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“A gripping story about an idealistic young American who freely cast his lot with the Chinese revolution only to be struck down by that revolution at the floodtide of its success. . . . One lives with him through inhuman cruelty and the mindless horror of sixteen years of solitary confinement.”—Leonard Woodcock, First American Ambassador to China
“An extraordinary and revealing account of how someone was swept into the Chinese Communist movement and stayed with it through its many blunders, excesses, and cruelties. . . . A fascinating autobiography—honest, moving, chilling, and quite illuminating.”—Dr. Michel Oksenberg, Former National Security Council Aid on China Policy
“I found The Man Who Stayed Behind hard to put down. No American has ever merged as fully, hopefully—and disastrously—with Communist China as Rittenberg did for four decades from the 1940s. The book is lively, poignant, and revealing. Rittenberg offers a window on Beijing politics that anyone seriously interested in China’s recent past and likely future should read.”—Ross Terrill, author of China in Our Time
“Sidney Rittenberg has had one of the most remarkable lives of anyone I have ever met. The story of his life is not only a fascinating and valuable witness to one of the greatest historical upheavals of [the twentieth] century, but is a vivid testimony to the power of good in the midst of evil.”—Billy Graham
“[The Man Who Stayed Behind] reads like a riveting historical novel. But there’s no fiction here . . . it’s Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, the Long March, solitary confinement, despair, romance, and redemption. Sidney Rittenberg’s story is a classic.”—Mike Wallace, CBS-TV 60 Minutes
The Death of Wood Fairy
I never meant to stay in China.
I never even meant to go to China. I wasn't enamored of the mysterious East. I dreamed of going to France, to England, even to the Soviet Union, but no one in the 1940s went to China for fun. Nor did I have a missionary spirit. True, I was a reformer, a revolutionary, almost a zealot for the social causes of the day. But China wasn't one of them. I never dreamed, as so many Americans did, of saving China. In 1942, when I was drafted into the army in the early days of World War II, I wasn't eager to travel ten thousand miles away. I was twenty-one years old, and preoccupied with the social problems of my own country.
Indeed, I began studying Chinese mainly as a means to an end. Very soon after I was drafted, the army tested me, plucked me out of the mud of soldiering, and shipped me off to study Japanese. I was aghast. When the Japanese lost the war, as I was sure they would, fluency in Japanese could only mean a long tour abroad with an American occupation government. So I talked my way into a Chinese course instead, figuring I could have a bit of adventure and a fast trip home once the war ended.
I spent thirty-five years in China and when people ask me now why I didn't leave after my tour of duty was up, or even later after many dreams proved false, many friends had turned on me, and my long years in solitary confinement had nearly broken my health, it's sometimes hard to know. But when I try to answer that question honestly, I nearlyalways think of Wood Fairy.
Which is strange, for I never even met her. She had died some months before I even arrived in China. But of all the soldiers, students, newsboys, hookers, ministers, mandarins, spies, cooks, and drivers I met in that first confused year of my stay in China, it is to a dead twelve-year-old girl, Li Muxian—Wood Fairy Li, the daughter of the rickshaw puller—that my thoughts keep returning. It was, if not for her, at least partly because of her that I stayed.
Shortly after I arrived in China, I was assigned as a Chinese language specialist in the judge advocate's office in Kunming, in southwestern China. During the war Kunming was an entry point for soldiers flown in over the Hump of the Himalayas from India to China. The place overflowed with GIs. There was a thriving black market in American medicine, Spam, cigarettes, gas, and clothing. Alcohol was plentiful and there was little to do in the evening but drink. So it wasn't surprising that the judge advocate's office was investigating claims for damages against the U.S. Army. Five of us were assigned there, all classmates from language school. My job was to verify the claims. I would drive my jeep though the streets of the town, find the plaintiffs, interview them, and translate all the information onto U.S. government forms.
The file of Li Ruishan the rickshaw puller was the first one I was handed. After reading through the documents, I drove off in my jeep to find him. His street wasn't hard to locate. It was a tiny twisting hairpin of an alley just off one of the main thoroughfares of Kunming, the Road to the Opening of the East. It was lined with mud-brick houses, crowded with people gargling, hawking wares, drying hair, washing clothes, peeling vegetables, and tending children.
