Claude Bissell’s visit to China, at a time of political isolation between the West and China, foreshadowed the spirit of international exchange at U of T today
In the spring of 1962, U of T president Claude Bissell travelled to the People’s Republic of China at the invitation of the Chinese government. His visit took place eight years before Canada established diplomatic relations with China. To most Canadians, including Bissell, China was a mystery – a communist country that seemed to have little in common with the nations of the West. Bissell, who was also chair of the Canada Council, recorded his observations in a diary that has never been published. His writings shed light on the earliest days of U of T’s now flourishing relationship with a resurgent China.
On April 16, 1962, Claude Bissell did something few Canadians before him had done: he walked several metres across the Luohu Bridge, from the British colony of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. The border station was quiet that day and, after spending almost a week as a guest of the University of Hong Kong and some tense moments waiting to get his visa approved, Bissell was in high spirits to have arrived in China at last.
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Members of the Chinese People’s Association for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries greeted Bissell at the bridge and ushered him into the nearby train station to pass through customs. To Bissell’s surprise, the customs officer waved him through, noting that university presidents didn’t need to undergo the usual border checks.
With this unexpected welcome, Bissell began a three-week visit to China that would take him to universities, factories and cultural organizations in Guangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Wuhan. At times, Bissell admits feeling overwhelmed and unprepared. He regretted not being able to speak Mandarin or Cantonese and knowing little of China’s art and history. What he did know, he had gleaned mostly from the Royal Ontario Museum’s well-established Chinese collection and from helping chair Bill Dobson build U of T’s department of East Asian Studies. He also drew from conversations with a friend and U of T colleague, the geophysicist J. Tuzo Wilson, who had visited China a few years earlier.
Aware that his visit would be brief and carefully scripted by his Chinese hosts, Bissell warns his diary readers of the “essential fragility” of his observations. He knew China had suffered a catastrophic famine and was engaged in a border conflict with India, and that relations between China and Russia were strained. As well, since 1949, China had claimed Taiwan as part of the People’s Republic, resulting in ongoing tensions with the West.
In his diary, Bissell chose to minimize political commentary and focus on his immediate impressions. He writes, “I tried, in a small way, to make a study of human communication. This, it seems to me, is all the untutored visitor to China can hope to do.”
Bob Rae, who came to know Bissell in the 1960s when Rae was a student leader lobbying for reforms to university governance, recalls that Bissell was by no means politically radical. “Claude didn’t think much about partisan politics or power politics,” remembers Rae, now a Liberal MP and foreign affairs critic. “He wouldn’t have cared if someone called him politically soft, or even a communist.”
Bissell found his visit to China both exhilarating and rigorous; his time in Beijing was particularly intense. Shortly after arriving, he experienced an attack of melancholy and reflected, “What was I doing here, going through elaborate polite rituals, not really getting close to a strange society? The key is language – not only for communication but to make you feel a part of the life around you.” Fortunately, Bissell had sympathetic mentors in Tu Nan, his translator, and Chen Ta-Yuan, a companionable government spokesman.
Over eight days, Bissell visited Peking University, Tsing-hua University and the Institute of Foreign Languages (now the Foreign Studies University), three of the country’s top institutions of higher learning in Beijing. Bissell was amazed by the number of universities in the city, each specializing in one discipline, such as medicine or aerophysics. In the Chinese post-secondary system, Bissell learned, the country’s 60 top universities selected the best students from across the country; less able students attended provincial institutions.
During his visit to the Federation of Artists and Dramatists in Beijing, Bissell debated the role of humour and satire in a socialist state with Hsia Yen, a prominent dramatist, and Yeh Chun-Chien, the editor of the periodical Chinese Literature. Later, at the Research Institute of International Relations, he discussed a pamphlet by a leading Chinese literary theoretician. The pamphlet disturbed Bissell because it asserted that “in a world where class antagonism exists…there can be no ‘love of mankind’ which transcends classes.” To Bissell, this seemed to reject cultural exchange as a way of fostering international understanding. The institute’s directors denied this interpretation but Bissell remained unconvinced. Following the discussion, Bissell concluded that “whether or not the Chinese theoretically accept coexistence, they cannot accept it at the present time with contemporary America.”
