20 Summer Days In China by Betty Blunden (1974)

29 August

The group had requested that we stay in a hotel nearer to the centre of the city than the Friendship Hotel. We had been booked in at the Nationalities Hotel on the main avenue that goes through Peking, the Avenue., of Peace. This must be one of the most beautiful avenues in the world, 46 kilometres long, 36 metres wide. The very broad footpaths each side of the avenue were both planted with six rows of trees. They were all deciduous trees and in our hot summer weather they completely shaded the foot path. ‘Serving the People.”

Living in the Nationalities Hotel was an experience in itself. There was a European dining room in which we had our breakfast and the Chinese dining room where we had lunch and dinner. Our breakfast tables seated twelve people and each was marked by a little national placard. Australia, Lebanon, United States, Germany, Sweden, North Korea, Britain and so on. This great hotel, we were on the seventh floor, was seething with foreigners. There were delegations of scientists, other friendship groups like our own and journalists. The task of the School of Languages, training so many interpreters in so many different languages seemed overwhelming. We were joined by some more interpreters for our Peking stay, Mrs Jar, Mr Wong and ‘young’ Mr Wong.

He was very young, only about nineteen. He was still a student at the school of languages and had joined our party for experience. He was a charming and friendly young man and I talked with him often. He said he had first been noted for his singing when he was still at school. It was then decided that he had the ‘ear’ and that he would be a good language student. He started to learn English I think while he was still at school and was certainly very fluent when he was with us.

Our first outing that morning was to a carpet factory in Peking. We were welcomed by representatives of the Revolutionary Committee and were told the background of the factory while we sipped our cups of tea. The factory was initiated by a group of veteran workers early after liberation in 1949. There were now over 2,500 workers, 55% being women. We were told the different process we would be seeing: design, dying of wool, weaving, cutting and washing.

The whole process was done by hand, the workers weeding out old techniques and replacing them with improved technology in production. The cutting of the carpets, the sculpting was once done by hand scissors; but after the Cultural Revolution this process was done by electrical clippers. The factory produced mainly carpets but were now doing some tapestries. The carpets were of wool woven onto a warp and weft of synthetic and cotton yarn. 90% of their production was for export.

The wool came from north west China, but some was imported, including some from Australia. Chemical dyes were used. Apprenticeship was for two years. These apprentices were assigned by the government after they had two years working in the country.

If the carpet was small, one worker would do the weaving, several workers would work on a big carpet. In all four people would work on a carpet 6’ x 9’ and their combined time was 2016 hours.

Workers were given their work clothes including caps and masks. Women were put on light duty during mensuration and pregnancy. Here as everywhere we had visited, mothers were given 56 days leave after the birth of their baby. They fed their babies for twelve months and after they returned to work they were given an hour off for each feed. Extra pay was paid to workers working in high temperatures. The main hazards were the high temperatures when the wool was being steamed. Like all other places of work, there was a clinic with medical staff.

The factory worked towards a quota set by the No. 2 Light Industry Bureau. In 1973 they produced 60,000 square metres of carpet, in 1974 65,000 square metres. Production had been raised between 30 and 40% since the Cultural Revolution.

We were taken first to the design room. Designs were in five categories — Peking, Fine Art (these designs I could recognize as being based on French carpet designs of the last century), Colourful, Oriental and Plain colour. These last had designs that were sculptured. The designers were working on graph paper, the designs drawn with great precision and coloured in. We were told that the number of designs was being constantly increased. From there we moved from room to room seeing the different processes. At one stage we crossed a courtyard where carpets were spread out in the sun. We were told they were being ‘antiqued’ !

The room where the weaving was being done was very colourful. Huge balls of wool hung on strings from the ceiling, ‘feeding’ the weavers. The wool was looped around the thread of the base, pushed down by a comb, and chopped off with a small chopper. old workers sat on stools beside young workers, girls worked side by side or beside men. The process of sculpturing the design with electric scissors required great accuracy but seemed to be done at great speed.

We were shown some of the new tapestries. They were realistic reproductions of Chinese scenes and though they represented initiative in the design area they did not appeal to me as much as the traditional carpets.

Before leaving the factory there was more time for tea and questions. 90% of their production was for export and Marje asked with a smile if they minded their beautiful carpets going to rich capitalist countries. The answer, also with a smile was “No. They brought in foreign currency and promoted friendship. China had been making carpets for 3,000 years, so the export of carpets could be regarded as an exchange of culture.”

Trade with the US via the Canton Fair had begun since Nixon’s visit.

We were told of how the veteran workers were taught literacy by young workers. The after-working hours political study groups would meet 2 or 3 times a week for 2 or 3 hours. They would study the works of Marx Engels, Lenin and Chairman Mao. They would also study production problems. Political workers would write articles for the wall newspapers.

This had been a fascinating morning. We had seen these beautiful carpets in the bedrooms of all the hotels we had stayed in, seen them in the trains and seen them, by the acre in the Great Hall of the People. We had heard that our own Embassy in Peking had put down Australian carpet rather than use Chinese carpets. It seemed pretty obvious now, that Chinese carpets would be too expensive.

That afternoon we visited the Revolutionary Committee of the Fensheng Neighborhood, in a suburb of Peking. The side streets of Peking are very narrow. We saw no cars, just people walking or on bikes. The walls onto these streets are high and courtyards surrounded by small buildings are set behind them. Our first destination was the meeting room of the committee. It was a room, simply furnished with a long wooden table and chairs. It was at the end of a courtard that was cool and inviting, a flower bed in the centre, lots of plants in tubs and pots, and most exciting for me, Trees of Heaven spreading their shade. In the gardens of all the houses I have lived in there have been Trees of Heaven. I have always taken a small tree with me to grow in the new garden. By the name I had thought it was a Chinese tree, but not until this moment had I been sure.

