First-Hand:John Webster visits China in June, 1980

In a lunch line at a Biomedical Engineering Conference about 1972 I met several academic biomedical engineers. We lunched together and moaned that there was no suitable text to teach biomedical instrumentation. We agreed to meet in my room that evening and argued for 2 hours about chapter titles that would be agreeable to all. Then we each selected chapters we would like to develop. We class tested the manuscript and this text designed by a committee developed into the most used text in biomedical engineering: Medical Instrumentation: Application and Design, Wiley, 1979 (now in 4th edition). Someone must have taken the text to China because spring 1980 I received an invitation to come to China for a month and bring my wife. Chancellor Shain’s 1979 visit prepared a booklet with important cultural information and expectations e.g. language, types of dress, cuisine, customs etc.

We flew to Hong Kong and visited the US embassy for permission to enter China, then traveled by the train to Guangzhou. The route past historical rice fields with water buffaloes was enthralling. A group of Chinese biomedical engineers and officials met and greeted us on arrival at our destination.For 3 days our hosts were unable to acquire seats for us on a flight to Xi’an or soft seats required for foreigners’ train travels. While waiting for transportation to Xi’an we very much enjoyed Guangzhou tourist sights and hospital visits that included viewing medical equipment and open heart surgery. Flight tickets were acquired and we flew to Xi’an, far up the Yangtze River in the Chinese interior. Our host Dazong Jiang of Xian Jiaotung University assembled a conference of 300 biomedical engineers from all over China. Each morning a private car with a white-gloved driver navigated through heavy throngs of bicyclists taking me from the Russian-built hotel for foreigners to Xi’an Jiaotung University. I lectured using slides from my textbook. After I would speak a sentence, a translator would repeat it in Chinese. I could tell how many listeners knew English because occasionally I would tell a joke and about 1/3 of the class would immediately laugh; many Chinese people had been translators for the US during World War 2.For full mornings during the next 2 weeks I presented my textbook figures and answered questions; the afternoon convention was all in Chinese.

During my visit to their research labs I saw in one of the labs a US or European Electrocardiograph with about 15 workers disassembling it, analyzing it, so that they could learn to design and manufacture their own. In the next lab that sequence of activity was repeated for a ventilator and continued for other medical devices such as X-ray machine, anesthesia machine, electrosurgical unit, etc.

My wife Nancy majored in Early Childhood Intervention at University of Wisconsin graduate school. As a public school teacher, she trained UW special education teachers in her special education class room. She was invited to present a talk to Chinese students concerning her work.It was quite a pleasant surprise to discover the courtesy displayed to teachers in China vs. the US because the entire class rose when she entered the room then remained seated until she concluded her lecture and exited the room. The students were interested in the teaching strategies employed when dealing with developmental multiple areas of speech, psychological, emotional, social, cognitive, behavioral, and physical challenges along with different styles of learning. Nancy was requested to transfer her knowledge in continued training for the Chinese, possibly because of one child per family prevailing at that time. She suggested contacting the HighScope Cognitively Oriented Curriculum, developed within the research based longitudinal Perry Project in Ypsilanti MI as the project had fully prepared transferable resource information. Nancy also had informal conversations with teachers who asked many questions about our US teaching customs. The medical school personnel became aware that we had brought slides about life in the US on a typical day e.g. neighborhoods with homes, markets, post office, fire station, mail carriers, schools, parks, zoo, etc. Nancy presented the slides with an ongoing commentary to medical students. There was much interest; they asked many questions.

After lectures both Nancy and I very much enjoyed being taken to Chinese schools and meeting staff, touring electronics factories, attending musical performances, dinners, historical sites such as Banpo Neolithic Village, Wild Goose Pagoda, Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Warriors and Tang Tombs. In the countryside we saw farmers winnowing wheat by tossing it into the air from woven trays and then spreading the berries on the road so that trucks and cars could run over them and separate wheat from the chaff. We spent considerable time with Professor Ye-Cho Huang from Xi’an Medical College. He invited us to his home for dinner where we met his lovely wife Lydia and young family. It was a delightful experience that we greatly enjoyed. We have remained close friends with them over the years and hoped they could visit us in the US. Much to our pleasure both Prof. Huang and Lydia have made visits to us in our Madison home.

During our stay in Xi’an I would jog around the streets in early morning, passing groups doing tai chi, the ancient Chinese graceful exercise. In the hot summer, people would bring out their mattresses to sleep on the sidewalk. They would cook on braziers and eat in front of their small houses. Each city block had a single central running water pipe and central latrine. I saw the beginnings of free enterprise near our hotel. Communists did not permit hiring an assistant because that would be practicing exploitation of labor. But an individual farmer could grow cabbages, bring them in a cart to the city and sell them on street corners.