Once in the alley, it wasn't hard to find Li's house either. When I drove through in my U.S. Army jeep, everyone was expecting me. Many of Li's neighbors and relatives had been out on the street that morning a few months earlier when an army truck had come barreling through, crushing to death the rickshaw puller's only child. They had seen the accident and knew that Li's wife, Wood Fairy's mother, was catatonic with shock and grief. They knew that Li had pressed a claim against the U.S. government.
Plaintiffs would never come to our offices themselves to present their claims. The distance was daunting. Our barracks was several miles outside town, in an encampment run by the Kuomintang army of Chiang Kai-shek, surrounded by a high wall and guarded by soldiers. But the main problem was that most people in Kunming in those days were illiterate. Rather than presenting their claims to us, they first went to their street chief, who was in charge of a dozen families. The street chief would then pass the claim to the block chief, who handled a dozen street chiefs. Together, they would compose the claim in flowing brush strokes on rice paper, and pass it up through the county government and on to us. At each level, the Chinese bureaucracy would exact its price in "squeeze" from the hapless claimant.
By the time I was handed Wood Fairy's case, the deposition of the driver who had killed her had already been taken. The air force sergeant had said in his statement that the night before the accident he had borrowed a six-by-six army truck to drive to the Streets of Paris nightclub in town. He picked up one of the skinny, half-starved dancing girls there and woke up the next morning to find himself AWOL with a splitting headache. He downed a couple of shots of whiskey for his hangover and took off for the base.
About halfway home, he made a sharp right turn into an alley that led to a road parallel to the base. He saw a little girl playing shuttlecock in the doorway of her mud house. Later, he told the provost marshal that he thought it would be fun to scare her. "I said to myself I'm going to see how close I can get to that little slopey girl, and goddamn if I didn't run her over, so I figured I've got to get the hell out of here," he said in his deposition. So he quickly headed the truck back to the base.
Now I was back in that same little alley and soon I saw rickshaw puller Li arrive, a crowd of neighbors accompanying him. He was a little taller than I, perhaps five foot eight, and looked to be in his mid-forties, so I guessed he was in his early thirties. In a twelve-hour day of trundling passengers, a rickshaw puller in Kunming during the war typically earned no more than enough for a bowl or two of rice for himself and his family. A bony man with a drooping mustache and bare feet, Li was worn out.
"Our life is nothing," he said, speaking very quietly and directly, in a Yunnan accent thick with consonants. "It is nothing but eating bitterness. She was all we had. We were hoping that she would have something better."
He was talking about a monumental injustice, but his speech was nearly expressionless. He hadn't seen the accident, but his wife had watched her daughter crushed to death by a driver who didn't stop. Li took me to their little room and pulled back the bamboo screen. His wife was sitting silent and motionless, staring at the wall. She never spoke again after the accident, and died a few months later.
Back at the office, I wrote up the report, recommending the highest possible compensation. I had warned Li that it wouldn't be much, but as it turned out, it was worse than I thought. A few weeks later, the assistant claims officer made his recommendation: $26 U.S. I thought there had been a mistake and took the matter up with him. I pointed out that in another recent case, we had paid a merchant $150 in compensation for his pony, which had been killed by another American army truck. "A horse comes with a price tag and a receipt," said the assistant claims officer. "A person doesn't come with a price tag. The only way you can figure their value is by finding out what they added to the family income, and what it costs to bury them. In this case, it was a little child who earned no income, and a pine coffin for a child costs only half as much as an adult coffin. Also, the rules are that you pay less compensation to those in lower income brackets. My original judgment stands."
I returned to that narrow alley, and when I handed Li the envelope containing the $26 I tried to apologize for the unjust treatment of his case. He took the envelope, bowed and walked away. But that afternoon, just before five, he appeared at my desk, having walked the many miles to the barracks and negotiated his way past the guards. This time he carried his own envelope, one pasted together out of scrap, which he handed to me. I found six dollars inside.
"What is this for?" I asked.
"To thank you for your help."
"Did you give money to the block chief too?" I asked.
"Yes," he replied.
"And to the street chief?"
