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.


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.


9 A Peculiar Chemistry

I was not the only one who found things of his liking in Chinese shops

. . . Chris and his pipe were inseparable, and he soon discovered that he did not need to worry about running out of pipe tobacco, as a Chinese product was available in the local tobacco shops. According to him, and he was finicky, it was acceptable in taste. I have mentioned earlier that the brand name was peculiar: Panda.


However, what really elated Chris was the discovery of Cuban cigars in one tobacco shop in Wangfujing, still Beijing’s most prestigious shopping street. China was a nation of smokers then. It seems as if more than 90% of the Chinese men smoked. However, they smoked only cigarettes. Cigars were only seen hanging from the mouths of a few foreigners. The appearance of Cuban cigars in China was the result of one of those product swaps, called barter trade in economic jargon. Like the bananas, they were very reasonably priced, according to Chris and his fellow smokers. I wonder what Chinese goods were swapped for those cigars. It served the few members of the political elite who smoked cigars, and quite a few diplomats appreciated this barter deal as well, obviously. From the day of that discovery, Chris had a steady stash of Cuban cigars in our room. . .

Less savoury was Chris’ habit to drop the ashes of his pipe and cigars behind the radiator of the central heating at his side of the room. I remember noticing it, but somehow it did not register in my mind as a point for attention. At least I have never made a point of it to suggest that Chris may remove some of the ashes now and then. Sharing the same shade of grey with the cement floor, it was hardly invisible, but turned up when my later Chinese roommate started to sweep the floor: an activity that had never come to my or Chris’ mind. . .

Right when the list of dynastic histories that I had not yet gotten my hands on was getting very short, I found another objective for my book buying addiction: bilingual dictionaries.

. . . It started with an incidental purchase of an Anglo-Chinese Chemical Dictionary in a second hand bookshop, published in 1963. That volume had an indirect relationship with Chris’ Cuban cigars, as the second hand bookshop was located in the same corner of the Dongfang Market. Dongfang Market used to be called Dong’an Market, before the Cultural Revolution, when it was a bazaar of small shops in a larger hall. That change of name is still puzzling, although the old name has been partly restored in the current department store that is now called Dong’an Plaza, owned by a Hong Kong based investment group. . .

The curiosity driving my impulsive acquisition of the chemical dictionary was no doubt a consequence of the interest in comparing the various versions of manuals in different languages that used to be my favourite pastime in my primary school years. Following that personal tradition, I simply (well, no really simply; it was a huge tome) started reading the book from cover to cover. My purpose was obviously not to learn it by heart. I approached it as a learned observer, with a completely open mind, looking out for any detail that would tell me more about the world of chemical Chinese. . .

Just like our chemical terminology, Chinese chemical terms have a grammar of their own. The bulk of our terms stem from our classical languages Latin and old Greek. When the Chinese got in contact with Western chemistry, they were faced with the complex task of translating the Western terms in Chinese, as Chinese is ill suited for transliterating long Western words.

The first Stem, jia, was then used to refer to compounds with single carbon atom as their base; e.g., jiawan for methane. The second part of jiawan, wan, was a partial transliteration of ‘alkane’. A complete transliteration would lead to an un-Chinese expression. The translators transliterated only the core syllable. To distinguish the resulting ‘word’ from the regular Chinese vocabulary, they coined new characters for these terms. The character for ‘wan’ in jiawan was coined by combing an existing character ‘wan’ meaning ‘to finish’ with the character for ‘fire’. Many chemical processes involved heating, so ‘fire’ was frequently used in these new, chemical, characters. Based on jiawan, related terms like yiwan ‘ethane’, bingwan ‘propane’, etc., were formed. Once you had grasped the basic process, mastering the analogous terms was relatively easy.

Anglo-English Chemical

Once I became hooked on studying dictionaries, I aimed my book radar to more of them, opening the doors to an equal number of worlds. The dynastic histories came in a fixed number of 24, so I could draw up a check list and see the list of missing volumes gradually shrink, with at the end of the road the hope of having a complete set on my bookshelf.

The number of technical dictionaries produced in China not only was indefinite, it sometimes seemed to me that whenever I had purchased another volume, about car manufacturing, intercontinental missiles, international environmental legislation, sugar production, and numerous other fields, several others appeared in the outlets of the State operated New China Bookstores, compiled with the sole purpose to annoy me.

Extreme activities like my acquisition of the dynastic histories, or buying up all technical dictionaries I could get my hands on, offered an opportunity to learn how people from that other culture perceived those actions. When a young Chinese man would pay for a copy of an English – Chinese Aeronautics Dictionary, the clerk at the payment counter would probably presume that that person was involved aeronautics. In view of the rather young age, you could further assume that the customer was a student.

However, a young Westerner buying five, six, or more, dictionaries of very different realms of science and technology was a more challenging subject for such conjecture. I could have been assumed to be a student of Chinese, which was true, but that would not account for that broad interest of technology. Who would be studying the cultivation of tea, building bridges, organic chemistry and electronics simultaneously? A super genius? I may actually secretly have regarded myself as a kind of genius then, but I would not have acknowledged it, had someone confronted me with that idea.

Dealing with the puzzled looks of book sellers was only one of the problems I was facing. An even more urgent problem was a logistic one. Our room was too small for all those books, and I would not be able to carry them home in my luggage either. So I soon started sending books home in standard packages. As soon as I had enough for such a package, approximately the size of four shoe boxes, I carried them to the campus post office (yes, we had that as well), and sent them home. . .

Time for another celebration

. . . Saturday, November 1, 1975: Chris’ birthday, in the Fengzeyuan Restaurant.

The Fengzeyuan (‘Horn of Plenty’) Restaurant was one of Beijing’s ‘old names’, the Chinese expression for a popular restaurant that has been operating for some time. It served Shandong cuisine, which has been one of the main cuisines influencing the palates of Beijing residents. . .

Chris should be credited with the idea to save such a famous and good (we all seemed to have a liking for Shandong cuisine) restaurant for birthday parties. We were checking out many restaurants and although there were enough in Beijing to eat in another one every single day, we gradually drew up a mental list of favourites that we would visit more often. However, the Fengzeyuan Restaurant was so good, that we did not want to spoil the experience of eating there by visiting it too frequently.

