By Wei Yi
Translated from the Chinese by Callum Smith
When I was young, Beijing was two hundred metres from my home — a small township in Guangxi province. After leaving the house, walking over the wooden overpass and into the alleyway, across the street is the family courtyard of the county administration offices. There’s about two hundred metres between my home and this courtyard, and my younger cousin’s grandfather lives there. Sometimes, I’d go there with my cousin — his grandfather was like a grandpa to me, too. Grandpa came from Beijing, and spoke with a perfect Beijing accent, not the local dialect. On television, the Beijing dialect was a cause for envy, representative of the mysterious life in the faraway Imperial City. But in the small southern township, it was the label of an outsider. My cousin’s grandmother came from Jinzhou city in Liaoning province, but she was nothing like the north-easterners you see on the television. She spoke without even the slightest touch of the north-eastern accent — just like grandpa, she spoke in the Beijing dialect. Grandma once told me, when she went to buy vegetables at the market, even if she rushed to the counter after the previous customer had paid for their shiitake mushrooms, she’d always have to pay an extra 20 cents for the same product. Grandma had the most mild temperament, she never got into arguments, just calmly recalling them as stories for us to listen to.
Grandpa has an array of weapons at home, all sorts of knives, guns, swords and batons. Sometimes, my cousin, me, and some other children would wave and dance around with his weapons at home. We just knew that grandpa had practiced military skills, but we’d never asked any more than that, as if all sorts of quality weapons somehow naturally belonged in that house from the beginning.
My cousin is a Manchu — uncommon for a southerner. He had been classified according to his maternal ancestry, because his grandpa was a Manchu. Grandpa was born in 1921, precisely a decade after the collapse of the Qing dynasty, after the “Eight Banners”. Prior to this, grandpa was a guard for the palace. When he was born, his father was already an unemployed worker in Beiping city. His mother passed away at a young age, leaving his father with little choice but to take him to a shelter at the age of seven.
姥爷七岁开始习武，在救济院的犯人感化所。他在此受管教一年。一个七岁小孩，犯了什么法呢？缘由是他被送入救济院后，有钱人家来此，想挑他去做奴仆，他不从，想逃跑，被抓回来打了一顿，然后戴上手铐，送进了感化所。Grandpa began practicing military arts (wushu) at age seven, at the criminal rehabilitation centre, where he studied for one year. What crime had the seven-year-old committed? After he was taken to the shelter, a wealthy individual wanted to take him to work as a servant, but he refused and attempted to flee. When he was caught, they beat him, cuffed him, and sent him to the rehabilitation centre.
After entering the rehabilitation centre, grandpa would go out and do physical labour with the other criminals everyday. After returning at night, he opened the window, and through it, he saw a group of people in the courtyard practicing with knives, guns, swords, and batons, exchanging blows in combat. He became fascinated. He caught the attention of a guard called Lang Jifeng, who was perplexed as to how a child his age could be handcuffed. Grandpa told him what had happened, to the guard’s amazement, who then requested that an employee remove the handcuffs.
Lang Jifeng was there to teach martial arts. He noticed that grandpa had an interest, and let him join the practice sessions. Only later did grandpa learn that Lang Jifeng was a disciple of Huo Yuanjia. In the courtyard, grandpa learned the oriole huangying posture, cha fist, ambush maifu fist, baba tai-chi, six-directional liuhe sword technique, meihua double-sword technique, qinqiong double-mace technique, large halberd technique, among other martial skills. Grandpa recalls those days, doing hard labour in the daytime, and practicing martial arts at night: “wushu let me forget my sorrows, I had caught a glimpse of light in the darkness”.
In 1935, grandpa got out one Sunday, escaping that rehabilitation centre he’d been in for then eight years. He was only fourteen at the time. With the financial support of his elder brother, he went to primary school for two years. Following the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in July 1937, he fled to Tianjin with his brother. During that time, he’d done just about every odd-job: he pulled carts, sold vegetables, and had been a labourer. In 1946, he found himself a job at the Jinzhou Ministry of Railways. Three years later, at the beginning of the Liaoxi-Shenyang Campaign, he joined the People’s Liberation Army, becoming a member of the Fourth Field Army. From then on, he followed the army south, eventually ending up in Guangxi.
