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.


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.