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.


1: A memorable dinner

Here is blog consisting of a few snippets taken from Chapter 1. It opens with a scene that took place when I had already been in China for half a year.

Imagine this scene:

March 21, 1976, the Horn of Plenty (Fengzeyuan) Restaurant, Beijing, China. A peculiar party of people is seated around a table, eating and chatting. The dinner must have been going on for a while, as the table is covered with a variety of dishes; beef, vegetables, a steamed fish, crispy chicken, and other delicacies. In China, courses are not served one after another, but often simultaneously, and dishes stay on the table until they are empty. The spirits are up, literally, as the food is washed down with Moutai, the Chinese distilled liquor that had gained global fame by President Nixon’s seminal visit to China only a few years earlier. With its more than 50% alcohol and esters and other molecules you would rather not know about, its intense odour has filled the air of the small separate dining room immediately after opening the bottle.

You could easily associate this scene with Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. If the master would have been present to observe it, he could have eternalized the scene on canvas, maybe as a study for his seminal painting. Both scenes involve a group of people who are at first sight connected by a common interest, but when you look and listen closer to the body language and the intonation of the conversation, you will pick up cues indicating that they are highly divided under the merry surface.

That day was my 20th birthday.

I was a Dutch student spending that academic year in China. The diners, besides me, were the other Dutch student, Chris, two Icelandic students, Torge and Reinar, a Finnish student Kalli, the Second Secretary of the Dutch Embassy, Ronald, and his wife Sarah. As none of us had brought a camera, there is no picture to show you here. But allow me to act as your eyes and ears to interpret the scene.

It is by no standards your typical crowd of close friends.

Beijing in 1976 was not the Beijing that hosted the Olympics, or the city with the surrealistic China Central Television Building, designed by a fellow Dutchman, by the way. Neither was it the China that is now pulling multinationals like McDonalds, KFC, and Starbucks through the global financial crisis. It was the China of the Cultural Revolution, of people’s communes, the country where our Chinese contemporaries were sent to the countryside to learn about real life from the peasants. What was I doing there? Especially at such a pivotal moment in my life?

Many people seem to believe that your 20th birthday is a major milestone in a person’s life. Peter, Sue and Marc represented Switzerland at the 1971 Eurovision Song Festival singing ‘Laissez nous les illusions de nos vingt ans’, ‘Leave us the illusions of our 20 years’. I had not turned 20 yet then, but for some reason that refrain has gotten stuck in my mind. It is probably the only Eurovision song that I can freely recall at any time, so it must have struck a sensitive nerve.

So what can we learn from this small selection in terms of things that you may not know about life in China in the 1970s?

Well, what about the Horn of Plenty, for starters? That is not a very proletarian name. In fact, it was one of the so called ‘old numbers’ (lao zihao) of Beijing, restaurants with a long history.

During the most violent years of the Cultural Revolution, such restaurants attempted to go proletarian, e.g. by serving plain dishes people would cook at home and offering them for very low prices. However, no one appreciated that, in particular the workers who before could hardly afford to eat in restaurants like the Fengzeyuan. What they really wanted was high end dishes for low end prices. Bad luck, that was not possible. Even during the most proletarian of all revolutions. Even revolutionaries needed to take the cash flow into account. Capitalism always wins.


The spirits that we took to liven up the dinner, Moutai, was far from proletarian either. You had to pay a few months salary to buy a bottle of the stuff and even if you had that money to burn, you would not always have access to places where it was for sale.

In other words, we were part of the happy few and enjoyed that without being bothered too much about our privileged position. A few of the foreign students did, but they were not part of our inner circle.

We were young then. Most of us were in our early twenties. We were students enjoying the relative carelessness of European student life. Still, if there was one thing we had in common, it was sufficient determination to give it up for a while to spend at least a year in what was then regarded by most people as a secluded empire.

This opening scene of the book not only reflects that even in the most revolutionary era of modern China there were luxury restaurants, but also the contrast between our sincere eagerness to learn as much about China as we could from our stay in Beijing, but the intuitive urge to emulate European student life in the alien environment.

We had a number of restaurants close to our campus, but we regularly tried out the fancier eateries in town. The book is full of anecdotes about our culinary adventures. We had a silent agreement that we would reserve the top places, including the Fengzeyuan, for special occasions, like birthdays.

We were also an international bunch. This birthday dinner only included my most intimate friends, but further in the book you will meet a few English and the occasional Australian and Canadian.


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.