In the early 1950s, grandpa worked at a construction company in Nanning. In 1956, Nanning city held a wushu martial arts competition. He put his name down, to see how much of what he’d learnt he had left — and left with the champion title. The next year, he participated in the Guangxi wushu competition, and earned himself another champion title. His wushu skill began to earn him attention. Soon after, in 1959, he became the head coach of the Guangxi wushu fencing and wrestling teams, and trained numerous national champions. He hoped to promote martial arts in society, putting forward a proposal to designate Nanning a wushu city. Then, the onslaught of the Cultural Revolution saw him criticised as a “subversive aspirant and conspirator”. In 1972, he was transferred to Pingle county — my hometown — in Guangxi province. There, he became the manager of the county’s foreign trade animal storehouse. A few children came with him from Nanning to Pingle, one of whom was his young daughter. His daughter was my uncle’s classmate, and when they later married, she became my aunt.
When the Cultural Revolution came to a halt, the accusations against grandpa were redressed. In 1982, he returned to Beijing once again, to participate in the National Wushu Convention. He had a long photograph from the conference in his house. Grandpa was standing to the side, and right at the middle of the photograph was one of the then national leaders. To this day, he’s stayed in our little southern hometown. His students were all high achievers — many of them won national championships, others became instructors for the national wushu team, some became the presidents of the Hong Kong Wushu Federation. In the mid-1990s, the National Sports and Physical Culture Commission, the China Wushu Academy, and the China Wushu Society jointly selected and honoured a “Hundred Chinese Wushu Masters”. He was Guangxi’s only candidate — he was also its only successful candidate.
Perhaps it was too close to home — grandpa’s success fell into my blind spot. It was only when I saw the movie The Grandmasters did I realise that, grandpa was one himself. Everything he did was another form of “bringing northern boxing tradition to the south” (beiquan nan chuan). At Chinese New Year, I went to pay grandpa a New Year call. He’s now ninety-something, and has already forgotten many of his tales of the past. Almost like a child, he occasionally recalls fragments of his life Beijing.
Before grandpa lost his memory of that period, he kept an account in writing — an old booklet that my cousin’s uncle found in the storage room. I immersed myself in grandpa’s descriptions of the Beiping of the past, his words evidence of his silent grievance. It was when he got to the overpass, that I became most enthralled…
In 1932, I was eleven years old. I’d then been at the orphanage for five years, and it was time to do child labour. I was sent to the the Handicraft Studies Factory at the Number One Rehabilitation Centre, where I would be confined for three years. Three years later, when I was fourteen years old, I could leave the factory once a week. I’d get one jiao per month in wages, which was worth 46 copper coins. For those four years, I relentlessly trained in wushu, and on that one day I could leave the factory each week, I’d go to the wrestling arena at the overpass to watch the wushu masters perform. Between the two instructors Shen San and Bao San, I learned the twenty-four forms of Chinese wrestling. After spending practically all of my copper on tuition, at least I’d learned this one skill.
Reading these passages under the light and shade of a lamp in the midst of a Beijing night, it was like a Beijing of the past had surfaced before me from a damaged film roll.
The Huaqiao Building
The Huaqiao Building is near Wangfujing in Beijing. Whenever I go to Wangfujing, I pass by that building, but I have little impression of it. What really triggered my impression of that building, though, was the iconic Cafe Astoria in Taipei, opposite the town god’s temple. Sitting there, I listened as the Taiwanese author Chen Ruoxi spoke of her time in the Huaqiao Building.
In the 1960s, Chen Ruoxi left Taiwan to study at John Hopkins University in the United States. There, she met her Taiwanese classmate Duan Shiyao, who she’d later marry. They’d left Taiwan, fed up with the White Terror of the time, and made way for the Mainland on the opposite bank of the strait. Most people just thought about it, but they didn’t hesitate — they spoke with their feet. They went from the United States to Europe, and in Paris, they boarded their flight to Shanghai.
Chen Ruoxi and Duan Shiyao realised their desire. They stayed in Shanghai for two days before making their way to Beijing, where they settled in Unit 15/5, Huaqiao Building.
