13 The Rebel Capital

We were happy to arrive in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province. We were obviously excited to get to know another Chinese city, after several months in Beijing. But we were also glad to set foot on solid ground again, after the long ride on the train. One thing was the same as in Beijing: there were buses waiting for us at Nanjing station to drive us to our hotel.

. . .We were housed in a luxury hotel in Nanjing; two students per room, as was the practice in the dormitories of the Language Institute. The likes of Sheraton or Hilton had not yet appeared in China that time, but all big cities, like the ones we would visit during that winter holiday, had hotels built by foreigners before the proclamation of the People’s Republic.

Cities that had not been blessed with such a heritage hotel always had guest houses for high placed visitors. For the same reason big shots travelled in soft sleeper carriages, they would not settle for proletarian lodgings during their trips to inspect the status of the local revolutionary activities. For those people, each county, town, or city, had a government built hotel, called zhaodaisuo. This literally means ‘entertainment place’, and refers to the fact that the local government is expected to entertain officials from higher administrative levels during their visits. . .

We enjoyed living in hotels for a few weeks. We had bathrooms that we only shared with our room mates and not with a hundred or more fellow students. We also did not have to go down to the ground floor where the showers were located in our dorm. Hot water was brought to the room a few times a day. In fact, you only had to put your empty thermos outside the door and the hallway attendant would fill it up for you. For us, that was the apex of luxury.

Modeled after Soviet hotels, Chinese hotels usually had a shop that sold the most basic daily necessities, like beer, an indispensable ingredient for our after-dinner activities. That first evening in Nanjing, we were briefed about the program of the coming days.

. . . The Ministry of Education had designated local university professors and students to guide us around and practice their English simultaneously. . .

. . . More interesting than the introduction itself are my notes regarding the accent of the people doing the introduction. You may still remember that I was a linguist, and one that was eager in noting down any aspect of the language of the people around me that could be useful for later studies. By that time I had been living in Beijing for more than five months and already filled a notebook with linguistic notes, mainly slang and newly coined words, supplemented with notes about deviant pronunciations. I was absolutely ready to experience all those dialectal variations that I had so far only known from the books.

These notes are not extremely spectacular. The local people were still speaking Mandarin, though with a local accent. It is easier to master using the correct words and word order, but much less so to mobilize your vocal chords, teeth, lips, and other body parts for producing exactly the same sounds as your compatriots in Beijing. . .

In spite of the beer and local spirits for sale in the hotel, we turned in early. We had just been told that we would leave the hotel at 8:00 am the following day. Breakfast would be served an hour earlier. I guess that we were also looking forward to checking out the hotel beds, after a night in the train, and several months on our dorm beds.

To prepare for the trip, we had to tell the organizing teachers whether we preferred Chinese or Western food. I had opted for Western food. In Beijing, we had access to the best Chinese food offered by the top restaurant. It was not likely that our hotels would beat that. Moreover, we would have several meals outside the hotels, which would always be Chinese anyway. Finally, opting for Chinese food also meant that you had to take a Chinese breakfast, a huge bowl of rice porridge in the center of the table and several salty dishes to spice it up with. I preferred the eggs and toast.

. . . The Chinese food in the hotel restaurants was usually not the best in town, and often not more than a few unrecognizable morsels in heavy gravy. . .

. . . Many European students who had opted for Chinese meals envied us from the first breakfast of the trip. Chris who had grown used to the good old English breakfast during his studies in London, threw more than one envious look at my fried eggs, while slurping his rice gruel. They started to feel a pang of hunger around ten in the morning, while our breakfast was still burning to keep us warm and energetic.

Western food also enriched my social life. . .

. . . Our minority group of Western food eaters during that trip included all the Ethiopians and most of the Ugandans. When describing our activities around Christmas, I mentioned some other nationalities besides the Westerners. Participating in this trip was another occasion to interact more with those fellow students who in the Institute were taught in separate groups, with programs of their own.

The Africans were ambivalent regarding their sojourn in China. Most of them had applied to study abroad, and only learned that they would be sent to China the very last moment. Unlike us Sinologists, they were not really interested in the country, its history, people, language or cuisine. They were there to study medicine, metallurgy, or civil engineering. Learning Chinese and getting acquainted with life in China was a must for them, but even more so a burden.

However, they had a sense of humor of their own to cope with those mixed feelings. It was very refreshing to spend more time with them for a while. . .

The Bridge was the first item on our list. When visiting Nanjing, particularly in 1976, there was no way to get around a visit to the Nanjing Yangtze Bridge. The Chinese had every right to be proud of that bridge for multiple modes of transportation. You could drive over it, cross it by train, and even walk to the other side.


It had been completed in 1968 during the most turbulent period of the Cultural Revolution. Although maybe a little opportunistic, it was therefore, presented as a proof of how the Cultural Revolution had boosted the technological abilities of the Chinese people.

The object of our afternoon visit was even more prosaic: a chemical fiber factory. From a Chinese perspective, a company like that was also regarded as an object of national pride.  It has meanwhile developed into an international player in its business, witness the many introductions on financial sites.

