The Years of War
March 15, 2020
The Idle Son
March 4, 2020
The Village Doctor
March 19, 2020

Welcome to my family stories. They were misplaced during a website migration years ago, and now I've found them. There are 22 in all and I will do my best to post one each week. If you've ever read the Author's Notes at the back of my novels, you will know that family memoirs and stories about my ancestors often make their way into the books - so if any incidents in these stories feel familiar, it's probably because they've been used in a novel. But which one?

THE LIBRARY OF LEGENDS follows the lives of a group of university students as they take to the road, walking a thousand miles west to the interior of China to get away from the war. My parents experienced the Second Sino-Japanese War and then the Second World War as young adults. It was a time that reshaped the country and their own world view. This family story is an overview of those years of war. Enjoy.


L ike countless others in China, our ancestral town of Pinghu had an undistinguished and uneventful history. It drowsed its way through centuries of slow-paced change, startled awake every decade or so by local calamities such as famine, flood, disease or a small war between petty warlords. Too far away from the centers of political power to harbour extreme wealth or menace, the citizens of Pinghu were aware of growing conflicts between China and the West, but were affected so little that for the most part they continued to lead the same lives as their grandparents and great-grandparents.


The town was unpretentious and modestly prosperous, home to minor officials, landowners, and merchants. Surrounded by farmland, it was somewhat famous in the province for its many varieties of melon. Had one of my ancestors from three hundred years ago been resurrected into the Pinghu of 1900, he would have found the rhythms of life familiar and reassuring, for electricity and the five-watt light bulb did not find their way to the wealthier homes of Pinghu until the 1920’s. 

When the Qing dynasty abdicated to the Republic of China in 1912, there was a ripple of concern as local bureaucrats scrambled around for a way to secure new careers. But even so, there was a sense that all would eventually right itself, simply because it seemed impossible that the serene monotony of village life could ever be disturbed. It was as though we had been bred to self-satisfaction and could not imagine how the outside world could affect the complacent life of small town China. The tragedies we knew were predictable and of our own making. Others, such as disease, natural disaster, and corruption were treated as life’s common ingredients. 

But then began a series of events that brought to Pinghu’s residents the tragedy they feared above all else: an uprooting from our ancestral homes. In 1937 war broke out between China and Japan and Japanese forces invaded China. Year later, with parts of the country occupied by the Japanese, China became embroiled in World War II on the side of the Allies. And through all this, China struggled with an ongoing civil war between the Nationalists and Communists. 

Those years of war engrained in our parents and others of that generation a lifelong habit of thrift, caution and stoicism. They would never forget their despondency at leaving behind the homes that defined their place in this world, or the sleepless melancholy they suffered lying in some squalid room shared with dozens of other refugees, all the while dreaming of grey roof tiles and whitewashed walls that enclosed peaceful courtyards. They trusted only their own family members and cautiously extended help to others from their own town and county, continuing a centuries-long tradition of the tong xiang hui, county associations, a support system that you find to this day in overseas Chinese communities.   

Here then, are brief accounts of how my parents’ families lived during the years of war. 

A Family of Refugees (Mao) 

My Grandfather Mao was the town doctor and his wife, my grandmother, was head nurse and midwife in his clinic. When Japanese airplanes began flying further in from the coast to bomb smaller towns, Grandfather refused to leave Pinghu because he wanted to keep looking after his patients. He had a bomb shelter dug into a corner of the main courtyard, and there the family, servants and patients would huddle whenever they heard the drone of airplanes approaching from the east. Even when a bomb fell into one of the courtyards and set fire to the bamboo grove, Grandfather Mao refused to leave. 

At the start of the war, my mother Mao Lei was just a teenager and attended a boarding school in Nanjing. As soon as war with Japan was announced, Grandfather Mao hurried to Nanjing by train, yanked her out of her classes and fetched her home. My mother loved boarding school, and said she felt quite disappointed at being taken away from her classmates. When she arrived back in Pinghu, there was another disappointment: her friends were gone, their families all fled. Some had left for cities in the south and interior of China, others had gone to Shanghai, where hundreds of thousands of refugees were streaming into the safety of the International Settlement. 

Then Grandfather Mao received a letter from his father-in-law, who worried for their safety. He begged my grandparents to take the family to Hangzhou, where they lived. Hangzhou was a big city and well-defended, unlike Pinghu, which did not have a hope of putting up any resistance. So Grandfather Mao acquiesced to his in-laws. He hired a river boat and the family prepared for departure. 

When it became known that my grandfather was leaving Pinghu, one of his patients became hysterical. She insisted on travelling with them, for she was about to give birth and refused to let anyone but my grandparents deliver the baby. 

Partway to Hangzhou, at a town called Suang Ling, Twin Groves, the woman’s labour pains started. So the boat stayed moored, hidden by a stand of trees, while my grandparents attended to a difficult birth. During this time, the family couldn’t cook any food in case the smells and smoke caught the attention of any Japanese troops or bandits in the area. They ate cold rice and pickled vegetables. 

By the time it was safe for woman and her baby to travel, it was no longer safe for the travelers to continue the journey. The roads and waterways to Hangzhou had been blockaded. There was nothing to be done but turn back and go home to Pinghu. 

