24 15 Minutes of Fame

The following morning I woke up with my luggage 90% packed. The Dining Hall was functioning as usual and breakfast was our final meal in the Beijing Language Institute. There was not much time to say goodbye

. . . Our departure time from Beijing’s Capital Airport was 9:30 hrs. We indeed had to leave right after breakfast. There was very little traffic that early morning, we were not the only ones waking up with a hangover from the earthquake. From the College Road (Xueyuan Lu), at which the Beijing Language Institute was located, it only took a few minutes to turn to the Third Ring Road. Then only one more turn, to the Airport Road, would take us to the Departure Hall.


We could draw out that entire track, including what tree you would pass at what place, where you needed to take care of bump in the road, what buildings were located in what position. We had covered most of that track numerous times, mostly by bus, sometimes by taxi, and occasionally on bike, on our way to the Dutch Embassy. Only the part on the Airport Road was less familiar. . .

Ronald from the Embassy was there; not only to wish us a smooth journey, but also to confirm that our parents had been informed that we lived through the earthquake unharmed. Exactly the same configuration of people was present at our departure as during our arrival almost a year earlier: Chris and I, Ronald and Teacher Bi. Of course, I had arrived one day earlier than Chris, but what the heck. We arrived at Guangzhou Airport in the early afternoon.

. . . Earthquake or no earthquake, Big Brother was still in operation. We were met by a lady from the local education authorities, our ‘guide’ to use the proper jargon who had been informed of our arrival.

After a year of being driven around in cars and buses, we had been so spoiled, that we had started to take it for granted that someone would meet us at the other end of flight, with a car.

Chris was more than a little disappointed though, when he saw the lady standing there with a sign saying: ‘Peverelli’. He had to swallow his pride, and tolerate to be a member of my entourage. . .

Guangzhou was a world of difference from Beijing. We had been given a glimpse of China outside Beijing during our winter holiday trip, but had hardly seen anything from Guangzhou during our trip to Beijing. Guangzhou was the old Canton, the gateway to China business of the old days.

. . . The local people had booked us for a night stay in the prestigious Dongfang Hotel. It was the place where all the business people stayed during the famous Canton Fair. The Chinese authorities dreaded foreign business people moving around their country freely, but they did not resent the hard currency they could earn from exporting products. The solution was the Canton Fair, an export oriented exhibition that was held twice a year in Guangzhou, late April and late October.

To put the train and planeloads of foreigners that were attracted by the Fair up, the Dongfang (Oriental) Hotel had been erected. It was a huge building, conveniently located across the street of the main entrance of the fair ground.

Inside, it resembled the hotels in which we had stayed during our winter holiday trip. After all, they were all designed after the hotels for foreigners in the Soviet Union. The Dongfang Hotel was packed during the fairs, but in-between it was almost completely deserted. . .

Guangzhou was hot and humid, but so was the city we had left behind that morning. Immediately after settling into our rooms, we went our for a walk

. . . Immediately outside the area dedicated to China’s trade with the outside world, from which it isolated itself for so long, Guangzhou was a city of winding lanes and shopping streets with roofed pavements, which were so typical for Southeast Asian cities. Guangzhou is located in the subtropical zone. Most of the year, the local people lived their lives on the streets, but they needed to hide from the scorching sunshine, as air-conditioning was reserved for top hotels and some government buildings then.

There is one scene that seems to be engraved in memory. In a small residential street, we say a young boy sitting in front of, what we presumed to be, his house. He held a bowl of rice in one hand and a pair of chopsticks in the other. He was visibly enjoying his simple meal, picking up small bits of rice and putting them in his mouth. Further away, the spire of a pagoda towered above the roofs of the houses. . .


It almost seems as if we had gone sentimental. Perhaps that was partly true, a consequence of realizing that we would leave China the following day. It felt as if we had arrived only the day before.

Back in our hotel, it was dinnertime in the dining hall. We apparently never even considered trying a local restaurant in that unfamiliar city, so we had dinner there. We were surprised to learn that the waiters were unaware of an earthquake.

After dinner we wanted to try out the hotel bar. Bars were rare in 1976 Beijing, even in the hotels. The Dongfang Hotel had a real bar that we had to try out. That proved a good choice, as we met a Swedish fellow student there. Leif was a mature student. He specialized in modern Chinese literature. Before his year in Beijing, he had already spent some time studying in Hong Kong. Like hotel staff, Leif had missed the commotion in Beijing, so we were also eager to give him our eyewitness brief.

. . . Our guide and driver were waiting for us, in the hall of the Dongfang Hotel the following morning. We had taken our time to enjoy a hearty breakfast, so we were running a little late. There was an express train to Kowloon Station waiting for us. We knew that, but took our time to bid farewell to China, particularly that part of China that we had only just started to get acquainted with.

The driver was in such a hurry, that he hit the gas, when one of Chris’ feet was still outside the car. This was not a pleasant thing to do anyway, but for Chris it was another sign of lack of consideration for someone who would be the Dutch Ambassador to China in about two decades.

It spoiled his mood, but I had a hard time to suppress my amusement, especially because neither the driver nor the guide had noticed this incident. They were chatting about whatever enjoyed their common interest then. Whatever that was, it was unrelated to the two Dutch students left in their care. . .

We had to disembark the train at Shenzhen, but when we alit the train at Shenzhen Station and looked for the border bridge, there was a small difference with a year before. A man appeared offering the service of taking care of the luggage of the foreign travelers all the way to Kowloon. This would make crossing the border more comfortable. It was not cheap, but we still paid to give ourselves a break. We crossed the border on July 30, 1976, a little past noon.

Then hell broke loose

. . . As soon as we had boarded the train from Lowu to Kowloon, we were attacked by a mob of journalists. Apparently, word had gone round that two Western students who had experienced the big earthquake in the North in person would be on that train. . .

. . . Neither of us was used to the cacophony of so many journalists all shouting their questions simultaneously. For politicians it is part of their daily routine, but it was a first for us. Some carried microphones, so they must have been from the radio or TV. The journalists were clearly eager to hear eyewitness reports about deaths, collapsed buildings, black outs, and all the typical mishap that comes with a huge earthquake. We had to disappoint them, as we could not satisfy their hunger for stories of misery. The most severe damage I could report was the crack in the wall of my dorm. . .

It was then that we learned that many foreign nations, as well as international organizations like the UN, had offered assistance to the Chinese government. The latter had refused all external aid, stating that it was very capable of handling the problem itself. . .

The journalists left us one by one, and we finally had a moment rest, before we had to deal with our next chore: picking up our tickets to Amsterdam. We therefore stored our luggage in the railroad station, and took a taxi to the to the posh Peninsula Hotel, where the KLM office was then located.

. . . We still had a few hours to kill, before we were expected at the check in counter of Kai Tak Airport, and again we wanted to spend them well, by taking a stroll along the streets of the tip of Kowloon: Tsimshatsui.

This is an area consisting of a maze of small streets lined with shops and eateries. We were not the type of people to buy souvenirs and lacked the time to take up the many unsolicited offers for cheap tailor made suits by Indian touts. However, I did do what I had done so often that year: buy a book.  I got myself a pirate copy of the ‘official’ translation of the Four Books of Confucianism by James Legge. It was a bi-lingual edition. . .

Chris was unable to buy anything, he had spent his last RMB in Guangzhou and was as good as broke. We did not have credit cards then, and I was the only one with some cash left. I paid for drinks and snacks, but he probably found it a little embarrassing to let me pay for more, although I would have been happy to do so, trusting that he would reimburse me promptly.

We hailed another cab, like professional travellers. We picked up our luggage at the railroad station and headed to for the airport. There we were confronted with the overweight of our luggage. I am not only referring to our waistlines that had expanded greatly as a result of the greasy school kitchen and our gluttonous life style. The weight of our luggage also exceeded the limits. This would have cost us dearly, were it not that I spotted an old acquaintance working for KLM.

. . . Benjamin had been assigned to learn modern Chinese in Leiden by his employer, KLM. I had shared several lectures with him during my freshman year in Leiden.

KLM had started negotiating landing rights with the Chinese government and Benjamin had been assigned as the chief negotiator. In that function, he was not supposed to be able to negotiate in Chinese, but at least acquire a basic command of the language.

It was yet another situation that could be explained as a convenient coincidence, or something that had been predetermined by a higher power. Anyhow, he was a real deus ex machina then. He was happy to see me, and without hesitation told the clerk at the KLM counter that we could check in our entire luggage without any additional charges.

We felt like VIPs again, as we had during our interaction with the journalists earlier that day. Although Chris was also pleased with Benjamin’s intervention, he again had to accept that he could benefit from being part of my entourage, or more precisely: being my entourage. . .

We must have been very tired by then. My diary gives no information about what we did in the airport or our flight back. We arrived in Amsterdam in the morning of July 31, 1976.

Our relatives were waiting there. As Chris and I lived in different cities, we left the airport in different directions; and so would our lives.

My book contains short final chapter about what happened to me and my closest companions after that year in China. I will leave that information to the readers of the book.

That means that this is the final post of this blog. I believe it gives a concise but full impression of my adventures that first, very turbulent, year in China.

If you find it intriguing, buy the book. If you are a publisher interested in publishing a translation in your own language, contact me. I am also always available for questions, requests for public readings, etc.


If you like this story and would like to read all of it, you are invited to buy the book. Benelux citizens can order a copy, signed if needed, directly with the author. Others can order it at Amazon.


23 Pompeii in China

Wednesday, July 28, 1976, 4:00 am: earthquake. Spent all day outside the building, only went up shortly in the afternoon to pack. Slept in room 218 that night.

That is an extremely terse and factual description of what happened that final day of my year in China. Few of you will have realized that I am referring to the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, one of the worst in human history. This was a disaster comparable to the eruption of the Vesuvius as described by Pliny. Tangshan, the industrial city north of Tianjin, was almost completely wiped off the map, like Pompeii was in the first century BC.

Here is a Chinese compilation of the quake in its epicentre, Tangshan.

The two pictures in this post show Deshengmen, one of the few remaining city gates of old Beijing right after the earthquake and in its current state.


You should also pay attention to the time of the day. At 4 am we were all fast asleep.

. . . Who on earth was knocking on my door at that hour?

I vividly remember that I was dreaming that someone was knocking on our door. He or she was knocking so fiercely, that it made the entire room shake. When I slowly opened my eyes, the room was indeed shaking, but so was the entire world.