My wife Nancy would often go out for a walk. She was usually followed politely by about 1 or 2 dozen Chinese who were curious to see what this foreign woman was doing. Together we would wander further streets, many times being invited into their small homes for tea or a small factory dyeing cloth. One time we saw small woven cages with crickets for a pet and were delighted to be presented with one. Because we dressed as was suggested in white shirts, navy blue, gray or brown slacks, we became pleasantly accustomed to blending in, seeing only Chinese and feeling Chinese. Surprisingly one day an early tour bus arrived at our hotel. One of the French tourists embarked wearing short pink pants; we were astonished and sincerely asked ourselves, “What are those strange foreign people doing here?”

After our enjoyable 2 weeks in Xian we were flown to Beijing to see the Summer Palace, to walk The Great Wall, then to Shanghai to visit hospitals. Our hosts kindly took us on a Yangzi River boat tour to see the notably colorful one eyed junks. There we found that in this classless society, there was 1st class on the top deck, then 2nd and 3rd class decks below. In Shanghai we wandered the streets and young men would approach us politely wanting to practice English conversation. It was a fine experience for us to see and to be part of their learning enthusiasm. A new flight directly from Shanghai to Hong Kong was planned for us. We returned to Madison from our enriching and very interesting month in historical China made possible through the kindness of our many hosts.

Back home we received requests from our hosts and other faculty to visit us for 1 or 2 years at the University of Wisconsin. We welcomed about 12 during subsequent years and they attended our class lectures and became involved in our research. We invited them to our home for dinners, took them to the 4th of July Regent neighborhood parade and picnic, Devil’s Lake State Park, the zoo and other sites. One group had never seen a farm. I drove them about 15 minutes outside Madison, turned into the first farm and knocked on the door. The farmer answered the door and I said, “These people came all the way from China to see your farm, can you show them your farm?” The farmer seem to enjoy showing our guests everything, his cows, milking machines and silos. At the end of the tour the farmer said, “Up the road is a farm with 25,000 chickens.” So we went there too. A later wave of younger Chinese students came to earn graduate degrees and this continues to today.

We have been and continue to be consistently delighted with this cultural exchange between an ancient culture and our upstart culture only a few hundred years old. Our brief snapshot of 1980 Xi’an with zero skyscrapers has been replaced by a modern city that visitors tell us we would not recognize. We hope this brief description gives you a sense of history you may appreciate.

John and Nancy Webster

Visiting faculty from China to UW who visited our home (taken from our houseguest booklet):

  • 1982:
    • Erxin Zheng, Dept of Radio Engr, Chonquig Univ, Chongquig, Sichuan, China
    • Jiguang Ge, Zhejiang Univ, China
    • Huan-qing Feng, Univ of Sci and Technol, Hefei, Anhui, China
    • Shu-yong Shao, Radio Engr Dept, Harbin Inst of Technol, Harbin, China
    • Ying Shi, China
  • 1983
    • Jiapu Pan, Shanghai Second Medical College, China
    • Wan-ru Zhao, Dept Biology, Univ of Sci and Technol, Hefei, Anhui. China
    • Cru An, China
    • Yujian Zhang, Dept of Radio and Electronics, Shanghai Univ of Sci and Technol, China
    • Jixian Zhou, Central Lab, Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Beijing, China
    • Qingxian Zhou, Beijing Institute of Machinery and Electricity, Beijing, China
  • 1984:
    • Ninyhan Qu, Shandong University, China
    • Ji-hu Xu, Shanghai First Medical College, China
  • 1985:
    • Dalin Tang
    • Yinong Shen
    • Jiashu Chen
    • Ye-cho Huang, Xian Medical College, Xian, China
    • Erxin Zheng, Dept of Radio Engr, Chonquig Univ, Chongquig, Sichuan, China
    • Li-gao Zhou, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China
    • Shangkau Gao, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China
  • 1986:
    • Xiaoci Zheng, Shanghai, China
    • Hongni Tan
    • Liang Chu
    • Sewen Sun
  • 1987:
    • Cai Xue Yu
    • Wei-cho Foo
    • Shandung Liang
  • 1999
    • Lydia Zhu, Xian Medical University, Xian, China
    • Ye-cho Huang, Xian Medical University, Xian, China
  • 2001 (UW students):
    • Yu-chi Loui
    • Yiqun Xue
    • Hong Cao
    • Yuan-bing Yu
    • Li Xu
  • 2004 (UW students):
    • Peng Zhang