Not long after moving into the Huaqiao Building, Chen and Duan wandered the streets practically every day. They quickly discovered that the Wangfujing strip was quintessentially Beijing, a traditional street lined with old name businesses.
Chen Ruoxi was something of a teahouse connoisseur, and Beijing’s teahouses impressed her. She’d order a glass of bamboo-leaf-green zhuyeqing liquor and a snack plate, striking conversations with passers-by. The clientele would ask, where’re you from? At first, she’d simply answer Taiwan — that’s probably what surprised them most. She left most people dumbfounded. Taiwan? So what are you doing here? Her answer was her ardent adoration for the socialist motherland. At that time, anyone with any sort of relationship with Taiwan would spare no effort to whitewash themselves — let alone being altogether Taiwanese. Chen Ruoxi realised the trouble she was getting herself into, so she changed her story — she was from Xiamen, just in Beijing on business.
Chen Ruoxi and Duan Shiyao awaited their work allocation at the Huaqiao Building. Their receiving cadre notified them that their accomodation and meals would be paid for by the government, and in addition, they’d be allowed one yuan renminbi per diem for incidentals. They took pity on the state of the nation — cost-covered accomodation and meals was generous enough for them — so they chose to forego the per diem wage. They received food coupons for their three daily meals, denoted with the classification: ‘A Grade’. They asked the service attendant what the lowest grade at the canteen was — it was ‘C Grade’. Chen and Duan then demanded that their coupons be demoted to ‘C Grade’. Their reasoning was that, they weren’t there for leisure, so they’d comply with the lowest standard. ‘C Grade’ was three dishes and a soup. The vegetable dishes were pretty much the same as ‘A Grade’, but the meat was where the disparity became obvious. ‘A Grade’ included poultry, fish, pork, beef and mutton — ‘C Grade’ was lard-ridden meat and swine hearts. Many years later after having left the Mainland, Chen Ruoxi vowed to never eat swine heart again — the thought of them made her sick.
Back then, not even the kitchen was exempt from class struggle. Chen Ruoxi liked to gossip, and there was a chef who worked in the building, who’d occasionally make conversation with her. One day, when he was sweeping the gardens, Chen went to greet him. He continued to sweep, without raising his head. Chen looked over to the wall, plastered with a big-character poster criticising the chef: ‘overthrow Soviet spies, repeal all work credentials’. He was a fine chef, having once worked on the Beijing-Moscow international direct train service — that’s where the ‘Soviet spy’ thing came from. Half a year later, Chen Ruoxi saw the chef back preparing dishes in the kitchen — the investigation had revealed no evidence of espionage, and the restaurant couldn’t do without a proper chef.
Before long, Chen Ruoxi learned of the location of the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League. She decided to visit Xie Xuehong, who’d left Taiwan after the 28 February Uprising.
I recall that, after visiting the Taiwan Uprising of 28 February memorial in Taipei in 2015, one of the memorial’s research assistants took us to Dadaocheng for lunch. As the car passed through an old street, he pointed out the window and said: ‘look, that’s where Xie Xuehong opened a bookstore back then.’
Most young Taiwanese don’t know much about Xie Xuehong anymore — let alone most Mainlanders. When A City of Sadness screened in cinemas, many viewers didn’t really understand what was being narrated — because they didn’t understand that period of history. Wen Qing, played by Tony Chiu Wai Leung, ventures into the mountains to visit his revolutionary friend Kuan Rong. Kuan Rong bears a striking similarity to a member of Xie Xuehong’s troops. They believed in communism, and hoped to overturn Taiwan’s Nationalist government. Kuan Rong confided in Wen Qing to send a message to his sister Kuan Mei: when I die, my body will belong to the glorious future of the motherland.
In the end, Xie Xuehong’s troops were no match for the Nationalist army — many of them were captured, or executed. She fled Taiwan, established the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League, and later arrived in Beijing.
At one fine Beijing dusk, I walked from Wangfujing, past the Huaqiao Building, and to the Imperial Palace — bustling with masses of photographers. It’s like this whenever the weather’s fine. If you walk out of the Imperial Palace, and then head north alongside the enclosing wall of Jingshan Park, you’ll see the site of the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League.
