My novel-in-progress is based a lot on my family’s history. There are two voices, one in present day (the adult granddaughter) and the other in the past (the grandmother as a young woman). I’ve heard my grandmother’s stories so many times, I thought it would be easy to put them in fiction form. Not so much.
When I was attempting to write on my train trip, I realized I didn’t know enough about China in the 1930-40s, especially the Sino-Japanese War. I knew a few events but hadn’t gotten straight how important dates in the war lined up with important dates in the grandmother’s life. I was going along, writing about the grandmother, the children she had, the traditional holidays the family celebrated, and her personal tragedies, when suddenly I remembered, Oh shit the war!
At a panel at AWP last month, the writer Ha Jin said something I found very interesting. He said there are three kinds of stories, private, social, and political, and that American students are very good at writing private stories while non-American students mostly write political stories. His words rang true as I was writing: I was focusing on the private and social, and almost completely ignoring the political.
So I stopped writing and went into research mode, which is where I’ve been for the past 10 days. I researched Chinese history before, during, and after the Sino-Japanese War. I learned that China and Germany were actually allies before and in the beginning of the war, and that in the end Hitler sided with Japan because of China’s no-aggression pact with the Soviet Union. I learned about John Rabe, sort of the Schindler of Nanjing. I was highly disturbed by details about the Nanjing Massacre. I learned that Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists seemed to be partly to blame for the Nanjing Massacre, that while officials and the military could leave, citizens were blocked from living due to the “scorched earth” strategy of causing floods and other natural blockades in order to deter the Japanese troops. I learned that Chiang and his men often high-tailed it out of cities right before Japanese attacks, leaving ill-trained troops and citizens to fend for themselves.
I learned about the Japanese Three Alls Policy in the early 1940s, Kill All, Burn All, Destroy All, which involved:
burning down villages, confiscating grain and mobilizing peasants to construct collective hamlets. It also centered on the digging of vast trench lines and the building of thousands of miles of containment walls and moats, watchtowers and roads. These operations targeted for destruction “enemies pretending to be local people” and “all males between the ages of fifteen and sixty whom we suspect to be enemies.”
I guessed it was around this time that my grandfather was imprisoned by the Japanese. As I started writing about that, I kept wondering why he wasn’t killed. The Japanese were so brutal during the war – why was he spared?
I asked my mother, but unfortunately she couldn’t really tell me why. “Puo-puo went to the prison every day,” she said, which I already knew. “She begged and she cried.”
“But was that why he wasn’t killed?” I asked.
My mother didn’t know.
I was telling MB about this, and he thought maybe my grandfather’s family bribed the Japanese. This could very well be. His family was the richest in Weihai, my grandmother always said, and owned half the town. Bribing seems the most plausible explanation for why Gong-gong was suddenly released after just a few months when so many others were killed.
I also kept getting mixed up about when all my aunts and uncles were born. Mom straightened that out for me, as well as reminding me that my grandmother actually had three sons who died, not two like I kept thinking. Two before my mother was born, and one after. The first two died shortly after birth, but the third lived to be over a year.
“I remember Puo-puo cried a lot,” my mother said. “She always talked about how cute he was.”
Mom also told me more about my grandfather’s escape during the Communist Revolution, that he snuck off in the night and, along with some other escapees, hired a boat to row them across the Yellow Sea to Qingdao, where his older sister lived. What would have taken a few days took a week because of a hurricane. For three days, they hid in a cave, waiting the hurricane out. In the meantime, they had lost their food and their shoes, and barefoot and nearly starving, they reached Qingdao.
I already knew about the week-long wagon ride my grandmother took with three kids in tow, my elder aunt, my mother, and my elder uncle who was about one at the time; the year they hid out in Qingdao (during which my younger aunt was born); and the terrible, month-long boat ride to Taiwan. But I didn’t know that they first lived with my grandmother’s brother who had moved to Taiwan a couple of years earlier, around 1946, for business. I didn’t know the house was Japanese-style, and they’d move twice, first to Taipei, then Jing Long.
In my research on the Chinese civil war between the KMT and the Communists, and the subsequent experiences of the Mainlanders who fled to Taiwan, I stumbled on this New York Times article, which lead to me this excellent lecture from Lung Ying-tai, “a Taiwanese essayist and cultural critic.” (I wanted to get her book, Big River Big Sea—Untold Stories of 1949, but unfortunately it’s not available in English.) In the lecture she talks about growing up as on “out-province” child, a foreigner and refugee among the Taiwanese. She didn’t speak the language. The other kids had ancestors and huge family networks while those from the Mainland had nothing.
This isn’t to say “aw the poor Mainlanders.” I also learned about the 228 Incident:
an anti-government uprising in Taiwan that began on February 27, 1947, and was violently suppressed by the Kuomintang (KMT) government. Estimates of the number of deaths vary from 10,000 to 30,000 or more.
Lung also talks about the Chinese civil war in her lecture, specifically the Siege of Changchun, in which “large numbers of civilians starved,” estimating between 150,000 to 330,000 (about 250,000 to 300,000 people were killed in the Nanjing Massacre).
I do want to ask my mother more about growing up in Taiwan, if she felt like an outsider, and how she experienced martial law. I’ll save that for our next conversation.