20 Summer Days In China by Betty Blunden (1974)

26 August

A fine cool morning but getting warmer. We asked for a typical Chinese breakfast, just for a change, and it included rice gruel. Not an exciting Chinese dish but pleasant. A full day outing to Fushan, 40 KM away was on the programme. The journey in our bus took 1.5 hours. Parts of the road were under construction and these stretches were the only roads we travelled in China that were not lined with trees. As we drove into Fushan the roads were lined with school children with flags. We thought ‘This is a fine welcome’ but it was not for us. They were lined up to welcome students who were coming to work in the mines and help in the building of the road we had just driven over. It was their summer holidays. We were welcomed at the mine and taken into the ‘board room’, built right on the edge of an enormous open cut. As usually happened the workers had made a huge poster of Chinese characters welcoming their visitors from Australia. Over cups of tea and glasses of soft drink we were given some facts about Fushun, the mines and the province. The population was 1,870,000 people including an urban population of 900,000. There were 350,000 workers in the province, 70,000 of whom worked in the mines. Of that number 2,000 were women. The province produced coal, power and there was some light industry. Rice, corn, sorghum and soya beans were grown. The Communists liberated the area in October 1948. Since then coal production had increased 4.5 times, crude oil shale 7 times and power 46.5 times. Education had greatly increased. There were 1039 Primary schools and a University. The 1600 open cut workers included 1020 women.

The open cut we were visiting was one of seven in the area. It was 6.7 KM long 2 km wide and 250 metres deep. The cool seam averaged a thickness of 80 metres, and the oil shale seam, 90 metres.

Washing Hands at the Open Cut Coal Mine, Fushan - August 26

The mines had been plundered by the Japanese for 34 years during their colonisation of Manchkuo. This period was followed by 2.5 years under the Kuomintang. There was no thought for the future and the mine was badly damaged by undercutting. The Japanese had “killed the hen to get at the eggs”. It was : thought at first that the mine had been damaged to such an extent that it may have to be shut down. But by 1949 it had been reconstructed and was expanded. Chairman Mao inspected the mine in 1958 and talked with the workers. This was followed by a new tide of production as the workers made innovations.

In ‘49 wages were 21 yuan a month, now 78 yuan. The building area at the mine was 35 square metres, now 320 square metres. In 49 there was a clinic with one doctor and two nurses. Now there were 2 out patient departments, 13 health stations and 170 health workers. The mine ran 9 primary schools, 2 middle schools. There were 500 teachers and 1500 students. The mine had its own kindergartens, nurseries, dining rooms bathrooms, and large scale clubs for the workers.

Overalls were now provided for the workers and in winter, fur coats and padded jackets. Here, men retired at the age of 60 and women at 55. They then received a pension equal to 70% of their wage.

Displayed in the ‘Board Room’ were most skilful examples of the work done in the sculpture classes held for the workers during their spare time. I remember particularly an eagle sculptured out of petrified coal. On the walls were the paintings I had come to expect in these rooms. This time it was a painting of the open cut, with a row of little trucks coming along the side of the cut. But it was misty and beautiful, the subject matter treated in the traditional style. And these mists were not just a stylised gimmick. They were floating around in many of the landscapes we had passed through. But as we left the Board Room to travel down to the bottom of the big open cut, in a funicular railway, the day was hot and clear. We inspected the open cut and on returning to the surface level found a row of 12 chairs standing in front of the administration building, each with an enamel bowl of water, a cake of soap and a towel folded neatly over the back. I doubt whether anyone felt they had picked up any coal dust, but we all washed our hands.

We were driven to the Fushun Hotel for lunch, where a bedroom with its own bathroom was made available to every member of the group. And with the hospitable thermos of hot water, tea caddy and tea cup on a table.

Our afternoon destination was the Fushun, Municipal Workers Sanatorium, the home for retired workers. And we went there via the Fushun Reservoir. Our bus drove us out to the reservoir and partly along the wall. A natural promontory jutted from the wall into the reservoir. It was planted with pines and as we walked down a path to the water we passed a PLA hut, painted a brilliant yellow, with a ping pong table set out in the shade of the trees. Two young men were playing and the whole effect was beautifully un-military. Our craft for our trip across the reservoir was a dashing cruiser, with a

cabin and a canopy over the deck. Drinks were set out on a table under the canopy.

The reservoir on the Hun River had been designed by the Chinese and been built between ‘54 and ‘58. It supplied water to the city of Fushun. It was in a beautiful setting, not unlike Eildon except that all the surrounding hills and mountains were planted with pines. All the planting had been done since 1949. We passed an old traditional junk and several boats with fishermen using nets. The trip took 3/4 of an hour but we covered only a small part of the reservoir. A bus was waiting for us. No jetty, but a plank was thrown down and we were helped ashore. Our bus was waiting and it was a short run to the old men’s home.

