The Strangest Passages From Fodor's 1984 Guidebook to China

Among other oddities, the book describes a country with "no nightlife."
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Tourists scoping out the Great Wall back in 1984. (kattebelletje/Flickr)

When asked to give examples of China's miraculous growth and transformation over the last three decades, you may first be tempted to cite year-to-year GDP growth figures, search for images of "Beijing air pollution" on Google, or point at extravagant luxury redevelopment projects like Shanghai's exclusive Xintiandi district.

Yet in 2013, we may also find some of these answers tucked inside an outdated Fodor's People's Republic of China guidebook from 1984.

The guidebook is anachronistic, but not necessarily obsolete. Upon a quick skim, you may pick up some juxtapositions between 1980s China and 2010s China that shed light on the realities of a rapidly-changing society. We made a note of some (but not all) of the quotes from the travel guide that seem somewhat laughable today, as well as some timeless tips for foreigners traveling to China. Afterwards, we checked in with Orville Schell, a longtime traveler to China and director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society, who verified that the handpicked quotes below from the 1984 guidebook sounded about right.

Here's our conclusion: in the face of an ever-changing Chinese society, we are certain that 30 years down the road people will discover irrelevant (or otherwise inaccurate) travel tips inside a 2013 edition travel guide, too. For now, we present to you a throwback to 1984.

Here's what has changed since 1984:

"It is illegal to take Chinese currency out of China, but it can be exchanged at the currency checkpoint on departure providing your currency documentation is in order." (p. 29)

While it is unclear whether this ban on renminbi (RMB) leaving China is still technically in effect, it's evident that this policy is no longer enforced at airports. Moreover, there is no longer a "currency documentation" that foreigners in China must fill out upon arrival and departure.

"You need have no fear about money dealings with the Chinese. They are always scrupulously honest, and will follow you out of the shop to return a couple of coins if you happen to leave them on a counter." (p. 30)

Unfortunately this is no longer represents the experience of a majority of foreigners in China. It's no secret that foreigners are especially prone to scams, ripoffs, and other cheap money dealings in China. This does not, however, imply that you will not encounter many scrupulously honest Chinese people during your travels in 2013.

"Pay for all goods and services in restaurants, hotels and shops catering exclusively to foreigners in 'foreigners' banknotes,' called 'foreign exchange certificates.' You obtain this form of banknote when exchanging travelers' checks, drafts, or foreign currencies at branches of the Bank of China." (p. 30)

This special form of payment no longer exists today. Foreigners pay for goods and services using RMB, just as locals do.

"There is no nightlife in China of the type usually known to foreign tourists. Indeed, there are only a few bars in the whole of China, found in the major hotels." (p. 32)

Nightlife has gained traction among the younger generation over the years. While it is true to some degree that nightlife in China today is concentrated in areas with sizable expatriate communities (which is now a handful of Chinese cities), I must add that I once stumbled upon a nightclub in the outskirts of a monastic mountain town in Qinghai Province frequented by young to middle-aged ethnic Tibetans. It goes without saying that bars are now rampant in "international" cities like Shanghai.

Paul Chung is a contributor to Asia Blog. 

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