. . . My diary does not have a complete list of guests of Chris’ birthday party, but I believe I can reconstruct it from other information. The names of British Calvin and Kalli turn up at the end of the entry for that day. Calvin actually was my classmate who was living a few doors down the hall of our Dutch room. Chris studied in London and felt a natural attraction to all British students, but he had a particular liking for Calvin.

Calvin was a quiet person. As a student of Chinese he obviously had an interest in the country, but could also be at times rather critical. It were the motivated critical remarks that Chris appreciated in Calvin and Chris spent many evenings in Calvin’s room, chatting about whatever they had their common interest.

Kalli was like that too, but expressed himself in a more humorous way, often tending towards sarcasm, a style that Kalli shared with me. So, the four of us formed an ideal group of diverse people who had enough in common to enjoy one another’s company. Ronald and his wife were invited as well.

Ronald was looking after us as well as could be expected, in that he stayed in touch without being intrusive. By that time, Ronald had also learned that he occasionally had to invite us separately, because that would allow him to discuss different aspects of China, depending on our fields of specialisation. . .

So it most probably was a dinner for six: Chris, Calvin, Kalli, Ronald, Sarah, and me.

In those top restaurants, it was common practice to book for a certain amount per person and leave the choice of dishes to the cooks. It would always be a perfect balance of meat, fish, vegetables and staple foods. A typical amount was RMB 10 per person. Most restaurants would laugh at you, when proposing such a price today, but in those days it was more than enough for a feast. . .

However, the apex of the dinner would be alcoholic beverage you ordered. Chinese alcoholic drinks, at least for such formal dinners, came in three types: beer, rice wine, and spirits. The latter, spirits, would be the regular choice for a really formal dinner. Beer was a newer product in China and, however famous the Tsingtao Beer may be, still a foreign beverage. Rice wine was mainly consumed in the region around Shanghai, heated au bain marie. We often ordered it in winter, because it infused you with a warm feeling from the inside instantaneously after the first sip.

But not for Chris’ birthday.

That was an occasion that could only be celebrated with the crème de la crème: Moutai (sometimes spelled: Maotai). Moutai is distilled liquor made from sorghum. It is very fragrant with an alcohol content of 53%. The first moment after your first sip of Moutai is experienced as rather pleasant by most inexperienced Westerners. However, soon after that initial experience the burning sensation starts, from your oral cavity to all other parts of your digestive tract, down to your stomach. This is why Chinese will only drink their spirits during meals, when your stomach is lined with protein and fat. It is also the reason for not savouring it like wine in Europe, but throwing it down your throat from very small glasses, like shots of Tequila. . .

Chinese often combine beer and spirits. You can then use beer as a chaser for the spirits.

. . . Chris became a victim of that peculiar chemistry during his own birthday party.

The final part of the entry in my diary of that day says that Chris was so drunk that Calvin, Kalli and I had to drag him out of the taxi and carry him all the way up to our room on the top (third) floor of the dormitory. . .

There was a small bonus for Calvin, Kalli and myself too. It would not surprise me, if we burned up most of the calories we had taken in during that dinner by getting Chris safely to our room. . .

Well, as you can read, we were quite successful in our attempts to emulate European student life in Beijing back in 1975.


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.


8 Mind over Matter

Obviously, we had to show that we had come out of our work in the commune as better people. We did so by writing reports, and making short presentations. We also receive a couple of group photos, one of which has been used in the previous post.

For the first time, the weather started to play a role in my diary:

. . . A conspicuous entry in my diary of October 24, 1975 is printed instead of in my regular handwriting: CHANGE OF TEMPERATURE. . .

Beijing has a typical continental climate. Although located on roughly the same latitude as Naples, Beijing’s winters are greatly colder than ours, while the average temperature in July and August is at least 10 degrees higher than what I am used to.

The air in Beijing is extremely dry, except for a period from mid-June to mid-September. This is not only reflected in the low precipitation, but also in the ever present static electricity, which makes shaking hands, hugging and especially kissing, acts that require some preparation, lest they end in painful screams from both participants. . .

Beijing winters are harshly cold. It can start freezing in late November and sub-zero nights are still possible far into March. Spring is pleasant, but remarkably short. One day you are still wearing a sweater, the next day you need to take it off, and it is as if the following day you need to get your short-sleeve shirt out of the wardrobe. Moreover, spring is the season of the dust storms that transport fine loess soil from the Gobi Desert to Beijing and beyond. A mouth full of dust is more unpleasant than an electrifying kiss in winter.

Autumn is the season most people like. In the previous chapter I mentioned the pleasant weather during the week of Open Door Schooling, and pointed out that Western politicians are aware of that as well, which explains the high number of political delegations to China during the fall. It starts late September and continues up to mid or November. Owed to the arid climate, skies are usually blue in Beijing that time, providing ample sunshine. . .

This was probably the period in my year in the Beijing Language Institute that I left campus the least. I intended to get the most of that opportunity and believed that class room studying was the best way to attain that goal. Cycling became less pleasant with the lowering of the temperature anyway. It was time to prepare for winter.

. . . A padded coat was needed to make it through the Beijing winter.

Entries at several places in my diary witness the quest for such an item. The school had announced that coats of various sizes would be available in the small campus shop, stubbornly referred to by Teacher Bi as ‘The Canteen’, some day. However, many those announcements turned out to be empty promises. The language of my comments in the diary becomes gradually harsher, each time we went to the shop in vain.

However, one day the padded coat was finally hanging in my wardrobe. It was blue, but then blue, and green were about the only colors one could see on the backs of people in the streets of Beijing that time. It was also quite heavy and clumsy to wear, but it was surely warm, and most of us were happy to have one, although we would wear it only a few months, from early December to early March. . .


This was also the time that I started buying books; and lots of them. My first buying spree concentrated on the newly edited dynastic histories

. . . I had developed peculiar habits of my own that probably invoked similar feelings among my most intimate friends at the Beijing Language Institute. The first was my almost hysteric purchasing of the Dynastic Histories that started to appear one by one around the moment of my arrival in Beijing.

