Chinese staff recalls their warm yet dignified reception of Richard Nixon in his Shanghai visit 50 years ago
First encounters
Published: Feb 28, 2022 11:20 PM
Zhou Liangtie shares his story of performing acrobatics for Nixon.Photo: Xinhua

Zhou Liangtie shares his story of performing acrobatics for Nixon.Photo: Xinhua

Editor's Note:

Fifty years ago, a joint China-US communiqué was issued in Shanghai, marking former US president Richard Nixon's week-long historic visit to China, which became a diplomatic breakthrough in modern China-US relations.

That ice-breaking trip also gave many Chinese people an opportunity to interact with Americans in person. Curiosity, nervousness, and contempt were intertwined, but the label on the expected guest of honor as "the head of an imperialist country" did not sway host China in making the most serious of preparations, while efforts were made to ensure that the historic exchange would go smoothly.

Fifty years later, Global Times reporters Feng Yu and Yu Xi interviewed five Chinese witnesses based in Shanghai who recalled their involvement in the visit by Nixon. In addition to the diplomats and statesmen, how did ordinary people shine behind this great moment in history? And how did this event changed their lives, and the lives of millions on both continents?

'How should we treat the head of imperialist country?'

"Upon knowing about the visit of the US president and the reception task, people were divided in how to greet a US president under the backdrop of then China-US relationship," said 85-year-old He Zhaofa, who was a receptionist at the Jin Jiang Hotel when then US president Richard Nixon visited Shanghai and stayed in the hotel in 1972. He shared with the Global Times some details of the encounter.

"Some claimed that we the Chinese had suffered so much from imperialist countries in the past 20 years. How should we cordially treat the head of an imperialist country? Others said that we should do as told as it was the guidance and strategy of Chairman Mao Zedong," He added.

"The working group persuaded most of us to embrace the task, saying 'You're not serving Nixon but completing the political task commanded by Chairman Mao,'" He recalled.

Upholding the principles of "Being neither humble nor arrogant; being neither cold nor hot; and being friendly," He and his colleagues treated Nixon on several occasions in Shanghai.

During Nixon's stay, He witnessed the exchanges between the Chinese people and the American delegation members. "At first, the American personnel did not drink Chinese water or eat Chinese food, but later, they drank the tea we offered them."

He shared with the Global Times the story of the Persian cat embroidery. The Jin Jiang Hotel renovated and redecorated the presidential suite for Nixon, which Premier Zhou Enlai inspected twice. He and his colleague purchased an embroidered Persian cat decorative accessory from Suzhou, in neighboring Jiangsu Province. He and his colleagues noticed that US First Lady Pat Nixon loved the piece very much and reported this to the leaders. Later, Premier Zhou Enlai decided to gift it to the first lady. 

"We could feel the change of President Nixon's mood before and after the Shanghai Communiqué was issued," He revealed, adding that "after the issuance of the communiqué, Nixon was relaxed and, with his wife, paid attention to the objects and decorations in the suite. They noticed the Persian cat and fell in love with it."

'I visited the US with Chinese table tennis delegation'

On the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Nixon's visit to China and the issuance of the Shanghai Communiqué, famous table tennis player Zheng Minzhi, one of the members of the Chinese table tennis delegation that traveled to the US in 1972 after Nixon's visit to China, recalled the ice-breaking events.

She expressed her appreciation for late Chairman Mao Zedong and late Premier Zhou Enlai's visionary strategy of using a small table tennis ball to open up the gates to diplomacy.

After the issuance of the Shanghai Communiqué, "I visited the US with the Chinese table tennis delegation," Zheng recalled. In the White House, Nixon met with them, saying they were the first to open the door to China-US friendship, Zheng said.

Zheng recalled the historic moments with excitement. "President Nixon said the friendship between the Chinese and American people would surely bring good for world peace," she noted.

Zheng also recalled her experience talking with Connie Sweeris, one of the members of the 1971 US team to China, and her husband Dell Sweeris, during a previous interview with the Global Times through video link.

