24 April 2008

Ordinary Man, Extraordinary Life

Chi Xia-Sheng (漆俠生)passed away on April 22, 2008, in his native Yifeng, Jiangxi, China. He was 96. I can think of few lives that symbolized the heroic struggles and monumental changes that took place in China over the century than Mr. Chi's.

His story is one that I know intimately well. He was my great uncle.

Born in Yifeng in 1912, Mr. Chi's birth coincided with the founding of the Chinese republic. But the most turbulent time in modern Chinese history was just beginning. His native province Jiangxi was a fertile ground first for warlords and then the nascent communist insurgency. It was in the poor villages of Jiangxi where Mao first set up shop, looting and shooting, all in the name of revolution. One of the unfortunate souls, whose lifeless body was dragged around the streets of Yifeng in 1927, was Mr. Chi's mother -- my great grandmother.

As did the rest of his family, Mr. Chi became an ardent anti-communist and joined the Kuomintang. Chiang Kai-shek, fresh off a successful Northern Expedition that nominally united China, was beginning his chase for Mao. It was during this time that Mr. Chi and my grandfather, his younger brother, joined the KMT. They spent a few years flushing the Reds out of Jiangxi, as Mao embarked on his Long March.

With the Communists out of Jiangxi, Mr. Chi took on new duties to reform the countryside. But the time of tranquility proved short lived. The Japanese invaded China in 1937, and within two years, Nanchang, the provincial capital of Jiangxi, fell. Mr. Chi, as with the rest of the KMT forces, fell back, first to Changsha, then Chungking, China's wartime capital after the fall of Nanking.

During the protracted retreat, Mr. Chi was unable to maintain constant contact with his family, who was left in the Japanese-occupied Jiangxi. He finally returned home in 1945 following Japan's surrender, but again peace proved fleeting. The guns roared once more as the Chinese Civil War broke out. And within four years, it was to swallow China whole.

By the fall of 1948, a storm was sweeping China from north to south. The Communists, nearly vanquished by Chiang before the Japanese invasion, now had emerged as an irresistible force. Mr. Chi's various postings took him to Shanghai, Nanking and Wuhan. But by the beginning of 1949, it was nearly certain that Mao's troops would emerge victorious.

The fall of KMT in mainland China was stunningly swift. By April 1949, the Communists crossed the Yangtze River, the last natural barrier in their quest of a complete victory. The remnants of KMT fell back, first to Chungking, then Guilin and finally, by the end of 1949, to Kunming, in the southwestern corner of China.

This was when another tragedy, and a dilemma, awaited Mr. Chi. My grandfather, by then had risen through the ranks to become the adjutant of Chiang Ching-Kuo -- son of Chiang Kai-shek -- was able to bring along his family during every step of KMT's retreat. And a large family it was -- his pregnant wife (my grandmother) and four children, with my father the eldest. Mr. Chi, in contrast, had to leave his own wife and two young daughters behind.

By this hour, there was neither time nor opportunity for Mr. Chi to retrieve his family. He had two choices: Help my grandfather to shepherd along his family to the next safe haven; or return to his family in Jiangxi but face certain torture and death as an officer in the KMT army, and one with intimate connection to the Chiangs. After a few agonizing days, he made up his mind.

It was a decision that would haunt him for the next half century. With the governor of Yunnan Province about to switch allegiance to the Communists, Mr. Chi and my grandfather's clan boarded one of the last few flights leaving Kunming on a chilling December morning. By nightfall, the Reds' takeover of mainland China would be complete.

Along with my grandfather's family, Mr. Chi would settle in Taiwan, facing an uncertain future. While a Communist seaborne and airborne invasion never materialized -- thanks to the outbreak of the Korean War, for the most part -- there was a sense that, for the 2 million KMT refugees who followed Chiang to Taiwan, they would never see China again.

It was against this backdrop that Mr. Chi went about his business. I was born in 1969, and got to know him as a toddler. Whereas my own grandfather was stern and demanding, my great uncle was just that, great. He was optimistic and gregarious. He loved to travel but was hemmed in by the political isolation of Taiwan. Going to China, of course, was out of question.

He never let on how much he regretted leaving his family behind. But he struggled daily with this decision. With no contact whatsoever between China and Taiwan for 30 years, he had no way of knowing whether his family members were even alive, let along well.

A breakthrough, finally, came in the 1980s, as China reopened its doors to the outside world, as well as Taiwan.

(Continued in Part II)

1 comment:

chik said...

Thanks for this. I look forward to the next installment.