After the first real historic book in Chinese History, Shi Ji, usually translated in English as “Records of the Grand Historian,” had been written in the first century B.C., it became a custom during the following consecutive dynasties that each dynasty would take care of writing the official history of the previous one.

Historiography has remained a serious business in China, up to the present day. Each time a new faction rises to power; it will rewrite the history of the previous period. The historians are not required to be totally factual. They are supposed to add their personal comments about the role a particular person has played in history. If a historian believes a certain person; e.g., a minister, has played a positive role, that minister’s activities and personality will be embellished. Others who are deemed to have had a negative influence, will be portrayed as thoroughly evil, even in their childhood. This is known as baobian in Chinese, a compound of bao (to praise) and bian (to criticize). . .

I was helped by the current political campaign that included criticism on Confucius.

. . . Some people in Europe use the term Maoism, but Chinese refer to the Great Helmsman’s ideas as Mao Zedong Thought. Mao Zedong had written books, essays, and poems. You had to read, analyze, and internalize his entire oeuvre, if you wanted to understand his ideas. Revolution was not merely about emotion, but an intellectual endeavor. Marxism was a philosophy and an academic model of the development of human civilization.

All this led to the emergence of a the Criticize Lin Criticize Confucius (Pi Lin Pi Kong) campaign, a campaign against a Communist general who had played a crucial role in the quick victory of the Communists over the Nationalists after the Japanese surrender in 1945 and one of China’s earliest philosophers. If Lin Biao had still been alive, he probably would have felt honored. He wasn’t.

To launch a nationwide campaign to criticize the general and the teacher, many classical books were re-edited with great gusto. They were sold from special shelves in the bookshops, designated as ‘material for criticizing’. . .

There was a practical problem. Our small room was not big enough to store all those books. So I soon started sending them home.

. . . Luckily, we had a small but efficient post office in the Institute and after patronizing the bookshops in Haidian and some in the city center; I probably became the most loyal customer of the post office as well.

It was very efficient indeed. That post office also functioned as a kind of Customs Office. The girls leafed through all books, and put a little red OK stamp on the first page (a nice souvenir distinguishing the books I bought that year from the other Chinese books in my library). I started to send sack after sack. Books were packed in jute sacks, sealed by sowing it with a white plastic thread. It looked horrible, like an endless stream of Santa Claus bags, but all books arrived safely. . .


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.


7 Open Door Schooling

I have taken the liberty of jumping to the chapter describing our Saint Nicolas activities in 1975 in my previous post. I will pick up the story again which brings to what I still consider a major event during that year in China: spending a week in a People’s Commune in October 1975.

One morning, during the regular language class, the arrival of a Vice-Director was announced. She would convey an important message. We immediately got curious. She had already built herself a reputation as a bit of a revolutionary, though of a rather sympathetic type. When we were shown a documentary film about the first female team of mountaineers (Chinese, obviously) to reach the top of the Mount Everest, she stood up from her chair and cheered. . . .

That day she entered the classroom radiating with her usual enthusiasm, but we could also sense a solemn undertone in her appearance. Our group had been selected as the first group to spend an entire week in a people’s commune. Now that was news. Even the politically most skeptic of our group lightened up. This was something we had to share with the other, less fortunate, students during lunch. We had heard and read so much about communes, already in Europe, but so far we could only try to imagine what life in a commune was really about. And sometime in October we would learn all about it first-hand.

Different types of fellow students reacted differently to this news.

. . . The most peculiar reaction probably came from the leftist Westerners who had worked hard to be able to spend that year in China and learn about the fruits of the revolution first hand. The news that we were going to work in a commune, if only for a week, suddenly attracted new friends in the dining hall that central location of our social life.

A Swiss student who let no occasion go by to testify of his leftist ideology, got very upset about my announcement. His first reaction was: ‘then you need to prepare’. . . .

The Swiss student would remain my loyal tablemate in the dining hall until the end of the week in the commune. The guy was so eager to learn every detail of our preparation and on the spot experience. I gloated in that attention. I used to keep his fire alive by feeding him tidbits of information, but also made sure his curiosity would remain high, by leaving out important details. . .

From that day on, most of our courses would be adapted to prepare us for our week in the countryside.

. . . The morning language lessons from then on were dedicated to our work in the commune. We were taught agricultural vocabulary, like names of domestic animals and crops.

The latter was regarded as especially important. In cultural revolutionary terminology, urban residents before that revolution were described as people who consumed grains, but could not recognize the various cereals when growing in the field, or using a classical expression (you see, you need some knowledge of Classical Chinese, even for a better understanding of the most revolutionary terminology!) wu gu bu ren ‘unable to distinguish the five (types of) grain’.

To repair that, we learned the words for rice, maize, wheat, oat, and other staple crops, and were shown pictures to be able to recognize each, when pointed out by a commune dweller. This has affected me more than I probably would be willing to admit. For example, when I travel by train in the Netherlands, crossing an agricultural region during the growing season, my mind automatically starts trying to recognize the crops growing in the fields passing my window. I am rarely actually able to name a particular crop, but at least I make an effort. Hats off to the training of the Beijing Language Institute.

Our first period of Open Door Schooling started on Monday, October 20, 1975. It took the bus a little over half an hour to reach the Si ji Qing (‘Four Seasons Green = Evergreen’) Commune. As expected we were taken to a kind of model commune, one that served the citizens of Beijing with agricultural produce. The fertile soil was easy to till and with the leaders of the nation as part of your clients, you needn’t worry about the continuity of your existence.

The mornings of those six days in the commune were spent visiting, while we worked in the field during the afternoons. We took our breakfast in the Institute’s dining hall, but had lunch in a farmer’s home.


. . . We were split up in smaller groups for lunch, and each group was walked to its designated host family. I was grouped with a couple of Canadian classmates. Apparently, none of them have been impressive enough to make me remember their names.

Lunch was already on the table, when we arrived, prepared by our school cooks in a central kitchen. The lady of the house (we never met the lord) was always in during lunches that week, spending much time with her young son that would have been about a year old. She did not share in our lunch (‘I have already eaten’, attentive readers know now that that is a standard reply), which she apparently really regarded as ours.

