Twenty Years Ago: Images of Post-Mao China - Madeleine Rivard Leduc

I had the honour of being the CASW President from 1985 to 1987. When I was asked to recount an outstanding event of my presidency, the first memory that came to mind was a trip to China I made on the occasion of the International Conference on Social Development, held in Tokyo in 1986.

Other events could have been the focus of this article, such as that memorable meeting of the Board of Directors in Charlottetown (PEI) in June 1986, when we were so warmly welcomed by the social workers of the Island. We ate and drank well into the night and ended with choral singing in front of the Lieutenant Governor’s residence … but that’s another story!

In August 1986, close to 30 social workers and social sciences practitioners from all across Canada took a three-week tour through China and Hong Kong. Our guide was David Woodsworth, who had extensive experience in the Orient, assisted by Patsy George, a social worker from Vancouver. This trip took place after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and before the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989. It was with difficulty and mistrust that China opened its doors to foreign visitors. Each of our visits had to be very closely supervised by local guides, whose comments were clearly expressions of the existing regime; these remarks glorified both Mao and the process of “modernization” that China was undertaking. Of course, in the days leading up to our trip, we were told that in China one must learn to “read between the lines”.

We travelled the country from north to south, along the coast that borders the China Sea. We went by bus, by train, and by boat along the Grand Canal and the Yangtze River, and we walked the Great Wall. Our trip was intended to make us aware of certain infrastructures of Chinese society, as well as health and social service institutions. We therefore visited model communes, health care facilities, and convalescent institutions that seemed to be thriving, and apartments for seniors (all of whom, from the guides’ translation, were 81 years old).

The incongruities, discomforts, oppressive heat, and upset stomachs are but a dim memory compared with the images I cannot forget, most of which arose from this experience of our time spent in the most densely populated country on the planet. The most striking images were:

  • The eight million bicycles on the streets of Shanghai at rush hour; we wondered back then what would become of China and planet Earth when the Chinese were given permission to own cars.
  • The sight of us in abject misery when our bus was forced to take an unauthorized back road owing to work being done on the main road.
  • The walk through Tiananmen Square on a summer evening, when a million Beijing citizens ─ women, children, old people, and men ─ were out taking some air, flopped down on the pavement.
  • The incomparable dignity of these smiling people despite the strict discipline, the effects of which we witnessed every day through the words of our young guides, and despite their lack of choice in how they conducted their lives.
  • The young women working with their bare hands in boiling water, unravelling silkworm cocoons to produce silk.
  • The “old” women who were forced, at age 50, to retire in order to take care of grandchildren.
  • The impromptu party we started one evening by blowing up rubber balloons for the children in one of the back streets. About a hundred little ones with their parents and grandparents gathered all around us. It was an unforgettable sight!

Sailing down the Grand Canal surrounded by a multitude of small boats so numerous that the Canal was as congested as the highway.

Lastly, landscapes of such great beauty, temples and sacred sites that looked so unlike the images we see here in the west. We were far away from home!

China has changed a great deal since that time, and yet these changes seem to be a logical progression of its entrepreneurial spirit and the discipline that was part of its character even 20 years ago. I feel extremely privileged to have been able to experience this vision of a China that no longer exists today, before it fully entered the 20th century.

I believe that one leaves China a different person than when one arrives there. We certainly appreciate even more that we live in a country where human rights are constitutionally protected. We also have the opportunity to work in a profession that can make a difference in the lives of our fellow citizens. Long live CASW!

Madeleine Rivard-Leduc, Social Worker