In the early 1970s, after China had pursued almost 25 years of a closed-door policy, those doors were cracked slightly ajar. Would-be tourists flooded the Chinese with visa requests, but the government quickly controlled the flow. At first only special groups were invited. When that went well, the doors were opened another crack.
The early visitors left China with such glowing accounts that the Chinese government no longer feared the influx from outside. The reluctance of the Chinese was understandable: For centuries the outside world has gone to Cathay, taken what it wanted of the riches, and brought on wars and internal disruption until there wasn't much left of the largest country in the world.
It seemed only logical that the first visitors be given tours that were half political and half scenic. The Chinese wanted to show the world their new institutions. The first tourists traveled in controlled groups, visiting schools, hospitals, factories, and farms. Slowly, however, this approach is changing, as the Chinese are seeing that the tourist dollar can become important to their economy as it has in other countries.
The influx of visitors must still be controlled, but for a different reason: China has only 40,000 beds to accommodate tourists. In contrast, little Switzerland has 280,000 beds, or seven times as many.
The change in attitude toward tourists began in 1978. The next year 160,000 visitors came to China, and in 1980 the figure was 210,000; by 1985 China is planning for 1 million visitors, to be housed in hotels built in joint ventures with outside capital.
The government is also laying the groundwork for a new style of tourism. First, tourist management missions were sent to other countries to see what was required and how it was done. According to Lin Gong, a spokesman for China Reconstructions, they have learned that when a tourist goes to France, for example, the things he wants to see are not necessarily the hospitals, factories , farms, and other social and political institutions; most likely he wants to spend time seeing the cultural treasures and natural beauties.
In response to such findings, study groups have been organized for those who want to learn the language, or about traditional Chinese religion; there are cooking tours to teach the four systems of Chinese cooking and their 5,000 dishes. Throughout the country 122 cities and villages are being opened. The tourist bureau wants to attract the sportsman, the mountain climber, the skier, the bicyclist, and the naturalist. It is a long list of special activities, but not forgotten is the visitor who is just interested in the old-fashioned scenic tour.
Mike Kong of Lotus Tours in New York, who has been working with the Chinese since 1972, explained: ''Each year when we offer a new tour we plan it directly with the Chinese. We . . . work out the details of a tour that we know the American visitor will like. The Chinese trust us now and make what we suggest available.''
This year a scenic canal trip will be added to the list.
For an American, a trip to China is like visiting a newly discovered continent. My trip to Peking was a typical tourist journey, and if and when I go back, I'll want to go as a tourist again.
I boarded my plane in New York and 20 hours later landed in Peking. We have all seen pictures from China, and I did my reading, but if someone had said I had landed on the moon and those folks were from another planet, it would have been believable. There was a sea of people; men and women alike were dressed in what seemed to be borrowed, ill-fitting, drab black or blue pants and jacket. On the main thoroughfares, waves of bicycles moved at a uniform pace.
On first impression it seems depressing, but once you join the ocean of people on the streets, you can sense under their achromatic dress a warmth, a friendliness, and even a desire to say hello - if the words were only known in each other's language.
Behind this bleakness is a treasure of opulence whose sheer beauty is breathtaking. From a people in dull black and blue dress has come a way of life that has stood the test of time and given the world treasures that must have been produced by golden hands.
''Contrast'' is the key to things to be seen. A stone's throw in one direction from my comfortable quarters at the Peking Hotel is a square mile of crooked alleyways made up of walled-in courtyards containing ancient, tile-roofed houses. To me, it was staggering to think of how many generations have lived and toiled in these ancient abodes. Each morning at 6 the inhabitants pour from these irregular walkways, clean and cheerful, briskly making their way to the main thoroughfares to add their drop to the sea of humanity.
A stone's throw in the other direction is the Forbidden City, an architectural triumph and a tribute to a culture that has stood longer than any other. The contrast of these two ''stones'' thrown in opposite directions, yet not so far apart, is the shock of seeing China today. What time and craftsmanship have produced, wheelbarrow load by wheelbarrow load, no machines or computers could ever achieve.
Until you stand with your own two feet planted on the Great Wall you cannot comprehend its magnitude or meaning. Built with spades, hands, and wheelbarrows, it makes a toy of Egypt's pyramids. We are told that it's the only man-made object that can be discerned from space. Walking it makes one breathless and tired. What must it have been like to build it? Yet with all that labor, its purpose failed. The Chinese were invaded from the north. Even into modern times invasion came from all directions, because they had so much to offer the world.
Before America was discovered, the Ming tombs, where 13 emperors chose to be buried, left a vivid account of their highly developed skills as craftsmen and artisans. The tomb of Ding Ling was entered only in the late 1950s. It is an underground vaulted palace complete with all living accommodations. Twenty-six chests of jewelry and artifacts were found with the emperor and his two wives. Our guide, Yuan Bein, explained that it cost the price of feeding 6 million people for one year to build the tomb.
The Sacred Way to the tombs is a roadway that was forbidden to all except the emperor's retinue. Today it is a delight to walk along the Avenue of Animals and photograph the more than life-size statues of lions, elephants, camels, and mythical beasts and, farther along, 12 stone human statues that look like giant chess pieces.
Unlike most ancient civilizations, in China the skills of the artisans have not been lost. Many of the old treasures are on display in small pavilions that surround the great halls in the Forbidden City. But modern craftsmen are producing magnificent handcrafts that are on sale at the Friendship Store or at local stores on Wangfujing Street, in the Peking (Beijing) shopping district. One can find fine embroidery, carved jade, lacquerware, cloisonne, and exquisite soft paintings. In North Lake (Beihai Park), one of the best-preserved ancient gardens in China, dating back to AD 300, is the Fang Shan Restaurant, once the royal kitchen for the Forbidden City.
The people of China are very friendly. When you enter a shop the people seem to make way for you, then crowd around to see what you will buy. On the street they love to have you photograph their children, and it helps to have a few pieces of candy ready. At places like the Summer Palace, students who study English wait for you, seek you out, and practice talking to you. You can see that they are a hardworking people, and the bicycle is the main means of transport, carrying everything from farm produce, wood, and live pigs to furniture, tools, and full families.
The modern architecture has a heavy Russian influence, and to this tourist's eye it does not have the beauty of the traditional Chinese structures. The newly renovated Temple of Heaven is a perfect example of the old style. Each year in old China, on the day before the winter solstice, the Son of Heaven moved from the Forbidden City through the hushed streets of Peking while commoners and foreigners remained behind shuttered windows. On arrival at the Temple of Heaven the emperor spent two days in meditation praying for a good harvest. This Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is a masterpiece of 15th-century architecture. The wooden structure, ornately painted in sky-blue and gold, was completely assembled without the use of nails. Our guide told us that beam by beam and board by board the temple's ceiling was locked together into a shape similar to an Eskimo igloo.
I thought that was an interesting way of describing it, but there is a major difference between the igloo and the Temple of Heaven . . . one lasts until spring and the other has lasted for centuries.