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.