ELBOW READING IN CHINA By Bill Johnston (Article)


I gazed out from my dark hotel room into a bitterly cold "Peking"* evening.  It was February 1976 and acrid dust from countless charcoal fires hung in thick, grey clouds over the city, coating buildings, streets and people alike in a ghostly pallor. Though it would have been frowned upon, one could have shot a cannon down any of the broad boulevards surrounding Tiananmen Square and only clipped the odd cyclist. 

Still, as China desk officer for the Department of External Affairs and a China buff, I was determined to make the most of my involvement with the Canada-China Trade Committee for three days of official talks. I also hoped to get permission for some ‘independent’ travel to the enigmatic Chinese hinterland. The Embassy suggested I "request to see something the Chinese want to show you so you might be allowed to go somewhere you want to see."  For the former I asked to see either of two communes Chairman Mao had celebrated in an essay  "In Agriculture Learn from Tachai and In Industry from Taching.”  I reasoned that no Chinese official would easily decline a request to see model communes sanctioned by the great leader.  Nevertheless, the chances seemed slim. The Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao’s disastrous experiment to purge capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society, had dislocated millions and left the economy and administration in disarray. And just in January, Chou En Lai, PRC Premier since 1949, had died, leaving the nation in mourning and political factions jockeying for position.

I wasn’t the only one surprised when the Chinese approved a Canadian delegation to visit Taching. My colleagues at the Embassy were equally amazed and quickly chose a couple of officers to accompany three of us from Ottawa on the journey, a rare treat in an era of restricted travel due to the Cultural Revolution’s occasional excesses. It was only then I learned that Taching was in northern Manchuria and that we would be making short flights to three regional capitals before hopping a steam train across the Manchurian plains. 

Canada was in great favour with China at the time, due in no small measure to enormous sales of Canadian wheat and the heroic legacy of Canadian Dr. Norman Bethune’s service in the field during the Sino-Japanese War.  We were frequently called lao pengyou (“old friends”), a compliment Mao had paid to Dr. Bethune.  Our official program, which included banquets, many toasts to friendship and fascinating visits to the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City, flew by.  The trade negotiations were harmonious, aided by constructive interventions from our talented delegation that included leader Pamela McDougall (Canada’s second woman ambassador); the urbane, charming Claude Charland, then one of our leading trade negotiators; and the redoubtable Ken Taylor, who was doing double duty as head of the Trade Commissioner Service.

Then it was time for our Taching adventure.  In preparation, I picked up a Mao cap and jacket at the local Peking market, a risible effort to blend in given my height (193 cms.) and curly red hair and beard.  I soon became known to our official Chinese travelling companions as gao pengyou:  “tall friend”. 

First stop, Shenyang, was to set the tone for the trip:  an official greeting at the airport, a quick city tour then straight to an enormous, unheated banquet hall overflowing with local Revolutionary Committee leaders and as many hangers-on who could wangle an invitation.  Thinking our regal reception reflected the high esteem in which Canada was held (and perhaps official pleasure at the progress of the trade talks), we quickly realized we were simply enabling Chinese attendees to gorge themselves on state-sponsored food and drink, a rare event during the hardships of the Cultural Revolution.  Exhibit A:  a blood-poisoning round of toasts with the local special maotai, a high-test, fermented sorghum liquor blend reminiscent of gym socks and lighter fluid. (Note:  This was a familiar practice at official gatherings.  Three years later during Deng Xiaoping’s visit to the US, Henry Kissinger told him:  “If we drink enough maotai we can solve anything.”)

It soon became apparent that neither Ambassador McDougall nor any of the other members of the Canadian delegation could stomach more than a sip of maotai so I was given the role of designated drinker.  Despite loss of brain function and my liver’s distress, this system seemed to work fine; no one minded that I passed out during the compulsory screening of the Peking Opera propaganda film, “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy”.  

But by Day Two the lethal combination of excessive maotai coupled with sleep deprivation caused me to go temporarily insane during the middle of dinner. I turned to Ms. Liu, the official interpreter seated beside me, and said, “I can tell how old you are by reading your elbow.” “What?” she replied. “By examining your elbow, I can guess your age”, I explained.   She thrust towards me her quilted-jacket and three layer-covered elbow (ambient temperature in the hall being around 12 degrees), saying, “Prove it!”  I began to sweat despite the cold, realizing I could barely find her elbow let alone “read” it.  But the game was afoot and so I made a big show of feeling her elbow and blind-guessed her birthday within six months of the actual date.  To my amazement, Ms. Liu leapt to her feet and rushed to the head table to tell the Chairman of the Revolutionary Committee of Changchun that the tall hairy Canadian in the Mao hat and jacket could read elbows to guess a person’s age.  After determining that Ms. Liu wasn’t in her cups, the Chairman called me up to the front to perform this “magic” act on him.

I fought off dizziness and heart palpitations as I stumbled slowly towards my imminent unmasking as a fraud in front of the whole banquet crowd.  Luckily, en route I heard two acolytes, speaking in Chinese, mention the Chairman’s name and two numbers I guessed were their thoughts on his age.  So I made an elaborate ritual of reading his elbow then chose a corresponding month and date and almost fell over when Ms. Liu said the Chairman confirmed I was right!

From that moment on news of my incredible gift seemed to spread like maotai fumes.  Despite several attempts to retire and step out of the limelight, it proved nigh on impossible not to accede to our hosts’ requests for an elbow reading or two.  But I did have time off during the long steam train ride to Taching, across arid frozen plains reminiscent of the Canadian prairies, dotted with tatty villages and tough peasants.  Ms. Liu was wonderfully chatty about Chinese culture and politics and even taught me some “chengyu” or Chinese four character expressions.  I remember to this day a particularly apt one:  “Qi Hu Nan Xia” or “When riding a tiger it is difficult to dismount”; equivalent to “dilemma”.

Our tour of Taching, China’s foremost oilfield and symbol of self-reliance, was awe-inspiring:  for example we visited a light bulb repair factory, one of many Taching initiatives to improve self-reliance and reduce imports.  But no sooner had we reached the banquet hall than I was once again called upon to perform.  My subject had told me he was a contemporary of the renowned “Iron” Man Wang, recognized by Mao as a labour hero in the opening of the oilfields, promoted to the Communist Party Central Committee and dead of cancer in 1970, aged 47.  Using this information, I smoothly guessed my target’s birthdate …wrong…. by ten years.  Silence fell over the banquet hall.  Feeling exposed and embarrassed I attempted to salvage the moment, saying, “Wait a minute, what hand do you normally use?”  “I’m left-handed,” he said.  “Oh well, there you go,” I replied, “I read your right elbow so that explains it.” Order was restored, relief reigned; I read one more elbow after that then retired for good. Take that, tiger!

Postscript:  18 months later, Claude Charland led a Canadian oil and gas delegation to Taching.  When he came back he told me, “Bill, it’s uncanny. They’re still talking about the tall, hairy Canadian who can read elbows and guess your age.”

Andy Warhol said we all get fifteen minutes of fame. Some of us get a little more. 

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