"We all talked about how it felt the first time we came to the US or they came to China," Zheng said, adding that "they were received by then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai with the highest honor."

"Thinking about how hard it was 50 years ago when we finally broke the ice, China and the US have every reason to keep sound relations," Zheng said.

'They asked where wet markets were and where Chinese saved money'

Xia Yongfang, 81 years old, is the former director assistant of the Shanghai Municipal Foreign Affairs Office. She participated in the reception of the US delegation to China in 1972 and still remembers the Western media's curiosity about China.

The Western media, especially from the US, wanted to interview more Chinese people. For example, "they asked about people's living conditions, salaries, taxes, and retirement age," Xia recalled, adding that "they would ask about where the wet markets were and where the Chinese saved money."

At that time, US reporters said that they did not have time to eat or sleep but only to report on China, Xia said. "It was an exaggeration, but it showed that they valued these interview opportunities and they were eager to report on China," Xia recalled. Some reporters said that after chatting with Chinese people, they saw their confidence and self-esteem, as well as the trust in government policies, according to Xia.

'Our performances were not that revolutionary'

Born in 1949, Zhou Liangtie was a young acrobat in Shanghai in 1972. His name and the performance titled "Build up our physique, defend the motherland" appeared on the top of the show on February 27, 1972, prepared for visiting US president Richard Nixon.

It was not only an art performance, but also a political task. In order to present the perfect effect on the stage, Zhou and his peers practiced day and night for the show. They made every effort to improve their martial arts skills.

On January 7, a rehearsal was arranged in front of Alexander Haig, then deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs of the US, who was on a preparatory mission in China to make logistical arrangements for Nixon's visit.

Zhou recalled that they waited until 9:30 pm when the rehearsal officially started.

"Previously, we had been joking about the reason why Haig was late. Maybe because the food was too delicious," Zhou told the Global Times.

In the month following Haig's inspection, Zhou practiced harder and on February 25, all acrobats were asked to stay together in a nearby hotel to concentrate on the show to be showcased on February 27.

Then came the night when all their hard work paid off, with a large limelight and thunderous applauses.

Zhou said that he had an imperfect but successful performance that night in front of the US president and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, as "flaws do not hide beauty."

"Our performances were not as revolutionary'as most other acrobatic performances back then thanks to the flexibility Premier Zhou gave to Shanghai," Zhou Liangtie recalled, adding that compared with the highlight of the "revolutionary characteristics" of the performances which were considered mainstream at that time, keeping some traditional elements in acrobatics was not an easy job. It was an era of the more revolutionary, the better.

'Affinity lies in mutual understanding between the people'

Gui Yonghao, a member of the welcome team at the China Welfare Institute (CWI) Children's Palace, led a group of children to greet former US President Richard Nixon's wife Pat Nixon and other members of staff during the historic visit in 1972.

When recallinged the moments, Gui said this experience left a deep impression on him and impacted his future as well. Gui himself later served as a pediatric doctor specializing in children's heart conditions.

Despite being 12 years old, Gui and his friends knew that every word and deed they did would represent the motherland. At that time, there were many activity groups in the CWI Children's Palace, including singing and dancing, model airplane, paper cutting, and piano.

When President Nixon's wife Pat Nixon visited the CWI Children's Palace in Shanghai in 1972, she was moved to tears when she heard the choir sing US folk song "Turkey in the Straw," Gui recalled, noting that every detail was well-arranged.

Pat Nixon warmly thanks a Chinese educator for a gift when she visits a school. Photo: VC

Pat Nixon warmly thanks a Chinese educator for a gift when she visits a school. Photo: VCG

Together with other group members, Gui tried to learn foreign languages and world geography, and studied the customs and cultures of people in various countries.

"Amity between people holds the key to sound state-to-state relations, while affinity lies in mutual understanding between the people." Gui said this thought took root and germinated in his heart at that time.