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.


14 Landlord of the Dragon Well

It took almost an entire day to arrive at Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province. We left Nanjing early in the morning, but as the average speed of Chinese trains was 60 – 70 km/hr in those days, we arrived in Shanghai 6 hours later. There we boarded another train that brought us to Hangzhou. When we arrived, it was already late in the afternoon.

While Nanjing was more like another Beijing in terms of general outlook of the city, Hangzhou was a pleasant surprise.

. . . Hangzhou is one of the most scenic of provincial capitals in China and its most famous spot is the West Lake. We were put up in the West Lake Hotel, as you can guess named so, because it was located on the banks of that lake.


The scenic character of Hangzhou is reflected in the schedule of our days in that city in my diary, reproducing the staccato introduction of the next local professor cum students who had been assigned to us as guides. Half of each of the three days in Hangzhou was reserved for visiting ‘scenic spots’. Even some of the other activities, like the boat trip on the West Lake in reality was visiting a . . . scenic spot. That itinerary finally sounded like a holiday. . .

The West Lake Hotel is now managed by Four Seasons and probably out of reach for most foreign students’ budgets.

The most interesting activity that day, and probably one of the highlights of that trip, was the party that a few of us spontaneously organized in our rooms.

In that respect, we had been behaving quite decently so far during this trip. Everything was new, so a lot of attention was needed to digest all those impressions. We were also tired by the long train rides and demanding visiting schedules.

In Hangzhou we visited parks and ancient buildings and we made a boat trip over the lake, which was much more relaxing than visiting a chemical fibre plant.

That day, I had purchased silk house coat.

. . . It was not even in the Hangzhou Friendship Store, but as soon as my eyes were caught by a red silk housecoat, with black hems, I intuitively knew that it was made for me.

It had a dragon embroidered with gold thread against the red background. It fitted me perfectly. Once I had put it on in the shop, I felt like one of the landlords as depicted in the cultural revolutionary films. They say that fine feathers make fine birds. Well, those feathers made me a landlord. The coat was expensive for Chinese measures of that time, but I have worn it for many years. . .

. . . Now back to our party in the West Lake Hotel. After a few drinks, I obviously wanted to show off my new possession. Few of my companions were thrilled. It was not a garment that young Westerners would wear in those days. Although it was Chinese and we were students of Chinese culture, this did not mean that we would wear nothing but Chinese clothes, or eat three Chinese meals a day.

At some moment, probably after more than a few drinks, someone dared me to go out for stroll along the lake, dressed up as a landlord in my newly acquired coat. That was a fabulous idea, which I would probably have taken up even without the assistance of alcohol. . .

. . . Outside, in the dark, there were actually not that many people joining us on our stroll. I remember that I was using something as a walking stick, either from the hotel, or maybe a branch that I picked up in park that formed the embankment of the West Lake. Landlords in Chinese films usually wore silk coats and walked with a stick as a symbol of their superiority and to beat up a poor proletarian now and then. Fortunately for me, my liquid courage was not strong enough to make me venture to emulate that part of a landlord’s behavior. I was not ready to study the inside of a Chinese police station.

We returned to the hotel soon. There were too few people for me to impress or annoy. Regarding the latter, most Chinese reacted in a similar way as the hotel staff: they laughed. I simply did not strike them as evil, or even as imitating an evil person. . .


The next day was another one with many memorable events. We first visited a house in which Mao Zedong had lived for a few days.

. . . the most bizarre object in that small shed was, or better had been, animate: a rat. A stuffed dead rat was sitting on the floor near the table. We were obviously especially curious about the provenance and the symbolic value of the stuffed rodent. The caretaker solemnly stated that the rat had lived in the shed during Mao’s sojourn there.

It had been made part of the scene to show that the living conditions still left much to be desired that time and to stress that Mao, despite being the Number One of China, had remained an ordinary person who did not shrink from living a proletarian life style. When he needed to stay somewhere, he lived like the locals lived, tolerating the occasional rat. . .

I also switched gender that day.

Our local guides took us to a common household. We were divided into smaller groups of about 5 –6 students and a teacher, and each group was dragged to another house in the same neighborhood.