I suddenly understood. In his mind, I had become one of the many forces that buffeted his life. Even after such a disastrous wrong had been done to him, Li still felt compelled to split his compensation with each official who had in any way contributed to his receiving the money—including a member of the foreign army that killed his daughter. Chinese officialdom lived on such squeeze and made life hard for those who tried to evade it. To Li, it made sense to try to placate even those who had persecuted him.
"I cannot take this," I explained to him, handing back the envelope. "It is against regulations, and it would be very wrong anyway because what you received was much too little." I thought I saw the beginnings of a faint smile flickering across his face at the words "gui ding"—regulations. He knew all about regulations, I supposed. At any rate, he bowed, thanked me, and then turned and left the office.
I never saw him again.
But later, even after things went bad, I often thought of Li, and of his little daughter. I think that I chose the road I did and stuck to it as long as I did because, like so many others I came to know, I genuinely believed it was the only way I could help change the miserable lives of people like Li Ruishan and his daughter, Wood Fairy.
For when the time came to choose, I had a bellyful of the misery I had seen.
* * *
It was dawn on September 16, 1945, when we flew over the Hump into China, a planeload of soldiers sitting bolt upright in the back of a military transport. We had left at midnight from India the night before, flying scared into the darkness over the highest terrain in the world. We were strapped into parachutes we knew would be useless if we had to bail out over the Himalayas.
By the time we arrived in China, most of the American GIs stationed there were desperate to leave and return home. The Japanese had surrendered just one month earlier, and the occupying armies were slowly pulling out. The war in the Pacific was finally over. But those of us on the plane were just as eager to arrive as the others were to leave.
One of the reasons was India. We had spent five dreadful months sweltering in Camp Kancharrapara, about thirty miles from Calcutta, waiting to be sent to China. The bugs, the dirt, the heat, and the enforced idleness made India a hell for us. We all fell ill with dysentery and I was once sick enough to be hospitalized. So when we circled over Kunming that August morning, just as the sun was rising, we thought we had never seen anything so beautiful. Off in the distance, I could see the western hills rimming a red earth basin. At the foot of the hills, the ancient walled city of Kunming sat snug against a large lake. Around the city, the land shattered into a crazy-quilt of tiny patchwork squares and pie slices. Everything was lush and green and the air was balmy. After India, Kunming felt and looked like a paradise.
Another reason we were eager to arrive in China was simply that people here spoke Chinese. Back in those days there were few Westerners fluent in Mandarin Chinese, mostly missionaries, a handful of scholars, and some diplomats. In learning to speak Chinese, my classmates and I on that plane felt we had joined an elite corps.
Under the army tutelage, we had spent a year at Stanford University. We had drilled, recited, listened to recordings, pored over flashcards, and drawn characters in the air with our fingers until the strokes and tones blended together unrecognizably. Now we could speak Chinese, and we wanted to get to the place where we could try out our new skill.
Of all of us, I was the most eager. I had begun studying Chinese from the most banal of motivations, but the beauty of the language and a fascination with the people who spoke it had captured me almost in spite of myself. As a boy attending prep school in Charleston, I headed the class in French and Latin; in college at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I excelled in German. But nothing had ever excited me the way Chinese did.
For me studying Chinese had been like going through Alice's little door into an enchanted garden. In Chinese, with its writing based on pictures, a word not only means what it means, it is what it means. The word "beauty" meant beauty, of course. But not just beauty. It meant to be beautiful, to beautify, to think about beauty. The word itself was beauty. A word in Chinese could jump around in any direction like a queen on a chessboard, as no alphabetized language could ever do. There were no declensions or ablative absolutes to hold it down.
The sounds too were like nothing I had ever heard. In spoken Chinese, a difference in pitch makes a different word with a different meaning, like a series of chimes. Night after night, I sat with my tutor in the basement of a building in San Francisco's Chinatown, shouting syllables at him as I tried to learn to ring those chimes.
"Chi," he would say.
"That's better. Chi."
And so on into the night.
By the time we arrived in China I, of all my classmates, was the only one considered fluent in the language. I wanted to make the most of my time here. When the military truck that had met us at the airstrip dropped us off at our barracks, I looked around for the first characters I could read. From a sign across the road, I carefully spelled out three words: "Hei Tu Xiang"—Black Earth Village.
