CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 18, June 2009


The First National Day | China Heritage Quarterly

The First National Day

Two oral history interviews by Sang Ye

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé

Artistic images of the liberation of Beiping and the founding of the Peoples' Republic of China

As the 1 October National Day of 2009 approaches it is piquant to recall national days past. In Issue 17 of China Heritage Quarterly (March 2009), we reviewed the major celebrations held in Tiananmen Square to mark 1 October from 1949 (see 'Thirteen National Days' in the Features section of that issue here). In the following, we offer another perspective on the 'founding National Day' some sixty years ago.

These contrastive interviews with people whose lives were profoundly affected by the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949 are taken from Sang Ye's 1999 book 1949, 1989, 1999, Hong Kong: Oxford University Press. Much of that work appeared in English translation under the title China Candid: the People on the People's Republic, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006, but for reasons of space the following material was not included in that volume. The translations are mine, although I would acknowledge the editorial contribution of Miriam Lang.

The posters used as illustrations in this article are from the Long Bow Archive, Boston.—The Editor.

Verso: 1949

It was 1949, the bloody internecine strife that had wracked the Chinese nation for twenty-two long years finally came to an end. During the four-year Civil War of 1946-49 the People's Liberation Army led by the Communist Party wiped out an eight million man strong Nationalist Party army.

On 1 October 1949, the Chinese Communist Party established a socialist nation, the People's Republic of China.

In 1995, he was living on a pension. He had never officially 'worked for the Revolution' so he was only allowed a small stipend. For the most part he relied on what his daughter could send him from the United States.

Artistic images of the liberation of Beiping and the founding of the Peoples' Republic of China

I was in London when I heard about the liberation of Shanghai. I'd gone to England from the United States ostensibly to collect material for my dissertation. That same night I told my friends that I wanted to go home, back to China, and I booked a ticket the next day. They asked what I was going to do with my things in America-and what about my degree? I'm chucking it all in, I replied.

At the time I was all of twenty-seven-still young enough to be idealistic, but old enough to be quite ambitious. Add to that my own personality quirk: I never considered the consequences of any major decisions I made. Five years earlier, in 1944, there had been a similar turning-point in my life when I was in my junior year at college. I spotted a US Army advertisement for interpreters to work for the forces in China. I applied and ended up spending a year trudging through dense mountain forests with an American meteorological team for a year. After the war they must have thought they owed me something, so they sent me to the United States to continue my studies. But the only thing they could swing was a place at an army academy studying meteorology. I took the exams and since I was eligible for State Department support for Chinese students returning to their studies after the war, my application was given priority.

I got back to Shanghai in late June 1949, just in time to take part in a disaster rescue operation after a series of typhoons over East China. The storms had hit without warning, and I soon heard complaints from the local people about the Communist Party's ban on any weather forecasts appearing either in the press or on the radio. The weather stations were providing the information, but the party authorities believed that the American air force was preparing to launch a series of bombing raids on the city and that broadcasting weather reports would be tantamount to giving the enemy a strategic advantage. Of course, I knew this was patently absurd. I knew that the Communist Party was supposed to be the political arm of the working class, so it was inevitable that they would be fairly ignorant about science-but they ought to have a modicum of general knowledge.

Artistic images of the liberation of Beiping and the founding of the Peoples' Republic of China

So I decided to search out the Martial Law Committee that was in charge of the city and I told them what they were doing was based on a lack of knowledge. I said science was now so advanced that local weather reports were not military information. Forbidding weather forecasts was only going to hurt our own people; it certainly wasn't going to stop the Americans bombing us. I also told them that there were US weather stations in Japan and Taiwan, not to mention Yunnan and Sichuan, so they'd have twenty-four or forty-eight hour warnings about the Shanghai weather. Anyway, B-29s could fly in any weather conditions; that's why they were called 'Flying Fortresses'.

The minute I said that they became very stern and they asked me how I knew about all of this. I told them I'd just come back from studying meteorology in the States to look for work, and that I'd completed my studies although I didn't graduate. That did it! They detained me on the spot. I was kept at the Municipal Martial Law Committee before being handed over to the Martial Law Committee that oversaw the Public Security Bureau. Various other organizations got involved in the interrogations too, and it went on for the next four years. They couldn't make up their minds about me, and so I was finally classified as a 'suspected enemy spy only to be employed under the strictest surveillance'. They gave me a job translating technical materials from English into Chinese in a place where everyone else was of dubious loyalty too. They only ever let me work on out-of-date information. And they never let me translate anything into English because they were afraid I'd fill the texts with state secrets.