Wang Fuchen was born and raised in a region frequently, at least once a year, plagued by earthquakes. They were usually small ones, like the regular seismic activity in the Tokyo area. Shenyang people had grown used to those shakes, and remained calm during weak tremors and at most hid under a table or something, during the stronger ones.

Gradually waking up, I saw Wang standing up in the room, looking outside the window, saying: ‘It’s an earthquake’, in the same factual way in which he had announced that he had had a little too much to drink, a couple of weeks earlier. At hindsight, I realize that it was my luck to share a room with someone who was familiar with this phenomenon and therefore retained his composure. Wang was not easily agitated anyway.

The scene outside was fascinating and terrifying nonetheless. The earth was not so much shaking, but seemed to undulate like a sea in heavy weather. Our window looked out on the playground in the center of the campus. That put us in a prime position to observe what ‘earthquake’ means in practice. It was my first, and even Wang had never experienced one like this . . .

I remained quite calm as well. After the waves and shocks had ceased, I dressed, took all my money, my passport, and my newly acquired ticket home and exited our room. By that time, the noise in the hallway had been increased rapidly. Some students had panicked and left their room immediately, without taking hardly anything.

. . . When I descended the stairs, I had the privilege of seeing Torge’s bare butt moving around ahead of me. Apparently, he used to sleep naked, being a creature of a cold climate.

He had his underpants in his right hand and when he had almost reached the ground floor, stopped to slip it on. He then went down the last section of the stairs, and we were outside.

That early morning saw an odd collection of people gathered in front of the main entrance of our building.

Some of us, like me, were dressed for the day, while others, like Torge were hardly dressed at all. José, the Spanish student had draped a sheet around his body, which made him look like one of the citizens of Pompeii who tried to flee for the falling debris, only to get incinerated a few minutes later by a superheated burst of volcanic gas. . .

Gradually, some of the school officials appeared. We were told to go to the dining hall and await further notice. As if the commotion caused by the earthquake was not enough, it also started to rain.

The phone lines had not been damaged and all of us could get in contact with our own embassies during the morning, to assure them that we were safe. The embassy staff wired that message forward to the home office, which would inform our next of kin.

After having spent a few hours in the dining hall, we started to get bored. During the few moments that it did not rain, we went out for a stroll along the campus, to inspect the damage to the buildings with our own eyes. Actually, there was hardly any visible damage done. A piece of good luck was that, because of the rain, it was cooler than usual that day.

. . .That morning we saw a young couple sharing one chair, probably the one piece of furniture they probably had taken from their campus apartment. The man was sitting on the chair, and his wife, whom we knew as one of the non-teaching staff members, was sitting on his lap.

She was quite chubby and always cheerful, and this time too she was visibly enjoying all the commotion. Even an earthquake could have a bright side. It was a diversion from the bleak daily routines. . .

The rain withdrew gradually, later in the afternoon. We were tired, bored and hungry. And for those of us who were set to depart the following day, there was still the issue of packing our suitcases.

A school official came to tell us that we, the students living in the top floor of our dormitory, would be allowed to pack our stuff and move it to rooms at a lower floor in our building. We could sleep there, as it was deemed safer than sleeping in the fourth floor, with its cracked walls.

. . . I had arrived in China with as much luggage as I was allowed to carry with me. After all, I had to prepare for an entire year in region with four very distinct seasons.

From the previous chapters, even the least attentive reader should have noticed that I had spent considerable time shopping. It is therefore amazing that I was still able to fit everything in my suitcase and carry-on luggage. . .

I did leave some stuff behind for Wang Fuchen, though, and also sold a few items to the Friendship Store.

. . .The Second Hand Goods Section had an official price list, but you would rarely receive the price that you were entitled too according that list. The store people would always deduct something for each of the flaws they had discovered. . .

I was happy with whatever I could get, as I did not intend to take the cumbersome thing back. Wang would not be able to buy it from me and I was not allowed to give it to him as a present. In both cases, I would have to pay import duty, because I was supposed to exit China with exactly the same goods as had registered when entering the country. . .

I also threw away some clothes, as the dining hall food had not been good for my waist line.

Chris also packed his stuff in the adjacent room, and so were a few others who would be leaving soon too, but were not allowed to stay in their room on the fourth floor either.

. . . It was an awkward feeling, leaving the room. This was the room that I had been occupying since September 13, 1975. I had spent so many nights on that bed, did so many things sitting on that chair, behind that tiny desk, with that bookcase on my right. It was cramped, but it had been my home, my retreat from the noisy and crowded city outside. . .

Because of the earthquake, I was forced to spend my final night in the school in a strange room. Even though all rooms did look alike, that night felt like sleeping in a hotel.

Either in spite of or due to the emotions of that day, I slept very well.


If you like this story and would like to read all of it, you are invited to buy the book. Benelux citizens can order a copy, signed if needed, directly with the author. Others can order it at Amazon.


22 Good Grammar Bad Meaning

We had our exams on Saturday, July 17, 1976.

The school still used my group for experimenting with new teaching methods. The teachers involved were as enthusiastic about it, as they had been excited about organizing Open Door Schooling in the Dongfeng Bazar.

The most complicated experiment required us to look at a documentary film about the postal system without sound, then write our own explanatory text, and finally record it in the School’s sound studio.

That sound studio itself was a cause of pride for the school.

Audio equipment was hard to get in China in 1976, even if you had the cash to spend. The school’s sound technicians had built most of the equipment themselves. It did not look slick, but it worked.

Chinese electricians were real bricoleurs in those days. My electric razor broke down only two months after my arrival in Beijing. That was an alarming incident, as electric razors were not for sale in China then. You either had to wait, until a diplomat would make an R&R trip to Hong Kong, or take on the old fashioned razor knife. When I took it to the repair shop at Wudaokou, the young shop assistant clad in a white coat frowned, which only aggravated my agony. However, a couple of days later, it was fixed and it has worked perfectly for several more years. . .

I have started this post with a quote from the book, instead of an introduction. Graduating was the only event left before we would return to our respective native countries.

The main message of this chapter is stressing once more that the education we received at the Beijing Language Institute was excellent, considering the circumstances under which it was given and received.

. . . Writing that text was much more than a simple test for your language skills. I noted that it also required considerable insight in the cultural context. I learned that, when our teacher explained the test in class, after we had handed in our work.

The theme of the documentary was the complicated task of mail delivery people in China. Chinese addresses were much less self-evident than we were used to in The Netherlands. In our part of the world, you lived in a house with a certain number, in a street with a certain name, in a certain town. . .


The trick for writing a proper text could lie in the choice of one particular word or phrase. When the documentary was showing a mailman handing over a letter to an overjoyed old peasant woman, you were supposed to say that the mailman ‘is putting a letter into the hands of the peasants’.

Here, the word ‘hands’ is the key word. It indicates that the letter is not merely placed into an inanimate object like a mailbox, but is literally handed over by the mailman to the addressee. It is a display of renqing (‘human feelings’), an important notion in a relation-based culture like the Chinese.

We also had to write an essay

. . .We were free to choose a subject, and I opted to write about the famous 20th Century author Lu Xun. Lu Xun was one of the few pre-revolutionary writers whose writings were still allowed to be read during the Cultural Revolution. Although he was clearly sympathetic to several of the goals pursued by the Communist Party, he never actually joined the Party. He died young, age 55, in 1936.

Some argue that it was because Mao Zedong himself liked Lu Xun’s work that it was allowed to be read even during the strictest period of the Cultural Revolution.

I was loyal to myself in my essay as well. I analyzed a few of Lu Xun’s short stories and argued that the social criticism displayed in those texts would undoubtedly have gotten Lu Xun into trouble, had he lived long enough to experience the founding of the People’s Republic of China. . .

Our teachers had probably grown used to this type of pranks. We would regularly make grammatically correct sentences to illustrate a certain sentence pattern or the use of a particular construction, but with an incorrect or improper meaning.

The teacher would then invariably react with the set phrase: ‘The grammar is correct, but the meaning is not so good’.

My teachers were fair and judged the essay on linguistic and literary criteria, disregarding my ‘improper’ arguments. My grades for all sections of the exam and the essay were similar: excellent. Real grading had been abolished during the Cultural Revolution. You could only receive one of three grades: insufficient, sufficient and excellent.

Only one student did not pass: Torge. Considering the enormous value Chinese place on face, his results must have been really bad. However, we decided not to ask Torge for the details and he never shared them with us, even though he did not show any sign of anxiety. He continued doing what he liked to do most, like kicking and throwing around balls at the playground, even though he, as an Icelander, was suffering heavily from the humid heat.

You would think that by that date we had seen about everything worth seeing in Beijing. However, my diary still has records of sightseeing.

Tuesday, July 20, 1976: visit to Rongbaozhai.

Rongbaozhai (the “Studio of Glorious Treasures”) is one of the many antique shops in Liulichang, a street with several antique shops and a store selling old books, or replicas of classics.


Even though many historic buildings had been damaged, or even destroyed, during the violent first years of the Cultural Revolution, Liulichang had been preserved well.

Friday, July 23, 1976: visit to the Beijing Underground.

Present day visitors all take the Underground with its more than 10 lines ready and more under construction for granted. In 1976, the construction work on one line had reached its final stage and that on the second one had started.

The first line obviously followed the famous Chang’an Avenue, the boulevard that crossed Beijing from East to West. The construction of Line 2 took advantage of the demolishing of Beijing’s old city walls. That had created a ring of soil that would soon be paved with asphalt and would become known as the Second Ring Road. Under that ring road, the tunnel for Line 2 was laid. That line is now also known as the Loop Line, so again a major aboveground artery has a namesake sister line underground.

We were still impressed. It was a glimpse of the Beijing of the future. In those days, donkey-drawn carts could still be seen in the suburbs, so the appearance of the Beijing Underground under construction was almost futuristic in contrast with the aboveground reality.

That day ended with a visit to the Beijing Military Museum.

None of us Western students were pronounced pacifists, but neither did we feel a strong affinity with the military.

Still, as always, it was a learning experience. Some of the battles displayed in the museum involved foreign troupes; like the first big wars in which Chinese and Western armies clashed were the Opium Wars (1840s).


. . . However, the most emotional experience we had in the hall dedicated to the Korean War in the early 1950’s. So-called volunteers from most of the countries represented by the students of my groups of intimi had participated in that war, fighting the North Korean and Chinese armies.

You would expect that the guides of the museum would find it awkward to discuss these matters with us. It should be ever more difficult to talk to us about the heroic deeds of the Chinese soldiers in fighting the evil Americans and their cronies.