. . . Of all people living in the house I visited, only the lady of the house was present. She gave us the familiar introduction about the composition of her family, the jobs of her and her husband, their more precious possessions, like TV or sewing machine. . .

. . . Then suddenly her son came back from school. I estimated that he was about 6 –7 years old. Junior clearly had not been let in on the foreign visit, as he was genuinely startled by seeing so many foreigners in the family living room. His mother wooed him by reminding him that he should greet the guests with the words: ‘say hello to the uncles and aunties!’

Uncle and aunty are often used by Chinese children to address unfamiliar men women. The boy could have made a collective greeting by shouting that very expression aloud, but he seemed to find it more polite to greet us one by one. As I was positioned closest to him, he approached me first saying: ‘Hello Aunty!’ That was a real roar for all people, foreign and Chinese, present at the scene. . .

The boy felt extremely embarrassed, but he could actually not be blamed. Like many young Western men of that time, I let my hair grow down to my shoulders. The boy, however, had probably never seen a man with such long hair, thus automatically mistook me for a woman.

A trip to Hangzhou leg is not complete without visiting a tea farm. After silk, tea is another major product of the region; particularly a green tea called Longjing (Dragon Well).

. . . We were then taken to a field of tea shrubs, where several women were picking tea, exactly as we had seen so often on pictures in books on China. It is always comforting to get something that you know from the books confirmed in practice.

However, there was a small problem there as well, and again in the details. A few among us noted that February is extremely early to start picking tea. You can start picking fresh tealeaves in spring and continue doing so until the fall. Mid February; however, is definitely too early. It seems that the commune people wanted us to have a real ‘Chinese tea experience’ and had therefore assigned a few people to pick tea for a while during our visit. . .

Other places we saw in Hangzhou included the Botanical Garden, the Liuhe Pagoda, a temple dedicated to the memory of the heroic general Yue Fei (a 12th Century hero). We also climbed around in a grotto.

. . . It was not a huge grotto, formed by ages of underground water flow or human digging, but a more modest one. Even when entering, I had to bow my head little, and it became worse quickly. Suddenly, we spotted a circle of light in one of the tunnels leading away from the entrance. It proved to be an alternative exit on the top of the hill in which the grotto was located.

A few of us, including me, tried to exit the grotto from there. We succeeded, but it required some exertion. We had to lend a helping hand to some of our comrades, which we were happy to do. Chris joined the ones who preferred to exit through the ‘official’ entrance. . .

The bonus of the latter activity was that we finally got some exercise to get rid of part of the calories we were taking in during the three heavy meals we were fed during the trip.


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.


13 The Rebel Capital

We were happy to arrive in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province. We were obviously excited to get to know another Chinese city, after several months in Beijing. But we were also glad to set foot on solid ground again, after the long ride on the train. One thing was the same as in Beijing: there were buses waiting for us at Nanjing station to drive us to our hotel.

. . .We were housed in a luxury hotel in Nanjing; two students per room, as was the practice in the dormitories of the Language Institute. The likes of Sheraton or Hilton had not yet appeared in China that time, but all big cities, like the ones we would visit during that winter holiday, had hotels built by foreigners before the proclamation of the People’s Republic.

Cities that had not been blessed with such a heritage hotel always had guest houses for high placed visitors. For the same reason big shots travelled in soft sleeper carriages, they would not settle for proletarian lodgings during their trips to inspect the status of the local revolutionary activities. For those people, each county, town, or city, had a government built hotel, called zhaodaisuo. This literally means ‘entertainment place’, and refers to the fact that the local government is expected to entertain officials from higher administrative levels during their visits. . .

We enjoyed living in hotels for a few weeks. We had bathrooms that we only shared with our room mates and not with a hundred or more fellow students. We also did not have to go down to the ground floor where the showers were located in our dorm. Hot water was brought to the room a few times a day. In fact, you only had to put your empty thermos outside the door and the hallway attendant would fill it up for you. For us, that was the apex of luxury.

Modeled after Soviet hotels, Chinese hotels usually had a shop that sold the most basic daily necessities, like beer, an indispensable ingredient for our after-dinner activities. That first evening in Nanjing, we were briefed about the program of the coming days.

. . . The Ministry of Education had designated local university professors and students to guide us around and practice their English simultaneously. . .