* * *
Black Earth Village wasn't a very impressive place for the China Theater headquarters of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Nor was our new home itself a very impressive complex. Since we were technically guests of Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang army, our quarters were called hostels; our signal corps occupied Hostel No. 8. But it was clearly a military compound, wooden two-story barracks surrounded by a long tan wall. Behind the compound, Black Earth Village sat on a little lane curving off from the dusty main road. I didn't want to waste any time before exploring my new surroundings. After a tedious lecture on hygiene and safety, Baker and Levy, my buddies from language class, and I clattered our way down the barrack stairs to make friends with the Chinese.
The village was just one street of tiny wooden stores crammed together side by side. There was a shop selling pastries, moon cakes, crinkly sugar biscuits, and sweet fried pancakes. There was a store selling nuts, dates, chestnuts, jujubes, and walnuts. A fruit store sold pomegranates and wonderful big golden pears; from a cloth store, big bolts of fabric poured out onto the sidewalk. At the end of the street was a blacksmith and the bean curd seller. Except for the six-by-six army trucks that turned off the main road into our compound, the only vehicles were rickshaws and pony carts.
The first people we saw were two soldiers, the Kuomintang guards stationed at the gate of our compound.
"Ni hao," I greeted them.
"Ni hao," they answered together.
We introduced ourselves. "Women shi Meiguo bing." We're American soldiers here to help you fight the Japanese.
"Megui hou," they said in their strange accents. We like Americans.
We began to talk and it was not at all like the Stanford language labs. Baker and Levy quickly lost the drift. Even I found it hard to figure out what they were saying. I had to piece together meaning from the context, for their accents were so difficult to follow, a soft, half-lisping Hunan dialect. All I could do was try to figure out the changes they made in standard Mandarin sounds, like swapping their Ds for Ts and Ls for Ns. Where were they from, I asked? Hunan, they said, but pronounced it "Fulan."
They told us that they belonged to the Fifth Division. We had already heard of that famous crack KMT division that had trained under the legendary General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell in Burma. Did they get enough to eat? Yes, they said, they had plenty to eat. They looked it too; they were chubby-faced youngsters with red cheeks.
It was nearly time for a change of shift, and when their relief came, the two young guards invited my buddies and me to visit their company headquarters. We climbed a hill behind our compound to an ancient slate-colored building with a roof of tiles and a gargoyle or two poking their heads from the corners. It looked like either an old temple or an old school. Outside the building was a flat piece of land that looked like a village square.
I never made it inside their company quarters. I was shocked to a halt by what I saw outside in the square: instruments of torture that looked as if they had come from a book on medieval dungeons. There was a wooden board, like stocks, with holes for the head and arms. There was also a head-and-arm board that looked like it was meant to be carried, a kind of whole-body handcuffs. There was a railing with thongs attached just high enough to be above the reach of outstretched arms; if tied by the fingers or thumbs, a person would have to dance on tiptoes. There was also a two-part bench they called a "lao hu deng," a tiger bench, clearly meant to be used as a rack to stretch, and perhaps break, a body. Everything was old, but it was in good repair—obviously currently in use.
What were these things used for? I asked the two young guards. They both grinned.
"They're for soldiers who are bad," one of them said, using a coy word that means "naughty."
"Or for the lao bai xing, if they are bad," the other chimed in, referring to the common people of the village.
They were laughing, but it wasn't a joke. Baker and Levy and I looked at one another and then at these fresh-faced young boys. They couldn't have been more than eighteen, and I wondered if they weren't perhaps more like fourteen.
Why did you join the army, we asked?
They laughed again. "Mei banfa," they answered together. We had no choice.
* * *
Everywhere else in the world, the war was ending. In China it was just beginning.
The surrender of the Japanese had put an end to the bombings and the air raids, and freed the people from the terror of invaders who had raped and bayoneted their way through Shanghai and Nanjing. But the defeat of the common enemy had removed the only thing that had held China together. The Japanese gone, the Chinese turned to fighting each other. During the Japanese occupation the Nationalist and Communist parties had cooperated only fitfully, often in name only. But scarcely had the surrender been tendered than the tenuous cooperation fractured. Far off, in northern and central China, Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government, which ruled the country, and Mao Zedong's Communist forces, which controlled large chunks of China, were racing to accept the surrender of Japanese troops, and to take over their weapons. The two sides were battling not just for the prestige of receiving the surrender, but for the future right—and ability—to claim its party as the legitimate government of China.
