a chance to get to know a lot of ordinary people. Otherwise, it would be very difficult and you got to see what working conditions were like, and gain much better sense of what it's like to work in factories," said Hilton.

As China remained largely closed from the outside world until the end of the 1970s, Hilton landed herself a job with the Sunday Times as a feature writer after returning home from China in 1975. Her journalistic career took her to many countries around the world, and allowed her to witness a lot of historic moments such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breaking up of the Soviet Union. Hilton, however, never completely took her eyes off China, until she became much more engaged again with China since early 1990s. 

"China is so huge that you could spend several lifetimes to follow it and understand it, not to say it has become a totally different place. It's no longer the daunting proposition it used to be. It has such a weight in the world today and you just couldn't understand the world of the 21st century without understanding China," said Hilton. Given how tempting the constant changing landscape of China is, Hilton says she could never believe her learning about China to be over. "It's a great privilege to watch this economic revolution in human history. How could you possibly not be interested," Hilton added.
A photo of Isabel today Photo: Courtesy of Isabel Hilton
A photo of Isabel today Photo: Courtesy of Isabel Hilton

China Dialogue website

Hilton has not only been a close observer of China's development but has taken an active role in it as well.  In October 2006, she and her team launched an independent environment bilingual website called China Dialogue.

She chose not to focus on issues like human rights or democracy in China, where Hilton felt there was little chance of a meeting point with the West. Hilton says her choice to zero in on the environment and climate change was based on environmental problems being a concern for all people and an issue for all nations.  By presenting reports, information and expert views from both Chinese and foreign perspectives on environmental issues, Hilton, as chief editor, has set a very concrete mission for the website.

 "China's environmental issues are particularly bad, as it's still in the middle of its industrial revolution. But China's problem also relates to international trade and to the global supply chain and so is not just China's own problem. We think it's very important to try to create common understanding about common environmental problems," said Hilton, who argues that the fundamental function of the website is to make more information available before any decisions which could have an environmental impact are made.

"If you keep the information too narrow, you have bigger chances of making more mistakes. It does contribute to social harmony when decisions are made out of consultations through which, a broad range of people's interests can be heard. The more people discuss it, the more a policy is tested, the better the policy will be," said Hilton.

Now looking back this "strange and turbulent" time in China's history that she witnessed, Hilton always has mixed feelings. She regrets not being able to really make friends with any Chinese people at the time, as any foreign connections could be regarded as evidence of espionage or lacking patriotism. But at the same time, she sees it as very meaningful. "I learned a huge amount, as even for an understanding of China now, it's very useful to have that perspective, to know where it came from in its recent history," said Hilton.

 "Learning Chinese changed my life, as it meant that for the rest of my professional life, I would be either going to China or be interested in China. It's like a huge window on culture, experience and history, and I am very glad to have opened it early in my life," said Hilton.

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