20 Summer Days In China by Betty Blunden (1974)

Crossing into China — 17 August 1974

Shepherded by Miss Chi with a crisp ‘This way, please’ or ‘Let’s go’, we got through Customs, changed some travellers cheques into Chinese money, and found ourselves in a dining room. From my diary, for lunch we had ‘Soup with eggs, cabbage, shallots and mushrooms. Prawns with onions, cabbage and mushrooms. Chicken with beans, mushrooms and peanuts. Omelette. And Sweet and Sour pork.’ The last item I have given three stars. Originally I intended to copy all our menus into my diary so I could share these delights with my gourmet friends when I arrived

Home again. But it became too time consuming and I reduced the eating entry to anything special or unusual. Because all our meals were quite superb. I learnt that sweet and sour dishes were a southern speciality. We did not meet them in the north.

After lunch, as we walked further down the platform to our train I saw my first women construction workers. They were wearing huge straw hats that had a four inch black frill around the rim. They looked charming and with mime I asked if I could photograph them. They thought it highly amusing but cooperated.

The train we took to Canton was the most comfortable I have ever travelled in. A section was booked for us so there was no scuffle for seats. I sat next to Arthur Deery, one of our doctors, and launched what was to be a most rewarding friendship. The train was air conditioned and remarkably silent. One could talk in an ordinary voice. There was a narrow shelf below each wide window and on the shelf were cups, or rather mugs with lids on them. No saucers. I'd never seen them before but they came to be the symbol of Chinese hospitality. There was a little green tea in the bottom of the cup and after we got started a young girl came with a thermos of hot water and filled our cups. They were topped up many times before we reached Canton.

The view from the train window was very different from the view from the train on the British Territories. Low lying land along the railway line was cultivated. Small paddy fields planted with rice. Sometimes terraced. The hills behind were planted with eucalypts. You can imagine our astonishment. The soil looked pretty barren as if there had been serious soil erosion but the eucalypts were flourishing, about twenty feet tall. The eucalypts were followed by plantations of pines, miles of them, then more eucalypts. Then occasional ‘orchards’ of bamboo. But the pines and eucalypts alternated for many miles. Not many people were visible. Just a lone worker in a rice field. Beside the railway line there were big pools and small lakes with water buffalo, lotus lilies, small boys swimming, ducks and geese. The occasional villages were built very densely. The railway stations spectacularly clean and tidy. They were very different from the stations in the British Territories and were an introduction to the incredible cleanness and tidiness we were to see all over China. As we neared Kwang Chow the land was richer, and instead of the eucalypt plantations there were lush crops extending into the distance, with a village just visible tucked between the hills. A beautiful landscape, but tantalisingly hard to photograph from a fast moving train.

The railway at Kwangchow (Canton as the city used to be called The Province is Kwantung) is huge and spacious, rather like a big modern Town Hall. Here we were met by Mr. Li with a wide smile and the very young Miss Wong with the rosy cheeks. Almost immediately she confessed, in perfect English this was her first mission and would we please be patient with her and help her with the language. Vie found out later that it was also Miss Chi’s first mission and that they had not met Australians before.

Their introduction to Strine amused them immensely.

Our bus was waiting and took us to our hotel, the Tung Farn East Wind. Old and very grand, surrounded by gardens and huge thickets of bamboo. Bamboo is everywhere in Kwangchow. A new wing has been added to the hotel but we were in the old section our luggage was waiting for us. We had time to bath and change (the weather was extremely hot and sticky) before our first outing. This was a visit to the Peasants’ Institute. It was rather late in the afternoon and I did not take my camera. I regretted that decision bitterly.

