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. . .


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