But that was far from being the end of it. The Americans would eventually also have a go at making my life into a tragi-comedy. When the Sino-American thaw began in the early 1970s, a lot of Americans were anxious to come back to China. It was very hard to get a visa and as there was no Chinese embassy in the US, people had to send their applications and passports to Canada. In their applications they had to state explicitly what their aim in coming to China was. Of course, I had a lot of old classmates in the States and by then some of them were professors. Others were army generals. The strangest of all was this fellow I'd spent time with in the mountains; now he held some position in the Sino-American Friendship Association. All of them wanted to get back to China, and although they only wanted to see what the place was like they had to pretend to have a serious purpose. For some damned reason they all said that their purpose was to see me! Americans are, of course, very practical people. All those years ago they'd thought I was an undercover party member, and now they were convinced that the minute I'd dumped my degree to return to China I had been rewarded with some high-level bureaucratic post. Now they figured that if they said they were visiting China to see me they were sure to get visas.

Artistic images of the liberation of Beiping and the founding of the Peoples' Republic of China

Of course, the minute the Chinese Embassy in Canada received all of these applications they notified Beijing, and the authorities in Beijing got in touch with Shanghai. Before you knew it they had me in their sights. At the time I was making a living by gluing matchboxes with the old ladies in our alley. My translation group had been disbanded on the eve of the Cultural Revolution back in 1965 and since they had to let me make a living somehow, I was allocated a job making matchboxes. So, to be exact, I should say that apart from translating useless materials my whole life I also glued matchboxes for a good ten years.

At the time, of course, I had no idea that the Americans had created this furor. I was simply approached by some government cadre who would ask me if I knew so-and-so. I'd say, yes, he's an old friend but we haven't been in touch for twenty years. Then they told me that some of these people might be coming to China and that they wanted to see me. The cadres said they thought it would be best if I didn't see them. Naturally, I agreed. As if I hadn't had enough trouble already! It wasn't until ten years later, when the Americans came to China again in 1983, that I got the full details of the story. We ended up having a good laugh about it. They said, at least we indirectly helped you out. We let the Chinese government know you weren't you a spy, and we told them we even thought you were a high-level Communist official! That's such an American way of seeing things. They didn't know that the Chinese authorities would never believe anything a pack of Yanks told them. The authorities here must have presumed these old friends were trying to use me as some sort of espionage cover for an operation they were planning during the Nixon visit.

Even rehabilitation, when it finally came, was meaningless. What was I being rehabilitated for anyway? Why bother? I had been detained and then released at their convenience; they had never bothered with due process before. Eventually I'd been released, but I was always on a short leash and I was never allowed to have a normal life. All rehabilitation meant was that I was finally allowed to get a proper job. They were going to let me go and work in the materials office of the Bureau of Meteorology.

Artistic images of the liberation of Beiping and the founding of the Peoples' Republic of China

My whole life has been full of black humour, and I have the feeling they'd even worked out this last joke well in advance. When I did get a fair deal it was just like a rubber check: it bounced. You see, my rehabilitation came through just as I reached mandatory retirement age. It was 1981 and I was sixty.

My friends have often asked me the same question: Sure, I admit that my life has been a failure, and I regret it. I was too young and impulsive in 1949. Now I'm old I can admit that I was wrong. Back in the 1940s, college students admired writers like Wen Yiduo 聞一多 and Ernest Hemingway, men with a passionate sense of being master of their own lives. Those of us who'd gone back to our studies after the war were strongly infected by their spirit; we felt as though we had been chosen by history to set the world to rights. That's the only way I can explain it.

It might seem like a great idea to return home at the height of youthful daring, but it's not necessarily a wise move. You should travel when you're young. The world is a big place, and it's better to be homesick than be stuck at home. Maybe I don't sound like a man in his seventies. But it's not easy for an old man like me to admit they've been a failure. As death approaches so does the truth. Why would I lie to you?