We were welcomed by the Director of the home and taken into a meeting room. Here, with the usual cups of tea ( we never tired of the tea as it was hot and we were always thirsty) we were told that the home was built in 1949. This was only a year after the province was liberated so was an indication of the Government’s concern for the old people. It was built for old men who had no families to look after them. There were 90 old men living there at that time, mostly miners, a few workers from Fushun. They had been forced labourers under the Japanese. The usual pension was 70% of the wage the worker had been receiving. If he had not been working very long, it was 60%. The average pension was 35 yuan, the maximum, 63 yuan a month. The cost of rent, electricity and recreation was paid by the state. The food the old men ate cost 18 yuan a month. They paid 13 yuan, the state the remaining 5 yuan. The average of the men living in the home was 78 years and the eldest was 90 years old. They suffered some diseases, mainly arthritis, high blood pressure and heart diseases. The clinic in the home was staffed by 3 full time doctors. If necessary the patient went to the city hospital. There were 30 full time staff members many of whom we met, mainly young men and women. The home was built in a suburb of Fushun, much nearer to it than our roundabout trip might have led us to believe. It was built on a slope facing the south and the sun, and the pine plantations were all around. The men organized themselves to study and were interested in events at home and abroad. They had not retired ideologically and were active in the campaign against Lin Pao and Confucius. Young people came to visit them from Fushun. They would perform for their entertainment and would listen to stories of the bitter past endured by the old men. As everyone in China born during the last 25 years had been born into a Socialist State great importance was placed on the telling of the past by the old to the young. We were then shown over the home. The room we had been sitting in was a stage and folding doors were pushed back to show us the auditorium. Here was where the young people gave their performances.

The buildings were simply designed, built from east to west’ and all the connecting rooms having windows both to the north and south. In this main block was first the auditorium which was also recreation room. This led to a reading room which was being used as we passed through. Men were sitting at reading benches and most of the material was pictorial. Only one old man could read but he would help the others when called upon. The next room was for chess. Low tables with the squares marked on them, and four chairs around each table. The chess characters were like large wooden buttons with a written character on it to denote its value. These characters were in three sizes. The smallest about 2 or three inches across, the largest about six inches across. The big pieces were for the men with failing sight so they could still enjoy the flame. The next room was the dining room, tables with stools around them. Then the kitchen. We were introduced to the chef, a middle aged man who was preparing the evening meal. Two huge cauldrons, steaming away and a great stack of trays where the steamed bread was being cooked. We had met this bread in the Northern provinces and it was interesting to see it being cooked. The racks had upright circular wooden frames about 5 or six inches deep and the bottom was of wire. The lumps of dough, the size of our round bread rolls were placed over boiling water, so the steam penetrated right through. We asked if the men had any say as to what they should eat. The answer was ‘To some extent, yes.’ They elected their own committee specially for the purpose of choosing the menu for two meals a week. The other meals were arranged by the management. The bedroom blocks were much the same design as the main block, except that a connecting passage ran along the north side and the bedrooms had windows only to the south. Two men shared each bedroom. They slept on a wooden platform, under the window. The rooms we saw were neat and tidy, a grass mat on the kang and a great pile of bedding folded to one side. There were also chests where they could store their personal belongings. Many of the men suffered from arthritic problems because of their life time of working in the mines, where in the north, snow covers the ground for five months. So special attention was given to the comfort of the sleeping arrangements. In winter a staff member would stoke coals under the kang, from outside. And each dividing wall was hollow, with a fire place in the passage way where a fire could be lit and the space between the bricks of the wall could be warmed. The men excitedly explained this wonderful idea through our interpreters. The clinic was in one of the bedroom blocks, too.

The old men showed us their flower garden which was bright with zinnias, cosmos, and dahlias. They told us of their vegetable garden. They liked to grow their own vegetables. Not only were they cheaper than those from the market, but much fresher.

And there was a little home-made wooden cage hanging among the leaves of a tree. It contained three cicadas and some flowers had been pushed between the bars for them to eat. The men had caught them and caged them so they could listen to their singing. 1 remember this caging of cicadas as an age old Chinese custom.

We were then taken back to the meeting room and Mr. Li Yan Chi was introduced to us. He was a small thin brown skinned man balding, with the traditional long white beard and whiskers. He was tremendously vital and sat with us and told us his story. Because each sentence had to be translated by an interpreter I was able to take it down accurately.