Forty years ago, Chen Ruoxi and Duan Shiyao walked on pretty much the same path to the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League’s base in Beijing. The entire courtyard was plastered with large-character posters critical of Xie Xuehong — and a woman sweeping the courtyards, who never looked up. They became anxious — and scared of asking too much — so they left in a haste. “I’m sure that woman in the garden must’ve been Xie Xuehong,” Chen Ruoxi told me.
When the couple were allocated with jobs, they moved from Beijing to Nanjing. Shortly after reaching Nanjing, Duan was posted to labour on a northern-Jiangsu farm. Then pregnant, Chen Ruoxi stayed in Nanjing. Regulations stipulated that workers would be given two days off per fortnight, with a train fare back to Nanjing provided. That summer, Duan Shiyao didn’t return for two months.
Two months later, almost reduced to skin-and-bones, Duan returned home, and recalled his experience to Chen. Duan slept on a bunk-bed with a young colleague at the farm. One evening, having finished their labour for the day, the two walked toward their dormitory quarters, tailed by another colleague. The sun was slowly setting on the plains of northern Jiangsu. As he gazed over the sunset, Duan said that the image reminded him of a sort of American egg. He suddenly realised he might’ve uttered something unacceptable, and hastily shut his mouth. His colleague took the cue: “oh, we call that a fried egg — I eat them one a bite”.
A few days later, Duan Shiyao couldn’t get down from his top bunk — his young colleague’s bed had been covered in large-character posters. He read a couple, and discovered his colleague’s alleged crime was comparing the sun to a fried egg — even eating it in one bite. Back then, Mao Zedong was the sun — swallowing the sun in one go, that was obviously a counter-revolutionary offence.
Soon, the Worker’s Propaganda Team called a halt to Duan’s labour, demanded that he remain in his dorm, and earnestly compose his self-criticism. The topic of his self-criticism was: why compare the sun to a fried egg — and an American Imperial egg at that? He wrote two months of self-criticisms — all failing to meet standards — so he was sent to ‘carry out the revolution in his innermost soul’. After two months of failed writing, he didn’t know where to begin, so he started all the way back with his ancestors, and criticised himself for just about anything he could think of.
Some years later, when the couple couldn’t stand it any longer, they applied to leave their post at Nanjing. In 1973, they were invited to a National Day state banquet in Beijing. They’d long lost any intention of feeling nostalgic about the food there.
On this trip to Beijing, Chen Ruoxi learned of Xie Xuehong’s downfall, and her passing in 1970.
With approval, the couple left Beijing, and then the Mainland. Passing over the Luohu bridge and out of Mainland China’s borders, Chen glimpsed back, unsure of when she might return.
The Temple of Earth
I became infatuated with Shi Yisheng’s Me and the Temple of Earth in my primary school years. I read it numerous times over, familiarised myself with much of the text, to the extent that I could recite paragraphs from it. What I didn’t expect, though, was to live near the Temple of Earth for a year when I came to work in Beijing. Sometimes, I’d pass through the temple’s park on my morning run, and I’d think of Shi Yisheng’s story of a marathon enthusiast.
In early 2011, I went to the United States for an interview, and visited a couple of places. In Connecticut, I stayed at the Yale University lecturer Su Wei’s home. On the table in his living room, he had a china vase. Su Wei turned it upside down, and showed me the seal print on the base: ‘In Commemoration of Sino-Japanese Youth Friendship’.
In the 1980s, the government ordered the production of a batch of douqing kaipian shuanger ping (a dual-handled variety of pea green china vase with natural incisions), as gifts for the Japanese visitors. Su Wei had a friend whose father was in charge of the batch of gifts, so he kept the defects. Su Wei’s friend gave a pair to him, so Su Wei gave one to Shi Yisheng, and kept the other for himself.
Right at the beginning of 2011, Su Wei learned of Shi Yisheng’s passing in Beijing. He got out the vase, bought a bunch of chrysanthemum, printed a portrait of Shi Yisheng, and placed it in the flowers.
In the 1980s, Su Wei worked at the Literary Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. As a single overseas returnee, Su Wei was allocated a house in Shuangyushu, Haidian district — compared to his contemporaries, this was a rare and favourable condition. Su Wei’s small home became the stronghold for his conversations with friends on literature and academia.
