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.


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