However, they were surprisingly at ease. They were telling their stories to us with the same pleasure and pride as if we were a regular Chinese high school class on a day out to the Military Museum. They either had been briefed very thoroughly, or perhaps they were unable to make the mind jump that some of our parents may have participated in the Korean War, but then on the other side.

The highlight of that visit was the display of weapons taken from fallen American soldiers. One American rifle had the name ‘Suzie’ engraved in the butt. It was generally believed that it was the name of the owner’s girlfriend, or fiancée, or wife.

We all wondered, whether this Suzie and the soldier who had been issued that rifle had ever been reunited. Had he been killed in battle, or taken prisoner, to be released after the truce? The museum guides were unable to answer our questions. They even seemed surprised that we could raise such concerns for an enemy. . .

Later that afternoon we received our diplomas during a surprisingly sober ceremony. Our class teachers handed out our diplomas. Our Teacher Liu did so with his eternal smile, but void of any ceremony. There were no further activities, not even a ‘tea talk meeting’ like the ones we had for New Year and other festive occasions.

Our group of intimi celebrated our graduation in our favourite eatery: the Wudaokou Restaurant

The Embassy thought differently.

. . . Monday, July 26, 1976: champagne at the Embassy. Ronald had invited us to come to the Embassy one more time to have a final talk and say goodbye to the staff, most of whom had become friends.

We had spent several pleasant evenings in their homes. For them we had been about the closest information channel about what was happening in China, while for us they were an important link with Dutch culture. . .

After our sip of champagne and bidding farewell to our compatriots, Ronald drove us to the Temple of Reclining Buddha, a Buddhist temple close to the Fragrant Hills. I can’t explain why, but this short outing has left a very strong impression in my memory.

The Fragrant Hills could be reached by following the road to the Summer Palace, but then driving on just a little further. We could cycle to the Summer Palace on our bikes, but cycling to the Fragrant Hills was something for athletes, which Chris and I were definitely not.

. . . In spite of the July heat, we appreciated walking through the serene temple complex with Ronald. Only very few other visitors were present that Monday afternoon and we enjoyed the absence of the cacophony of voices and other sounds that is omnipresent in Beijing.

We visited the statue of the Reclining Buddha, after which a temple was named. We then exited through the temple’s back door, which led to a scenic spot known as Cherry Valley, a hilly area with trees that provided lots of shade, something we needed desperately that afternoon. . .

Almost near the end of the valley, we suddenly saw a young couple sitting on a stone. That by itself was not really a cause for surprise. You can imagine that lovers will go the extra mile to find a quiet spot in such a densely populated city.

However, it was the girl that caught our special attention: she was wearing a skirt, something that we had only seen on festive days. An encounter with people defiant of the teachings of the Cultural Revolution so close to our departure was a real bonus.

Theoretically, the girl could have put on that skirt at home, but it is more likely that she had packed the skirt in her bag and had travelled to the Fragrant Hills with her lover boy on the bus or on bike, dressed in the usual baggy trousers.

She would then have changed into the more feminine garment at a quiet spot in the park, after which the young couple have a walk and talk, temporarily imagining that the Cultural Revolution had never taken place. . .

Ronald dropped us off at the Institute. We were set to leave Beijing in three days. The school would obviously provide transportation to the airport, so we had our final goodbye ceremony at the gate of the school.


If you like this story and would like to read all of it, you are invited to buy the book. Benelux citizens can order a copy, signed if needed, directly with the author. Others can order it at Amazon.


21 A Party with a Hangover

As the end of my year in China was nearing, the entries in my diary about lunches and dinners start getting longer with more details than before with the beginning of July 1976. While eating out used to be a pleasant variation to our socializing in the school’s dining hall, it now gradually turned into a way to consolidate friendships to make the last beyond the final good bye.

One lunch stands out, both in my diary and my memory.

Saturday, July 3, 1976 + Sunday, July 4, 1976: Torge’s birthday lunch party in the Summer Palace.


I can hear you think: that must have been some lunch that lasted until the following day. It was. Perhaps I need to re-introduce Torge.

I have mentioned in earlier chapters that Torge was a guy you just had to like. He was an open book and would tell no lies, nor beat about the bush. He often struck us as extremely naive, probably simply because that was what he was. . .

His entire sojourn in the Beijing Language Institute had been one trying struggle with the Chinese language. He absolutely gave his utmost to learn it, but new words, Chinese grammar, the four tones and particularly those thousands of little drawings known as Chinese characters, seemed to slide off Torge as if he were made of Teflon. . .

He could make himself understood in English, but also that language did not come natural to him. He would, e.g., talk about the large number ‘porks’ in China. Many of us, definitely including me, would pick that up, and point out that you could also see many ‘muttons’ and ‘beefs’ in the farms around the Chinese capital as well. Torge never understood why that was so hilariously funny. . .

Torge’s naïveté again played up in his choice of the location of his birthday party. The Summer Palace complex included an excellent but expensive restaurant. After having eaten their once, Torge liked it so much, that he decided to book it for his birthday lunch, without considering whether he could afford it. Torge was liberally inviting all fellow students he liked; and he liked many. When we left the campus on bike, we knew that Torge would get into trouble, so we decided that our best birthday gift would that we would go Dutch, which obviously appealed to me.

The main dish during the lunch was the ‘life’ fish that restaurant was so famous for.

The chef’s pièce de resistance was a kind of fish that was prepared so rapidly that the muscles of the creature’s mouth would still move, when the dish was served on the table. That dish’s pitch was that the route between catching the fish and placing it on the dinner table took only four minutes.

The trick was that you would pick up your glass with the strong Chinese liquor and pour a little bit in the fish’s mouth, which would make it move as if the cooked creature was gasping for air. This was always good for a few screams, particularly from the female dinner guests.

That lunch made us so happy, that we spontaneously decided to hire a boat to do some rowing on the lake of the Sumer Palace. Chris and I were not in a mood to row, but luckily there were a few activists who wanted to show off their public spirit, so we had at least two rowers who could take turns in each of the two boats.


We had a good time, and Chris even fooled around by pretending to try to overturn our boat. It was a rare display of clowning that I had never noticed from the first day we met at Amsterdam Central Station, a few months before our departure for China. It was probably the best indication that we were all genuinely in high spirits.

By the time we returned to the Institute, we were in a mood for a real BLI foreign student party.

. . . I tried my luck by proposing to make another bowl of Peter’s Potent Punch, for old time’s sake, but my friends did not fall for that.

We stuck to buying beer and pooled together our private stashes of foreign liquor that some of us had hidden in our closets. Therefore, we still had all the ingredients for a dirty chemical reaction, but it had to happen in our stomachs, instead of in a washing bowl.

What we had so far never succeeded to do suddenly happened that evening: several of our Chinese roommates participated in the drinking. It seems that they as well felt that the end of our shared lives in the Beijing Language Institute was nearing. Even the most revolutionary school leader would not object to their participation in one decadent party. . .

My roommate also turned up.

As I mentioned before, I had a good relationship with him as a roommate, but we had never become friends. He did not seem interested in anything but ‘resting’, and I am still wondering how he got selected to study English in the Beijing Language Institute, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. He seemed to symbolize everything that the Cultural Revolution did not stand for. . .

Our partying was undoubtedly another experience with a high degree of culture shock. Chinese do drink and at times drink a lot, but do so during dinner. . .

We would invite our Chinese roommates to join us with a drink, but they would reject it most of the times. This could have partly been caused by the Chinese face mechanism. They had nothing to offer us in return, so it would be better not to accept too much from us as well, to maintain a proper balance in our relationships. However, that evening several or our roommates did turn up.

. . . Maybe the Chinese also sensed that there was something in the air that day. We felt it during Torge’s birthday lunch and the consecutive boating. This was a feel-good day. We returned from the Summer Palace in a particularly good mood, and without bothering to rest, started to prepare for the party. I guess our Chinese friends simply got infected with that happy virus.

. . . It escaped my attention entirely, as I was engaged in what we always did during parties. And I still did not regard myself as my brother’s keeper. Chris got drunk a few times that year and we let him. We would carry him upstairs; that is what friends are for. It is not a friend’s task to take over the role of parent and berate a peer about his alcohol intake.

Around eleven that evening, without any visible warning, my roommate suddenly fell from the bed he was using as a couch. We helped him get up, and he woke up quickly. However, it was evident that his body and mind had started to separate. He was raving incoherently, and we were afraid that he was showing signs of alcohol poisoning.

We tried to get him back to our room, but for security’s sake, and to spare me the dirty job of having to clean our floor after him, we first took him to the toilet to make him puke. Surprisingly, he never did.

We then dragged him back to our room. It was a job that required four people, as he started to struggle, although he seemed to do so subconsciously. When we had finally put him on his bed, we still had to continue our firm grip, to prevent him from standing up again. . .

After a while, he gradually calmed down. A couple of fellow students stayed with me in our room, to make sure that he would not vomit after all and choke to death, or slip away in a coma.

. . . It was interesting to observe that all these efforts to contain my roommate were made by foreign students. The other Chinese had quietly disappeared back to their rooms. It was obviously not a scene you would want to be seen involved with. The cheerful mood had given way again to a watch your back mode of apprehension. Apparently, none of them discussed the incident with their foreign roommates.

Wang slept for a long time. He slept the entire night without waking up and slept most of the following day. He woke up at 11:30 am. He looked at his watch, believing that it had stopped or something. He had no idea, that it was almost noon the following day. He got up, washed and dressed, but when he returned to our room, he fell back on his bed and continued to sleep.

It probably was his first hangover ever. . .

He was criticized fiercely.

. . . a group of his classmates, interestingly mainly girls, visited our room two days after the event. It was a surprising experience for me. They came in without announcing themselves to me. They actually did not seem to notice that I was there. They positioned themselves on our beds, plural because some of them sat on mine, and started to berate Wang.

That was the first time that my neutral feelings for Wang gave way to an actual liking. I had seen many criticizing meetings in Chinese films, but Wang’s reaction to the scolding was very different from the way the people on the wrong side of the criticizing behaved in films.

Wang was defiant. He did not apologize and even pointed out equally ‘improper’ behavior of other students. So he put himself in the position of criticizer, whilst being criticized. . .

After the criticizing session, Wang immediately fell back into his regular demeanor. The defiant, feisty, and likeable Wang was repressed again behind that familiar emotionless expression. He did not bring up the criticizing meeting.