I got the impression that she did not even have to do the dishes, and that all bowls, plates, and chopsticks were cleared away after our departure.

In fact, however exciting our visit must have been to our hostess, our lunches must were an intrusion into the regular commune life. The income of Commune members was calculate using a kind of piece-wage system in which they were credited work points for a certain type of work. Those work points could be exchanged for staple food and cash. . .

Strengthened by the lunch, we were ready for physical labour.

. . . Participating in farm work was regarded a key component of our Open Door Schooling experience. We spent most of our afternoons in the field. We were lucky that this event took place in October, when the temperature was pleasant, and that it was Beijing, where most of the rainfall is concentrated in July and August. The air of Beijing is arid most of the year, except for a short period between mid-June and early September. We thus spent six afternoons doing farm work with afternoon temperatures of 16 –18 degrees and no fear to be caught by rain, or getting soaked with sweat. . .

. . . We were not given a chance to get tired. There were many breaks and we were supposed to make conversation with the farmers who were assigned to our group. After all, this was part of our lessons and it posed a fine opportunity to interact with another type of people than those that we met regularly on campus. Moreover, we did not earn any work points as well, even though we contributed to the total work flow of the Commune. . .

We took are dinners in the school again.

I will skip Tuesday here and jump to Wednesday

. . . Wednesday started with an introduction of the history of the commune. That was a solemn expression for an institution that had come into existence less than 20 years earlier. However, the Chinese, a history-conscious nation, are masters in creating a history for everything. I have regular contacts with a university in Beijing established in the early 1950s, but they could trace their history back 20 years earlier.

The commune’s history started with the land reform of the early revolutionary days, continuing with the various stages of collectivization, like the ‘mutual help groups’ of the mid 1950s, to the establishment of people’s communes.

From a geopolitical point of view, communes were not newly invented. They were based on existing townships. The lower level units of communes, production brigades, and production teams were also based on natural villages. . .

Especially during our afternoon labour sessions, we were occasionally able to have a private conversation with individuals of the Commune

. . . That afternoon, I remember an interesting remark from a lady about whom I only recall that she was something in the Commune’s leadership. She pointed out that onions were not a staple, or a major food group, but they added flavor to food, like garlic. It was necessary to grow them, so the people in Beijing could enjoy tastier food.

That remark has several shades of meaning that may not be apprehended immediately by old China hands, or even young Chinese.

Even before the Cultural Revolution, much emphasis was laid on growing cereals, to serve the objective of making China independent of foreign resources. This had led to several disastrous mistakes. Soil that was not suitable for growing wheat was still designated for that purpose by local satraps who wanted to make themselves look good at the higher administrative level.

Hence, the original crops grown in those regions for ages were discontinued, but the wheat crop turned out to be disappointing, at least. The local rulers were too embarrassed, and afraid for the repercussions, to report that, so they still filed ‘bumper harvests’ (another Chinese expression with a heavy underlying meaning) with their provincial governments that consolidated the fake output figures in the provincial report for the central authorities.

If this had only been a game of figures, the problem would not have been so enormous. However, the grass root level area with the low wheat output was then requested to submit a certain part of the harvest to the government. The rule then was that each administrative unit would keep a certain percentage of the agricultural output for its own local consumption and hand over the remainder to the State.

Many regions ended up with no staple food at all, and sometimes the entire harvest of the year was insufficient to fulfill their duty. The local leaders thus had to resort to borrowing, buying, or whatever way they could think of, to obtain sufficient wheat.

The next item from this chapter that I want to highlight here is a visit we made that Thursday afternoon

. . . That day we did not go back to the fields right after lunch, but first visited a so-called ‘old intellectual youth’(lao zhishi qingnian).

Intellectual youth was a Cultural Revolution term, referring to urban teenagers who had finished their primary and middle schools and were therefore, regarded as equipped with more knowledge than their rural peers, or even the parents of those peers (remember the art of changing a light bulb mentioned in the beginning of this chapter).

Mao Zedong had therefore, launched the idea that those intellectual youths should spend some time in the countryside, before pursuing a career. That would allow them to share their knowledge with the local farmers, and get a personal experience the frugal life of the peasants.

Once you had settled down in your rural village, in practice your main concern would be how to get back to the city as quickly as possible. For most of these youngsters it would take a few years, as mentioned earlier. However, some of them really grew roots in the countryside and integrated as full members of their commune. Those people were called ‘old intellectual youth’.

My main memory of that visit is that his house (like during our lunches, we did not see any other family members) was rather dark. I also noted that he did not really engage in farm labor and worked as a clerk in the commune office. It makes sense that an ‘intellectual youth’ would be useful there.


Saturday was the final day.

. . . We spent the morning with the leaders of the commune and a few representatives of common members, asking questions. That was yet another recurrent part of official visits during that year, the final bout of questions.

The experts in this field were again the leftists, and they used a jargon of their own. E.g., they did not ‘ask’ questions, but ‘raised’ them. When you want to know the time, you are asking a question, but an inquiry into the procedure of decision making or the say a common commune member had in the commune’s policy was called ‘raising questions’. . .

. . . The day ended with the final obligatory item: the performance, the jiemu, a practice we first encountered during the National Day celebrations in the parks. It translates as ‘program’, but is one of those terms referring to a ritual in Chinese social practice, which is more complex that than the literal English translation may indicate.

It consists of several songs, dances and other performances by one or a small group of persons. At least a few, but usually all, acts have some sort of political purport. The habit still exists, but the contents are much less political now. Moreover, sometimes, when looking carefully, you can see a hint of sarcastic criticism hidden under an outer skin of political correctness.

We got home early that day, we still had a kind of Saturday afternoon feeling. The Saturday dinner in the school dining hall ended that eventful week. So what about that Swiss student? What about him? He lost his interest in me immediately after that 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.


10 A not so Holy Man

As December was approaching, the weather really turned cold, with sub-zero temperatures almost every night and more and more of the days. The skies were still mainly blue, creating that typically crisp Beijing winter feeling: the combination of a harsh freezing wind and sunshine on your face.

