On a visit to Ling Zhao Elementary School in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province, first graders ran up to a group of Black journalists and said, “Hey-lo,” before breaking into a big smile. One first-grader eager to try out his English said in perfect English, “What is your name?”

In the United States, not many students learn that modern day China is home to one of the world’s earliest civilizations. During the early 1920s, excavators discovered what became known as the Peking Man, skeleton bones believed to date back to approximately 750,000 years.

Chinese imperial dynasties began with the partly mythical Xia. The first Chinese dynasty that left recorded records was the Shang (Yin), which settled near the Yellow River from the 17th to the 11th century B.C. The Qin Dynasty, established in 221 B.C., was the first unified Chinese state. The Republic of China was established in 1912, marking an end to imperial rule. A Chinese Civil War ended in 1949, leading to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

Ironically, Africans and African-Americans may have stronger ties to China than most Whites.

The first trade exchanges between China and Africa are believed to have taken place during the Tang Danasty [618-907], but reached its height during the Ming Dynasty [1368-1644]. Zheng He, a famous Chinese navigator, visited the East Africa coast seven times between 1405 and 1433. Consequently, China learned about the nearby continent and its rich natural resources.

China established diplomatic relations with Egypt in 1956 and supported many African liberation movements in the 1960s and 1970s. It established formaliz
ed diplomatic and economic relations with 51 African countries and still maintains ties with 45 of them.

Because of those relationships, China was able to finally join the United Nations General Assembly when, led by African nations, the UN voted in 1971 to expel Taiwan and replace it with the People’s Republic of China.

To align itself with the struggle against imperialism in the 1930s and 1940s, China courted numerous Black activists opposed to the second-class status of African Americans in the U.S. Scholar/activist W.E.B. DuBois met Mao Tse-tung and at one point, his birthday was celebrated as a national holiday in China. Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes visited China to register their disapproval of America’s version of apartheid. Malcolm X was part of a new wave of Black nationalists to visit China in the 1960s that included Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, and H. Rap Brown.

Black leaders showed an appreciation for China on the home front as well. The first sizable Chinese immigration to America coincided with the California Gold Rush in the early 1850s. More came to help build the First Transcontinental Railroad. But as gold became scarce, resentment against Chinese grew and in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to block further Chinese immigration to the U.S. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass opposed the act and Blanche K. Bruce, a Black U.S. senator from Mississippi, voted against it. The law was not repealed until passage of the Magnuson Act in 1943.

Until President Richard M. Nixon’s historic visit to China 41 years ago, the U.S. and China did not enjoy diplomatic relations. Even after they were established, Americans kept a distance from “Communist China” or “Red China,” as the People Republic of China was called. For years, China was lumped in with communists in the Soviet Union. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and China’s move toward a market-oriented society in 1978, Chinese say political labels do not fairly describe them – or what they have been through.

In fact, China has not always been ruled by communists.

“The 1911 Revolution overthrew the monarchy and China established the first parliamentary democracy in Asia,” explained Yan Jian, assistant to the director of the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau in Beijing. “The new regime was based on the temporary Constitution, which drew heavily on European and American experiences. Mr. Sun-Yat-Sen was nominated to be the first president of Republic of China. In 1912, Yuan Shikai was elected by the Senate as the second president. Yuan died in 1916 after his failure in restoring monarchy in China.

From 1911 to 1928, China had a democratic form of government, but lacked the essence of democracy. The system was unstable in nature: its government form shifted frequently from parliamentary democracy to presidency even to military government. Its functioning fell into chaos.”

Yan added, “In 1928 after Chiang Kai-shek militarily defeated all warlords and united China in formality, Chiang reintroduced a dictatorship form of government in China, thanks to the devastating results of ill-functioned democracy.”

Today, by all accounts, China has undergone dramatic change.

“Since the late 1970s, China has moved from a closed, centrally planned system to a more market-oriented one that plays a major global role – in 2010 China became the world’s largest exporter,” notes the Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook. “…China has implemented reforms in a gradualist fashion.”

But there is a big gap between perception and reality.

Craig Trygstad, a Minnesota native who taught in Beijing from 2000-2006 and in Shanghai from 2006-2009, said: “China is neither as forbidding as the images I’ve seen and read about from the Mao era nor as wide open-anything-goes as recent stories of entrepreneurship would suggest. And as much of a cliché as this phrase is, China is a land of vast contrasts – family, incomes, languages, cultural and ethnic traditions and geography.”

(This 4-part series is the outgrowth of a week-long African American Media Leaders Mission to China sponsored by the China-United States Exchange Foundation, a non-profit organization whose goal is to foster a better understanding between the people of China and the United States. Neither the foundation nor government officials in China had any imput in these stories or saw them prior to publication. The 7-member U.S. media delegation was led by Cloves Campbell, Jr., publisher of the Arizona Informant and chairman of the National Newspaper Publishers Association and Hiram Jackson, Publisher of the Michigan Chronicle and CEO of Real Times Media. The trip included visits to Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai.)

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