The next event in my diary was also related to our return home: We arranged our flights back to the Netherlands on Tuesday, July 6, 1976. We would backtrack our route to Beijing. This implied that we had to take a domestic flight from Beijing to Guangzhou, get on the train from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, and fly back from Hong Kong to Amsterdam.

At the Embassy, we learned that we could pick up our tickets to Amsterdam at a travel agency in the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. The Chinese Ministry of Education would see to it that we would be picked up at the Guangzhou Airport. So the only thing left for us to do was to buy our tickets to Guangzhou. We did so that afternoon at the CAAC office.


As very few people would fly around the country that time, and even fewer abroad, we had to line up for only a few minutes to purchase our tickets to Guangzhou for July 29.

That purchase marked the start of the countdown to our departure. The date was set, and a simple subtraction taught us that we had only 23 days left in Beijing. We reckoned that the best part of that time would be spent on saying goodbye, to our teachers, our roommates, the few acquaintances we had gotten to know in town, the restaurants that had been such a source of pleasure, and especially our most intimate friends at the Institute.

We were ready to go. However, the most turbulent event of that year in China was still ahead of us.


If you like this story and would like to read all of it, you are invited to buy the book. Benelux citizens can order a copy, signed if needed, directly with the author. Others can order it at Amazon.


20 The Men in Green

After May Day, the air in Beijing warms up rapidly. It is clearly noted in my diary, as I am not a summer person. This was accompanied with a number of changes. The rapid greening of nature was definitely a positive one, but less so were the mosquitoes that seemed to appear out of nowhere.

As mosquitoes could transmit encephalitis, we were offered an encephalitis shot we on June 1, 1976. It was made available to us on a voluntary basis. Even then, the school would not want to force foreign students to be injected with unfamiliar substances against their will.

Fortunately, we were not troubled much by mosquitoes in our school. A few years later I was living on the campus of Peking University with its idyllic ponds that changed into breeding grounds of mosquitoes from late spring. You had to sleep under a mosquito net then to get some sleep.


Talking about Peking University . . .

. . . We were invited (read: summoned) to meet the Ambassador on Sunday, June 3, 1976. He had received an important notice for us from the Chinese Ministry of Education. . .

The message turned out to be an invitation to move on to Peking University to ‘study Chinese’ there. Officially, the Beijing Language Institute was a transitory school, to train foreign students to the level at which they would be able to follow courses at a regular university.

In our case, as we had only a couple of months left in Beijing, the idea of moving all our belongings to a new dormitory in another university, though quite close to our school, sounded uninviting.

We believed it was one of those indirect Chinese messages, telling the Dutch Ministry of Education that they were pleased with the exchange of students so far, and that they intended to take it to the next level. Later, we learned that the Chinese government had already decided to send a couple of students, future diplomats, to The Netherlands to study Dutch. That meant that a real exchange program would start and although Chris and I were already studying Chinese in China, doing so in a genuine university would look even better. . .

Neither of us was eager to make that move, so we declined. The Ambassador seemed to understand, but asked us to at least give it a thought. We told him we would, of course. Anyway, I would spend two bouts in Peking University during later years anyway.

First it was time for a military adventure. One of the venues not yet covered by our many school outings was anything military. People in those typical green uniforms could be seen everywhere, but we had not yet entered any military organization.

. . . Early in the morning of Thursday, June 8, 1976, we boarded a school bus once more. It would drive in the direction of Tianjin, the port city close to Beijing, but stop somewhere in between these two cities, at a place called Qingxian.


During the Introduction we learned that this infantry division had been formed in 1937, during the war against Japan. After the capitulation of Japan, it had continued to fight in the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists. . .

After 1949, the division had not had much time to rest, as it was sent to participate in the first four campaigns of the Korean War during the early 1950s. . .

It was a typical Chinese military unit. It was not only a group of fighters, but formed a small society by itself. It cultivated its own fruits and vegetables and raised its own pigs and cows, achieving almost complete autonomy from the outside world. We visited a small bean curd workshop, where soybeans were processed into bean curd and soybean juice.

. . .We were offered to sample the fresh soybean juice, the leftover of bean curd making that many Chinese regard as a refreshing drink. A few Western students dared to savor the whitish liquid. Two of them barfed the stuff out immediately, together with the military lunch we had enjoyed earlier. It was an acquired taste, and they clearly had not acquired it yet. . .

This expression of self-sufficiency was not simply a thing of the Cultural Revolution. It had its roots in the symbiotic relationship between the Chinese army and the Communist Party. After 1949, the army even established huge farms that ranked among the most modern of the nation. Self-sufficiency is part of the DNA of the Chinese military. . .

The idea was transferred to other work units as well (after all, the term ‘unit (danwei)’ is a military concept). The Beijing Language Institute, e.g., grew fruit trees on campus, which was the school’s humble attempt to be a productive unit of society. . .

The entries in my diary for the remainder of June show the appearance of a Pakistani student: Isar. He was one of those students from a developing country sent to China to study science, in his case medical science. His family had more or less designated him to study medicine, but he himself was dreaming of joining Pakistan Airlines as soon as possible, flying around the world as a purser. Although Isar was a Muslim, he drank alcohol as we did, which sometimes got him into trouble with the other Pakistani students.

BLI had more Pakistani students. Through Isar I also got to know an officer of the Pakistani army, who had been assigned to learn Chinese, to become a liaison officer.

Isar was gregarious, and liberal. Unlike several of the African students we used to hang out with, he did his fair share of picking up tabs in restaurants and bars. I had a broad interest in foreign cultures and was set on in getting the most out of my stay in China, not only in learning about the country itself, but also from the contacts with representatives of such a variety of cultures.

Eating out in China was not a problem for Muslims.

. . . , a new restaurant had enriched our dining options: the Xinjiang Restaurant. Xinjiang is a so-called Autonomous Region, located in China’s far west. It is like a province, but as it is mainly inhabited by non-Han nationalities. . .

The main nationality of Xinjiang are the Uighurs, a Turkish people, most of whom were Muslims. Years later, I learned from an officer of the Turkish Embassy in Beijing that Uighurs visiting the Turkish Embassy can have a sensible conversation with the Turkish diplomats, while each side is speaking its own language. I could never confirm this story through personal observation, but it can be true. Perhaps it is like Dutch and Germans trying to converse in their respective language. We believe that we understand 80%, while in reality it is at most 60%.

All major administrative regions of China have representations in Beijing, which function as de facto embassies. In a large autocratically administered country like China, local governments have so many issues they need to coordinate with the policies of the national government, that it is worth to investment in a permanent representation in the capital.

Such an organization will regularly receive guests from the home region, to discuss policy matters with counterparts in central ministries. These people need to be put up, and it makes sense that their local ‘embassy’ books hotel space. . .

Once we had learned about it from Ronald, after he had checked it out with his cronies of the ‘Second Secretary Luncheon Club’, we followed his advice and it was love at first sight. . .

It immediately replaced the Chengdu Restaurant as our favorite eatery. My friends and I were carnivores and meat is an important ingredient in Xinjiang cuisine. The restaurant served the best mutton we had ever tasted.

Some familiar people started to leave. We joined Ronald and few other members of the Embassy staff to the Capital Airport to bid farewell to the Ambassador and his wife on Tuesday, June 22, 1976. It reminded me of the fact that I would be in the same position less than 2 months from that day.

But I first took a dive in the Ming Tombs Reservoir.

. . . The last Sunday of June, Ronald and Sarah picked me up for dip in the Ming Tombs Reservoir. It was a man made reservoir named after its proximity to the Ming Tombs. Chris declined the invitation. I assume he could swim, but I guess that walking around in swimming trunks did not agree with his self-image as a future diplomat.

At that time, swimming in the reservoir was still allowed. It is forbidden now, probably because so little water is left that one can hardly swim anyway. When we arrived, I was surprised to see quite a few Chinese there already, mainly young people, enjoying a swim on that hot Sunday.

In an earlier chapter, I noted that it was interesting to see Chinese women wearing skirts during the National Day celebrations. By then we had already grown used the unisex dressing style. This little difference between male and female dressing was continued when the temperatures rose. The female Chinese students were all wearing baggy trousers and short sleeve shirts, like their male counterparts, again with minor differences that you needed to learn to note, and appreciate. . .


Now I was confronted with a group of several young Chinese women in bathing suits. Bikinis were obviously out of the question, but even to see them swim and walk around in tight bathing suits was a rare sight for me. They were accompanied by an equal number of young men in swimming trunks and their interaction struck me as quite natural, as if it was a daily routine for them. They could have been the offspring of what then constituted the ruling elite. The very fact that they had reached the reservoir indicates that they probably also had access to some kind of private transportation. . .

That Sunday was almost like one we could spend in any outdoor swimming pool on a hot summer day in Europe. People coming out with food and drinks, changing into their swimming suits, and spend the day swimming, eating, drinking, frolicking and chatting, in random order. I felt so relaxed that I forgot that the sun and I were not close friends.

. . . Back in my dorm, my roommate Wang showed his surprise (he rarely did show his emotions), when confronted with the red color of my face, arms and back.

Interestingly, when you get burned like that, you seem to be less troubled by the heat in the room. By that time, the rooms had become little ovens, and sleeping had become problematic for most North-Europeans. However, I remember clearly that the room actually felt comfortable, as if my body was giving off heat to the air, rather than the other way round. I slept remarkably well that night. . .

Heat would be a major ingredient of each of our final days in Beijing.


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19 The Hospital at the Elephant Pond

Labor Day felt differently to me than for most other European students. May 1 is not a national holiday in The Netherlands. As good Calvinists, we celebrate labor by laboring a little bit more.

In fact, our activities of that day closely resembled those of the National Day, October 1. We went to the Summer Palace in the morning and the Sun Yat Sen Park in the afternoon, the reverse order of our National Day activities. We did not want to skip the outings, of course. No occasion to board the school buses was missed.

The behavior of the Chinese also seemed less enthusiastic as during National Day.

. . . Apparently, by the end of the Cultural Revolution period (of course, we did not know it was the end then), people had become so numb and apathetic that their enthusiasm for October 1 and May 1 was equal; i.e., equally low.

As for the performances, I only remember one act that I saw that day, but I remember it in great detail, so it must be another of those experiences during that year that has left a strong imprint in my memory. . .

. . . A group of youngsters were performing a short act, a kind of tableau vivant, portraying teenagers sent to the countryside and farmers under whose care they were working. One farmer said, the actor using a stereotype ‘countryside’ accent, ‘Why have those youngsters still not gone back home?’ Whereupon the youngsters would chant, using standard Mandarin: ‘No, we are not going back, we are determined to stay.’

