Their first trips to China

March 15, 2013, 3:37 PM UTC

FORTUNE — My first trip to China was in the spring of 2007. I was covering Michael Dell on one of his periodic expeditions to the far reaches of his global computer empire. I stayed at the Shanghai Four Seasons, where I had a drink that night in the top-floor bar overlooking colorfully lit skyscrapers and listening to a Chinese rock-and-roll cover band. The next morning I got into a limousine with Dell, and we rode across town to a company-wide rally at Dell’s (DELL) China headquarters. What should have been a half-hour trip took 10 minutes, thanks to a honking police escort and a driver unafraid to cross the centerline.

It was that limo ride that surprised me the most, the way the traffic parted in the People’s Republic for the benefit of a Fortune 500 CEO. Well, it was my first trip, how was I supposed to know?

By the first decade of the 21st century, of course, I should have known. Not so the 30 pioneers whose vivid and revealing essays appear in My First Trip to China: Scholars, Diplomats, and Journalists Reflect on their First Encounters with China, edited by Kin-ming Liu. The earliest visit recounted here took place in 1942, during the Japanese occupation; the latest, in 1986, three years before Tiananmen Square. All took place in the years before China’s sprint to the top of the global economy.

Contributors include Lois Wheeler Snow, widow of Edgar Snow, author of Red Star Over China, whose first visit was in 1970; Sidney Rittenberg (1945), an American who joined the Chinese Communist Party and spent 16 of his 35 years in China in prison; Harvard scholar Ezra Vogel (1973); and a smattering of business types, including David Tang (1979), owner of Hong Kong’s China Club, and Fortune’s own Tom Gorman (1975), publisher of Fortune China.

Certain themes abound: appreciation of China’s pre-industrial natural beauty; affection for its people; and awe at the distance travelled on the country’s path to social and economic development. But what binds these compelling stories is not what the visitors found when they arrived; it’s what they brought with them. In one way or another, they’re all stories about innocence, its loss, and what comes after.

“Just as the last geographically unexplored pockets of our planet were vanishing and leaving us without our accustomed fix of exotica and romance,” veteran China hand Orville Schell writes in his introduction, the Cold War served up “a surprising new surrogate form of the forbidden,” no part of it more alluring than Mao’s China.

“[W]e young American China followers who found ourselves marooned in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan studying Chinese were left to feel something like Jews exiled from the Holy Land,” Schell continues. “So inexorably isolated from the object of our study (and desire) were we, that we could only envy those few French, Canadian, and British nationals of our acquaintance who had managed … to penetrate the Chinese veil.” Schell goes on to compare his cohort to “a group of forlorn Swanns in love. And like Marcel Proust’s anti-hero’s unrequited passion for Odette, our infatuation with China was only made more ardent by the hopelessness of any possibility of attention, much less consummation.”

Then, suddenly, they were in, and in those first few moments (flying over the Himalayas in a military transport, stepping onto the tarmac at Beijing’s Capital Airport or, more commonly, crossing the Lo Wu Bridge on foot from Hong Kong to the mainland) all were powerfully affected in ways they would never forget. What followed — not invariably, but often, and usually pretty quickly — was disillusionment.

Journalist Jonathan Mirsky was a college professor in 1972 when he joined a state-sponsored six-week tour that began with a visit to the home of a “typical Chinese worker family” in a Canton high-rise. It was a nice place: three brightly painted rooms, private kitchen and bath, a radio, a TV, and shiny new bicycles for all. Mirsky was impressed — until he went for an unescorted walk early the next morning and happened to run into the same guy he’d met the day before. “He gestured to me to come in and have some ‘white tea’ — boiling water,” Mirsky writes. “But it was a different flat, shabby, poorly painted, only two rooms, no private kitchen or bathroom.” Mirsky had been had. He returned to his hotel, “stunned by what I had seen and heard.”

Steve Tsang directs the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. In 1978, Tsang was the rebellious son of Chinese refugees living in Hong Kong. When he arrived at the Lo Wu Bridge, he wanted to run across it. “I could not wait to set foot on the motherland, breathe its air, take in the scenery, and get to know the heroic people who ‘ended a century of humiliation,’” he writes. What he discovered instead was evidence of a new, if familiar, inequality: preferential plane tickets for the elite; an impenetrable barrier between the upper and lower decks on a Li River ferry boat; and beggars in the streets, willing to fight one another for a foreigner’s 10 yuan. Tsang was glad to get back to Hong Kong.

Schell notes that for many non-Chinese, “these moments of first contact were among the most important in our ongoing professional lives.” To which I would add, many are still struggling to make sense of them. Perry Link was an antiwar activist in the 1960s whose views “led me to look at socialist China with very high hopes.” He began to doubt soon after his arrival in 1973, when he photographed a fly on a white stone table in Suzhou. Until then he actually believed, as he had been taught in graduate school, that the Anti-Four Pests Campaign carried out during the Great Leap Forward had succeeding in eliminating all flies in China.

“In the years since 1973 I have learned much, much more about how wrong I was in the late 1960s to take Mao Zedong’s ‘socialism’ at face value,” confesses Link, who later became a professor of East Asian studies at Princeton. “I could not have been more mistaken. I am a bit puzzled that others among my leftist friends from the 1960s sometimes seem reluctant to face this obvious fact.”

Here’s how Link works it out: “In the late 1960s, I admired Mao because I felt strongly about things like peace, freedom, justice, truth, and a fair chance for the little guy. Today I detest Mao and his legacy. Why? Because I am drawn to things like peace, freedom, justice, truth, and a fair chance for the little guy.”

 My First Trip to China originated in a weekly series on the website of the Hong Kong Economic Journal. As Liu notes in his acknowledgements, two contributors to that series whose essays were not included in the book — Szeto Wah and Robert Scalapino — have since died, A third that I know of, Richard Baum, died after Liu finished writing and before the book appeared. Liu has performed a great service in collecting these memories, and he’s done it none too soon.

Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers’ and contributors’ takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We’ve invited the entire Fortune family — from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers — to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities.

More Weekly Reads