Whenever there was a gathering, Shi Yisheng would leave his residence nearby the Temple of Earth early, trudging the journey by hand in his wheelchair toward his destination — Shuang Yushu. The journey was at least an hour long, and “Shi Yisheng was often the most punctual.”
In 2004, some fifteen years after Su Wei’s departure from Beijing, he returned, and met with Shi Yisheng. Shi Yisheng pointed at the bookcase, and told Su Wei to take a glance — there was the vase he gave him.
At that moment, the lustre of another vase amongst the cluster of flowers in that Connecticut home shone ever so faintly. As the sky slowly darkened, the thick layer of snow outside the house continued to pile.
After dinner, Su Wei took me into the snow to walk his dog, and we strolled for some time. In Me and the Temple of Heaven, Shi Yisheng says, “if the four seasons were instruments, spring should be the trumpet, summer the timpani, autumn the cello, and winter the French horn and the flute.”
In the snow, I heard those horns and flutes.
I’m fond of the winter book fairs held at the Temple of Earth. I once bought an old book there — the 1988 edition of On Chinese Literature by Liu Zaifu. The first essay in that volume was A Holistic Description of Chinese Literature.
A few days later, after bidding farewell to Su Wei, I met with Li Zehou and Liu Zaifu in Colorado, where they now resided. Liu Zaifu pulled out a book from the shelves at the library of the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Colorado: The Complete Chinese Encyclopaedia: Literature Edition. “Look,” he said, pointing at a section in the book. The first section of that massive volume was written by him, signed Zhou Yang and Liu Zaifu. The contents of that article were actually pretty much the same as that book I bought at the Temple of Heaven.
Li Zehou had once also resided nearby the Temple of Heaven. In the afternoon, he’d often go for a stroll in the temple’s park, just like how Kant would punctually appear at Königsberg square. The foreword to the book I bought was a conversation between Liu Zaifu and Li Zehou. At the beginning of that conversation, Liu said to Li, “it’s been a while, your friends all miss you. In spring last year, when you were distant and flying high, you entrusted me to tell our young friends: I will return.”
Most summers, Li Zehou would come back to Beijing from Boulder — but Liu Zaifu wouldn’t. After leaving China in 1989, he only came back once, in 2008. On that trip, he visited his older friends first — and the facts would indicate that he was right in doing so. Soon after, his old friends gradually left this world, one after another.
Liu Zaifu would often get up at five in the morning. In his ground-floor room, he’d write his essays with an ordinary pen and draft paper. Waking at dawn was a daily habit — he had Zeng Guofan’s practice of self-discipline in mind. Before breakfast, he’d have practically completed his writing for the day. Over those few days, he’d completed another essay mourning his late friend’s passing. In On Chinese Literature, I’d read one of his numerous memorial works, A Memorial Speech for Mr. Nie Gannu.
Following a search of the study, Liu Zaifu discovered a flimsy book of work notes belonging to Nie Gannu, containing accounts of all sorts of happenings, including the contact details of numerous noted individuals. On the first page was Huang Yongyu’s address, and on the last was that of Chen Wentong (Liang Yisheng).
When Nie Gannu passed, he left many of his possessions to Liu Zaifu. Now, most of them are locked up in a house somewhere in Beijing.
Several years later, I saw The Golden Years in the cinema. As Xie Gannu addressed the crowd, I was suddenly reminded of his notebook. That movie contained numerous people familiar to Liu Zaifu — Xiao Jun, for example. Xiao Jun was a relative of Liu Zaifu’s son-in-law. It was Xiao Jun who gave me my copy of Xiao Jun’s Yan’an Diaries. I’ve also got a Hong Kong edition of Ma Sicong’s Danger Encounter, by Ma Sicong’s daughter Ma Ruixue. The preface to that volume was written by Liu Zaifu, titled Three Historical Ma Sicong Moments. Ma Sicong’s grandson Huang Gang was also Liu Zaifu’s son-in-law.
