12 The Entire Society in a Train

Even though Spring Festival, as Chinese New Year is called in China, is the nation’s most important holiday, there is no entry for it in my diary. Holidays were not popular with the leaders of the Cultural Revolution, and Zhou Enlai’s recent death also called for a low profile Spring Festival.

This did not bother us, as we had more important things on our minds.

. . . we would go on a trip.

Spring Festival marked the beginning of the Winter Holiday (hanjia in Chinese, literally: ‘cold holiday’). Lectures would stop for two weeks, and the Beijing Language Institute would organize a trip to Nanjing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai, the three main cities in the Yangtze River Delta.

We were eagerly awaiting leaving Beijing for a while. We obviously had not seen every corner of the city yet, but life was getting a little monotonous, especially for young restless Westerners. We were dying for a change of scenery.

Traveling on your own was allowed, but in those days foreigners needed to apply for a travel permit. You were required to book your entire trip with China International Travel Service (CITS), one of those convenient monopolist institutions. As it was the only travel agency available, there was no need to thank you for your patronage; you had no choice to begin with. The upside was that you need not waste time on comparing special offers from various travel agencies. . .

. . . We accepted the school’s offer to do all this connecting on our behalf. By now you will realize that the Beijing Language Institute was a school with a certain reputation in China. People like Teacher Bi would not be assigned to take care of the foreign students, if the government would not have the intention to ensure that we were having the time of our life in the Institute. . .

. . . Such an institution did not use CITS as its agent but went through the Ministry of Education. While CITS could book seats or berths in a train, if needed, the Ministry could order the railroad corporation to add an entire carriage for a party of students and teachers of the Beijing Language Institute. Moreover, the Ministry would use their local offices in provinces and cities outside Beijing to take care of the local visits to sites, factories, people’s communes, cinemas, the lot. They could assign students of English to act as guides, for whom it would be an occasion to practice their spoken English with real foreigners, although we all spoke Chinese, some better than others. . .

We packed some clothes and other stuff we guessed would be useful during the trip and gathered near the infamous Slogan Tower to board the school buses, as we had gotten used to.

. . . We set off late in the evening of February 4, 1976. I specifically entered the departure time, 23:00 hrs., which was unusually detailed for my standards. Apparently, it struck me as odd to get in a couple of buses so late and drive to the Beijing Station.

After a few of those trips, you start to understand why. Your train ticket buys you a berth (in our case) or a seat in the train. This can save you a night in a hotel. . .

For most of us, it was our first trip in China and everything was new, so it was an excellent occasion to observe how the Chinese behaved in this environment.


. . . The Chinese passengers struck us as if they had skipped dinner that evening, to make sure that they would have a serious appetite when boarding the train.

All that eating was bound to create waste: sausage skins, eggshells, watermelon seeds, and skins, chicken bones. To our unpleasant surprise much of that ended up on the floor. Suddenly, the long awaited trip of our life did not seem so pretty anymore. If our fellow passengers would continue incinerating their victuals at that speed, we feared that we would soon be standing in a knee-high pile of greasy smelly trash.

However, the train attendants were there to come to our rescue again. After a round with the thermos flasks, they soon returned with their brooms, to sweep the leftovers of their hungry guests to a waste bin at the end of each wagon. We were amazed. We definitely did not feel confident enough to do as the Romans do and collected our garbage in bags and boxes. The Chinese passengers were probably equally amazed about our behavior. . .

. . . Interestingly, treating train attendants as slaves was not a matter of class differences. In those days, someone who as able to buy a train ticket from Beijing to, e.g., Shanghai had to be politically kosher, a representative of the masses of workers, peasants, and soldiers. However, these politically kosher people would not automatically treat the train attendants as their equals. Maybe many train attendants were rightists or offspring of rightists who needed to be taught a lesson in humility.

The apex of all this came at the end of our journey, when the Head of attendants took the microphone to ‘thank the travelers for their cooperation’. That was a mind-boggling statement. . .

As we departed around midnight, sleeping was our next problem.


. . . There are four classes in Chinese trains. Classes? Yes, while the Chinese revolution, and particularly the cultural one, aimed to achieve a classless society, the classes in trains have never been abolished.

The absolute top was the so called ‘soft sleeper’. These were compartments with four berths and doors that could be closed to give the occupants some privacy and a little less noise.

Then came the ‘soft seats’. These were more comfortable that the hard seats, but arranged in a standard compartment. These were used by VIP travelers who only needed to travel in day time, although some would also sleep in those chairs to cut some costs.

The third level was the ‘hard sleeper’. There you had to share a compartment with five others and there was no door to shut off the noise of your fellow travelers.

Finally there were the ‘hard seats’, the cheapest and toughest way of traveling by train in China. Still, many of my acquaintances have travelled for days in a hard seat carriage. It helps to travel in a group, so the social interaction can distract you somewhat from the physical discomfort. . .

We were put up in a hard sleeper compartment. I assume that this had not only been decided on the basis of our societal position in China, but also to avoid contacts between us and the VIPs that would travel in soft sleepers.