The heating systems were turned on mid-October.

Central heating was really central in China those days. A building as our dormitory had a boiler burning coal that was regularly replenished by a couple workers with shovels from a pile of coal outside the building. That pile in turn was continuously restocked from trucks driving to and fro all day.

All buildings in the school and almost all multi-storey buildings in Beijing were heated that way. Some groups of apartment buildings belonging to one organization were serviced by one boiler room. All that coal being burned in city like Beijing created huge amounts of fine black dust in the air that we were breathing. However, we appreciated the heating, although the radiators were usually lukewarm and could be touched with your bare hand without having to be afraid of burning yourself.

The dormitories were small enough to be heated to a comfortable temperature. I have never liked overheated rooms anyway, but there was a gap of about two weeks between the beginning of the cold season and the firing up of the heating system. In that period, rooms on the sunny side of the building would get some warmth from sun, but once the sun had set, the concrete buildings often seemed colder inside than outside. Later in the evening, we would fill our mugs with hot water, not so much for drinking as to warm our hands.

Classrooms could also be chilly, even after the heating had been turned on. They were bigger and therefore less easy to heat up. The main building as a whole was also too big for such a heating system, although it had a huge boiler room, or better building, as the boiler was located in a separate brick building close by. We would take our padded winter coats off at the beginning of the lectures, but hang them over the backs of our chairs in such a way, that we could easily drape them over our shoulders, when we would start to feel a little chilly, after sitting still for so long, and our bodies had burnt up the calories taken in at breakfast.

During the breaks we walked around to revive our circulation, but there were no hot drinks to warm our insides. Towards lunchtime, even I would feel cold and hungry. When noon approached, I would habitually make sure to be one of the first to get up and leave the classroom, and run to the dining hall. Surely, I still did the utmost to do so without being too conspicuous.

Being one of the first to enter the dining hall would put me in a position to have the first look at the table of dishes and pick myself a dish with lots of protein and carbohydrates. My favorite was a sizable meatball with a whole egg inside and some green vegetables. I regarded that as one of signature dishes of the Chef. It was also a kind of fusion cuisine avant la lettre, as it resembled a Chinese dish called ‘lion head’, with the hidden egg as a Western addition.

This habit of taking three greasy protein laden meals a day already started to affect my waist line. I might have felt hungry at lunchtime, but the calorie intake of the lunch described above would repeat itself at six in the evening.

Breakfast usually was a helping of fried eggs and bread. The variation in my diet apparently was sufficient to ensure a proper intake of nutrients; at least I never suffered conditions related to malnutrition. However, the energy all that food contained exceeded my body’s energy need by far. And I have not even mentioned the inevitable snacking.

A dorm packed with young male students was bound to have a regular stash of beer and snacks to go with it. Skipping meals was merely a theoretical option. As mentioned before, meals were so much more than simply occasions to eat. The dining hall was the center of our social life. It was the place where we made new friends and reinforced existing relationships. There, we made arrangements for the evening, or what to do in the coming weekend.

We did not have mobile phones then and not even landline phones in our dormitories. In our building, there was only one phone, at the counter of the janitor. Phoning within Beijing was free, as far as I can remember. That would not have cost the school an awful lot of money, as we did not have so many acquaintances to call and chat up anyway.

We even used snail mail to communicate with the few people we did know. A diary entry for December 12, 1975, states that we received a package from the Embassy by mail. The following day we wrote and sent a letter to the Ambassador’s wife who had sent the package.

No, we absolutely could not afford skipping a meal in the dining hall. Obviously, once you were there, even when your main purpose was socializing, you would have a bite and a drink as well. So there you go.

Our festive season started early.

The winter festivities start earlier for us Dutch than for most other Western nations. We have Saint Nicholas’ Eve (5 December) and Saint Nicholas’ birthday on the morning of 6 December, which has been celebrated in the Netherlands and parts of Belgium for more than ten centuries. This celebration of Saint Nicholas’ birthday has been joined with that of the birth of Christ in the English speaking world, leading to the name Santa Claus for the figure that used to be known as Father Christmas’.

We give and receive presents on December 5 or 6, not on Christmas, which is more a time for reflection. Feasting on seasonal delicacies is an inalienable part of both celebrations in Holland, with special types of traditional Saint Nicholas treats, different from those consumed during Christmas.

This is a real bonus for being a child in the Low Countries (and long after you have grown up). Just when our bodies have roughly processed the Saint Nicholas goodies, we can start all over again during the days leading to Christmas, all the way up to and including New Year’s Day.

The Saint Nicholas celebration was a recurrent headache in Beijing.

The Dutch community in China was small indeed in 1975. Except for the Embassy staff and their dependents, there were the odd business people, a few Dutch staff members of UN representations and that was it. The core ritual of the Saint Nicholas celebrations is that the Saint himself, with his loyal aide Black Peter, visits your home, school, or workplace. The holy man carries his Big Book in which all the good and evil deeds of the children in the family (and many adults) have been kept. Black Peter carries a jute bag filled with presents.

The Saint is seated in the family’s most comfortable chair and starts calling the names of the children, and the other family members, one by one, and starts praising or criticizing them. Obviously, all of them get at least one present. In the old days, children with extremely bad attitudes may be given a birch as a symbol for the birching that they deserved. The Dutch, being such a tolerant people, had already abandoned that tradition long ago.

For the readers who still have not guessed, both Saint Nicholas and Black Peter will be disguised family members. Each year, it is a real problem to determine who will play what role. It is not that fun to play either role, but surely not the role of Black Peter, as you will keep finding black spots behind your ears, inside your nostrils, or wherever, days after the big event.

The next issue is to hide the real identity of these generous gentlemen from the children. One solution is to hire a professional Saint and helper from a temping agency. We have that kind of service in the Netherlands. In university cities, it can be a lucrative side job for students in need of some extra cash. We Dutch are an inventive nation. However, more often people request two persons in a neighborhood to take care of all families in that region. Those families can then share the costs for hiring costumes and gifts for the good volunteers.

Our presence was a blessing for the Saint Nicholas celebration.