In Kunming, the motley uniforms of the troops that swarmed the streets mirrored the deep divisions that were about to plunge China into a fierce and bitter civil war. The Nationalists were easy to identify in their handsome, tailored slate-blue muslin uniforms, or khaki woolen jackets for dress. These were Chiang Kai-shek's own troops, and their very presence here was a testament to the rot that was eating at China from the inside. These crack troops, which were supposed to have been used to repel the Japanese, were being kept here in Kunming, fresh and far from the battle lines, so they could be used after the war to wipe out the Communists. Like our young guides at the compound, they were all sweet-faced boys from Hunan who, in contrast to the rest of the population, looked extremely well fed.
As for the troops of the warlords—the petty tyrants who held sway over local fiefdoms all over China—they were a ragtag lot, dressed every which way, bearing the unmistakable signs of wartime hunger.
In Kunming I soon saw that there was no law, nothing to protect ordinary people from their own government. On one of my first days out driving through the city, our jeep was halted by a procession of men shuffling along with their ankles roped together.
"Who are they?" I asked the young lad who accompanied me.
"New soldiers," he said. He told me the army swept down on nearby villages and just grabbed whomever they wanted and carted them off.
"But there are only two guards and dozens of these country boys," I protested. "Why don't they just escape?"
He shrugged. "Soldiers wear tiger skins," he said, meaning best not to fool with them.
Nor were young men of the villages the only ones vulnerable. Soon after we arrived, the KMT commander supervising our base casually mentioned that he could get us all the women we wanted. For one U.S. dollar, he said, we will guarantee you a virgin. Startled, we asked where he would get them? From the villages, he explained. No one dared resist, he said. Soldiers wear tiger skins. Over and over we were to hear that phrase. Even when serious crimes had been committed, there were often no hearings, no trials, no punishment. There was no law—only power.
One day, in downtown Kunming where my jeep was parked, I saw two policemen, German Lugers at their sides, tying up a ragged man and a little boy right beside my vehicle. "What's going on?" I asked.
"We caught them hanging around your jeep," one of the policemen replied. "We are sure they intended to steal something from it, except we caught them first."
"Oh," I said, wondering how they knew what their prisoners intended. "And what are you going to do with them?"
"We will take them to the execution grounds and shoot them," said the other policeman, making fast the little boy's ropes. He could not have been more than eight or nine years old.
What could I do? I was pretty sure the policemen wouldn't be impressed by talk of rules of evidence and habeas corpus. "I'll tell you what," I said. "I have an idea. You caught them near an American jeep, so we should have a chance to handle them. Why don't you tie them up very securely and put them in the back. I'll take them to American MP headquarters. When the MPs get hold of them, they'll wish they had stayed with you."
The two policemen looked at each other and chuckled. Then they tightened the ropes and heaved the man and the boy into the back of my jeep. I got in quickly and raced out of the lot and down the street, afraid that the policemen might have second thoughts and chase after me. Meanwhile, I was calling out to my two passengers in the back seat, "Don't worry, I'm going to let you go as soon as we get to a safe spot."
I turned several corners, swerving through the busy streets, heading for the outskirts of town. When we reached the fringes of a large park I pulled over, got out and cut the ropes loose with my knife. It seemed that they had either not heard me call out or had not believed me. They stood there, looking at me with the glazed eyes of the despairing.
"It's okay," I said. "I'm setting you free."
The man and the boy both stared.
Again I said, "You're free. You can go."
Slowly, a light of recognition appeared in the man's eyes. He fell to his knees. "Jiu ming en ren," he wailed, pulling the boy down beside him. "Jiu ming en ren." You are our benefactor who has saved us from death. The two touched their heads to the dirt before me.
I felt sick.
In a sudden rush of shame and emotion, I reached in my pocket, pulled out all the dollars I found there and gave half to the man, half to the boy. "Get out of here. Get out of here quickly," I said, "or the police may follow and seize you again."
I jumped into the jeep, and drove away as fast as I could.
Regardless of the people's fear of the KMT, and of the police, it was clearly the Communists, not the KMT, who had captured their imagination. Chief Cook Wang proved that to me.
