17 They’re Serving Beef Today!

Regular readers of this blog will remember our exciting week in the countryside in October 1975, when we did a tour of Open Door Schooling.

Early March it was announced that we would spend another week in the Dongfeng Bazar, the department store in Beijing’s top shopping street Wangfujing, in which Chris had found his Cuban cigars. It has been taken over and completely rebuilt by a Hong Kong investor in the present century and is now known as Sun Dong’an Plaza.

The teachers who had organized this were thrilled about this arrangement, which they regarded as a big experiment. Our group would be the first to have Open Door Schooling in an urban location.

. . . Monday, March 22, 1976, the School opened its doors again for us to learn about Chinese life in practice.

The first day was bound to start with a huge introduction by a leader of the Market. Dong’an Market had been established in the early 20th Century, before the end of the last dynasty. It had begun as a real market, a collection of stalls, as all big cities in the world needed, to provide the unproductive citizens with food, clothes and other daily necessities, but also with stuff that the same unproductive city dwellers need to keep themselves occupied in their spare time, like stationary, musical instruments, or sewing kits.


The stalls gradually became fixed selling spaces for the vendors and further evolved into tiny shops. In a similar fashion, some food stalls grew into restaurants. To shelter the shops, and their patrons, from the harsh Beijing climate, the place became roofed. The foreigners in Beijing who liked the place as we did, started to refer to it as the Dong’an Bazaar. In its heydays, the Dong’an Market counted more than 900 users. . .

. . . During the 1950s, the vendors had to comply with more influence from the invisible hand, when the government promulgated a system of ‘public private partnership (gongsi heying)’. In the following period, the ‘private’ part of the operation gradually faded away, and the Dong’an Market was in reality a state operated store, divided in many small shops. The former shop owners were no longer owners, but employees. . .

In hindsight this week was my first encounter with business administration, and I am sure that it has been at least one factor influencing my later switch from the academic world to business. My diary shows that I certainly got a remarkable interest in figures.

. . . The store employed 2164 people at that moment, 1166 men and 998 women. Their average age was 37, but approximately 800 employees were younger than 30.

A salient detail of the employee statistics was the number of ‘capitalists’: 65. You see, I was right. Those capitalists, despite their incorrect background, were the ones with the valuable product knowledge and business acumen. I bet that their young revolutionary colleagues had learned more about running a business from them than in school. . .

We spent that entire first day listening to introductions by several leaders of the store. Almost half of my notes are concerned with employee benefits. The advantage of doing this bout of Open Door Schooling in a store with such a long history was that it allowed the people doing the introductions to compare the ‘old society’, the standard term for pre-1949 China, with the then current situation.

. . . we were also given a look, however restricted, in the human resource problems the leaders occasionally encountered. . . Cultural Revolution or no Cultural Revolution, Chinese consumers retained all characteristics of consumers. They were exigent, and expected quality for their money. . .

. . .Therefore, buying anything slightly more valuable than a daily necessity was an undertaking that required time and attention. When you needed a new pair of trousers, you did not only look for the right size, material, and color, but you also needed to inspect every other detail.

Chinese customers would check all stitches. Had the pockets been sewn on the proper places? Were there no loose hems? Their comments on perceived problems could make you split. I had observed such interaction between customers and sales people numerous times before our week in the store. Although I was not a sales person, even as a neutral observer I could often feel an urge to punch the buyers on the nose, for their unreasonable comments. . .

The Head of the Personnel Department confided that new employees were trained to deal with that phenomenon, but that quarrels still occurred occasionally. Some people originally assigned to sales positions had to be transferred to a back office function, where they did not have to deal with customers anymore. This was a real human interest story, one that was credible and not a standard revolutionary narrative.

The staff also seemed to benefit from our presence.

. . . It was arranged that we would share lunch with the staff of the store in the employee dining hall ‘to mix with the workers’. We welcomed that, of course. It would not have felt right, if we had been fed on specially prepared food in separate rooms. The dining hall was a smaller replica of the one in the Language Institute. The staff worked in shifts; so there was a constant, but moderate, flow of eaters. There were no rush hours like in our school. The main difference was that the choices of the day were not exhibited on a table, but written on a blackboard. The employees of the Dongfeng Market were all assumed literate.

When we lined up with the employees that first lunch, the Big Boss who also was a big boss physically, was standing in line next to me. He started scanning the blackboard to make his selection while gradually approaching the counter. I suddenly heard him say, visibly pleased: ‘Hey, they are serving beef today!’