“On behalf of every one here I welcome our friends from Australia. I was from Shantung Province, south east of Peking. I came here as enforced labour by the Japanese Imperialists. I worked in the open cut mine. When Japan occupied this area we could not get enough to eat or wear and were treated like beasts of burden. When we worked in the coal mine we had only a dilapidated shed for a bedroom. In summer we would put up with it. But with no covers we suffered greatly in winter when cold winds blew through the hut. We used a burner to keep warm. When it was too cold to sleep I would go to the pit to get coal to burn in the bedroom. Once I was found by the lackeys of Imperialism. They tied me with ropes and beat me severely. It was the eve of New Years Day. I was tied to an electric pole for 10 minutes and water poured over me. In a few minutes my body was frozen. When I was frozen, the lackeys set free their dog and asked him to bite me. Look, there are still three scars on my left leg where the dog bit me. I pulled a cart in the coal mine. Once I upset a car because I was weak from lack of food. I was seen by an overseer who knocked me down with a stick. 1 fainted. A mate rescued me and helped me to the bedroom. My chest was wounded but I was young and took no notice. But in a few days I was so ill I asked the overseer to let me off work. But he said he would beat me again if I did not go. My lungs got worse and worse and I could not work. When they saw I could work no longer I was sacked and turned into the streets. Since I was sacked I could find no place to sleep. The only place was the ditches beside the river.

“In the nineteen thirties the Chinese people and workers were cruelly oppressed by the Japanese Imperialists. But we know that the Japanese people were oppressed by their own government too. When I was employed as a miner there were thirteen workers in my group. In an explosion 12 died. Only I survived. It was very dark in the coal pit and miners carried a kerosene lamp. Before the accident my lamp happened to be out. I went outside to light it and at that moment there was the explosion and I alone survived. As soon as the explosion took place the Japanese Imperialists brought some lackeys to the spot. They broke the door of the pit and blocked it. They sealed it with cement. When the door was opened later they found all the workers near the door. The twelve workers died of suffocation. The workers were angry and asked “Why”. The lackeys said “It doesn’t matter, when I Chinese dies we have ten. When ten Chinese die we have a hundred.”

“As to the food in that period, we had only sorghum and corn. Even of this we could not get enough to eat.. The Chinese workers were not allowed to eat rice. Once on the eve of a Chinese festival when I got my wage I went to a shop to get a few kilos of rice. As I was preparing it in my room one of the lackeys looked in my window, broke in my door and asked what I was doing. I said “Preparing some rice. “Where did you get it?” “In a shop.” He was a Chinese lackey. I was taken to the barracks of Japanese soldiers and I worked there as a coolie for five months. When we workers were on the verge of starvation and death Chairman Mao saved us.

We owe all our happiness to the Communist Party of China and Chairman Mao.,

“We are so happy because we are masters of our own country. We used not to have the right to speak. In our old society it was considered a violation of law for workers to eat rice. Now we eat rice and flour and we owe all this to Chairman Mao.

After Liberation when we workers are too old to work we can retire. The Communist Party of China and Chairman Mao show great concern for us. Those who worked in the pit suffered with arthritis. In this sanatorium we are supplied with a hot bed in winter. The staff shovel hot coals under our beds and we feel very comfortable in our warn beds. When we are sick we have the clinic and three doctors. For other people who cannot get down from their beds the staff will feed them spoon by spoon. They taste the food to see if it is too hot or too cold. They even help their patients to relieve themselves.

“Today I am very glad to meet our friends from Australia and please convey greetings from an old worker in China to old workers in Australia and wish them good health.”

Mr. Li was 76 years old and had lived at the home for sixteen years.

There were still more questions we wished to ask.

“Yes, the old folks did participate in the management of the home. All old workers who have no family to look after them come to the home”.

“What if a family did not want to look after its old parent?”

“It was very rare for people not to want to support their old parents. They would be condemned and re-educated by their neighbours. And then they would support their old people. Generally old people look after their grandchildren and their children are very grateful to have them. In the old society many people did not have enough to eat or clothes to wear and they could not afford to care for their old people. Now they earn enough to keep their old parents. Standards vary according to districts. This Anshun home was of an average standard.”

“Where are the old ladies who have no families to look after them?” “There is another old peoples home in Fushun who takes them. Some old people are not accustomed to live in a group and prefer to live in their own homes. In a case like this, the Street Committee would look after them.”

This old peoples home was a happy place and many of the old men came to shake our hands as we were leaving. It was late in the afternoon when we left and by the time we had driven the four kilometers back to Fushun it was dark.

Our drive back to Shenyang was memorable. Jim stood up and said “Let’s sing”. He started off and Rose quickly joined in. She had a beautiful voice and in no time we were all singing. The rest of the party was not up to standard but we were all in high spirits and we sang. All the old time songs from Gundagai to Lily of Laguna. Our interpreters were astonished and highly amused. We'd had a wonderful day.