I’ve seen Ma Sicong’s handwritten music sheets — they’re meticulously prepared and beautiful pieces of work. They were a gift from Ma Sicong’s wife, Wang Muli, to Liu Zaifu. “After Ma Sicong went to America, not a day of happiness has passed. In spite of having the golden key to San Francisco, to Philadelphia, he enjoyed not one happy moment.” Liu Zaifu said, “he composed an ode, Longing for Home — homesickness overwhelmed him.”
While driving us through the canyon of the Rocky Mountains, Liu Zaifu pointed out the window, and told me take a look. As far as my eye could see, the remains of a damaged old plank roadway lay afloat the metallic tinted mountaintops. “That was built back then by the Chinese labourers.” It was a sight to marvel at, to think that, between the gloomy chill of those mountains, amidst the frenzy of the Westward Movement, there was once a sizeable group of foreigners. As in any age, it was never the case that all peoples would be willing to join the contingent of busied land-workers. Each had their own cause for anxiety, a sentiment that could only be savoured in solitude — anyone else was just a passerby.
Zhongnanhai is just about the most exclusive place in Beijing. I’ve only ever passed by the entrance. Liang Hui once worked there. I met Liang Hui in a southerly Guilin neighbourhood. He’s from Guilin, and speaks in the local dialect. That was one of the scant opportunities I’d had to use the Guilin dialect to interview someone.
At the time, he was in a wheelchair when he went to a Whampoa student society meeting in Guilin. As early as the 1980s, he’d been asked to join the society, but he refused. It was only in recent years that he’d decided to participate. Having experienced the terror of the Cultural Revolution, he was prudent of such offerings.
In 1935, then a student at Guilin Middle School, Liang Hui secretly joined the military without informing his family. In 1936, he enrolled in the Whampoa Military Academy campus at Nanning. By the beginning of 1940, he and his classmates were engaged in the tragic military conflict at Kunlun.
“The fight at Kunlun was of utmost importance,” said Liang Hui in the Guilin dialect. “I was the platoon leader of the 3rd Battalion, 524th Regiment, 175th Division of the Number 46 Guangxi army. We fought for three days and nights, the losses were vast, and we had few more than ten men left. We were ordered to retreat, but the regimental commander refused — we were to continue the fight, holding the front with our lives. When the army commander saw that we were not retreating, he burst into tears. Failing retreat, they had no option but to move back and forth along the mountainside, inducing the enemy into believing the mirage of a larger army, up until the reinforcements arrived.”
Liang Hui still remembers that predicament, “in hand-to-hand combat with the Japanese, they couldn’t overcome me, I killed two of them — one with a knife, another with a gun.” It was a first for me, to hear such a vivid account of a veteran’s wartime experience. I broke out in goosebumps. This was no game, it was a battle of life-and-death, so close it felt like the knife was cutting through the air before my eyes, enough to make you shiver.
There were few survivors in that fight. There is a mass grave at Kunlun now. Liang Hui later visited Kunlun on several occasions. Sometimes, he’d go in especially when he was in the vicinity. “I recall living in that danger with nostalgia, fighting with my comrades, struggling to survive. That grave is massive — civilians buried them there, more than twenty-thousand of them.”
“The enemy had stormed our front then. The deputy battalion commander was a friend, he said to me, Liang Hui, let’s go and seize it back. There were seven or so of us. He lead us into an assault, and we took the front back, but he died. I got hit, but I could make it back. Look, I’ve still got the scar,” Liang Hui said, as he showed me the mark on his body.
The scars of the war remained in Liang Hui’s heart. Whenever he heard the sound of a plane taking off, or a bomb being dropped in a television show, he’d think of those times, he’d feel uneasy.
Following the Kunlun campaign, Liang Hui was transferred to the army headquarters. He later had the opportunity to study at the Xianshui Military Academy. After graduating, he became Li Zongren’s right-hand lead security guard. Liang Hui had an amicable impression of Li Zongren. “Why does he know how to fight? He knows how to choose his men, he understands how to appreciate the competence of others, and treats his subordinates well.”
When Li Zongren was the head of the field headquarters, Liang Hui went to Beiping with him. The field headquarters were established at Zhongnanhai, where Laing Hui spent four years of his life.
Liang Hui and Li Zongren were fellow-townsmen, from Liangjiang, Lingui County, Guilin. When they walked alone, they’d converse in their home dialect.
