San Francisco — Thanks to Feng Xiliang, college students in Peking can now tell you the weather in Chicago, forecast the National League pennant race, and finesse a bridge hand.
Also courtesy of Mr. Feng, this summer Americans can read interviews with Peking's movie matinee idols, scan discount ads for Flying Wheel asparagus, and preview the Song and Dance Ensemble of the China Coal Ministry's episode of "Silk Road" at the Tianqiao Theater ("Call Tel 330513 for reservations").
Feng, is the managing editor of the China Daily, one of the newest of the People's Republic's 471 newspapers. It is also China's only English-language daily. The newspaper was started two years ago in China for "homesick tourists, businessmen, and diplomats," said Feng, a quick-witted, gray-haired man who seems to ponder each sentence. Since then it has become an astounding success among the Chinese, who now constitute most of its 70,000 readers. Last month the China Daily expanded its operation and began publishing in New York, and the eight-page, six-day-a-week broadsheet is now available for 25 cents a copy in 10 North American cities.
Feng is a soft-spoken Shanghai native who graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism just before Mao Tse-tung created the Chinese People's Republic in 1949. He sees the China Daily as more than newsprint and Bodoni bold headlines. At a time when Chinese-American relations are less than cordial, the China Daily, he believes, represents a genuine ''cultural exchange.'' Some China-watchers are even predicting the fledgling newspaper will become a sort of kitchen window through which American and Chinese citizens can still get an informal peek at each other, while their leaders are busy squabbling in the front parlor.
The China Daily is unique in the PRC, not only because it is in English but because of its decidedly Western format: short, snappy stories, large, dramatic photo displays, and a separation of news and editorial comment. World news in the China Daily is sifted from the wires of the Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, Agence France Presse, and China's official Xinhua news agency. An occasional piece is included from the People's Daily, but many foreign journalists have commented on the China Daily's suprising ''editorial freedom.''
''At first the newspaper looked rather stuffy, because it followed the not terribly lively model of People's Daily,'' Feng said recently in San Francisco. ''In general, Chinese newspapers have longer articles and lots of background, and opinion is blended with the news. American papers tend to have shorter, sometimes more superficial stories. Also you have more graphics, which shows the impact of television.''
In addition to local and international news, the China Daily carries sports and financial pages, along with a crossword puzzle, a bridge column, and television listings. Camera-ready pages of the new American edition, identical to the Chinese edition, are flown from Peking to New York, where the paper is published and distributed to some 2,000 subscribing libraries and government offices in Toronto; Vancouver, British Columbia; Boston; Washington; Chicago; Philadelphia; San Francisco; Los Angeles; and Houston.
But Feng and his 150-member staff (''which includes everyone from publisher to truck drivers,'' he says) have no illusions about competing with the Washington Post or the New York Times in covering world news. His target for the first year of the North American edition is a modest 5,000 subscriptions.
The journalistic credentials Feng brings to his new job are impressive. He received a master's degree from Missouri's School of Journalism in 1948 and later studied graphic arts at Columbia University. When he was tapped by the Chinese government several years ago to start the China Daily, Feng had already been editor of the China News Service, managing editor of People's China, and editor in chief of the Peking Review, a weekly published in five languages.
Four years ago Feng was appointed to a special four-member commission to investigate the possibility of an English-language newspaper and spent a year experimenting with news writing and layout. ''The first suggestion for an English newspaper came from tourists in 1976 when our government adopted the open-door policy,'' said Feng. ''There was a great influx of tourists in Peking who found they couldn't read anything and felt cut off from the rest of the world. At first, nobody took the suggestion seriously. They just laughed. It was finally approved by the government because they thought it might help tourism.''
A pleasant surprise was the newspaper's popularity among the Chinese, Feng said. ''Every day 70,000 copies are printed, and two-thirds of our readers are Chinese. All of the government officials who know English subscribe. So do college students and a suprising number of high school students learning English. Most of the students can't read the entire paper, but it is now considered fashionable to subscribe.''
''We put in a crossword puzzle and bridge column for tourists, but now the Chinese readers have become quite keen on them,'' said Feng, who learned to play bridge ''poorly'' at the University of Missouri. ''Now there is a national bridge tournament in China and all the time on the bus you see Chinese trying to figure out the crossword. One day we neglected to print the crossword answers and were swamped with phone calls.'' Feng says the newspaper is looking toward publishing in England but hesitates, lest it grow too quickly. He wants to ''keep the organization small, compact, and efficient.''
The biggest problem now at the China Daily, says Feng, is training English-speaking Chinese to think like Western journalists. The China Daily was started with help from the Melbourne Age newspaper group in Australia and the Thomson Foundation in Britain. But much of the staff in Peking is still inexperienced, Feng says. ''We recruited people from college who were good in English but didn't have much newspaper background. Before we published the paper , we invited foreign journalists from Australia, Britain, and the United States to come and coach us. And now we are sending our staff to journalism schools (overseas) and to work as interns from three to six months on (English-language) papers.
Feng himself just returned from several months at Stanford University as a professional-journalism fellow, where he studied computers and brushed up on the latest in newspaper technology. The China Daily computerized its operation two years ago, and according to Feng has become a technological ''showcase for the other leading Chinese newspapers.''
Though it does not show up on his curriculum vitae, Feng was one of countless professionals caught in the middle of Mao's tumultuous Cultural Revolution. ''I was stripped of my executive position and pushed a cart on a farm,'' Feng said.
Journalism, like all of Chinese society, has changed dramatically since the passing of Mao and the arrest of the so-called ''gang of four,'' said Feng, who adds, ''We are anticipating a lively period in Chinese journalism. That is why the China Daily is being published.''