20 Summer Days In China by Betty Blunden (1974)

25 August

From my diary, “Beautiful room. With Charlotte again. Last night found hot water already in bath. Luxury here just short of Anshan Hotel. Awoke to fantastic ‘typical Chinese scene’ view from bedroom window. Plane trees and acacias in foreground, maize fields, poplar plantings, more crops, willows, many willows, then crops disappearing into mist”.

Our outing for the morning was to the Chungkung Street Factory Immediately we arrived we realised that this factory was different. It was a small establishment, a series of modest one storey buildings set around an open area with a kiln in the centre. We were met by Comrade Bo, a beautiful and gentle woman of about 35, in blue overalls, and her hair tucked into a dark blue cap. We were shown into the factory meeting room which was really a workshop and we were asked to sit on benches which were planks of wood resting on terra cotta moulds. There we received cups of tea while Comrade Bo told the story of the factory.

In 1966 neighbourhood women, married women, had decided that they wishes to do something for their country. They

had been studying Chairman Mao’s thought and felt that they too should contribute something. They had no skills and their husbands had laughed at their ideas. They were told that they should ‘run a noodle factory’. That if they met with any difficulties they would cry and blow their noses. They were very indignant but they were not put off. They went to a large factory in the district and here it was suggested that they buy the waste material and make useful products from it. The waste material was oxidised cinders and they bought it at 15 yuan a ton. (I believe that Repco in Australia gets this waste material for nothing and has built a most profitable business out of it).

The women would cart the cinders to their ‘factory’ themselves. They had many difficulties in setting up the plant. At first they worked in the open air, seeking shelter only in heavy rain. If their hands got cold in the winter they would blow on them. If their feet got cold, they would stamp them. Their initial equipment was 5 spades and two cauldrons borrowed from a neighbourhood factory. To build their kiln they gathered fire bricks and red bricks from other factories. To build the high chimney for the kiln they collected oil drums from factories and rolled them to their site. They learnt welding and welded the drums together. And then they raised the chimney into position with the help of three ropes. As the project grew workshops were needed.

The first workshop was built with adobe and broken bricks gathered from other factories. When the largest workshop was built, it was the building in which we were sitting, they mobilized their husbands on their days off and they helped. The original equipment for the factory was made of wood to save steel. A powder screening machine was made of 150 pieces of wood, and a magnetic dressing machine was made with 180 pieces of wood. Later some machines were made with waste steel. The women learnt their skills at the large factories and then their husbands helped to teach them too. The factory as we saw it was 46 times that of ‘66. Mrs. Bo said that they had proved that Confucius was incorrect. Women were not inferior to men, they were equal in the field of politics and industry. The factory had over fulfilled its quota one month ahead of schedule and greater efforts were to come.

The effect of Mrs. Bo’s story of their factory was quite overwhelming, and as we walked out into the sun Marje and I looked at each other. We both had tears in our eyes.

We were then taken on a conducted tour of the factory. I have made brief notes in my diary on the different processes. The raw material, the Oxidized cinders were first washed, then screened through a magnetic wire. The ingredient that was saved looked like a very fine dark grey powder. This powder was then carefully weighed into small quantities and poured into the terra cotta moulds. A circle of paper was placed over the powder and a carefully weighed quantity of carbon was added. Another circle of paper, then more grey powder and so on until the mould was filled. Women were handling the material right from the beginning. They were smiling and obviously proud of their occupation. They worked steadily and rhythmically, and again there was no atmosphere of pressure. They were all wearing cotton gloves and I can only assume that their hands were like Mrs. Bo’s. Hers had fascinated me while she had talked to us. Dimples on the back of the joints, smooth skin, long tapered fingers and perfectly manicured nails. The moulds were then fired in the kiln and pig iron was produced. This was then crushed, baked in the kiln, pressed into shapes and tempered in an electrical kiln. Then precision finished. The factory made its own moulds. A hundred different types of axle sleeves were produced. Some were used in balancing equipment, some in diesel engines, tractors, trucks and lathes. Production had increased 46 times since 1966 and the price had been cut 40%. There were 179 workers in the factory, including 26 men who did the heavier work. Most of the women were married. Mrs. to assured us that their husbands shared all the work in their homes. There were some unmarried women among the workers and on the day of our visit about ten girl students had joined the staff to help during their summer holidays.

The last building we inspected was the original adobe house that was their first shelter at the factory. It was about 10’ by 12’ and was no longer used as a workshop. It was a small museum where the original wooden machines that the women had built were displayed. I remember a delicately constructed pair of scales, built as precisely as a model aeroplane.

We were then taken on to the Manchu Palaces where the ruling Manchu princes lived before they moved to Peking. It had taken 11 years to build, 400 years ago. The palaces are not large by Chinese standards. They contained 30 rooms, all the rooms facing on to a series of courtyards. Small pine trees decorated the courtyards. The palace rooms now store the treasures of the past. The first room displayed eight banners, symbolical of the eight main officers. The next room displayed bows and arrows, followed by a display of swords and knives. Some of the swords were for ceremonial use only. There were ceremonial standards like many tiered umbrellas. We saw two throne rooms, some exquisite clocks, British made and with diamonds set around the faces. One clock included a thermometer and the other a barometer. There was a room of books containing superb traditional pictures, rooms of lacquer objects, of enamel work, of celadon, and of carved wooden pieces of a dark red finish. There was embroidery, and a collection of inlaid boxes. It was Sunday so there were huge crowds of local Chinese people looking at the collections. At first they drew back from us but as we left each room they would clap us as a friendly greeting. The palaces are kept in perfect order and are painted every year. The areas under the eaves were richly decorated and all in a state of perfection.

Back to the hotel for lunch and my diary records “watermelon’.” The afternoon outing was to a huge machine shop. I needed time to digest what I had seen during the morning so rested in the hotel. The people who went to see over the machine shop reported “machines big enough to swallow a bus"! Our engineer tour members were particularly impressed.

That night dinner included “fruit salad!!!”. Our interpreters were doing their best to appease our hunger for fruit. Later we saw a film in the hotel, PLA adventures during the revolution.