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.


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