China Daily reporter Erik Nilsson held a dialogue with Tang Wensheng, interpreter for Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai during Nixon’s visit and the previous visits of Henry Kissinger. Tang is adviser to All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese, and former deputy editor-in-chief of China Daily.
What are some lesser-known stories from this groundbreaking trip? What are some of her most striking memories of the visits? What unexpected moments did she share?
Dr. Henry Kissinger, who was National Security Advisor, came secretly to Beijing from July 9 to 11 in 1971 as Nixon’s emissary to discuss the president’s visit.
During that visit, the two sides had many talks. Kissinger only had 48 hours. He had feigned a stomachache in Pakistan, and secretly come to China for only two days.
“I read, very interestingly, later on in White House Years, which Kissinger wrote at his memoirs.
And he said the only time in office he had difficulty sleeping was the evening before he left Pakistan. They left at about 3 o'clock in the morning, something like that. So he didn't have much time to sleep, but he had difficulty sleeping. He said he tried to image what laid ahead and he had a feeling of insecurity about so momentous a mission in an unknown capital, where he would be cut off from all communication.”
But halfway between the seats and the door, they stopped and had a few more words. And the chairman said, no matter the changes, our relationship remains like this. And he said in English, “standing”.
“I was rather taken aback because he meant they had a standing relationship, and they were indeed standing there. But I didn't know how he knew that the word ‘standing’ not only meant that they were standing there, but that there was a kind of relationship, standing relationship. That really took me aback. I thought that was also a sign he was learning English to converse with more people.”
"Ping-pong diplomacy” is another very famous chapter in the background of China-US relations, and Ms Tang engaged the US players when they came to China.
Generally, during such meetings, it was the head of the delegation that had a conversation with the premier, which was so at the beginning. But suddenly, a young hippie, Glen Cowen, who was a member of the American ping-pong delegation just stood up, and asked the Premier a question: What do you think of the hippie movement?
“But he answered very patiently. To my mind, he sounded like a father or grandfather talking to a young man about his thoughts on not exactly the hippie movement, but on how young people grow up.”
Premier Zhou said, “In today's world, many young people are not satisfied with the status quo, and they want to seek out the truth. The vicissitudes in thinking of young people will have many different manifestations, and not all of these manifestations, not all of the forms of them are mature or consolidated.”
“He said, when you look at it from the point of view of the development, of the progress, of the human race, you can see that a universal truth finally will be realized or will be understood by people, just as the laws of nature.”
And he said we agree that young people have the urge to seek out the truth and to adventure and make discoveries. That's a good thing, and they will have to through their own practice, achieve cognition of what is the right thing to do, or how it should be done.
“But there's one point that is you must find something in common with the majority of people, the majority of humanity can make progress, can develop itself, and can find happiness.”
“So it was very philosophical. And I heard later on that Cowen's mother, by some means, sent her appreciation to the premier for talking to her son in that way. And at the end, the premier asked his American guests to convey the greetings of the Chinese people to the American people when they got back. And so that I think is one of the most significant highlights of the visit.”
The Shanghai Communique was a milestone in the history of China-US relations. And it set the groundwork for the development of relations over the years.
Even after half a century, it still stands out as a constant reminder of what the basic foundation of these relations is, and how it is possible to make the seemingly impossible become possible.
“History will have its ups and downs. But eventually, it always goes forward. We just have to work for the better because that is in the interest of us all.”