Next to and part of the Peasants Institute is a small but well kept Buddhist Temple. Here, in 1926, when the temple was deserted, Mao Tse Tung set up a school where peasants from all over China could come and study Marxism, the class struggle and revolution. 300 students attended during the six months that the school functioned. It was then sacked by reactionary troops. After the liberation in 1949 the building was restored and furnished again exactly as it had been when Mao taught there. There were two young girl curators who met us and showed us around, explaining how the various rooms had been used. We saw Mao’s bedroom, austere in the extreme. A wooden ‘bed’ with a grass mat on it. We saw his study, the desk where he worked, his brush and ink block. In a tray there were duplicates of the papers he would have corrected. We walked through to a long grassy courtyard surrounded by a covered way. On both sides of the courtyard were long trestle tables and at four foot intervals along the tables were enamel bowls, each with an enamel mug with a tooth brush in it. A long ‘clothes line’ was strung above the trestles and small white towels hung above each bowl. Along the left side of the courtyard was a dormitory where the students slept. The beds were two-tiered wooden bunks with a grass mat on each. Under each set of bunks were two sets of woven grass slippers. The room across the far end of the courtyard was a lecture room and dining room. Or were there two rooms? I cannot remember. Standing just inside the wide entrance were two huge cauldrons where the food was cooked. There were long wooden tables and benches where the students ate and sat during lectures. There was a raised dais with a simple table, a blackboard behind it and photographs of Marx, Engels and Lenin on the wall above. There were framed photographs of many of the students. We could recognize Mao Tse Tung and Chou En Lai. I think that of the 300 students who attended this school, Mao and Chou are the only ones still living. There was also a map of China with arrows going to all the Provinces where the students had gone after the school was destroyed. “The spark that was to start a prairie fire” had been lit.

The hour that we spent in this austere and simple place was one of the most moving in my whole China tour.

Back in the hotel a few of us got talking to the three boys who were in charge of our floor. They were not usually employed at the hotel but were language students there to get experience

Their answer was simple. They would go where they were needed. In other words, they would be serving the people. This simple incident was the key to understanding the motives of all the people we met in all sorts of situations during our tour. EVERYONE was serving the people.

The entry in my diary for dinner that first night is ‘Prawns, marrow and mushrooms. Beef sweet and sour. Fish. FRESH Bananas.’ Already, two days away from home and I was missing my usual amount of fresh fruit. But it was easy to buy in the shops and we all got into the habit of buying up when we went walking in the cities. After dinner, a performance of the Kwanchow Acrobatic Troupe at the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall. It is a huge two tiered theatre — all red and gold. VIP seats were reserved for us near the front. In fact the three front rows were all held for foreigners. The theatre was crammed full of people, all ages, mostly in family groups it seemed. And they were all very simply dressed in clothes that they would wear during the day. It was also incredibly hot. Each act was introduced by the compere — a very pretty young girl, in a white skirt (the first Chinese girl we saw in a skirt and the only skirts we saw were in the theatres) and navy blue jacket. She was heavily made up which is traditional. At all the performances we attended all the actors and performers were heavily made up, even the five year olds in kindergartens. Our compere’s voice was a chirrup, very stylized but very clear. One or several Chinese words which were always greeted with whispers of excitement by the audience. Then she would disappear behind the curtains.

The acts were quite dazzling. Jugglers, acrobats/ wherever there was any risk of a performer falling he or she was safeguarded by a wire hanging from the ceiling and attached to a belt. Quite a few of the acts 1 had seen on TV at home when an acrobatic company was playing there. But the act I enjoyed most was new to me. Two large and two small lions. Two people concealed under the lion shape made up each lion. And they had the most enormous laughing mask heads. They were full of personality and very comic. All red and gold and very endearing. The lion motif appeared often during our trip, in marble or gold leafed, as they were in the Forbidden City and they were always very jolly in spite of fierce expressions. We saw them as an extension of the lions on the Kwangchow stage. We were boiling hot in the theatre, just sitting. How the performers survived in their costumes and masks, doing incredibly energetic acts, we didn’t know. We went outside at interval for fresh but still warm air. As we cam back into the theatre we were given glasses of very hot water. Surprisingly thirst quenching. We returned to the hotel at ten and the streets were still full of people, on bikes or just strolling. In our room, cups for tea, a tea caddy and a thermos of hot water.