. . . In those days, most soft sleeper travelers were highly positioned officials. They were not eagerly awaiting sharing their privileged compartments with ordinary people who might have saved a few pennies each month for a couple of years to finance a journey back to their native region in a more comfortable way. . .

. . . High ranking officials would meet people of similar rank from various organizations during such travels. These were valuable occasions for social interaction between peers who otherwise would not have many opportunities to get acquainted in a society in which the emergence of informal groups was highly discouraged. Four company leaders meeting in a restaurant may draw attention, but when they happened to be on the same train . . .

Such a long distance train in China therefore was a cross section of the entire Chinese society. For us foreign students it was an excellent occasion to observe Chinese of different ranks interacting within their own ranks as well as between different ranks. We were observing and discussing what we observed. Undoubtedly, we were the topic of such observing and discussing by our Chinese fellow travelers as well. . .

Getting enough sleep a hard sleeper carriage was challenging.,

. . . A hard sleeper carriage was divided in several open compartments, with six berths in each compartment; three on each side. The middle berths were folded up against the wall during daytime, so passengers could sit on the lower berths. This created a variety of pros and cons for each level.

If you were assigned a top berth, you had the freedom to lie down whenever you wanted, e.g., to do some quiet reading. A disadvantage was that you were very close to the ceiling and many of us bumped our heads numerous times during the trip.

The people on the mid-level berth did not have that option, until 10:00 pm, when their berths would be folded down, but you had a few centimeters more space. A downside was that the feet of most Western students were sticking out of the compartment when lying straight. This meant that people walking in the corridor would constantly bump their heads against your feet. To avoid that, you needed to sleep in a fetus position.

The passengers on the lower berths had to share theirs with the other four occupants of the compartment during daytime, although you could lie down for a while, pressing yourself against the wall, which left just enough space for the bottoms of your fellow passengers. The downside was that those bottoms were there for you to look at. The big pro of a lower berth was that you could visit the toilet at night without the need to climb down and up again. . .

During such a long haul train ride, meals became our favorite pastime.

. . . We had three peak events to look forward to on long Chinese train rides: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This was not because they were such a culinary tour de force. Neither was it because we were hungry, as we had few opportunities to burn calories. Still, few of us skipped a meal, simply because meals were served in the diner, so we finally had an occasion to walk and get some exercise. And you could sit on a chair, instead of a berth, or one of the small fold out chairs in the corridors.

We would still eat separately, after the Chinese passengers had eaten their meal. The Chinese passengers must have been as bored as we with the monotony of the train ride. Even after spending so much time snacking, most of them still went to the diner three times a day.

The train cooks tried to concoct a Western breakfast for us, with white bread and fried eggs. It was not too bad, but dangerously fattening. As a Dutchman I prefer brown bread and cheese for breakfast, and try to stay away from the eggs, bacon and sausages that the British love for breakfast.

Lunch and dinner consisted of a bowl of lukewarm rice per person and a few greasy dishes per table. . .

We soon made a discovery that would make life on the Chinese train a lot more bearable.

. . . The first lunch on the train revealed an important piece of information: you could buy beer in the diner, not only for consumption during meals taken there, but also to take back to your own carriage. This added spice to our boring life on the train. After dinner, we would bring a few bottles of beer back ‘home’, just enough to make us a little drowsy to forget the boredom and help us fall asleep. . .


Such help was welcome, as sleeping in a Chinese train throughout the night was a genuine challenge. People kept walking around, and you would be cruelly woken up, whenever the train stopped at a station. Some passengers got off, while new ones alighted; several times that night.

We were happy to reach Nanjing in the morning of the following 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.


11 No Fake Tears

The New Year celebrations of early January 1976 were downright austere. According to my diary we did have a holiday, but there is no mentioning of a celebration. There was the inevitable school party, a chahuahui, literally: ‘tea talk meeting’. We had a few of those during that year for the lesser celebrations, Besides tea, you could also drink orange flavoured soda, to wash a down the snacks, in between the talking.

This was also the first time that several days past without writing at least one line in my diary. Was life in the Beijing Language Institute getting a little dull?

. . . Then it happened again.

Friday, January 9, 1976: learned that Prime Minister Zhou Enlai had died the previous day.

Monday, January 12, 1976: paying respect to Zhou Enlai in Forbidden City. . .


The campus was filled with mournful music, instead of the usual propagandistic news. We had been there before, when a close comrade of Jiang Qing, Kang Sheng, had died.

. . . This was completely different. The mournful music was similar, but the faces of the Chinese students, teachers and other school staff, were very different. The leading theme of our conversations during lunch on January 9 was how quite a few teachers had spontaneously broken into tears during class. It happened in our class as well, while the teacher clearly tried to suppress his grief, in vain. These were no fake tears.