Shortly after I had arrived in Kunming, Wang spotted me in the mess hall, shoveling Spam and bully beef onto my plate along with the other GIs, and chattering away in Chinese to the waiters on the chow line. A very well fed man himself, he waddled over and pulled me aside. "You don't want to eat this slop," he whispered. "You are a friend of China. You can speak Chinese. Wait until dinner is over and come back with us."
After the GI mess had been cleared away, I went back to the kitchen where the cooks were all pitching in to make their own meal, their long chopping tables covered with food. That night we ate sweet-and-sour pork, crispy-skin chicken, fried eggplant, and long thin beans. I reveled in exotic fare like Over-the-Bridge noodles, rice noodles in a scalding hot soup.
After that I sneaked back to the kitchen to eat as often as I could. And over the din of banging pots and a lot of good-natured shouting and slurping, the cooks talked about their lives in Kunming before the war. They told me about the Hanliu, the secret associations of artisans that stuck up for each other, and of the violent, bloody wars between gangs—the Red Gang, the Green Gang—that reminded me of the warfare between rival Mafia gangs.
Chief Cook Wang was a born storyteller, and the local folklore was rich and varied. As an evening wore on, they would smoke the Camels I bought from the PX and listen as he spun his tales. One of his favorites was about the hero Zhu Mao. All the cooks knew of him and loved to hear stories about him. While Zhu Mao had never been to Kunming, they said, he had traveled nearly everywhere else and his deeds were well known all over China. He was a tall, powerful man, so fearsome that no army could stand up to him and no fortress could keep him out. Bullets and spears couldn't hurt him. He could enter the thick of the fiercest battle and emerge unscathed. What's more, he was much beloved. He used his power in the service of the poor, righting wrongs and ending injustices.
I was puzzled. The cooks were using the word "Mao" as a given name, but it wasn't really a given name. It was more of a surname and a common one at that—certainly no name for such a hero. I asked Chef Wang about it and he simply shrugged. They were good stories, and he was ignorant of such literary questions as a name's meaning. One evening, however, as Chef Wang was telling another story about how the fearless Zhu Mao had swept through an area with his men, breaking into rich landlords' stores of grain and handing it out to poor peasants, I suddenly realized who this hero Zhu Mao was.
My mind flashed back to my classes at Stanford. "Maaah-Ow," one teacher would say, trying to teach us the diphthongs. "Mao, as in Mao Ze-dong." Then, "Zh ... Zh ... Zh ... Zhu ... Zhu ... Zhu ... as in Zhu De," referring to the Communists' famous commander-in-chief. In between lessons, my teachers talked to us about the Communists' Long March in the years before the war. To consolidate their hold on power, the Nationalists were determined to destroy the Communists, driving them further and further into the remote provinces of the north. As the Communists made their frantic flight from the Kuomintang pursuing them, they left behind huge posters telling of their progress and laying out their programs for social reform. Each one would be stamped with the names of the two top Communist leaders: Zhu Mao. So stories must have spread from village to village, and in these cooks' minds —and perhaps, I thought, in the minds of peasants and common people all over China—these two men had blended into one superhero, a kind of latter-day Robin Hood.
Copyright © 2000 The Ivy Press. All rights reserved.
|Foreword by Mike Wallace||1|
|Introduction by Michael Hunt||3|
|Notes on Spelling and Pronunciation||7|
|1. The Death of the Wood Fairy||17|
|2. The Famine||37|
|3. The New Fourth Army||54|
|4. In Mao's Caves||73|
|5. High Autumn and Bracing Weather||99|
|6. My Long March||115|
|7. The Year of Darkness||137|
|8. Learning to Live||158|
|9. The Brave New World||173|
|10. Redder Than Red||186|
|11. The Golden Age||203|
|12. A Leap in the Dark||222|
|13. The Great Hunger||239|
|14. The Inner Circle||261|
|15. The Good Life||276|
|16.Arouse the Masses||301|
|17. Smash Everything Old||314|
|18. Seize Power||333|
|19. Hold Power||354|
|20. Power Prevails||370|
|21. The Ice House||389|
|22. The Dynasty Collapses||409|
|23. Coming Home||433|