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.