Working on a state farm in China, 1974.
Working on a state farm as a student, 1974. During the Cultural Revolution, regular students and foreign students were required to work in factories and on communes, though the spells were shorter for foreign students.

I had begun to teach myself Chinese while I was on a scholarship in the US when I was 17.

Then I decided to do my degree in Chinese at Edinburgh. The Cultural Revolution meant that it was not possible to go to China until two years after I graduated, so I did research and taught for a year. Then thanks to a British Council scholarship, I was one of the first 12 British students who were able to go to study in China.

My first sight of Beijing was puzzling. It was October 1973, at the end of a very long flight, and the city seemed so dark I could hardly believe we had arrived."

A young British diplomat had come to meet us. Today, the arrival of twelve British students in China would pass without notice, but in 1973 our group represented an important step in the normalisation of relations between Britain and China.

As we explored the city the next day, we realised that our arrival caused quite the sensation: to see foreigners strolling about, unaccompanied and on foot was incomprehensible to the local people.

As we checked out what the general store was offering, there was a loud crack behind us: a plate glass window had given way under the weight of spectators trying to get a closer look at these strange people.

Workers in a Shanghai cotton factory, 1974.
Posing with the other workers in the cotton factory, 1974.
Working in a Shanghai cotton factory, 1974.
Working in a Shanghai cotton factory, 1974. 
A photo of Chairman Mao

Studying in China at that time was different from the UK in almost every way.

Politics played a big role, and we also had to work in factories and on communes and state farms.

There were no bars, no coffee bars, very little entertainment – only a handful of model operas in the cinemas and theatres, and foreigners were so rare that large crowds gathered to stare at us."

It was disappointing that we were so restricted culturally – China has such a fantastic culture, but unfortunately most of the temples and museums were closed at that time; classical and contemporary literature highly restricted and we had to study a great deal of Jiang Qing's literary theory.

There was great curiosity back home about China, since so few people were admitted. I wrote about the experience, and became a journalist. There were few opportunities to return to China immediately since there were so few China-related jobs, but I kept in touch and eventually things changed.

I have visited China several times a year since the late 1980s and ten years ago launched the world's first completely bilingual website, chinadialogue.net, dealing with climate and environment. Since then these topics have become more and more important: now we have four websites and 22 staff.