Equipped with the necessary background knowledge this was a masterpiece . . . of deception. First, most teenagers sent to the countryside led miserable lives and longed to return to their hometowns. However, that was not allowed and could only be accomplished by a few, with the help of an acquaintance or by bribing.

The performers, I do not know whether they were volunteers or had been assigned to do this jiemu (performance), undoubtedly knew this and so did most of the spectators. This was probably why the performers, although their act itself was flawless, did not really radiate enthusiasm; and why there was no applause from the apathetic audience.

The only explanation that makes sense in the Chinese political environment of that time is that so many teenagers tried to go back, resulting in an equal number of parents rattling on all the backdoors they hoped to be able to open, that the government wanted to tell them to forget it; that their attempts would fail. Performing art has been used for political purposes in China for centuries. Mao Zedong himself had been criticized in a Peking Opera, just before the eruption of the Cultural Revolution. . .

A more energizing activity was a visit to the Jishuitan Hospital. This was another hospital specialized in sewing back severed limbs. You may remember our visit to such a hospital in Shanghai, during our winter holiday trip.

. . . The hospital alone was worth a visit as well. Its name literally means: ‘Accumulating Water Pond’. That may not sound very poetic in English, but it does in Chinese, with its crisp monosyllabic words.

The pond is a small lake around which the hospital has been built in the late 1950s. The lake is said to date from the Yuan Dynasty (1279 –1368). This was the first time that a considerable part of China was ruled by non-Han emperors. Beijing, then known as the Big City, Da Du, was located on the North side of the Beijing we know. Part of the earth wall of Da Du is still intact.

A canal was dug to bring water to Da Du and the Jishuitan was part of that system. A salient detail in the records is that it was the place to wash your elephants. Now that may surprise most of you, but do not forget that one of the bonuses of having a non-Han government was that China was more open to foreign influences then than under the rule of conservative Confucianists.


During the Yuan dynasty dignitaries from Southeast Asia visited the court in Da Du riding elephants. Marco Polo, another foreign visitor (though maybe not really a dignitary) to China of that time, describes this in his travelogue. Apparently, when they arrived at Da Du after what must have been an extremely long trip, they washed their elephants in the Jishuitan, as they were used to do in the rivers back home. . .

The type of patients in this hospital was also comparable to those in Shanghai. However, the people-repairing doctors of the Jishuitan Hospital also had an invention of their own.

. . . A surgical technique that we had not yet learned about in Shanghai was letting new flesh grow on bones stripped of flesh during industrial accidents by burying them in the belly of the patient.

Once new flesh had grown on the bones, they were cut from the belly again, including sufficient skin to wrap around each finger. After that, the flesh on the belly would grow back. . .

. . . The people with their hand(s) temporarily buried into the flesh of their tummy seemed awfully young. Were they teenagers assigned to factories right out of Middle School and put to work at a production line without proper training? The doctors who proudly showed us their work were more interested in mending people with such special injuries, than trying to think about preventing freak accidents like that to happen. There is more honor to gain from healing people than from preventing them get injured.

Thud       Thud.

Two fellow students fell down.

Watching all this was not for the faint of heart. Quite a few people felt their legs weaken at the sight of blood, and there was much more to see than a few drops of blood during this hospital visit. . .

Regular readers will probably now realize that gloating over the fainting of fellow students was good for at least half the fun of this visit.

The note in my diary: ‘Friday May 14. 1976: sold our winter coats’ indicates that winter was over. We sold the coats in the Friendship Store, which had a separate space, somewhere at the back, you needed to ask directions to find it, where foreigners could sell stuff they wanted to get rid of, but could still be of use to others.

The second half of the diary entry for that day says that we dined twice that evening. This may sound as excessive, and it probably was, but it makes an interesting story.

. . . We were invited by one of the lower officers of the Dutch Embassy and his wife. He was a pleasant non-nonsense type of a man; not trying to pose as a sophisticated diplomat like Ronald.

He had told us that we were expected from 8 p.m. Their apartment was located near the Friendship Store, and we had a few hours to kill after selling our padded coats there.

We Dutch take our dinner quite early, typically around 18:00 hrs. This is a habit that we share with the Chinese. We were therefore not sure, if we would be fed a full meal that evening, or that we would be offered drinks and the usual snacks. We walked the short distance from the Friendship Store to the International Club, to have a light dinner there. . .


. . . After that dinner, we walked to the diplomatic compound behind the Club, where our host of the evening was residing. We were let in, had drinks and snacks, and chatted with the hosts and a Dutch businessman who had just arrived in Beijing for a fresh round of negotiations. Chris could even enjoy a huge Cuban cigar. Everyone had a swell time.

‘Dinner is served!’

The cook announced this as he was used to every evening that the couple dined in. There was nothing unusual about it. However, it was the moment that Chris and I realized that we were in for a second dinner.

No problem. We dug into it, as if we had not eaten for a couple of days. It would have been wasting a good meal, and we spared ourselves the embarrassment of showing lack of sophistication. After all, we should have known better and especially for diplomat-to-be Chris showing that would have been unbearable to admit that in public. . .

Speaking of dinners, the entries about dinners in my diary start to include business people from late April. Western business people usually came to China to negotiate deals with one of the state-run import-export corporations.

. . . These were often major deals, involving heavy machinery, up to the construction of a green field plant. Foreign companies would send one representative, or a few, to China to discuss the deal with counterparts of a proper foreign trade corporation.

The Chinese government had established foreign trade corporations for all major industrial sectors. Their names tended to be boring and would usually be something like the ‘China [Industry X] Import and Export Corporation’. The employees of those corporations would be assigned to their positions as any other employee of China then. The leaders were obviously selected for their correct political track record, which was deemed more important than their knowledge of the industry. . .

. . .The foreign negotiator was therefore confronted with Chinese negotiation teams typically consisting of a main negotiator, politically correct and therefore not directly involved with the practical parts of the negotiation, at least one engineer who knew the business, but had to spend much attention to ensure that the main negotiator did not feel kept in the dark, and an interpreter who was usually unfamiliar with the industry and often had to be helped by the foreign negotiator and the Chinese engineers to find the proper words. . .

This negotiation practice was tiring for the Western business people, so they were starving at the end of each day. They had a generous budget to spend on food, while we foreign students had the knowledge where you could eat well. That created great synergy. We usually got to know the Dutch business people during Embassy parties and in the course of the conversation made deals to meet them in their hotel during the coming week to lead them to a good restaurant.

. . . Chris and I started to get invited regularly by several such business people, to discuss China in one of the restaurants that we used to rave about during Embassy parties. We knew the language and the places, so we booked a table in the Chengdu Restaurant, or the Horn of Plenty, and they would pick up the tab. It was a good deal.

We genuinely enjoyed the company of most of them. These were well-educated people with considerable business experience. Otherwise, they would not have been sent on such important missions. They often struck us as more open to China than most of the diplomats who only seemed to see what they wanted to see.

Dinner was served early in China, and we often continued the conversation in the hotel of business people enjoying the drinks they had brought with them from the tax-free shops for boarding their plane to China. . .

Their appreciation for our knowledge was also a welcome change from the generally arrogant attitude of the diplomats. For me, it was another entry to the business world, after our bout of Open Door Schooling in the Dongfeng Bazar. It was a real win-win situation.


If you like this story and would like to read all of it, you are invited to buy the book. Benelux citizens can order a copy, signed if needed, directly with the author. Others can order it at Amazon.


18 Laughing hyenas

After paying our respects to Premier Zhou Enlai, the Chinese political scene was hardly a priority for us. I would have difficult to try to learn more; even it had been, as we had little access to information. Still, the signs that things were fermenting behind the high walls of the Chinese government compound were there.

The most conspicuous sign was the increasing criticism to Deng Xiaoping. The phrase bu ken gaihui de zouzipai Deng Xiaoping ‘the unrepentant capitalist roader Deng Xiaoping’ was broadcast daily through campus loudspeaker system. No longer protected by Zhou, Deng was de facto outlawed.

Chinese politics had been affected tremendously by the passing away of Zhou Enlai.

. . . Zhou had also been instrumental in arranging Nixon’s seminal visit to China in 1972. The path to that visit had been laid by the equally important visit of the US Table Tennis team to China a year earlier. It had also been masterminded by Zhou, and the idea behind it (letting a harmless sport event pave the way for the real thing) had become known as the Ping Pong Diplomacy.

It had been under Zhou’s guidance that the People’s Republic of China had been recognized as the only China by the United Nations. And he had done all this, while his health was already deteriorating. He was the only sitting politician of that time who was genuinely liked by the overwhelming majority of the Chinese. . .

Zhou’s death left an empty spot in the hearts of the men in the street. It left an even bigger hole in the Chinese political scene. While Mao was hardly aware of himself, a fierce political struggle broke out in the highest political echelons. . .

The Qingming Festival, at which the Chinese honour their deceased ancestors, was approaching. Like most traditional Chinese holidays, Qingming was not celebrated during the Cultural Revolution. However, when Qingming 1976 approached, more and more Chinese started bringing flowers to Tian’anmen Square as a gift for their beloved prime minister.


. . . The main attraction on that square at the time (now it is Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum) was the Monument for the People’s Heroes. It commemorated the martyrs who had sacrificed their lives for the revolution. It was a spot where people used to bring flowers around Qingming Festival for several years. It was therefore the ideal place to pile up the offers for Zhou Enlai.

However, in 1967 the number of flowers and other small gifts, placed at the foot of obelisk-like structure was immense. And there was more, except for floral wreaths and photographs of Zhou Enlai, texts were also stuck to the monument.

There were exclamations like: ‘Premier Zhou, who is looking after your soul!’, which was a very overt hint that the current leaders of the country were not displaying sufficient attention to the commemoration of a hero like Zhou Enlai. . .

There were even more poems with clear political messages, all using the death and commemoration of Zhou Enlai as an excuse to complain about the remaining political leaders. The most famous line in those poems read:

‘I want to grieve, but hear ghosts screeching,

I want to cry, but jackals are laughing’.

The word ‘ghost’ was a reference to Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife who used to be likened with the ‘White Bone Spirit’, a demoness from a famous traditional novel Journey to the West She can take on any shape and usually tries to win the confidence of her victims by appearing like a pitiable or kind person. Once you lose guard, she grabs and eats you. . .

