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.