A journalist’s view of China

China may be one of the few remaining Communist countries but it has an economy that is increasingly showing capitalist infiltration. For the Western visitor, an apparent sign of this infiltration are the large advertisement billboards or the high-rises and corporate offices in the country’s major cities, particularly in Shanghai. It is an image that stands as the exact opposite to what writer and former journalist Maria Karavia saw when she visited China in the late 1970s. Back then, no building in Beijing reached higher than the rooftop of the Imperial Palace. Like most images that greeted the visitor, the urban landscape was yet one more indication of how life in China was still beating in the resonance of the Cultural Revolution. Such images make up both the visual (more than 100 photos of China taken by the author) and narrative of «Peoples China: An Illustrated Itinerary,» a book based on a series of travelogues that Maria Karavia wrote for Kathimerini after her return from China in the late 1970s. The book, first published in 1978, has been recently reprinted in a second edition by Agra Publications. What distinguishes this edition from the former is that the photos, cut to fit a standard format in the original publication, are now published in their original dimensions; the result is that details of a picture previously left out are now fully revealed. Both images and text are a throwback in time and present the sensitive yet cautious documentation of a Westerner’s impression of China then caught in the midst of subtle transitions. Hua Kuofeng, who ruled at the time, had initiated a policy of relative openness that affected both life inside China and the country’s relationship with the West. The official invitation made by the goverment to selected Westerners was an expression of this policy. This is how Karavia, then working for Kathimerini and public television, traveled to China along with a small team of renowned Greek journalists. It was a trip that took her to Beijing, Shanghai, Canton and the Hunan province, an itinerary which Karavia documents in a favorable, gentle light. In a fluid narrative, typical of all the books that Karavia has written, the author weaves in different incidents and impressions along with the revealing conversations she had with the people she met during her stay. Karavia describes the landscape, the flat, vast areas of land, pedestrians and everyday life and, in many ways, takes the viewer on a tour of China as perceived through the senses. There is also plenty of background information on politics and history but, in general, Karavia retains a neutral rather than critical stance and stays away from making judgments on politics or social issues. As a responsible journalist, she must have felt that her relatively short stay did not suffice for any deeper analysis. Her perspective is more than that of an observer, as one impressed with and respectful of China’s recent Communist history as well as its ancient or imperial tradition, both of which she sees as forces that have equally affected life in China. Throughout the book, Karavia repeatedly mentions the spare lifestyle and sense of dignity of the place which seem to have made a lasting impression with her. Like most of her books («Odessa: The Forgotten Homeland» is one of her best known), Karavia’s book on China shows her interest in probing other civilizations and writing about them in deft and flowing prose. This tome also stands as one of the rare published photographic views of China by a Westerner in the 1970s.

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