That most Chinese hated Jiang Qing was a public secret. You knew it, therefore there was no need to express it, as that could literally be lethal. The political leaders at first left the flowers and the writings untouched, probably hoping that it would gradually fade away. However, when it didn’t, and Qingming was approaching they apparently decided that the risk that the mourning for Zhou would evolve into an antigovernment movement was too big and let Public Security remove everything overnight. That proved a wrong bet.

. . . A growing crowd of people gathered on Tian’anmen Square in the morning of April 5 only to find their tokens of mourning for Zhou Enlai gone. The mood got grimmer with the increasing number of mourners. Hidden by the anonymity of their large number, several of them dared to start shouting anti-government slogans.


The police were not trained to deal with that type of behaviour. The only experience that Chinese police had with behavior that approached a riot had been during the first years of the Cultural Revolution. However, that had been a man-made riots, directed by a small group of people using the immaturity and ignorance of the teenagers and young adults who had been raised by their parents, teachers, and neighbors with the idea that they were the lucky generation tasting the sweet fruits of the revolution. . .

. . . Maybe it was the similarity between the organized riots of the Cultural Revolution and the spontaneous April 5 protests of 1976 that made the police hesitant to intervene. When the mayor of Beijing, Wu De, gave the signal to put a halt to the turmoil, the protesters outnumbered the police present at that moment, and attempts to disperse the crowd resulted in fighting. The mourners were no longer afraid. Several police officers were beaten and chose to retreat, while some protesters even set their cars afire.

This gave the authorities an excuse to launch a full attack on the protesters, using a special branch of Public Security equipped with armor and batons. Chinese attach great value to their lives and will not easily sacrifice themselves even for the best of causes. Most of the protesters fled home as quickly as possible, and only a few diehards persevered, most of whom were arrested. . .

I spent that day on the campus. We had learned about the wreaths and poems at Tian’anmen Square, and had been looking at them a couple of days earlier. We also sensed that this would not be allowed to continue for long, but lacked information about when the storm would burst. Ironically, we would not have learned so much about what was going on the square, if the School’s broadcasting system had not started to read Wu De’s speech. Still in hindsight, the decision by our School (and perhaps many other units in the capital) to broadcast the speech so quickly, may have been a silent signal to the people to join the protesters. It is a guess, but it is a possible scenario in Chinese culture. I recorded the message, which was read repeatedly, on my cassette recorder, but unfortunately that recording has gone lost long time ago.

The following day, I took the bus to Wangfujing Street, which included a ride on Bus 1 that covered the best part of Chang’an Avenue, the huge boulevard that crosses Tian’anmen Square. There were no vestiges of the riots left to see, but I vividly remember that the riots were still the main theme of the conversations on the bus.

. . . I was surprised to hear people speaking about the turmoil as if it were a daily routine. When the bus passed the Great Hall of the People, where some rioters had attempted to break a door, several people in the bus were pointing at that spot saying: ‘Look, that must be the door!’ They were not for or against the rioters; they were merely curious.

Again, those ordinary citizens who were doing their ordinary things had never been exposed to spontaneous riots as well, just like their compatriots working for Public Security. It was a completely new phenomenon for them. It probably fascinated them more than it scared them. . .

Later that month, we were taken back a long time in history with a visit to the Peking Man site at Zhoukoudian on Sunday, April 23, 1976.


. . . Zhoukoudian is an excavation site south of Beijing. It was my first visit to an excavation site in China. Indeed, it was my first visit to any excavation site period. We had seen our share of buildings from various periods of China’s long history in Beijing and the cities we visited during the winter holiday trip, but this site was seriously ancient.

However, there was not that much to see. The actual site was a big hole in the ground with a few openings pointed out to us as caves in which remains of primitive man had been discovered. A small museum had been built near the caves, in which some of the excavated fossils of Peking Man (or more probably, replicas) and some of the stoneware and other utensils made by these ancient people were exhibited. . .

That month ended with another national holiday.

. . . We Dutch are proud of our monarchy. Our sovereign in 1976 was a queen, Queen Juliana. While I am writing these lines, the current Queen Beatrix, has just abdicated on April 30, 2013. From that day, we have a king again.

On April 30, 1976, the Dutch, including the Dutch expatriates in all corners of the globe, were celebrating Queen’s Day, the birthday of Queen Juliana. She still only had four years to go, before her abdication, but we did not know that then. Juliana was the queen who looked like everybody’s mother. That was why you simply had to like her; even when you were a republican. . .

. . . the two of us, dressed as formally as we could with the few garments that we had brought from home. With such a small Dutch community in Beijing, every individual was more than welcome at the Queen’s Day party at the Beijing International Club. . .

The International Club was not a real club, but was more like a restaurant that foreigners could enter for lunch or dinner, but was closed to Chinese, except those invited by foreigners. It was like the nearby Friendship Store that sold luxury items to foreigners, as a token of friendship, but was strictly forbidden to locals.

. . . My diary does not tell me whom I met there, or what exciting conversation I had with whom. I guess it was not that exciting at all. The bonus you got during those functions was the opportunity to savor proper wine, and we made sure to get our fair share of it. . .

. . . it was a good dinner. Moreover, we had a full agenda. While this Dutch party was coming to an end, we were already eagerly awaiting the festivities of the following day, May Day.


If you like this story and would like to read all of it, you are invited to buy the book. Benelux citizens can order a copy, signed if needed, directly with the author. Others can order it at Amazon.


17 They’re Serving Beef Today!

Regular readers of this blog will remember our exciting week in the countryside in October 1975, when we did a tour of Open Door Schooling.

Early March it was announced that we would spend another week in the Dongfeng Bazar, the department store in Beijing’s top shopping street Wangfujing, in which Chris had found his Cuban cigars. It has been taken over and completely rebuilt by a Hong Kong investor in the present century and is now known as Sun Dong’an Plaza.

The teachers who had organized this were thrilled about this arrangement, which they regarded as a big experiment. Our group would be the first to have Open Door Schooling in an urban location.

. . . Monday, March 22, 1976, the School opened its doors again for us to learn about Chinese life in practice.

The first day was bound to start with a huge introduction by a leader of the Market. Dong’an Market had been established in the early 20th Century, before the end of the last dynasty. It had begun as a real market, a collection of stalls, as all big cities in the world needed, to provide the unproductive citizens with food, clothes and other daily necessities, but also with stuff that the same unproductive city dwellers need to keep themselves occupied in their spare time, like stationary, musical instruments, or sewing kits.


The stalls gradually became fixed selling spaces for the vendors and further evolved into tiny shops. In a similar fashion, some food stalls grew into restaurants. To shelter the shops, and their patrons, from the harsh Beijing climate, the place became roofed. The foreigners in Beijing who liked the place as we did, started to refer to it as the Dong’an Bazaar. In its heydays, the Dong’an Market counted more than 900 users. . .

. . . During the 1950s, the vendors had to comply with more influence from the invisible hand, when the government promulgated a system of ‘public private partnership (gongsi heying)’. In the following period, the ‘private’ part of the operation gradually faded away, and the Dong’an Market was in reality a state operated store, divided in many small shops. The former shop owners were no longer owners, but employees. . .

In hindsight this week was my first encounter with business administration, and I am sure that it has been at least one factor influencing my later switch from the academic world to business. My diary shows that I certainly got a remarkable interest in figures.

. . . The store employed 2164 people at that moment, 1166 men and 998 women. Their average age was 37, but approximately 800 employees were younger than 30.

A salient detail of the employee statistics was the number of ‘capitalists’: 65. You see, I was right. Those capitalists, despite their incorrect background, were the ones with the valuable product knowledge and business acumen. I bet that their young revolutionary colleagues had learned more about running a business from them than in school. . .

We spent that entire first day listening to introductions by several leaders of the store. Almost half of my notes are concerned with employee benefits. The advantage of doing this bout of Open Door Schooling in a store with such a long history was that it allowed the people doing the introductions to compare the ‘old society’, the standard term for pre-1949 China, with the then current situation.

. . . we were also given a look, however restricted, in the human resource problems the leaders occasionally encountered. . . Cultural Revolution or no Cultural Revolution, Chinese consumers retained all characteristics of consumers. They were exigent, and expected quality for their money. . .

. . .Therefore, buying anything slightly more valuable than a daily necessity was an undertaking that required time and attention. When you needed a new pair of trousers, you did not only look for the right size, material, and color, but you also needed to inspect every other detail.

Chinese customers would check all stitches. Had the pockets been sewn on the proper places? Were there no loose hems? Their comments on perceived problems could make you split. I had observed such interaction between customers and sales people numerous times before our week in the store. Although I was not a sales person, even as a neutral observer I could often feel an urge to punch the buyers on the nose, for their unreasonable comments. . .

The Head of the Personnel Department confided that new employees were trained to deal with that phenomenon, but that quarrels still occurred occasionally. Some people originally assigned to sales positions had to be transferred to a back office function, where they did not have to deal with customers anymore. This was a real human interest story, one that was credible and not a standard revolutionary narrative.

The staff also seemed to benefit from our presence.

. . . It was arranged that we would share lunch with the staff of the store in the employee dining hall ‘to mix with the workers’. We welcomed that, of course. It would not have felt right, if we had been fed on specially prepared food in separate rooms. The dining hall was a smaller replica of the one in the Language Institute. The staff worked in shifts; so there was a constant, but moderate, flow of eaters. There were no rush hours like in our school. The main difference was that the choices of the day were not exhibited on a table, but written on a blackboard. The employees of the Dongfeng Market were all assumed literate.

When we lined up with the employees that first lunch, the Big Boss who also was a big boss physically, was standing in line next to me. He started scanning the blackboard to make his selection while gradually approaching the counter. I suddenly heard him say, visibly pleased: ‘Hey, they are serving beef today!’

Apparently, the kitchen staff had been told to pay extra attention to the fact that a group of carnivore Western students would be taking lunch that week. I appreciated the gesture; I ordered a helping of beef as well. I was enjoying the little extra care, with the Big Boss of the Dongfeng Market. . .

We spent the following days in a similar way as during our Open Door Schooling in the commune earlier: half a day working and half a day visiting. As for the working part, I was assigned to the counter selling Halal pastries.

The photograph in the banner of this blog shows me at work behind that counter. China has a considerable Muslim population. The is not restricted to the Western regions of China. There are also ethnic Chinese Muslims. Beijing alone has more than 70 mosques. Halal restaurants and food shops can be found everywhere.

To function properly, I needed to acquire a few new skills.

Lesson 1: how to operate the scales.

