This is Part 2 in a translation of the 1956 reportage fiction piece 在桥梁工地上 (At the Bridge Construction Sites) by the Chinese writer 刘宾雁 (Liu Binyan). Liu wrote the piece during Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign (百花运动), and was soon victimised for it and labelled a rightist in the following Anti-Rightist Movement (反右派运动).
At the Bridge Construction Site
I began to learn about the young Team Leader Zeng Gang in spring 1956.
Once when I was waiting at the construction office to pick up some materials, I heard two office workers start talking about “strange occurrences” among the engineers.
The wives of two workers in the bridge construction team had argued and come to blows, and one woman had got hurt, and it had ended up in court.
One of the people standing as a witness in court was Engineer Zeng Gang.
“It was refreshing,” said the person reporting the incident, and then they added:
“He pays attention if the engineers and even the workers’ families get into arguments – I’ve never heard of anything like it…”
“What’s new about that?” the other person said, and gave their opinion:
“A few days ago he even wrote a letter to the department head.”
“What? Don’t talk nonsense!”
“Believe it or not – it’s up to you. The letter got passed on to the newspaper office.
I heard that he even enquired whether there had been any response…”
I didn’t go to find out whether or not these two stories were true.
What got my attention was that every time I came into contact with the construction office or the bridge construction department, I would hear stories about Zeng Gang.
The issues were the same, but opinions were divided into two camps.
What was discussed most often was of course Zeng Gang’s interest in civil appeal movements and international affairs, and things within the realm of engineering.
For example, for many years the holes for the blocks used to build bridges were in the banks, and then once they’d been built were moved into the heart of the river [?], but Unit 3 from the bridge construction team suggested that they make the holes inside steel cylinders underwater, saying that if they did it this way they could save more than ten thousand yuan per hole.
And for many years, the scaffolding for the bridge body was built over the water, formed like a tower, but Unit 3 from the bridge construction team suggested that they move it onto the bank and change the shape, and that way they could use several hundred less logs.
The Department Head, the Section Chief and the technicians all said to me:
One piece of timber or one square centimetre of concrete would otherwise be required to bear a force of seventy kilograms, but Unit 3 would have it bear one hundred.
Unit 3 had the most new ideas, and the team leader in charge of Unit 3 was none other than Zeng Gang.
But I heard that it wasn’t limited to matters of technology.
One time, a few young people on the construction side got into an argument over one of Zeng Gang’s proposals.
That happened during repairs on a bridge over the Wei River.
The bridge supports were going to collapse, and the steel beams were already bending over the temporary bridge, and it looked as if it would only take a strong gust of wind to knock it all into the river.
Several technicians had no ideas, hesitated and didn’t take any action.
Zeng Gang came and thought of a solution, and went out onto the temporary bridge himself to instruct the workers to use jacks to hoist the steel beams up and then deal with the bridge supports.
一个当时在场的人说，曾刚这种作法本身就是冒险 —— 万一吊不起来怎么办？
Someone who was there at the time said that the way Zeng Gang did this was in itself very risky – what if they couldn’t hoist them up?
And besides, the engineers didn’t have to risk their lives going on to the temporary bridge with the workers.
The people opposed to this opinion said that the calculations and experience behind Zeng Gang’s method couldn’t be called risky, and were in fact a success, including the engineers and workers standing together; there was nothing wrong with that –
during the urgent work, knowing that “the engineers are here” was a great encouragement for the workers…
I heard many opinions about Zeng Gang, and they opposed each other fiercely.
Some people spoke of Zeng Gang’s courageous spirit in admiring, respectful tones, whilst others had attitudes of denial and suspicion, believing that he was a naive risk-taker who didn’t pay attention to science.
From what I heard, slightly more people held the latter opinion.
Although I couldn’t be sure of what they said, I had been influenced by them.
Staying at the Lingkou bridge construction site for a few days, I found that the scene of construction was the complete opposite of what I had expected.
Because of what I had seen and heard during these few years of reporting, I had become accustomed to the chaotic state of affairs at construction sites.
But at the Lingkou construction site, everything was in perfect order.
You could barely find anyone slacking, and wouldn’t see anything rushed or muddled.
People, machines and tools were all put in the most rational place.
You could see that there was even a place for washing stones, and the placement of every concrete mixer had been thought through thoroughly.