Chris and I have never felt more appreciated during that year than on December 5. The Dutch children, except Ronald’s, had never met us. We were the ideal Saint Nicholas and Black Peter. A flip of the coin decided that I would be the holy man (probably not destiny this time; this was sheer luck, and I am still grateful for it) and Chris my black helper. After just having resigned to our modest living quarters, this was another blow to his self-esteem, but we had used a real coin.

We were dressed up in the Embassy. The Ambassador had no children, and the only set of Saint and Peter clothes was carefully kept in good shape in the Embassy. The local staff had grown used to this peculiar Dutch habit of catching an occasional Dutch visitor to the Middle Kingdom, dragging him (or her, when the least known Dutch citizen was female) to the Embassy, putting a ridiculously big white wig on his head, a red miter and cape and driving him to the home of one of the Embassy staff members.

The real Saint Nicholas moved around on horseback, but except for the fact that the Embassy did not own a horse, we would probably have gotten into problems with the traffic police, not to mention the enormous crowd a man dressed like that would have drawn; with a man dressed in an equally peculiar outfit, and his face painted pitch black, following the horse on foot. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza Dutch style.

Such an occasional visitor needed to be lured with an attractive reward, or sedated to make the embarrassment more bearable. As we had missed the opportunity to negotiate an award, we opted for the latter, taking care of it ourselves. Neither Chris nor yours truly was volunteering for this job. It was presented to us as our holy (!) duty.


Unfortunately for the Dutch crowd in Beijing, we were far from holy people. We got ourselves a bottle of one of the ingredients of Peter’s Potent Punch. It was one of the strong distilled liquors named Jinjiu, which literally means ‘Golden Spirit’. It was a simple colorless spirit, so the origin of that brand is just as obscure as the Gold Fish brand for you-know-what. However, it did its job, and both Saint Nicholas and Black Peter arrived at the Embassy in a slightly inebriated condition. No, not drunk, we wanted to express our feeling of protest, but keep up our style.

Arrived at the home of one of the Dutch diplomats, we immediately became the center of attention. Saint Nicholas has arrived! The little brats started to bellow, singing those songs the lyrics of which I had happily stored in some backroom of my memory.

Already at that age, I was determined not to reproduce myself and have been loyal to that decision up to the present day. It is not that I never enjoy other people’s children, but I have never felt the urge to put one of my own on this planet, obliging myself to invest in it for at least two decades, only to have to endure it leaving me, once it can stand on its own feet.

I was also frightened by the emotional ties most people with children that I knew had with their offspring. Finally, you had reached a stage in your life at which you were generating your own income, enabling you to travel wherever you wanted, dress and dine in style, buy your first house, and then you had to give all that up again, or at least slow down, when the first little brat arrived, constantly yelling to be fed and clad.

The Dutch little brats were all there, gathered in that living room, screaming with only one thought on their greedy minds: what will I get from the old man. That was already not my favorite environment, but something snapped inside my mind, when Ronald started the ceremony with the wrong question: ‘Saint Nicholas, would you care for a drink?’ I simply had to follow suit with the wrong answer: ‘A young one please’.

You have to be Dutch, or someone with some experience with our culture to be able to understand this reply. Our national drink, Jenever, comes in ‘young’ and ‘old’ (aged) varieties. The insider does not ask for a glass of Jenever, but ‘a young one’, or ‘an old one’. However, young or old, the choice of beverage was not a wise one.

The contents of the first glass immediately started a cross-cultural negotiation with the local spirits already in my system. The Jinjiu and the Jenever formed a joint venture, half a decade before the Chinese government gave the green light to joint ventures between Chinese and foreign companies.

As a real joint venture, it had its upside, and downside. The upside was that, I learned that later, that year’s Saint Nicholas party turned out to be the liveliest since years. I excelled. The downside was that the holy man turned a little obstinate and moody after a few young ones. Ronald tried to play the clever clogs and handed me glass of water, but that was only counterproductive. It made good old Nicholas swear in front of all those innocent little brats. He duly apologized, after receiving a glass of the real stuff.

Luckily, the ceremony did not last that long. The Dutch colony in Beijing was small in 1975. We were driven back to the Embassy, where the Ambassador, and his wife obviously noticed the merry state of the holy man. They already had decided to let us stay the night, and take us to the Great Wall to that grand monument in winter the following day.

That offer to stay had been expressed since our arrival in the Chinese capital, but we, two young men finally completely independent, had been reluctant to accept that invitation so far. Now at least there was a proper excuse not to get into a taxi and return to our dorm. Chris would have had a much harder time in carrying me upstairs than the three of us had after his birthday party not that long before.

I obviously turned in early and we did enjoy the Great Wall. It was not our first visit. The school had driven us there soon after our arrival, but seeing it during winter, with a few patches of snow (snow is rare in the arid continental climate of Beijing) was real a treat. It was also the season with the lowest number of tourists, which made the place even more enjoyable.

Afterwards, we received, again by mail, packages from the Embassy, gifts to thank us for our services on December 5. My present was a bottle of liqueur; I have not noted the brand in my diary. Mrs. Ambassador had added a handwritten note saying that she ‘had preferred to send something else, but assumed that I would appreciate this best’. These were wise words.


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.


6: Getting into a Routine

After the chapter about the rowdy National Day celebrations in our dorm, this is a more factual chapter, listing the various types of classes we were offered at Beijing Language Institute.

These were actually quite good. Due to all the negative publications about the detrimental effects of the Cultural Revolution on China’s educational system, we arrived in China prepared for rudimentary education, laden with political propaganda. The opposite was true.

In this post about Chapter 6, I will focus on the introduction of the various courses in that chapter.

. . . Each morning would start with two hours of regular language lessons, called ‘extensive reading lesson (jingduke)’. Jingdu is a standard Chinese educational expressing referring to comprehensive language teaching, comprising all aspects of language: pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and rhetoric.

This course used a series of textbooks developed by the School itself, with the most standard title possible: Chinese Reader. The books were provided free of charge. Beginners like Chris would start with Volume I. If I remember correctly, my group started with Volume III, and managed to finish Volume VI to the end of the academic year. Volume VI then was still in the compilation stage and being the Institute’s experimental group, we helped fine-tuning the compilation while we were using the unfinished manuscript.