Liang Hui believed his years at Zhongnanhai were a rare period of tranquility in his life. “I was never assigned any significant missions, nor did I feel I carried any sort of responsibility.”
Back then, the Beiping field headquarters was the supreme government office of military affairs in North China. Chiang Kai-shek once ordered by telegraph that North China receive commands from directors of field headquarters at any level. In reality, this was a merely nominal formality, a perfunctory acknowledgment of Li Zongren’s reputation — all organs continued to follow the direct orders of central government offices.
After the second half of 1947, the Kuomintang repeatedly retreated in defeat from combat with the Communist Party. The Americans had every intention of abandoning Chiang, and replacing him with Li. Li Zongren decided to run for vice president. Chiang Kia-shek met with Li Zongze, pleading him to forego the election, citing the central government’s clear expression that preferred candidate was Sun Ke. Li Zongren persisted, though. Liang Hui recalled a certain scene, in which Li “gave each person in attendance a cigarette, one person at a time.”
On the 10th of May 1948, Time described the sentiment of the time: “When the results of the election were announced, the representatives became feverish. They lifted Li’s wife, who was smiling, and raised her onto their shoulders. In the streets, they let off firecrackers in celebration, as they listened for the latest vote count via radio broadcast. The cheering crowds gushed toward Li’s headquarters, holding high the General Li. One representative said, we’ve done it, we’ve voted against the government!”
When the vice-president-elect Li Zongren left Zhongnanhai, Liang Hui followed him to Nanjing. At the presidential residence in Nanjing, Liang Hui resided right behind the the words: “Presidential Residence”.
Only after interviewing Liang Hui did I return to the “Presidential Residence” in Nanjing. When I turned around from the sign, reading “Presidential Residence”, I saw a handful of small rooms. Today, those are the offices for the public park’s management. I peered through the transparent windows, trying to imagine Liang Hui’s sentiment when he lived there. He’s surely one of a very select few who’ve guarded both Zhongnanhai and the “Presidential Residence”.
On the 23rd of April 1949, the armed forces of the Communist Party arrived at the “Presidential Palace”. Liang Hui and his subordinated were sent to Chongqing, to act as President Li Zongren’s outpost.
Li Zongren never made it to Chongqing. Instead, he went to America. Bai Chongxi hoped to endure a final struggle with the Communists, but he never succeeded — he went to Taiwan, instead. Huang Xuchu went to Hong Kong, and Huang Shaohong stayed in the Mainland. From that moment, the Kuomintang’s Guangxi branch — a group that in their younger years had left the villages of Guangxi, each with their own ideals in mind — had vanished.
Then in Chongqing, Liang Hui was left without a leader. “There were more than four hundred of us, without a commander — what could we do?” Liang Hui went to the Whampoa Military Academy Chengdu campus. They held an uprising, so he joined in. His family of three took their travel expenses, and returned to Guilin.
It’s been a while since I interviewed Liang Hui. One day, I received a message from Guilin in my Beijing office. It was from his daughter. She told me that her father had not long passed away. She said, when her father was a guard for the field headquarters in Beiping, he’d once taken a photo inside Zhongnanhai. If only she could’ve found it.
One early summer’s morning, I went boating at Beihai Park. That was a scene I’d heard described many times in the songs of my youth — let us swing the oars, push our boat through the ripples”. Moving southward, when the boat arrives at a certain point, it has to turn back — because that’s Zhongnanhai.
I thought of my conversation with Liang Hui in Guilin. He said, those years as a guard at the field headquarters in Beiping were a rare period of tranquility for him. Pretty much everyday after work, he’d go fishing in Zhongnanhai, and take a few fish home to cook.
I sat in the boat, gazing over the water surface, imagining the scenery Liang Hui had described, thinking of those people who, over the last century, left their homes for Beijing. I felt somewhat lost. The boat undulated on the water surface, emitting the slightest noise, surrounded by greenery and red walling, as the reflection of the white tower projected itself upon the water.
Wei Yi is Editor in Chief at the Southern People Weekly 南方人物周刊主笔
Callum Smith is Editor at OW Magazine (English) 《单读》英文版主编
Originally published in the forthcoming OW Magazine Issue 16: Beijing《单读16：北京》