There were almost none of the little annoyances that you usually saw at construction sites.
I asked many ordinary workers, and not only did they know precisely what their tasks were for that day and the next, they knew about all the issues facing their unit and team at that time.
So, there wasn’t any of that “where am I?” joking that you often encounter on construction sites.
Every month each squad exceeded their work quota.
All of this seemed so stable, and the word “risky” didn’t apply to it at all.
But the other units in the bridge construction team were quite the opposite:
They would often hold back on work at the beginning of the month, and then work overtime at the end, and some of them would even do both at the same time;
Each year, more than thirty percent of the work was completed in the final month, and that was normal for them.
But there was never anyone who said that this disordered, messy, blind rush that caused many material and personal accidents was “risky” – in fact they thought it was all normal and stable.
At first, I mainly considered this difference in terms of work methods.
Then Engineer Zeng Gang and I sat together for two nights in a row, and he explained and summarised his experience.
He valued working to a plan, and every time there was a plan to be made he would do it himself.
That way, every month and every fortnight the work in the team had every kind of favourable factor, and he would think through anything unfavourable and remember it.
All of his specific measures came from this comprehensive consideration.
He was different from a normal construction technician in that he personally took charge of the rationalisation of the entire team, and if the workers had suggestions, he would always promptly come to a conclusion based on past experience and future needs, and didn’t need to complicate matters with the procedure of registering the issue, examining it, approving it… the list went on.
But when we spoke those two evenings, I suddenly felt that this wasn’t the important point that I needed to understand.
These few years, was the total experience in organising construction still too little?
Yet under the leadership of these people, they wouldn’t get experience of succeeding again.
And as soon as they put production into disorder, and when when they made mistakes, these people would just scratch their heads and apologetically (but without admitting blame) say with a smile:
“Oops – it’s because we lack experience, eh…?”
Lacking in experience was of course understandable:
who could blame a primary school student for writing a character incorrectly?
But no, in a lot of situations, this wasn’t, or at least wasn’t only, an matter of lacking experience.
No, someone who intentionally covers their tracks with dust could not rely on the experience of others to improve their sensitivity to new ideas, just as those who are greedy for life but fearful of death cannot use the methods of _____ [???] combat to learn how to be brave.
Of course, as with all experience, the experience that Zeng Gang had spoken about over the last two days things that were deeper and went beyond questions of method.
For example, he said: “Each time I make a plan, just the basics, I get the workers to supplement it,” “I’m not afraid to talk about difficulties – wherever the difficulties are, we have to tell the workers – we’ve just got to mention them, and there will be a solution for them.”
He also said excitedly:
“These last few years, I have eaten, worked and slept together with the workers, and only then did I know how difficult physical labour is; the results of building the nation do not come easily, and really it comes with each drip of sweat and each drip of sweat from the workers.
Watching the workers struggle with their breathing whilst working in the water, their faces white, their clothes soaked from head to foot, with their hands and feet frozen and swelling, in my heart I would never let myself be negligent again, or waste any of their strength.
At the same time, I slowly realised that work is only meaningful if it is hard, and that the more effort you put in, the more of a joy it is to finish the work…”
That reflected his feeling for the mass of workers and his trust and initiative towards them.
His “connecting to the masses” didn’t mean just integrating with them, or teaching them arithmetic, design and things like that (what was a shame was that many administrative cadres and technicians though that all you had to do was call the workers “Old Wang” and “Old Li”, or play a couple of rounds of poker with them each day, and you would “connect with the masses”); no, it was about thinking of ways to organise this strength, relying on his own technical knowledge and experience to properly arrange the workers, their machinery and the work site, and have every person show the maximum of their zeal and strength.
But even this was not the important point.
The third time we spoke, Zeng Gang brought up this issue himself.
When I walked into his office, he was on the phone.
The person on the other end had been speaking for ages, and Zeng Gang was listening patiently, tapping quietly on the table with one hand; when he saw me come in, he motioned for me to sit on the chair by the table, and then said into the phone:
“That’s right, it’s completely true. The digging workers have done eight blocks [?] – they’ve dug eight cubic meters.
There’s twenty-seven people working on the concrete.
Twenty-seven labourers are taking on the work of forty people.”
The other person said something.