Still, opinions differed on what was causing all that grief. Especially the Sinologists among us, who were more knowledgeable about Zhou’s role in recent Chinese politics, joked that the grief so many people showed was indeed real, but that it was not so much because they had liked the man so much, but because Zhou was about the only decent politician left, after the many purges since the start of the Cultural Revolution. . .

. . . Zhou Enlai was China’s eternal premier. . .

. . . Zhou had studied in Japan and several European countries, while Mao had only enjoyed a traditional Chinese education. During the initial years of the Communist Party, Zhou had been higher up in the hierarchy of the Communist Party than Mao. During the so called Long March, the escape by the Communists from the dangerous South to the more secluded North, where the geographic situation offered many places to dig in, so they would be less vulnerable to attacks by the Nationalists, Zhou ceded his position to Mao. Mao’s dominant character proved more important than Zhou’s intellect under those circumstances, but Zhou never recouped his leading position. . .

As we foreign students were regarded and treated like VIPs in those days, we were invited to go to the Forbidden City to pay our last respects to Premier Zhou and shake hands with a number of national leaders to convey our condolences.


We had to gather at the Bulletin Board near the Institute’s main entrance, or in Teacher Bi’s idiolect the Slogan Tower [photograph, though taken in the summer], and board the buses; students from the same country sticking together. We were then driven to the Tiananmen Gate, and joined the lines of people who slowly moved to the hall in which the body Zhou had been placed on a bier. . .

. . . This was the man who had been the premier of the New China from the day it had been declared, the man who had arranged the invitation of Nixon to China, just to mention one of Zhou’s more important feats.

Teacher Bi would introduce the arrival of a group of students from the same nation as, ‘students from X’. While making that statement, he would point at one particular student. Probably unintended, this made that student look a little as the representative of the student body from that nation. For the remainder, we were merely nameless individuals. Chris made sure that he was at the pointing end of Teacher Bi’s finger, so he would appear to the hand-shaking officials as the representative of the Dutch students. I was content with allowing him that position. After all, in a few years Chris may meet one of them again, as a diplomat.

I did not recognize any of faces that time, which was a little disappointing. However, the family members and closest friends were positioned right behind Zhou’s head. They obviously included Zhou’s widow, Deng Yingchao. As the wife of someone who had been such a well-known person for such a long time, she also had gained considerable political clout as well. At least I had the opportunity to shake hands with one person I knew.

During the similar ceremony for Kang Sheng, I could shake hands with Chen Yonggui, a poor peasant who had made it to Vice-Premier of China. Many years later, part of backstage political infighting was revealed. Apparently, Mao (or perhaps Jiang Qing) had discouraged (a euphemism) most leaders to make their appearance during the mourning for Zhou Enlai. Here is a video impression of the events around Zhou’s death.

. . . We descended the stone stairs over which the emperors used to be carried in sedan chairs. We halted a while on the square in the compound of the Forbidden City where the ministers would gather in neat rows very early each morning to hand in their petitions to the emperor. We looked at the long row of people shuffling upwards until it was their turn to shake those wet unfamiliar hands. That scene was worth a last careful glance. The next time a Chinese prime minister would die no Dutch student would be invited to pay his or her respect. . .

My diary indicates that life quickly returned to the daily routine. I again skipped several days without doing or experiencing anything worth noting down.

But then we had an opportunity to learn everything about booby traps.

. . . Friday, January 25. 1976: visiting the Jiaozhuanghu underground tunnels. During the Japanese occupation, the Chinese resistance had proved extremely apt in dealing with the overwhelmingly better armed Japanese. One of the better-known ruses was digging tunnels, under cities and villages, and even through hills. . .

. . . Jiaozhuanghu is a small village in the Shunyi District of Beijing. Nowadays, the urban region is encroaching on Shunyi as well, but then it was still completely rural. It took the school buses quite a while to reach the place, and we finally felt as if we were really in the Chinese countryside.

We had missed that during our week in the Evergreen Commune in October. Then, we could still see a few of the higher buildings of Beijing, however distant they might have seemed, while digging holes in the soil to store the radishes. At Jiaozhuanghu you only saw the barren landscape of the North China Plain in winter, with an occasional rural dwelling. . .

. . . The village looked like an ordinary village at first sight, but that was part of the ingenuity. Most houses had doors that led to the underground tunnel system. The doors would be hidden under kitchen stoves, beds, wardrobes, and even pigsties. You could move from any house to any other one, underground. . .

The pictures show what looks like an ordinary well, and a view to the village from inside that ‘well’.


The tunnels were interesting, but,

. . . what intrigued us most was the wide range of booby traps exhibited in this open-air museum. Doors to the tunnels were obviously booby trapped, but almost any object in any house was a potential booby trap. Japanese were (still are) heavy smokers, but picking up an ashtray in a Jiaozhuanghu residence could get them killed. Our present day anti-smoke lobbyists would have loved this. A Japanese soldier, tired of shooting villagers, needed to be on his guard, when placing his evil behind on chair to take a breather: boom! . .

By the end of January, we were ready for a break. That break would come, but you will have to exercise patience and wait for the next post.


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.