At Beijing’s Institute of Foreign Languages, Bissell was in his element. Professor Wang Tso-Liang, who was the head of the English department and had completed his bachelor of literature at Oxford, toured Bissell through the English book holdings and chatted with him about the Alexander Lectures – the annual lectures in literature founded in 1928 at U of T’s University College. Bissell expressed surprise that Wang knew about the talks, and Wang replied that they were “world famous.”
Professor Wang seemed to know less about Canada’s writers, however. Bissell was distressed to see that the only Canadian author represented in the library was Dyson Carter, an engineer, journalist, novelist and communist. Bissell promised to send Wang books from U of T Press, as well as a wider selection of Canadian prose and poetry.
Most visits with university and factory officials began with a formal welcome that featured a dramatic comparison of pre- and post-1949 China, emphasizing the superior working and living conditions that had been achieved since the Communist Party assumed power. In his diary, Bissell recorded statistics that the registrar-general of the Ministry of Education provided to illustrate China’s progress in education. In 1962, 80 per cent of school-aged children in China attended school. Prior to 1949, the figure was 20 per cent. In higher education, student enrolment had increased from 117,000 to 810,000 in the same time period. By the early 1960s, workers and peasants, formerly excluded from universities, constituted half of the student population, and women made up 23 per cent.
Bissell’s visit was not entirely work related. He attended concerts and toured museums and cultural landmarks such as the Forbidden City, the Great Hall of the People, the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs. These visits provided opportunities for casual conversation and laughter with his hosts – with Tu, in particular. One evening in Beijing, they attended a performance by a Shanghai opera company. Tu tried to brief Bissell about what he was seeing. “Mr. Tu explained apologetically that the dialect was unfamiliar to him, but that he believed the story was about a rape,” writes Bissell. “I had some difficulty in reconciling the action on the stage (which was clearly about the engagement of a beautiful young girl to an infant) with Mr. Tu’s melodramatic interpretation. He finally confessed laughingly that he was mistaken, and that he had another opera in mind.”
During a daytime outing to see the Great Wall and Ming Tombs, Bissell and Tu discussed the standoff between China and the United States. Tu asked, “Is America really aggressive?” Bissell replied that the high standard of living in the U.S. encouraged a degree of aggression. Tu countered that a high living standard should surely discourage aggression. Bissell commented that this was not always historically true.
A highlight of Bissell’s stay in Beijing was a visit to the Peking Opera’s training school, followed by an evening performance starring the legendary actress Tu Ching-Fang. Bissell had met Tu and seen her perform 18 months earlier at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto (he had been invited to China by a cultural delegation accompanying the opera). In Beijing, Tu portrayed a character of great subtlety in a story that, as Bissell wrote, “involved love at first sight, mistaken identity, complication and resolution.” Afterward, Bissell went backstage to compliment the performers who had visited Canada and who were genuinely moved to see Bissell in China.
Before Bissell left for China, Walter Gordon, the politician and Canadian nationalist, suggested that Bissell contact Isabel and David Crook, who were teaching English at the Institute of Foreign Languages. Born in China to missionary parents, Isabel had graduated from U of T’s Victoria College in 1936. She went on to postgraduate work in anthropology at the London School of Economics. After the war, she returned to China with her husband, David; by then, both were members of the Communist Party. They were the first foreign full-time teachers on staff and together wrote Revolution in a Chinese Village: Ten Mile Inn, a study of historic land reform in North China during the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 2008, Victoria College presented Isabel Crook with an honorary degree for her work as an educator, activist and author.
Over lunch at the Crooks’ flat, Bissell mentioned U of T medical graduate Dr. Norman Bethune, who was revered in China for his heroic work performing surgery at the battlefront during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The Crooks said that every year, millions of Chinese children read about this great Canadian in their textbooks. Bissell told the Crooks about his first dinner in Guangzhou, where he had proudly announced to the government official sitting next to him that Bethune was a University of Toronto graduate. The official was clearly impressed, though Bissell felt chastened when the man inquired if U of T had built a memorial to Bethune. (Today, the university and the City of Toronto are collaborating with former governor general Adrienne Clarkson on plans for a memorial to honour Bethune’s association with U of T and his role as one of Canada’s great humanitarians. Plans are also underway at U of T to establish a travelling fellowship in surgery in Bethune’s name.)
