After the strains of “The East is Red” subsided each morning, an energetic male voice barked out the numbers one through eight as heroic music played in the background. “Yi! Er! San! Si! Wu! Liu! Qi! Ba!” Good citizens were supposed to do calisthenics to this beat in order to cultivate the healthy bodies that went with purity of thought—although we never witnessed anyone participating. Instead, some middle-aged and elderly folks gathered on street corners and in parks to practice the slow martial art of Tai Chi, oblivious to the happy drill sergeant’s rhythmic squawking. The purpose wasn’t all propaganda, however. In a place where many could not afford an alarm clock, the community music helped university personnel wake in time to make it to class or work.
Next songs from “The Sound of Music” warbled through the streets. “Do Re Mi” and “My Favorite Things” got the most airplay, and to this day when I hear one of those tunes, I smell the coal smoke, raw sewage, and dust of our Xi’an neighborhood. There was a national passion for this movie. It was one of a handful of Western films deemed sanitary and innocuous enough for the government to allow viewing by the masses—and it had been a favorite of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who was the gatekeeper of all things cultural until the fall of the Gang of Four following Mao’s death in 1976.
Across campus, breakfast was at 7:30 a.m., lunch at 11:30. Nap time was until 2:00 p.m., dinner was at 6:30. Hot water was available to those of us at the “Foreigner’s Hotel” between 7 and 8 p.m., so that’s when we bathed and washed dishes. Each of those activities was a little milestone. We began to feel like children in a day care center, or old folks in a rest home. It’s dinnertime! Let’s all go eat! Oh! It’s 7 o’clock. Let’s all run upstairs so we can take our baths.
As it unfolded before me, I likened life in China to a summer camp. The place of employment—both a physical entity and a collection of employees known as a work unit—was organized like a campus. Housing and other facilities for the workers were located within a compound. And “within” was literally true: walls surrounded each neighborhood, and monitors observed all who passed through the gates. The work unit was responsible for supplying its members with housing, medical care, daycare, and retail outlets.
Work unit leaders dictated where one lived and the job one had, and permission from the work unit was required before a marriage license was issued. The leaders tracked pregnancies, and in keeping with the “one child per family” campaign in China, permission had to be obtained before a child was conceived.
The walled work units tended to stay cohesive and stable, the result of a government policy called the Iron Rice Bowl which meant that no person could be fired from his or her job for any reason. People often had the same job for life, and since the work unit supplied the housing, they did not move.
As our students later told us, the University in Shanghai filled a train with furniture and the contents of the library, the staff and their household possessions. The entire lot was transported to Xi’an and a new campus set up. Because of their Shanghai roots, twenty years later, most people on the Xi’an campus still spoke Shanghai dialect. A few months into our stay, we learned that the college across the street had moved from Beijing at about the same time, and people there still spoke Beijing dialect.
When we mentioned having seen cockroaches, Jiaotong personnel were dismissive. “Xi’an doesn’t have cockroaches,” one of them said. “The roaches you saw in your apartment are from Shanghai.”