We were welcomed by some of the leading members of the committee, served with tea and then told about Neighborhood Committees. They are the grass roots organization of Government, the lowest level of government in a city.

From my diary: “In this Neighborhood there are two main streets, 132 lanes, 40,000 houses, 53,000 people, 22,800 workers, teachers, cadres, etc. of whom 46.4% were women. There are 16,000 students and 6,100 pre-school children. There are 7,700 retired people over the age of 50. The Neighborhood Committee runs eight factories. The Committee was set up during the Cultural Revolution in 1968.

“Four nurseries and kindergartens are run by the Committee and eight service shops which do repairs, laundry, mending etc. It runs a hospital for the treatment of people and the training of medical staff.

“Ten primary schools are run by the Neighborhood Committee.

“The Committee is elected by the ‘neighborhood people’, the people who work in the neighborhood-run factories, teachers in the local schools and people who work in the clinics. The Committee is made up of old, middle aged and young people. More than half of them are women.

“The neighborhood is divided into 25 residential areas, Each takes in from one to eight lanes, with about 2,000 people living there. The people in each residential area elect their Residential Committee. It is a self governing organization and the only committee members that are paid are retired people who are on pensions. This Committee organizes people for political discussion and production work. Old people are organized to do simple work in the factories. It is responsible for cleanliness. The small streets are looked after by the people living there. It runs a Health Centre and family planning clinic. Minor cases are treated at the clinic and it also organizes the collection of Chinese herbs.

“Chairman Mao has taught us to love each other, to have concern for each other. The old retired workers do the shopping and look after the children of their neighbours who are working.”

We were then taken to see a Production Group. Just walking there through a maze of lanes, all so immpeccably clean, seeing the ordinary Peking people coming and going, a crocodile of kindergarteners going home, unescorted but quite safe, all this was marvellous. The Group we visited was working in a little house in a courtyard. It consisted of about a dozen old ladies, sitting around an enormous wooden table doing the most exquisite embroidery. It was mainly applique work on pillow slips, handerkerchiefs, childrens’ dresses and table linen. The atmosphere was of a church working bee. Tea making thermoses and cups were set up in the corner and the women were obviously enjoying themselves. One women had nearly completed a large white table cloth with a beautiful traditional applique design all in blue. She had been working on it for six months. It was, like all the other work, for export. We asked how much would she get of the selling price. The answer was, all of it. The neighborhood Committee did all the organizing, arranging for the supply of materials and the disposal of the finished work, but they did not take a commission.

We then visited a Neighborhood Clinic with two barefoot doctors in charge. They were trained in what we would call first aid and attended to all the small accidents in the area. If the case was serious they would arrange an immediate transfer to a hospital. There was a phone in the clinic. Phones were not connected to the houses around, but there was always a’ public phone nearby to use in an emergency. The barefoot doctors gave injections and a charge of 5 cents was made for these small services. Information on family planning was also given but this was free. The barefoot doctors in this small clinic were both middle-aged women, and as with all the women we met they were relaxed and charming.

We visited a neighborhood kindergarten. The parents paid some money for their children in neighborhood kindergartens and nurseries. For day care, including meals it was 13 yuan a month and for full care 16 yuan a month. If the mother was working in a factory half of this sum was paid by the factory.

Our last visit for the afternoon was to an ordinary Peking household. The family lived in two two-roomed houses on opposite sides of a typical courtyard Sixteen families lived there and it was a charming environment, stone paving, garden beds in full flower, lots of tubs and pots with flowering shrubs, and great trees throwing their shade. The houses were small, of brick, construction, with a natural grey cement finish, window and door frames painted a dark orangy The roofs were all tiled, the tiles, originally ochre coloured, now a bit grey with age. These tiles are unlike our own but of the design I have known as Mediterranean. All of old Peking, from the Forbidden City to the smallest house is roofed with these ochre coloured tiles.

The Granny of the house-hold we were to visit was waiting to welcome us. She was a small slender woman, short grey hair, brown skin, her face wreathed in concentric smile lines. The family consisted of the granny, two of her daughters, their husbands and three grandchildren. She showed us into a bedroom. A single bed where she slept and a double bed where the three grandchildren slept. Our group had split into two parties so the room was not overcrowded. Another bedroom led off it and one of her daughters slept there with her husband. The other daughter and her husband slept on the other side of the courtyard. We assumed that the fourth room would be a living-eating room.

The little house we were in was uncluttered, very neat and clean. Granny sat on a stool and told her story. She was 68. She and her husband had had five children. In the old society it had been a bitter struggle for them to keep alive. Her husband had died in 1958. “Now, thanks to Chairman Mao I think I am living in heaven. Chairman Mao says that the granny shall be in charge of the household money. My daughters and their husbands are all working and their wages total 200 yuan each month. All purchases are discussed in the family before the money is actually spent.” The granny did the housework and supervised the children’s homework. And she would tell them of the bitter old days. She wished she had better health so she could do more work in the neighborhood. We asked if she would like to move to one of the blocks of flats that were being built in Peking. ‘No’ she said. “My daughters would like to live in a flat but I like to live in a courtyard and so we are staying here.” We asked who would be in charge of the money if her husband were still alive. She admitted that her husband would. As were leaving we were introduced to the oldest person in the courtyard. It was an old man of 98, who was living with his family. He stood very straight while his picture was taken.