. . . More interesting than the introduction itself are my notes regarding the accent of the people doing the introduction. You may still remember that I was a linguist, and one that was eager in noting down any aspect of the language of the people around me that could be useful for later studies. By that time I had been living in Beijing for more than five months and already filled a notebook with linguistic notes, mainly slang and newly coined words, supplemented with notes about deviant pronunciations. I was absolutely ready to experience all those dialectal variations that I had so far only known from the books.

These notes are not extremely spectacular. The local people were still speaking Mandarin, though with a local accent. It is easier to master using the correct words and word order, but much less so to mobilize your vocal chords, teeth, lips, and other body parts for producing exactly the same sounds as your compatriots in Beijing. . .

In spite of the beer and local spirits for sale in the hotel, we turned in early. We had just been told that we would leave the hotel at 8:00 am the following day. Breakfast would be served an hour earlier. I guess that we were also looking forward to checking out the hotel beds, after a night in the train, and several months on our dorm beds.

To prepare for the trip, we had to tell the organizing teachers whether we preferred Chinese or Western food. I had opted for Western food. In Beijing, we had access to the best Chinese food offered by the top restaurant. It was not likely that our hotels would beat that. Moreover, we would have several meals outside the hotels, which would always be Chinese anyway. Finally, opting for Chinese food also meant that you had to take a Chinese breakfast, a huge bowl of rice porridge in the center of the table and several salty dishes to spice it up with. I preferred the eggs and toast.

. . . The Chinese food in the hotel restaurants was usually not the best in town, and often not more than a few unrecognizable morsels in heavy gravy. . .

. . . Many European students who had opted for Chinese meals envied us from the first breakfast of the trip. Chris who had grown used to the good old English breakfast during his studies in London, threw more than one envious look at my fried eggs, while slurping his rice gruel. They started to feel a pang of hunger around ten in the morning, while our breakfast was still burning to keep us warm and energetic.

Western food also enriched my social life. . .

. . . Our minority group of Western food eaters during that trip included all the Ethiopians and most of the Ugandans. When describing our activities around Christmas, I mentioned some other nationalities besides the Westerners. Participating in this trip was another occasion to interact more with those fellow students who in the Institute were taught in separate groups, with programs of their own.

The Africans were ambivalent regarding their sojourn in China. Most of them had applied to study abroad, and only learned that they would be sent to China the very last moment. Unlike us Sinologists, they were not really interested in the country, its history, people, language or cuisine. They were there to study medicine, metallurgy, or civil engineering. Learning Chinese and getting acquainted with life in China was a must for them, but even more so a burden.

However, they had a sense of humor of their own to cope with those mixed feelings. It was very refreshing to spend more time with them for a while. . .

The Bridge was the first item on our list. When visiting Nanjing, particularly in 1976, there was no way to get around a visit to the Nanjing Yangtze Bridge. The Chinese had every right to be proud of that bridge for multiple modes of transportation. You could drive over it, cross it by train, and even walk to the other side.


It had been completed in 1968 during the most turbulent period of the Cultural Revolution. Although maybe a little opportunistic, it was therefore, presented as a proof of how the Cultural Revolution had boosted the technological abilities of the Chinese people.

The object of our afternoon visit was even more prosaic: a chemical fiber factory. From a Chinese perspective, a company like that was also regarded as an object of national pride.  It has meanwhile developed into an international player in its business, witness the many introductions on financial sites.

The reason for selecting that factory for a visit was the high tech nature of its business. It was not that long ago that Chinese would exclusively dress in garments made from natural fibers. The advent of chemical fibers was a major revolution in the textile industry. People who believe that China’s rapid development as the world’s leading manufacturer of cheap garments happened after the so-called economic reforms are mistaken. The basis for that development had already been laid during the mid-1970s. China had the resources and by then had also started buying and developing processing technology.

That evening, we again did not have much time to organize an after-dinner party. We were shown a film.

. . . My diary provides only the title, ‘Spring in the Desert’. The desert involved was the Gobi Desert. The main characters were brave Mongolians trying to cultivate the barren desert. That was no way an easy task, and they dispatched a man to Beijing to bring back the proper technology. The man had the fortune of being received by Mao Zedong himself and Mao had given him an apple. Back home, the man showed the apple to the villagers with the words: ‘this apple has been touched by Chairman Mao!’