Each chapter, the equivalent of one lesson, in our textbook would start with a text. That was followed by a vocabulary list providing new words and phrases with English translations. The next section would discuss new grammatical issues introduced in the lesson, and the chapter would finish with exercises practicing the new vocabulary and grammatical structures.

That course would typically be taught by your group’s mentor, as (s)he would see your group six days a week. Our Comprehensive Reading teacher was Teacher Liu. Each time we started with a new lesson, he would request us one by one to read a sentence of the text. He may ask you to explain the meaning of a certain word, or discuss the contents of your sentence. . .

So this we had Liu every morning, i.e. 6 days a week. This was quite basic straightforward language teaching. It was definitely not ‘immersion’ in the language as was, and perhaps still is, so liked by many Western language teachers. But then, we did not need that. We were in China, so were already immersed 24/7.

. . . The second half of the mornings and the afternoons were used for a larger variety of classes, like: newspaper reading, literature, conversation, and Classical Chinese.

The Chinese term for the newspaper reading classes was baokanke, literally: ‘newspaper magazine lesson’. This implies that the scope of those lessons was broader than the daily newspaper. It included articles from various magazines and texts of a political nature from a variety of media. . .

. . . Although written Chinese has been generally based on the standard spoken language since the early 20th Century, it is still influenced by Classical Chinese and this is especially strong in the newspapers. Classical Chinese is terse and can express a heavy load of content in only a few characters. That suits newspapers, where journalists, and editors often want to compress what they want to state using as little space as possible. . .

. . . For example, in many official writings, including names of government institutions, the name of Shandong province is abbreviated to Lu. That character is also used on Shandong number plates, so you can immediately spot a car from Shandong in Beijing. . .

. . . Once I saw a small item about Dongdiwen. Dong means ‘east’, but diwen was not familiar to me, and could not be found in any of the dictionaries we brought with us to class. Teacher Hu then started to explain the geographic location of this region, and finally I realized that diwen was Chinese for East Timor. It was a news item about East Timor. Wow, make a quick note to record that finding for posterity. Actually, finding that out through common effort was a pleasure to both of us. It gave us a shared feeling of accomplishment.

The name of our teacher for this course was Hu. He was a much older man. Rumour had it that he had spent some time teaching Chinese in Pakistan. We did not see much of him outside the periods in his class.

. . . Then there were the literature lessons, called: zuopinke. This Chinese term is not so easy to translate. My electronic dictionary translates it as ‘works of literature and arts’. The literal meaning of zuopin is ‘works, things made’. The term was probably chosen instead of the more common Chinese word for literature, wenxue, because they were not lessons teaching us to appreciate a literary text, but again, to get familiar with the typical language of modern Chinese literature.

Teacher Chen, a chubby friendly man, supplied us with chapters from novels, poems, essays, comic dialogues, and film scenarios. Some of those texts came with vocabulary lists in the same format as those in the textbook of our morning sessions. The Beijing Language Institute employed several people selecting, copying, annotating, and stenciling such texts. Except for the printed materials, like the textbook, all teaching materials provided by the school were stenciled. . .

I learned a lot from these lessons. Chen liked to tell little stories when explaining new vocabulary or unfamiliar phrases. He did not confide much of his personal background to us, but it was clear that he was well educated.

. . . On Saturday mornings we could escape for a few hours to ancient China, during the Classical Chinese lessons. I acquired a liking for Teacher Liu (another one than our group mentor; there is only a limited number of surnames in China, so millions of people have to do with the same surname) who was clearly devoted to the rich literary history of China. He confided that, when it was time to choose a specialization in university, he had been the only one among his peers to opt for Classical Chinese. The feeling was mutual and we spent many hours discussing it after the end of the sessions. . .

So that was my typical week of studying. Two periods before lunch, with a break in the middle and one period after lunch.

Digital 06-Playground

. . . The Saturday lunch was the beginning of the other part of the week. Chinese worked and studied on Saturdays, but the school was aware of our two-day weekend in Europe. They made a minor concession to us by giving us Saturday afternoons off. Obviously, the teachers did not object. It gave them a little more air to breathe as well. . .

This was also the period in which my group of close friends started to form. The remainder of this chapter describes these fellow students, some of whom you have already met during my birthday dinner, with which the introductory chapter starts.

I also introduce a few other types of students

. . . An event that was the talk of the campus for a short while was the arrival of a bus load of Laotian students. When they arrived, it had already started to get colder, but apparently no one had bothered to inform them about the climate. They were all dressed in their traditional attire. This looked extremely picturesque, but was quite inappropriate for the Beijing autumn. They also struck us as very young, but on the other had they all seemed to be chain smokers. Several got off the bus, bare feet in slippers, with a cigarette in their hand. Funny people. Anyway, they moved on to another school very soon, never to return. . .

I am writing this post on November 17. I realise that the period covered by this chapter also focuses on that month, be it four decades earlier. The traditional European holiday season was already approaching. However, before the celebrations could start anew, something exciting was still waiting for us. I will tell you about it in my next post.


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.


5: Peter’s Potent Punch

This is personally one of my favourite chapters. First of all the anecdote to which its title refers is extremely funny. One level deeper, it was the first occasion for us to translate a very Chinese holiday and the way it was celebrated then into the way we were used to celebrate anything at home. The Chinese holiday I am referring to was:

. . . National Day.

. . . The preparation for the National Day celebration in 1975 invoked the spirits of an interesting collection of people. One day, Tiananmen Square was suddenly decorated with enormous pictures of the world’s most famous revolutionaries, including Marx, Engels, Mao Zedong, Lenin, and . . .  Stalin. Fascinating to see the portrait of that Cold War politician whose memory had already been erased in his native country.


October 1, 1975 was a holiday in that there were no classes for a couple of days, but the day itself was still extremely busy with activities. That morning we were driven to the Sun Yat Sen Park, named after the first president of China, which used to be part of the Imperial Palace. It immediately posed a culture shock, as we were confronted with Chinese women wearing skirts without proper warning; some of them even wore lipstick. What a contrast with the unisex attire that was so much part of our environment.