After leaving Beijing to spend several days in Shanghai and Hangzhou, Bissell returned to the capital to see the May Day celebrations and to relax. Unknown to him, his hosts had arranged a busy program.
Following a state banquet, Bissell talked privately with Chen Yi, China’s vice-premier and minister of foreign affairs. During the 40-minute conversation, Chen told Bissell that China was anxious to enter into a diplomatic relationship with Europe and the U.S. He pointed out that the Russian political and economic model was not totally suitable for China, and that his country needed both to emulate Russia and adopt Western technology. They discussed the possibility of academic exchanges.
On the evening of May 1, Bissell left for Tiananmen Square to see the fireworks. “We had tickets that admitted us to the balcony of Tiananmen, the gate at the entrance of the Forbidden City that overlooks the square,” writes Bissell. “A vast crowd was assembled; it filled the square and stretched down the main avenue on either side – well over half a million people gathered in one place, almost the total population of the City of Toronto. Here was a superb illustration of the Chinese genius for creating order where chaos would ordinarily prevail: the crowd…seemed to settle into a pattern, with here and there a space left free where dancers in costume could perform. When darkness came, around 9 p.m., the fireworks began. They rose from all sides of the square, soared into the sky and then converged in bursting stars and brilliant trails of colour over the centre of the crowd.”
Suddenly the people around him jumped to their feet. Premier Zhou Enlai approached and, on hearing that Bissell was Canadian, said he hoped Bissell’s visit would further the cause of peace. Tu, the translator, then asked Bissell to move with a few others into a covered area. Bissell writes: “Towards the centre there was a small crowd and a suggestion of excitement, and I caught a glimpse of a broad forehead and lank, black hair. The white effigy of a thousand foyers had suddenly become flesh and blood.” Mao Zedong, chairman of the People’s Republic of China, and key government officials greeted Bissell with a handshake; the word “Canada” was repeated with enthusiasm.
Afterward, Bissell asked Tu if he was among the first Canadians to meet Mao. Tu thought he was, with the exception of members of the Canadian Communist Party.
On Bissell’s last day in China, as he was travelling back from Guangzhou to the Hong Kong border, he watched his companion, Chen, quietly writing in his notebook. He assumed Chen was compiling a fresh list of statistics to share. Suddenly Chen looked up, smiled and spoke. Tu translated: “Mr. Chen has just composed a poem in your honour.” Before they reached the border, Bissell had composed several verses in reply. Back
in Canada, Bissell’s brother, Keith Bissell, a composer and arranger, set the verses to music, which were later published as “Two Songs of Farewell.” Bissell’s diary concludes, “For the time being, politics and human nature were blessedly separated.”
On Friday, May 11, Bissell arrived back in Toronto after spending a week in Thailand. The following day, CBC Radio, the Toronto Daily Star, the Toronto Telegram and the Globe and Mail interviewed him. While in Hong Kong, he had already spoken with Frederick Nossal, who had briefly headed the Globe’s Beijing bureau. Nossal’s negative article, “China in Dire Need of Foreign Aid, U of T President’s View After 3-Week Tour – Finds Higher Education Standard Poor,” disturbed Bissell because he felt that Nossal unfairly conveyed his impressions. Later in the fall, the Washington Post published a buoyant piece by Bissell titled “China Makes Big Strides in Education.” The Christmas 1962 issue of the Varsity Graduate featured a wide-ranging interview with Bissell for the U of T community.
Bissell’s visit to China, which he undertook at a time of political isolation between the West and China, foreshadowed the spirit of international exchange at U of T today. Bissell was aware that academic and cultural partnerships between U of T and China could only flourish if Canada and China established diplomatic relations. And yet for Bissell, “Two Songs of Farewell” symbolized not an end but a beginning.
Deirdre Macdonald (BA 1969 UC) is Claude and Christine Bissell’s daughter. She is a freelance writer on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.