17 They’re Serving Beef Today!

Regular readers of this blog will remember our exciting week in the countryside in October 1975, when we did a tour of Open Door Schooling.

Early March it was announced that we would spend another week in the Dongfeng Bazar, the department store in Beijing’s top shopping street Wangfujing, in which Chris had found his Cuban cigars. It has been taken over and completely rebuilt by a Hong Kong investor in the present century and is now known as Sun Dong’an Plaza.

The teachers who had organized this were thrilled about this arrangement, which they regarded as a big experiment. Our group would be the first to have Open Door Schooling in an urban location.

. . . Monday, March 22, 1976, the School opened its doors again for us to learn about Chinese life in practice.

The first day was bound to start with a huge introduction by a leader of the Market. Dong’an Market had been established in the early 20th Century, before the end of the last dynasty. It had begun as a real market, a collection of stalls, as all big cities in the world needed, to provide the unproductive citizens with food, clothes and other daily necessities, but also with stuff that the same unproductive city dwellers need to keep themselves occupied in their spare time, like stationary, musical instruments, or sewing kits.


The stalls gradually became fixed selling spaces for the vendors and further evolved into tiny shops. In a similar fashion, some food stalls grew into restaurants. To shelter the shops, and their patrons, from the harsh Beijing climate, the place became roofed. The foreigners in Beijing who liked the place as we did, started to refer to it as the Dong’an Bazaar. In its heydays, the Dong’an Market counted more than 900 users. . .

. . . During the 1950s, the vendors had to comply with more influence from the invisible hand, when the government promulgated a system of ‘public private partnership (gongsi heying)’. In the following period, the ‘private’ part of the operation gradually faded away, and the Dong’an Market was in reality a state operated store, divided in many small shops. The former shop owners were no longer owners, but employees. . .

In hindsight this week was my first encounter with business administration, and I am sure that it has been at least one factor influencing my later switch from the academic world to business. My diary shows that I certainly got a remarkable interest in figures.

. . . The store employed 2164 people at that moment, 1166 men and 998 women. Their average age was 37, but approximately 800 employees were younger than 30.

A salient detail of the employee statistics was the number of ‘capitalists’: 65. You see, I was right. Those capitalists, despite their incorrect background, were the ones with the valuable product knowledge and business acumen. I bet that their young revolutionary colleagues had learned more about running a business from them than in school. . .

We spent that entire first day listening to introductions by several leaders of the store. Almost half of my notes are concerned with employee benefits. The advantage of doing this bout of Open Door Schooling in a store with such a long history was that it allowed the people doing the introductions to compare the ‘old society’, the standard term for pre-1949 China, with the then current situation.

. . . we were also given a look, however restricted, in the human resource problems the leaders occasionally encountered. . . Cultural Revolution or no Cultural Revolution, Chinese consumers retained all characteristics of consumers. They were exigent, and expected quality for their money. . .

. . .Therefore, buying anything slightly more valuable than a daily necessity was an undertaking that required time and attention. When you needed a new pair of trousers, you did not only look for the right size, material, and color, but you also needed to inspect every other detail.

Chinese customers would check all stitches. Had the pockets been sewn on the proper places? Were there no loose hems? Their comments on perceived problems could make you split. I had observed such interaction between customers and sales people numerous times before our week in the store. Although I was not a sales person, even as a neutral observer I could often feel an urge to punch the buyers on the nose, for their unreasonable comments. . .

The Head of the Personnel Department confided that new employees were trained to deal with that phenomenon, but that quarrels still occurred occasionally. Some people originally assigned to sales positions had to be transferred to a back office function, where they did not have to deal with customers anymore. This was a real human interest story, one that was credible and not a standard revolutionary narrative.

The staff also seemed to benefit from our presence.

. . . It was arranged that we would share lunch with the staff of the store in the employee dining hall ‘to mix with the workers’. We welcomed that, of course. It would not have felt right, if we had been fed on specially prepared food in separate rooms. The dining hall was a smaller replica of the one in the Language Institute. The staff worked in shifts; so there was a constant, but moderate, flow of eaters. There were no rush hours like in our school. The main difference was that the choices of the day were not exhibited on a table, but written on a blackboard. The employees of the Dongfeng Market were all assumed literate.

When we lined up with the employees that first lunch, the Big Boss who also was a big boss physically, was standing in line next to me. He started scanning the blackboard to make his selection while gradually approaching the counter. I suddenly heard him say, visibly pleased: ‘Hey, they are serving beef today!’