1949: Recto

Before his retirement he was an administrator at the Museum of the Chinese Revolution situated on the eastern flank of Tiananmen Square. In 2003, that museum was merged with the National Museum of Chinese History to become the National Museum of China.

I was only fourteen when poverty forced me to leave my hometown in northern Jiangsu province for Shanghai in 1934. I got a job as an apprentice bookbinder until the city was occupied by the Japs in 1939. I had no choice but to go back home, but by then northern Jiangsu was a liberated area under the Communist Party and the local party cell convinced me to join the revolution. It was a dangerous business back then, something that could get you executed; not like today when party membership is an entrée to an official career.

Artistic images of the liberation of Beiping and the founding of the Peoples' Republic of China

Because of my experience in publishing I was put to work printing the party newspaper. I was a 'revolutionary worker', so I was paid in kind, rather than getting a wage, just like the soldiers. There were some workers who got paid, but in grain, not in cash. Later they were all encouraged to join the party and ended up on the ration system as well. It was a good system; everyone from top to bottom was treated the same. We could all get by, although no one could have fed a family. My elderly mother was still alive in those days and I had a one-year old child, so our family depended on my wife making enough to support them.

There was an enemy attack on my first day on the job and we had to relocate overnight: the next day I was put in charge of binding, although in reality it only meant folding the newspapers, sometimes single-handed and sometimes with people to help. Even then I had to get up at midnight and spend the hours until dawn frantically folding that day's papers. That first summer was the worst. I was used to binding books and I'd never worked through the night. I could hardly keep awake. We had no electricity; the machinery was operated with a treadle, and all I had for light was a little oil lamp. They were hard times all right.

In the early hours of 9 August 1945, a correspondent came in with a major story. As soon as he reached the door he shouted out: 'The Japs have surrendered!' Everyone started shouting for joy, some people even burst into tears. We set to work immediately to bring out an extra edition. The typesetters were dripping with sweat as they worked; the leaders had nothing to do, so they brought buckets of water to scrub down our backs as we laboured. That's the kind of relationship that existed between the leadership and the masses back then.

Artistic images of the liberation of Beiping and the founding of the Peoples' Republic of China

But we didn't get much of a breathing space. Before you knew it, we'd been betrayed by the Nationalists, and they launched a massive offensive on the liberated areas. In late September, our newspaper office was forced to relocate again. Printing machinery, typefaces, paper, the lot, everything had to travel with us on what turned out to be a forced march that lasted seven days and nights. By the time we settled into our new location on the eighth day we were dead beat, but we had to get a paper out straight away. Gradually, we got used to moving headquarters all the time and, over the next few years, we shifted more times than I can remember. We lost people on the way; some were killed, some fell behind and others ran away. But regardless of all the difficulties we still managed to produce a paper on time. We ensured that the voice of the Central Committee of the Party and Chairman Mao reached the people. I was forced to grow up pretty quickly and, in 1948, I was named a Liberated Area Model Worker. The award itself wasn't much by today's standards: it was a simple, hand-woven handkerchief.

But I treasured that handkerchief. It was a real source of pride, and I wasn't going to use it until our forces had captured the Nationalist capital of Nanjing and taken Chiang Kai-shek and won glorious victory. And, no joking, it was with me when we reached Nanjing and took over the Nationalist newspapers. When we printed a special edition of our paper on 1 October 1949 with a red border to commemorate the founding of the People's Republic of China, I finally used that handkerchief to wipe my face...

Artistic images of the liberation of Beiping and the founding of the Peoples' Republic of China

We were so innocent and naïve in 1949. We honestly believed that the revolution was won. We never thought there would be such a long path to the future, or that it would be fraught with so many difficulties. And we never imagined the kinds of changes that have taken place. Even so, all of that I think the first half of my life was worthwhile and meaningful.

I donated my handkerchief to the state as a revolutionary relic. It's still in the museum. The Museum of the Chinese Revolution is not in the sorry state that people are always making it out to be. I had a look last year and discovered that it hasn't been completely converted into a furniture exhibition hall or a calendar store. There's still an exhibition of revolutionary-era relics and memorabilia on the second storey.

This material is reprinted here with permission. It was first published online on 28 September 2006 by Jeremy Goldkorn, editor of Danwei. See: Danwei, Another National Day