That by itself was true, but we never learned what other knowledge he had acquired in Beijing. The apple was placed under a glass bell jar and the villagers started planting apple trees. Giving them an apple was interpreted as a suggestion to try their luck with growing apple trees.

I do not recall if the film ended with a scene of endless fields of fruit-bearing trees, but what I do remember is that even after more than a year, the apple that had been touched by Chairman Mao still looked remarkably fresh under the jar. Maybe it was a vacuum one. There was class struggle as well in that film, but there was class struggle in all films of that time. Only the scene with the apple has grown roots in my memory. . .

The second day of visiting had a more historic character. History is present everywhere in Nanjing. It is one of the few cities in China that has preserved the old city wall. While in Beijing you can only see a few of old gates, you can actually walk over de old wall of Nanjing for quite a distance.

Another vestige of the imperial era in Nanjing is the place where the national exams were held.

. . . In theory, all people could qualify for a post as regional magistrate, as long as you passed the three stages in the system of imperial exams. Young men would study for these exams by learning several classics by heart under the guidance of a teacher. Rich families could send a son directly to a good teacher, but sometimes a promising less affluent youngster was sponsored by a benefactor. This was one way for a clan to ensure itself of political influence through clan members (or dependents) in the official bureaucracy.

Once you had entered the ranks of the magistrates, you would be posted in a certain region for several years, after which you would be transferred to another region, in a similar fashion as our modern diplomats. In this way, the magistrates were expected not to stay long enough in one place to develop a strong social network. For the same reason, you would never be posted in your home region, where your social network would put too much pressure on you to resist.

The examination grounds in different parts of the empire consisted of numerous rows of small cubicles, often called cells. During examinations, a candidate would enter a cell and find the exam questions placed on a table, with a brush and ink. The candidate would then answer the questions by quoting excerpts from the classics. The way we were taught Chinese at the Beijing Language Institute in the mid 1970 resembled the education system of imperial China more than our teachers may want to admit. When we were requested to summarize the story of the lesson ‘in our own words’, most of our teachers would correct us again and again with the word: ‘and . . . ‘, until we had cited the text completely. . .

Then there was Sun Yat Sen.

. . . China’s first president, Sun Yat Sen is buried in Nanjing, not in a simple grave, but in a huge mausoleum. The only other mausoleum in China is that of Mao Zedong in Beijing, but Mao was still alive (though no longer kicking) early 1976.

Although Mao’s is located in a prime location in the center of Beijing, amid the most important cities of the nation, Sun’s mausoleum is much larger. Visiting it is taxing, as you have to climb a large number of stairs. Fortunately it was winter, which made all that climbing more bearable. Nanjing is counted among one of the ‘ovens’ of China and summers can be frighteningly hot. . .

We visited a park with a monument for revolutionary martyrs and a museum of the Taiping Rebellion. That rebellion had started in 1850 by Hong Xiuquan who believed he was the younger brother of Jesus and had selected Nanjing as his capital. The rebellion lasted for more than a decade, but was in the end defeated with the aid of foreign troops. The foreign nations preferred a stable heathen emperor over a Christian lunatic.

. . . The Communist Party had a complex relationship with the Taipings. On one hand, they were rebels, so they were entitled to a positive assessment in the Marxist interpretation of history. The Communist historiography of imperial China sees each dynastic cycle as starting with a rebellion at the end of the previous dynasty, which leads to the establishment of a new one, with a benevolent emperor. The dynasty then gradually declines, with the successive emperors more and more alienated from the people, which leads to another rebellion.

However, the Taiping Rebellion was more complex than the regular peasant rebellions of Chinese history, as it had been inspired by religion, and a foreign one for that matter. Still, the fact that the Taiping Museum was not only open, but also placed on our itinerary indicates that the verdict was mainly positive, and that the local educational authorities wanted us foreign students to learn about that part of their history. . .

That last afternoon we paid the inevitable visit to the local Friendship Store. We had one in Beijing, but we were curious to see what its Beijing sister store had to offer that was not for sale in the Beijing mother store. Unfortunately, my diary does not tell us if I had bought anything.

I guess I hadn’t.


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