Apparently, the kitchen staff had been told to pay extra attention to the fact that a group of carnivore Western students would be taking lunch that week. I appreciated the gesture; I ordered a helping of beef as well. I was enjoying the little extra care, with the Big Boss of the Dongfeng Market. . .

We spent the following days in a similar way as during our Open Door Schooling in the commune earlier: half a day working and half a day visiting. As for the working part, I was assigned to the counter selling Halal pastries.

The photograph in the banner of this blog shows me at work behind that counter. China has a considerable Muslim population. The is not restricted to the Western regions of China. There are also ethnic Chinese Muslims. Beijing alone has more than 70 mosques. Halal restaurants and food shops can be found everywhere.

To function properly, I needed to acquire a few new skills.

Lesson 1: how to operate the scales.

If you think that my work there was a piece of Halal cake, you are terribly mistaken. Then, almost all food would be purchased by the weight in China. We are used to buying a pack of biscuits, but Chinese would buy a few ounces or a pound. This meant that you had to put a handful of the biscuits ordered on the scales and keep adding until the required volume was reached.

Lesson 2: how to calculate the price.

The next step was to calculate the price of that total order, which could consist of several items. You needed to multiply the volume of each item purchased with the price per ounce, and add everything up to obtain the total price of the client’s order.

There were no electronic calculators. Instead, you had to work with an abacus that great Chinese invention. However, if you are really forced to use it, and so suddenly as I was, it does not feel so great anymore. . .

Lesson 3: collect the proper volume of grain coupons.

Pastries were made from flour and flour from grain. Ergo, you needed grain coupons to buy pastries. When you communicated the price of the order to the client, the client would not only give you money, but also grain coupons.

This added a whole new dimension to the notion of ‘change’. Suppose that a certain order of 3 ounces of biscuits cost RMB 3.50 and the client gave you a RMB 5 note and a 1 pound grain coupon, you needed to give back RMB 1.50 and 2 ounces worth of grain coupons in change. . .

In 1976, the citizens of Beijing had enough to eat. Still, grain was rationed using a coupon system. Food like dumplings had two prices, a price in RMB (renminbi) the local currency, and one in grain coupons. The unit of the latter was expressed in the weight of flour consumed. You would typically order a few liang (Chinese ounce) of dumplings. That would have a certain price in RMB and with your payment you would add grain coupons equivalent to the weight of dumplings you had ordered. Foreigners were exempted from using cereal coupons.


A one pound grain coupon

Very soon, I was myself confronted with by impatient and finicky customers myself.

. . . Many of my customers quickly became annoyed, when I needed more time for my calculations. Then, I overheard a conversation between two people observing the presence of a fair-haired sales person behind the counter. The question ‘what kind of person is that?’ was replied with: ‘He is probably from Xinjiang’. . .

Lesson 4: packing the merchandise.

. . . My merchandise had to be packed in paper and tied with a rope. Moreover, it had to be done in such a way, that the customer could hang it on a finger. That was convenient for the customer, but definitely not for a maladroit Sinologist linguist to be. Tying knots was for boy scouts, and scouting had never appealed to me.

Pastries needed to be handled with care. The customers were buying biscuits, crackers, or cakes, not a pack of crumbs. You needed to make equal piles on a piece of paper, fold the paper carefully around it and then tie it up with a very thin rope that seemed to be made of paper itself. You needed to take care of not crushing the merchandise. Then, you had to tie the knot in way that resulted in a neat pack of complete pastries, with a noose for easy carrying. . .

By the time I started to feel comfortable with calculating prices and packing pastries, our time in the store was over.

We spent the afternoons visiting various departments.

. . . an interesting item in my diary about our visit to the Accounting Department was that we met a real capitalist; one of the 65 mentioned during the introduction. He had been a shop owner in the old bazaar and when his shop was gradually incorporated in the socialist economy, he had been compensated with a job in which his old management knowledge could be put to use. We learned that he still earned a special salary. . .

We also paid a quick visit to the living quarters of the employees. As most work units in China, the Dongfeng Market was also responsible for housing its people. We visited Dongfeng’s own training facility on the last afternoon.

Comparing the two bouts of Open Door Schooling, I think I learned more this time than I did during my week in the commune.

A couple of weeks after we had said goodbye, I entered the Dongfeng Market again and when I passed my old counter, I was recognized by my former colleagues and asked to behind the counter for a chat. That was an unusual expression of affection to a foreigner in the China of that time.

Right at that moment, when I started to make local friends, the political turmoil that had been fermenting underneath the political surface exploded.


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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.