If you think that my work there was a piece of Halal cake, you are terribly mistaken. Then, almost all food would be purchased by the weight in China. We are used to buying a pack of biscuits, but Chinese would buy a few ounces or a pound. This meant that you had to put a handful of the biscuits ordered on the scales and keep adding until the required volume was reached.

Lesson 2: how to calculate the price.

The next step was to calculate the price of that total order, which could consist of several items. You needed to multiply the volume of each item purchased with the price per ounce, and add everything up to obtain the total price of the client’s order.

There were no electronic calculators. Instead, you had to work with an abacus that great Chinese invention. However, if you are really forced to use it, and so suddenly as I was, it does not feel so great anymore. . .

Lesson 3: collect the proper volume of grain coupons.

Pastries were made from flour and flour from grain. Ergo, you needed grain coupons to buy pastries. When you communicated the price of the order to the client, the client would not only give you money, but also grain coupons.

This added a whole new dimension to the notion of ‘change’. Suppose that a certain order of 3 ounces of biscuits cost RMB 3.50 and the client gave you a RMB 5 note and a 1 pound grain coupon, you needed to give back RMB 1.50 and 2 ounces worth of grain coupons in change. . .

In 1976, the citizens of Beijing had enough to eat. Still, grain was rationed using a coupon system. Food like dumplings had two prices, a price in RMB (renminbi) the local currency, and one in grain coupons. The unit of the latter was expressed in the weight of flour consumed. You would typically order a few liang (Chinese ounce) of dumplings. That would have a certain price in RMB and with your payment you would add grain coupons equivalent to the weight of dumplings you had ordered. Foreigners were exempted from using cereal coupons.


A one pound grain coupon

Very soon, I was myself confronted with by impatient and finicky customers myself.

. . . Many of my customers quickly became annoyed, when I needed more time for my calculations. Then, I overheard a conversation between two people observing the presence of a fair-haired sales person behind the counter. The question ‘what kind of person is that?’ was replied with: ‘He is probably from Xinjiang’. . .

Lesson 4: packing the merchandise.

. . . My merchandise had to be packed in paper and tied with a rope. Moreover, it had to be done in such a way, that the customer could hang it on a finger. That was convenient for the customer, but definitely not for a maladroit Sinologist linguist to be. Tying knots was for boy scouts, and scouting had never appealed to me.

Pastries needed to be handled with care. The customers were buying biscuits, crackers, or cakes, not a pack of crumbs. You needed to make equal piles on a piece of paper, fold the paper carefully around it and then tie it up with a very thin rope that seemed to be made of paper itself. You needed to take care of not crushing the merchandise. Then, you had to tie the knot in way that resulted in a neat pack of complete pastries, with a noose for easy carrying. . .

By the time I started to feel comfortable with calculating prices and packing pastries, our time in the store was over.

We spent the afternoons visiting various departments.

. . . an interesting item in my diary about our visit to the Accounting Department was that we met a real capitalist; one of the 65 mentioned during the introduction. He had been a shop owner in the old bazaar and when his shop was gradually incorporated in the socialist economy, he had been compensated with a job in which his old management knowledge could be put to use. We learned that he still earned a special salary. . .

We also paid a quick visit to the living quarters of the employees. As most work units in China, the Dongfeng Market was also responsible for housing its people. We visited Dongfeng’s own training facility on the last afternoon.

Comparing the two bouts of Open Door Schooling, I think I learned more this time than I did during my week in the commune.

A couple of weeks after we had said goodbye, I entered the Dongfeng Market again and when I passed my old counter, I was recognized by my former colleagues and asked to behind the counter for a chat. That was an unusual expression of affection to a foreigner in the China of that time.

Right at that moment, when I started to make local friends, the political turmoil that had been fermenting underneath the political surface exploded.


If you like this story and would like to read all of it, you are invited to buy the book. Benelux citizens can order a copy, signed if needed, directly with the author. Others can order it at Amazon.


16 In Marco’s Footsteps

A city with a long history like Beijing is teeming with historic sites worth visiting. A site with considerable historic meaning, but still not often found on the schedules of travel agencies is the Marco Polo Bridge. I went there by bus with Finnish student Kalli on Sunday, Feb. 29, 1976,

. . . An adventure it was, going to the Marco Polo Bridge. We could only reach it by taking several buses. Even today, when the city is encroaching on this historic location, it is still almost located in the countryside, but then it was about the farthest we foreigners could go without a travel permit. We could walk on the bridge, but were not allowed to cross it.

It took us the entire morning to arrive at the fortified village of Wanping, at the city side bank of the Yongding River. It is called ‘river’, but because of the arid climate, it is not more than a broad strip of sand with a tiny stream of water flowing in its center most time of the year.

The most salient feature of the bridge is the row of stone lions at the sides of the bridge. According to the Chinese belief not two of the lions are identical. A popular saying is that ‘the lions of the Marco Polo Bridge defy counting’. This is why all Chinese tourists visiting it spend more time on trying to count the lions than on seeing the monument. They start counting at the beginning of one side. They meticulously follow that side, step by step, making sure that they do not miss one lion. However, sooner or later you will see them halt with a puzzled look on their face. That is the moment they suddenly believe that they have made a mistake. Most of them give up, but still quite a few actually backtrack their footsteps to start all over again. . .

The bridge was built in the 12th Century. Its Western name was inspired by the enthusiastic description of the bridge by Marco Polo. It is also the location of the incident that started the Sino-Japanese war in July 1937. The Japanese occupation of North China had already begun in 1931, but it is generally believed that the Japanese provoked the Chinese troops encamped at Wanping, to create an excuse to start a full-fledged war.

. . . We did our own share of provocations. . .

. . . There were no nationalist troops left to tease, so we had to do with the plain cloth guards that were obviously assigned there to see to it that no foreigner proceeded beyond the limit of where we foreigners were allowed to go.


We were never actually stopped by someone, but as soon as we got off the bus and started walking to the bridge, a man who had been sitting there idly suddenly walked to a small shed and made a phone call. Kalli and I guessed that he was a security guard. Actually, we hoped he was. . .

. . . Almost at the other end of the bridge, another man in a similar Mao suit stood in the middle of the road. He did not say a word, but his body language expressed all that needed to be said: this is the end of your journey. There probably was one of those signs saying: ‘Out of bounds for foreign visitors’ at that end of the bridge, but we did not get close enough to see it.

We turned around; we knew when to stop. We wanted to tease, not to badger. . .

By that time, we had grown quite hungry and entered a roadside restaurant that mainly catered to cart and truck drivers that passed by. A number of unmanned carts and cars were parked in front of it.

. . . I am sure we must have made the day for those cart drivers who happened to have lunch in that restaurant that moment. It was written on their faces (more body language). They had a story to tell to their friends and relatives, sharing lunch with a couple of foreigners.

The waitress had obviously not had many Western visitors lately. The first challenge was to convince her that we actually could speak Chinese. Trying to order lunch by only using body language did not appeal to us. After we had convinced her that we could converse with her in her own language, we asked what she had to offer and selected a few dishes and ordered a couple of beers. . .

We took the same buses back to the Institute. It had been a nice day out and a good occasion to strengthen my relation with Kalli.

My book fever flared up that week. My diary tells me that on Tuesday, March 2, 1976, I purchased a 56 volume series of old books on traditional Chinese phonology.

. . . Chinese did not have an official spelling system for its pictographic characters until the 20th Century. However, Chinese scholars had developed an intricate way to describe the sound of a character using two other characters, the first shared the initial sound of the character described and the second character the final, rhyming, part of that character. A character with the sound li, could thus be described with two characters pronounced la and mi respectively.

Applied to English, it would be something like describing the sound of weird using the phrase wet beard. . .

I did not really intend to study that topic intensively, but old books were sold at bargain prices in 1976, and phonology is a subtopic of linguistics.

. . . I can see those volumes from where I am writing these lines. I have not read them (yet), but they add an intriguing flavor to my library. They are traditional Chinese books consisting of folded pages sewn together. They look peculiar to Western friends and having them on your shelves poses a good occasion for a chat on ancient Chinese philology. . .

Actually, even Chinese visitors to my private library are in awe about my collection of old books. For them it is a silent sign that I am their equal, or even their peer, in this field. . .

Spring was announcing itself. Beijing has a continental climate with four very distinct seasons. The winters can be very cold with cutting winds straight from Siberia.

Spring is the season in which the sun gradually starts feeling warm during the afternoon and trees, and shrubs start sprouting; as anywhere in the world. Even during the Cultural Revolution, taking your family out to a park on a spring Sunday was not considered a bourgeois activity. However, although there are many larger and smaller parks to go to, there are so many people with the same urge to go the park, that all parks are overcrowded on Sundays. Fortunately, Ronald took me to picnic with his family to the Ming Tombs one Sunday.

. . .The expatriates living in Beijing then were in the fortunate situation that most of them had cars to drive to scenic spots in the suburbs, as long as they honored the ‘out of bounds for foreign visitors’ signs.

The Ming Tombs, the graves of emperors of the penultimate dynasty, have been used by foreign residents of Beijing since before the abdication of the last emperor, and that tradition was continued by their successors in 1976. Ronald took me along for a pick nick with his family at the Ming Tombs on Sunday, March 9, 1976.

Most tombs were not more than a hill surrounded by a wall. There were so many treasures hidden under those hills, buried with the emperors, that China had no sufficient museum space to exhibit them all, or even preserve them properly. The best mode of preservation was, and still is, leaving them where they are: safely buried.

It was a peculiar feeling. We were feasting on good food and wine, knowing that a dead emperor was lying beneath us. . .


Chris and I parted after that weekend.

. . .There had been rumors about us getting Chinese roommates for some time. It would be quite an adventure; not only for us, really putting our cultural intelligence at the test, but also for the leaders of the School who had to trust that such close contacts between compatriots and foreign students would not infect the Chinese roommates with the wrong ideology.

Wang Fuchen who was to be my roommate for the remainder of my stay in the Beijing Language Institute, moved in on Thursday, March 9, 1976. He was from Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning province, north of the Great Wall. He had some engineering background and was studying English at the Institute.

Chris moved to a room next door that had been unoccupied so far, and got a roommate of his own, with a similar background. . .

. . . Wang Fuchen was a quiet person and what I particularly liked was that he apparently did not intend to practice English with me. I would not want to call him lazy, but he did not strike me as diligent either. . .

Then there was my birthday; Sunday March 21, 1976. You know about that from the first chapter, so I will skip most of it in this post.