The reason for selecting that factory for a visit was the high tech nature of its business. It was not that long ago that Chinese would exclusively dress in garments made from natural fibers. The advent of chemical fibers was a major revolution in the textile industry. People who believe that China’s rapid development as the world’s leading manufacturer of cheap garments happened after the so-called economic reforms are mistaken. The basis for that development had already been laid during the mid-1970s. China had the resources and by then had also started buying and developing processing technology.

That evening, we again did not have much time to organize an after-dinner party. We were shown a film.

. . . My diary provides only the title, ‘Spring in the Desert’. The desert involved was the Gobi Desert. The main characters were brave Mongolians trying to cultivate the barren desert. That was no way an easy task, and they dispatched a man to Beijing to bring back the proper technology. The man had the fortune of being received by Mao Zedong himself and Mao had given him an apple. Back home, the man showed the apple to the villagers with the words: ‘this apple has been touched by Chairman Mao!’


That by itself was true, but we never learned what other knowledge he had acquired in Beijing. The apple was placed under a glass bell jar and the villagers started planting apple trees. Giving them an apple was interpreted as a suggestion to try their luck with growing apple trees.

I do not recall if the film ended with a scene of endless fields of fruit-bearing trees, but what I do remember is that even after more than a year, the apple that had been touched by Chairman Mao still looked remarkably fresh under the jar. Maybe it was a vacuum one. There was class struggle as well in that film, but there was class struggle in all films of that time. Only the scene with the apple has grown roots in my memory. . .

The second day of visiting had a more historic character. History is present everywhere in Nanjing. It is one of the few cities in China that has preserved the old city wall. While in Beijing you can only see a few of old gates, you can actually walk over de old wall of Nanjing for quite a distance.

Another vestige of the imperial era in Nanjing is the place where the national exams were held.

. . . In theory, all people could qualify for a post as regional magistrate, as long as you passed the three stages in the system of imperial exams. Young men would study for these exams by learning several classics by heart under the guidance of a teacher. Rich families could send a son directly to a good teacher, but sometimes a promising less affluent youngster was sponsored by a benefactor. This was one way for a clan to ensure itself of political influence through clan members (or dependents) in the official bureaucracy.

Once you had entered the ranks of the magistrates, you would be posted in a certain region for several years, after which you would be transferred to another region, in a similar fashion as our modern diplomats. In this way, the magistrates were expected not to stay long enough in one place to develop a strong social network. For the same reason, you would never be posted in your home region, where your social network would put too much pressure on you to resist.

The examination grounds in different parts of the empire consisted of numerous rows of small cubicles, often called cells. During examinations, a candidate would enter a cell and find the exam questions placed on a table, with a brush and ink. The candidate would then answer the questions by quoting excerpts from the classics. The way we were taught Chinese at the Beijing Language Institute in the mid 1970 resembled the education system of imperial China more than our teachers may want to admit. When we were requested to summarize the story of the lesson ‘in our own words’, most of our teachers would correct us again and again with the word: ‘and . . . ‘, until we had cited the text completely. . .

Then there was Sun Yat Sen.

. . . China’s first president, Sun Yat Sen is buried in Nanjing, not in a simple grave, but in a huge mausoleum. The only other mausoleum in China is that of Mao Zedong in Beijing, but Mao was still alive (though no longer kicking) early 1976.

Although Mao’s is located in a prime location in the center of Beijing, amid the most important cities of the nation, Sun’s mausoleum is much larger. Visiting it is taxing, as you have to climb a large number of stairs. Fortunately it was winter, which made all that climbing more bearable. Nanjing is counted among one of the ‘ovens’ of China and summers can be frighteningly hot. . .

We visited a park with a monument for revolutionary martyrs and a museum of the Taiping Rebellion. That rebellion had started in 1850 by Hong Xiuquan who believed he was the younger brother of Jesus and had selected Nanjing as his capital. The rebellion lasted for more than a decade, but was in the end defeated with the aid of foreign troops. The foreign nations preferred a stable heathen emperor over a Christian lunatic.

. . . The Communist Party had a complex relationship with the Taipings. On one hand, they were rebels, so they were entitled to a positive assessment in the Marxist interpretation of history. The Communist historiography of imperial China sees each dynastic cycle as starting with a rebellion at the end of the previous dynasty, which leads to the establishment of a new one, with a benevolent emperor. The dynasty then gradually declines, with the successive emperors more and more alienated from the people, which leads to another rebellion.

However, the Taiping Rebellion was more complex than the regular peasant rebellions of Chinese history, as it had been inspired by religion, and a foreign one for that matter. Still, the fact that the Taiping Museum was not only open, but also placed on our itinerary indicates that the verdict was mainly positive, and that the local educational authorities wanted us foreign students to learn about that part of their history. . .

That last afternoon we paid the inevitable visit to the local Friendship Store. We had one in Beijing, but we were curious to see what its Beijing sister store had to offer that was not for sale in the Beijing mother store. Unfortunately, my diary does not tell us if I had bought anything.

I guess I hadn’t.


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