After only two weeks in China, we had already grown used to the fact that women could hardly be recognized from the other sex by their cloths. Actually that is not entirely true. The female version of the Mao suit had more Western style lapels, while the male version was closed up to the chin. However, most men used to leave the top the jacket unbuttoned, which partly undid the male – female distinction again.

The school buses drove us to the Sun Yat Sen Part adjacent to the Forbidden City in the morning, and to the Summer Palace in the afternoon. We walked past all the sites where people were performing sketches, playing music, or singing and dancing. We absorbed what we saw. We were still new in China.

The celebrations continue up to the present day, but are less abundant than at that time. Life is colorful all year round now, and only judging by the food consumed in the street and various types of restaurants, every day seems a day of celebration, at least on the surface.

An especially interesting event happened during the afternoon walk in the Summer Palace. We actually saw a top leader, Gu Mu, who was visiting the park to celebrate National Day with the masses. That wasn’t made easy for him, as he was encircled by a number of less important people and guards.

Back home in our dorms, we felt we had to do something the following day, to celebrate National Day with the Chinese and simultaneously celebrate the fact that all foreign students had arrived and were in need for a get-to-know-everybody party.

It takes a Dutchman to prepare such a party in a proper fashion

. . . My diary entry for October 2, 1975 reads: ‘welcoming party for our fellow students: Peter’s Potent Punch’. The latter could be nominated for the Best Euphemism Ever award; if such an award would exist. . .

By that time, most students had arrived at the Institute and that was a great occasion to do what we would have done at home: organize a party. That was easier said than done in an environment without convenient supermarkets to stock up on crackers, cheese, crisps, wine, beer, and other party necessities.

Beer was available, as I mentioned earlier. There were beverages called wine on the labels, but that turned out to be extremely sweet alcoholic beverages, nothing like what we know as wine. Even referring to them as plonk would count as too much honor.

There were liqueurs, also mixtures of juices, alcohol and again sugar and maybe some other additives that we were happy to be unfamiliar with. Still, the most common type of alcoholic beverage available then was the traditional Chinese distilled liquor, going by the deceptive name of ‘white wine (baijiu) ’. They had an alcohol content between 50 and 60 per cent and most of them were quite awful. The more expensive varieties, particularly the famous Moutai, which gained world fame through President Nixon’s seminal visit to China in 1972, were tolerable, but most of them were quite unpalatable.

. . . I came up with the idea to pool some money and purchase a stock of various canned fruits and alcoholic beverages and mix all that at random in a few of the enamel wash basins we all had. It met with agreement from most of our neighbors in the hall, and I volunteered (sure I did) to do the shopping and mixing. The shopping was the price I gladly paid for having the knowledge of what actually went into the punch.

. . . Back in the dormitory, I started opening cans of lychees, pineapple, pears, peaches in syrup. When Chinese write ‘syrup’ on the label, you can trust it to be real syrup, with such a high sugar content (yes, again), that it almost becomes sticky, like fruit flavored caramel. No problem, once diluted with the deftly mixed alcoholic beverages, and carefully stirred (cutting the halved peaches and pears in smaller pieces), the result was what I still consider the mother of all punches: Peter’s Potent Punch.


. . . That proved to be dangerous, as such large drinking vessels invited for quickly drinking large quantities of what turned out to be a nearly lethal beverage. Sweet alcoholic drinks are always dangerous, because their mouth feel offers little warning of the inebriating ingredient. Your senses grow number with the amount of alcohol consumed, until you forget what you are taking in. The sweet aromatic taste of the fruits is noticeable longest, so your brain may even be tricked into thinking that the stuff is actually good for you.

. . . the fruits in Peter’s Potent Punch turned into malicious alcohol bombs. Their smooth texture did not require much chewing. You washed them down with a large gulp of the liquid. They would remain dormant in your esophagus as well, but once they reached your stomach . . . bang!

The punch worked like a dream. We all had a swell time during the actual party. As could be expected, many of those who have been less restrictive in their consumption of that lethal concoction started paying the price in the course of evening and the following morning.

. . . A number of the partygoers had to make quick runs to the toilet in the middle of the night and early morning. When I woke up de following day and set out to the toilet, for the regular reasons, I passed the door of the room occupied by two Danish students. One of them, the tallest one, a real Dane, normally a perfect example of how a fearless Viking is depicted in the movies, the only thing missing a helmet with horns, was standing in the opened door, leaning against the wall. His face was greenish grey, and his mouth produced a mix of gargling and moaning sounds. That man looked seriously sick.

I guess that he attempted to make it to the toilet in time, but he did not get further than the doorway. He barfed right where I spotted him, the vomit streaming down the wall. You could actually still distinguish pieces of the fruit flavored alcohol bombs slowly finding their way down the wall to the floor. He was indeed brutally sick.

This paragraph may be a little gross for a book like this, but that picture is stuck on the walls of my mind as one of the highlights of that year in China. I believe that even in extreme stages of dementia that I may suffer eventually, I will still vividly remember how we finally revenged the damage done to our ancestors by the Vikings. . .

We Dutch had better things to do than being sick. I had drunk with restraint and so had Chris. As October 3 is a holiday in (part of) The Netherlands, we had another party to attend at our Embassy. A major event in our 80-year war with Spain (1568-1648) was the Siege of Leiden (1573-1574), which was broken on October 3, 1574, using the most typical of Dutch ruses, flooding the land around the city. We Dutch feel at home in water, but the Spanish, born and raised on arid land, hated it. The Dutch resistance sailed a boat into the city and fed the hungry citizens with herring and white bread. That is the fare that is still eaten in Leiden each October 3 to commemorate its liberation.

Many Dutch diplomats are graduates from Leiden University, therefore, Leiden’s Liberation is celebrated in all Dutch embassies. It has almost turned into quasi national holiday, outside the Dutch border.

The herring is eaten raw, as we do in The Netherlands, washed down with jenever, our version of gin. In other words, more eating and drinking for us that evening, though after Peter’s Potent Punch, jenever almost tasted like nectar.


As of October 4. 1975, we were ready for the action.


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.