. . . Sunday, March 21, 1976, was the day I turned 20, in Beijing, China. Call me a copy cat, or unimaginative, but it seemed like a good idea to book a table in the same restaurant in which Chris had celebrated his several months earlier. It was the top of the bill in Beijing that time and we had already forged a silent agreement that we, the band of friends who regularly ventured into town to check new eateries, would reserve a place like that for special occasions. This surely was one. . .

I spent considerable time drawing up the perfect list of invitees, to be sure of a good conversation, feisty but still polite. This succeeded quite well.

. . . It was a memorable evening, properly adorned with a bottle of Moutai (Chris staid sober; it was not his party this time). If you can compare your twentieth birthday with crossing a bridge, spanning the river between the land of your teens, when you are still regarded a child, to that of early adulthood, then I can say that I crossed that bridge in style. . .

Like I had crossed the Marco Polo bridge a few week earlier.


If you like this story and would like to read all of it, you are invited to buy the book. Benelux citizens can order a copy, signed if needed, directly with the author. Others can order it at Amazon.


15 The Pearl of the Orient

We needed to backtrack part of the journey from Nanjing to Hangzhou to reach Shanghai, the final leg of our winter holiday. February 12, 1976: 7:00 am: left Hangzhou by train; arrived in Shanghai at 11:00 am.

We were even more excited about this final destination of our winter holiday than about the previous two. If you ask any number of people on the streets of any Western city to name one city in China, it will be either Beijing or Shanghai. The whole world seems to be in love with Shanghai now, but even in the 1970s, people knew about Shanghai’s reputation as ‘Paris of the East’, or ‘The Pearl of the East.’

Here is a video impression of Shanghai dating from 1973.

Many people were familiar with the fact that Shanghai used to have a large foreign community during the first half of the 20th Century, and that central Shanghai was filled with many Western-style buildings.

. . . The loudspeakers in the train already gave us a firm warning, when the train approached Shanghai Central Station. . .

. . . The introduction about Shanghai told us that the old Shanghai used to attract adventurers who lived their decadent lives in the city, on the expense of the immensely poor proletariat. . .

We had no problem with the expression ‘adventurers’, as we regarded ourselves as such. After all, we had given up an entire year of Western student life for a year in the frugal conditions of the Beijing Language Institute.

. . . If the hotels in Nanjing and Hangzhou had struck us as lush, our temporary housing in Shanghai was magnificent. We were lodged in the Shanghai Mansions, a high rise building just on the other bank of the Suzhou River, at the end of the famous bridge that features in so many postcards from Shanghai. . .


The introduction of our itinerary for Shanghai was different from what we had grown used to in Nanjing and Hangzhou. It was not presented by a professor of a local university, but by a rather standard Cultural Revolution government official with a greyish Mao suit. He was a representative of the Revolutionary Committee of Shanghai Municipality, a term that in those days was the equivalent of the Shanghai Municipal Board. What I remember most vividly from his speech was the frequent use of the word ‘revolution’.

That evening we feasted on champagne. I have mentioned earlier that I had joined the people who preferred Western food during this trip. To our surprise, there was more than Western food; the hotel had champagne on its beverage list. It was Chinese champagne though, a sweetish sparkling wine produced in Shandong, something like the German Sekt.

. . . All meals consumed during the trip were covered by the fee we had paid beforehand. The drinks had to be paid by us on the spot. We at the table with Western food simply could not resist ordering a couple of bottles of champagne to wash down the schnitzels and other deep fried food that then was regarded as typically Western by Chinese cooks.

The way the waiter handled the champagne was the second surprise. In spite of all the political campaigns denouncing capitalism and capitalist rituals, the waiters in Shanghai had apparently still been trained in the proper way to open a champagne bottle and poor the bubbly liquid. We at the ‘Western’ table enjoyed the ceremony of getting the bottles from the storage, opening them and filling the glasses. However, we loved the surprised reaction of our fellow students who were drowning their indeterminable morsels of whatever, dripping with the inevitable thick gravy, in beer, or tea. They had ordered their beverages without even bothering to have a look at the drink list.

I am not a champagne drinker, actually, and even less fond of Sekt. It is too sweet for my taste and lacks the complexity of a full-bodied red wine. However, that first evening in Shanghai, looking out over the famous Bund and the Huangpu River, in the hotel that had witnessed so much partying during the first half of the 20th Century, we had ourselves a feast. . .

The following morning we set off early, as the schedule would take us to an industrial suburb of Shanghai: Minhang, where we were to visit a gas turbine factory. Shanghai was an industrial city and then, much of the industry, including heavy industry, was located right inside the city.

The most interesting destination for us Dutch of that day, however, was the place where the first National Congress of the Party had convened in July 1921.

. . . an additional interesting dimension for me was the Dutch connection of that congress. The participants in the meeting included a representative of the Communist International that had its seat in the Soviet Union. The representative was using the code name Maring, but his real name was Henk Sneevliet, a Dutchman. . .

. . . The destiny of that location has been even more peculiar. The house is still a place where pilgrims from all over China line up, every day. It is part of a typical Shanghai neighborhood called: shikumen, a labyrinth of small houses separated by narrow alleys. This shikumen was leased to a Hong Kong developer who transformed it into a posh place to go shopping or wining and dining, called Xintiandi. It is one of the spaces where the expatriates in Shanghai typically hang out. . .

The following day, we got our first glimpse of how good Chinese doctors were at sewing back severed limbs during a visit to the Nr. 6 People’s Hospital of Shanghai.

. . . Not everyone in our group appreciated the stories about the gruesome accidents that happened frequently in the Chinese factories. Socialism had brought about considerable improvement in the lives of Chinese workers, but work place security had apparently been slighted. Listening to the introduction, it seemed as if there was no region in the world where more fingers, hands, feet, arms, or legs were cut off during regular work activities than in China.

Chinese culture must have played a role here as well. Chinese are adventurous. They like to experiment, trusting their gut feeling more than printed manuals written by experts. Mao himself had preached that there is no such thing as talent and that all people could learn anything, once you put yourself to it.

The ideal of the Cultural Revolution was creating a new homo sapiens universalis, one that was an integrated worker, farmer, and soldier. That was why urban teenagers were sent to the countryside: all Chinese should be able to grow their own food. . .

. . . applied to industrial production lines, that can be life threatening. Where a Western worker would first turn a machine off, before trying to retrieve a utensil that has fallen into the machine, or making adjustments to the machine’s settings, a Chinese worker may believe that it is possible to so do, while keeping the machine running. Chinese confidence in the own dexterity is infinite, but can cost you an arm and a leg, sometimes literally. . .

Several patients were asked to tell us their personal stories. My favorite story was that of a man whose arm had been severed by a machine. He told us with a straight face that he had immediately picked up the arm that was no longer part of his physical self with his still functioning one, and had run the hospital that was within walking distance from his factory. . .

Because our local hosts wanted to show how revolutionary Shanghai was, a visit to a rural commune in the suburbs was part of our schedule: the Maqiao People’s Commune.

. . . The distinctive feature of the Maqiao Commune was the manufacturing of concrete boats. Few of us will regard concrete as a self-evident material for boats, but it seems that the technique itself was not invented there. However, someone at some time had ventured to create a small concrete boat there to ship goods from the commune to the urban purchasing stations. . .


. . . What threatened to become a rather dull ending of our stay in Shanghai and of the entire winter holiday, turned into a topic for heated discussions in the bus back to the Shanghai Mansions. Our group roughly fell apart in two factions: the ones that regarded concrete boats as a brilliant idea and those who shelved it as yet another naive product of the Chinese of the Cultural Revolution.

Both factions had a point. Concrete surely was a useful alternative for wood in a region so far away from the nearest forest, while synthetic materials were not yet available, at least not to the Maqiao Commune. However, it was also definitely a product of the philosophy that strived to create the new man who could function as worker, farmer, and soldier simultaneously. While the farmer part was growing vegetables, the worker identity was thinking about a solution for their transportation to the hungry urban dwellers. The soldier part had to be put on hold for the next war. . .

There was still one thing you have to do in Shanghai. In the morning of Sunday, 15 February 1976, we made a boat trip over the Huangpu River, the river that divides Shanghai in a western and eastern part. That time, the eastern part consisted only of a small stretch of buildings. Currently, Pudong is probably the part of Shanghai most frequently cited in the Western media.

. . . As a Dutchman, I felt home on the water and must have enjoyed the trip, but not much of that can be retrieved from my diary. The skyline of Puxi, giving a perfect view on the Bund, the boulevard on the western bank of the Huangpu River, lined with Western buildings, erected since the westerners settled there in the late 19th Century, is spectacular.


It includes the Shanghai Customs House with its famous clock that used to chime ‘Westminster Quarters’, but was reprogrammed to chime ‘The East is Red’, China’s national anthem, during the Cultural Revolution. That was partly a move to get even with the foreigners who had governed that part of Shanghai for almost a century. The most famous occupant of the Customs House had been Sir Robert Hart who had held the post of inspector general there from 1864 to 1911. . .

We left the hotel right after lunch. We were to spend the afternoon and another night on the train. We were already bracing ourselves for the a long stretch in a cramped train compartment of that holiday trip.

We had a lot to think about and digest, obviously. Interestingly, we foreign students were not the only ones struggling with such feelings that last night in the train. I noticed that during a chat with Teacher Shen, one of the female teachers who had accompanied us during this trip, when she spontaneously started to criticise the representative of the Shanghai government who had introduced our itinerary.

. . . The man had struck me as a rather bleak, run of the mill, government official, but Teacher Shen who would have been screened thoroughly for her job, had a radar for the most subtle differences in choice of words, intonation, body language, and other ways of expressing ones opinion. She suddenly raised her voice and stated that she disliked that type of people who thought that they were better anyone else.

I failed to pinpoint the cues that made her so angry. However, in hindsight, I believe that the long-time aversion of Chinese of other regions against the Shanghainese played a role here as well. After all, Shanghainese like to tell the rest of world how great everything in Shanghai is and they continued that habit during the Cultural Revolution. Seen from this angle, Teacher Shen’s bawling probably was not an entirely political issue. The Shanghainese just had to claim that they were the best in every field, even in making revolution.

That short but intimate conversation with one of our teachers indicated that some real bonding had come out of traveling together for almost three weeks. I cannot think of a better end for such an adventure. . .

That was indeed an interesting way to end our journey. I had actually discovered political diversity in China.


If you like this story and would like to read all of it, you are invited to buy the book. Benelux citizens can order a copy, signed if needed, directly with the author. Others can order it at Amazon.