Apparently, the kitchen staff had been told to pay extra attention to the fact that a group of carnivore Western students would be taking lunch that week. I appreciated the gesture; I ordered a helping of beef as well. I was enjoying the little extra care, with the Big Boss of the Dongfeng Market. . .

We spent the following days in a similar way as during our Open Door Schooling in the commune earlier: half a day working and half a day visiting. As for the working part, I was assigned to the counter selling Halal pastries.

The photograph in the banner of this blog shows me at work behind that counter. China has a considerable Muslim population. The is not restricted to the Western regions of China. There are also ethnic Chinese Muslims. Beijing alone has more than 70 mosques. Halal restaurants and food shops can be found everywhere.

To function properly, I needed to acquire a few new skills.

Lesson 1: how to operate the scales.

If you think that my work there was a piece of Halal cake, you are terribly mistaken. Then, almost all food would be purchased by the weight in China. We are used to buying a pack of biscuits, but Chinese would buy a few ounces or a pound. This meant that you had to put a handful of the biscuits ordered on the scales and keep adding until the required volume was reached.

Lesson 2: how to calculate the price.

The next step was to calculate the price of that total order, which could consist of several items. You needed to multiply the volume of each item purchased with the price per ounce, and add everything up to obtain the total price of the client’s order.

There were no electronic calculators. Instead, you had to work with an abacus that great Chinese invention. However, if you are really forced to use it, and so suddenly as I was, it does not feel so great anymore. . .

Lesson 3: collect the proper volume of grain coupons.

Pastries were made from flour and flour from grain. Ergo, you needed grain coupons to buy pastries. When you communicated the price of the order to the client, the client would not only give you money, but also grain coupons.

This added a whole new dimension to the notion of ‘change’. Suppose that a certain order of 3 ounces of biscuits cost RMB 3.50 and the client gave you a RMB 5 note and a 1 pound grain coupon, you needed to give back RMB 1.50 and 2 ounces worth of grain coupons in change. . .

In 1976, the citizens of Beijing had enough to eat. Still, grain was rationed using a coupon system. Food like dumplings had two prices, a price in RMB (renminbi) the local currency, and one in grain coupons. The unit of the latter was expressed in the weight of flour consumed. You would typically order a few liang (Chinese ounce) of dumplings. That would have a certain price in RMB and with your payment you would add grain coupons equivalent to the weight of dumplings you had ordered. Foreigners were exempted from using cereal coupons.


A one pound grain coupon

Very soon, I was myself confronted with by impatient and finicky customers myself.

. . . Many of my customers quickly became annoyed, when I needed more time for my calculations. Then, I overheard a conversation between two people observing the presence of a fair-haired sales person behind the counter. The question ‘what kind of person is that?’ was replied with: ‘He is probably from Xinjiang’. . .

Lesson 4: packing the merchandise.

. . . My merchandise had to be packed in paper and tied with a rope. Moreover, it had to be done in such a way, that the customer could hang it on a finger. That was convenient for the customer, but definitely not for a maladroit Sinologist linguist to be. Tying knots was for boy scouts, and scouting had never appealed to me.

Pastries needed to be handled with care. The customers were buying biscuits, crackers, or cakes, not a pack of crumbs. You needed to make equal piles on a piece of paper, fold the paper carefully around it and then tie it up with a very thin rope that seemed to be made of paper itself. You needed to take care of not crushing the merchandise. Then, you had to tie the knot in way that resulted in a neat pack of complete pastries, with a noose for easy carrying. . .

By the time I started to feel comfortable with calculating prices and packing pastries, our time in the store was over.

We spent the afternoons visiting various departments.

. . . an interesting item in my diary about our visit to the Accounting Department was that we met a real capitalist; one of the 65 mentioned during the introduction. He had been a shop owner in the old bazaar and when his shop was gradually incorporated in the socialist economy, he had been compensated with a job in which his old management knowledge could be put to use. We learned that he still earned a special salary. . .

We also paid a quick visit to the living quarters of the employees. As most work units in China, the Dongfeng Market was also responsible for housing its people. We visited Dongfeng’s own training facility on the last afternoon.

Comparing the two bouts of Open Door Schooling, I think I learned more this time than I did during my week in the commune.

A couple of weeks after we had said goodbye, I entered the Dongfeng Market again and when I passed my old counter, I was recognized by my former colleagues and asked to behind the counter for a chat. That was an unusual expression of affection to a foreigner in the China of that time.

Right at that moment, when I started to make local friends, the political turmoil that had been fermenting underneath the political surface exploded.


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.


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.


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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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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.


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