I saw Zeng Gang’s expression change, and he suddenly stopped knocking on the table, and he said firmly and surely:
“I don’t have the right to hold the workers back.
As for quality, you’ve already inspected it three times. And you can come and check it a fourth time.
…But please remember that last week they did eight blocks, and next week they might be able to do ten.
The concrete work is the same – right now they’re looking into using two people to do the work of forty.
HQ ought to get ready for it in advance.”
He put the phone down and suddenly laughed.
It was the laugh of someone who has realised that they’re doing some ridiculous.
He asked me to go out and walk with him for a while.
Before we’d even gone a few steps, he laughed again in the same way, and with a requesting tone said to me:
“Let’s not talk about experience. Let’s chat about something else…”
But he didn’t say what we ought to talk about.
I waited for him to start.
By that point we’d already got to the riverside.
It was already twilight on the river.
In the distance, the bridgehead of the main bridge was lit up by lamps.
At the same moment, both of us spotted that in the air over the heart of the river was an eagle circling around.
When we first saw it, it seemed to be perched on a thin iron cable, but it was actually hovering in mid air.
After a few moments, it flew off.
It was then that Zeng Gang began to speak:
“Sometimes, I actually envy you journalists and writers.
Whatever good things you see, whatever experience you undergo, you go and write about it, and record it in the paper, and then your task is done.
But what is it like in reality? Things are obviously good, the experience was a success, but if you want to do something big, then it’s difficult.” [?]
When I heard this, there was a message within it – so I immediately asked what it was.
As usual, Zeng Gang replied simply:
“Six months ago, Unit 3 exceeded their quota by one hundred percent.
The Unit was praised to everyone and given a reward.
Last month, they added four or five people to the unit that exceeded their quota, and praised the unit, but at the same time came a directive asking for leaders to keep the unit under control.
These last few days, the young workers have said they’re going to start a “Double The Quota” movement – “One Person Does Two People’s Work”, “Finish Two Months in One Month” and the office suddenly made an urgent announcement:
You are not allowed to start movements – it’s risky…”
He looked at my bewildered expression, laughed and said:
“You don’t understand it? Neither do I.
There’s the subtlety.
And it’s not the first time.”
He probably knew that he couldn’t say it all in a few minutes, and he say down on a rock by the river, and I went to sit with him.
“Let’s not talk about that problem for now.
Let’s talk about “Double the Quota”:
A few days ago the Party Committee Secretary asked if the rate of my work could increase.”
He picked up a stick and wrote ‘50%’ on the ground, and then wiped it away, saying:
“With our currently available manpower, we could build the bridge twice as fast, no problem.
The reasoning is simple:
Currently we’re only using half our strength.
Look – the machinery and equipment is only at 40% capacity.
Every year, because we prepare badly for construction, the construction is badly organised and wastes manpower, at least 30%, and because it’s badly organised and doesn’t make use of our potential, there’s no way to calculate it.
But taking young people as an example, to my understanding, it wouldn’t be difficult to raise the production rate by 50%.
Put it this way: we could double our manpower.
With machines and with people, what are we lacking?”
He used the sole of his boot to wipe away the numbers, and stood up abruptly.
He’d built up a pile of dirt with his boot, and dirt rolled down from its peak, like a river of dirt.
The dirt flowed incessantly at the bottom, and the lumps of soil and stones rolled along in this ‘river’, the foremost rolling into the Yellow River.
“One question remains:
We need to use the spirit of Sitahanuofu [?] in our work.
But for others to use the spirit of Sitahanuofu in their work, those doing the planning, organisation and setting up need to apply the spirit of Sitahanuofu first.”
He said this resolutely and decisively, and then looked at me inquiringly.
When he saw me nod, he smiled, showing his snow-white teeth.
I suddenly thought that he resembled a child.
That night, I wrote down these talks in my notebook.
I took the chance to flick back through the questions I’d noted down in disorder over the last few days:
“What is the most important thing about Zeng Gang’s experience?” “Why is the work of ‘risky’ people the most reliable, whilst the those who work ‘reliably’ actually present the greatest risk?”
I suddenly felt that I had come one step closer to knowing the answer.
But there was still one question that I could not resolve in a month of Sundays:
Why did Bridge Construction Leader Luo Lizheng (I believed I understood what he was like) dislike having such a competent cadre under his command?