There was a tragic consequence to this delay. My grandmother was unable to get news to her parents that they’d had to turn back to Pinghu. So her father walked to the wharf in Hangzhou every day for weeks, frantic with worry. Anxiety over his daughter and her family exhausted him so much that he fell ill and died. It was a bitter day when my grandmother finally received a letter from Hangzhou, only to learn of his death.  

After this initial, unsuccessful attempt to flee, the Mao family spent a few more weeks living in Pinghu. By now the country was awash with alarming stories about the brutality of Japanese soldiers. For our parents's generation, the Nanjing Massacre sealed forever their distrust of all things Japanese; but even before the Massacre, they already knew they could expect no pity from this enemy. So the Mao family packed up again and this time settled in a large rented house in an isolated corner of the hills outside Pinghu. There they hoped to hide from the worst of the war. 

But there are no secrets in a small town, and Doctor Mao was one of its most prominent members. One night a ragged troop of bandits with knives and clubs stormed the country house. There was no way of knowing who they were, for their faces were blackened with soot and their features hidden by scarves tied over their noses. My mother says they were most likely small-time hoodlums from Pinghu. The men claimed Grandfather was a corrupt magistrate and they were there to take back what he had stolen from the common people. 

My mother and her younger brothers clung to their father, crying “He’s not a magistrate, he’s a doctor!” 

But of course the hoodlums already knew that. They knew quite well they were robbing Doctor Mao’s family. They took money, food, and a few household items including Grandfather’s medical license, which was framed in gilded wood. Grandfather asked them to leave it behind, for the piece of paper was of no use to anyone else, and he couldn’t practice medicine without it. But the bandits hurried away into the night. They were actually ashamed to be stealing from a man who was known for his kindness to the poor. They didn’t harm any of the household. 

A few days later, Grandfather found his license by the door, weighted down with a rock. One of the culprits had slipped back to return it, minus the frame. 

This incident convinced Grandfather that he should take the family to Shanghai, where my grandmother’s siblings lived inside the International Settlement. So the Mao family returned to the house in Pinghu to pack up their belongings one more time, and Grandfather procured passage aboard the next river boat to Shanghai. 

By now the Japanese occupied Pinghu but the town was too small to be assigned more than a token occupation force. To everyone’s relief, the soldiers were not hampering the movements of citizens and the family was able to board the boat and travel safely to Shanghai. Once there, Grandfather Mao opened a small medical office and was able to support his family. 

If that bandit had not been moved by shame to return my grandfather’s license, Grandfather Mao would not have had the credentials to set up a practice in Shanghai, and who knows how the family would have survived the years of war. 

An Overseas Opportunity (Chang) 

My father Chang Shou Ching spent the first years of the Sino-Japanese war with his university. At that time, the vast majority of Chinese were illiterate and there were fewer than 45,000 university students. Education and the students’ welfare remained a priority, for these educated young adults would be the ones to rebuild China once the war was over. To ensure the students’ safety, the government ordered schools to evacuate. Universities and middle schools left the eastern provinces and traveled to central and western China, where they continued classes at temporary wartime campuses. My father and his classmates walked a thousand miles inland, carrying textbooks and belongings on their backs.

During the years of war, tuition was free and the government gave out allowances to support students cut off from their families. My third novel THE LIBRARY OF LEGENDS is based on my father's tales of his experiences and from reading accounts of other universities in exile.   

My father eventually finished his degree at the National Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou province. He’d survived for years with barely enough money to do more than attend classes and study. Yet he spoke to me with great fondness of this time, for he and his classmates were young and in high spirits. They had survived the long journey across China. They believed China would triumph over Japan and that the war would be over soon.

His memories were vivid and full of nostalgia. He told me of the time he and some classmates hired a rowboat. They allowed the boat to drift against the shady banks of the lake for hours while they listened to classical music drifting out across the water from a small concert hall on the shore. He said he had never heard anything so beautiful since, nor had he ever felt so much at peace. For those few hours he was able to forget about the and his poverty. Transfixed by his surroundings, he knew pure happiness. 

He also told me of more light-hearted times, such as when he and his classmates would go out for dim sum. Every now and then, the students would pool their money and go to one of the floating dim sum houses, restaurants that were really just covered barges moored to the riverbank. In those days, the bill was calculated by adding up the number of empty plates on the table. Father and his friends always took care to sit on the river side of the barge, so that if they were short of cash, they could surreptitiously toss a few plates overboard. My father told this tale with great delight, for he was a very law-abiding person, and I got the impression this was the most disreputable thing he had ever done in his youth. 

His life and fortunes changed in 1942, when the American Lend-Lease program offered scholarships for Chinese students to attend university in the United States. My father applied and was accepted; he was given a train ticket to Chongqing, which at the time was the wartime capital of the Republic of China. 

In Chongqing the students reported to U.S. military headquarters, where they were given clothing, food and fifty American dollars. My father said that although the clothes were just plain khaki shirts and trousers and the leather shoes quite ordinary, they were clean and brand new. It all felt unbelievably luxurious to a young man who had spent the last eight years in threadbare gowns and cloth shoes that were nearly worn out. As for the fifty dollars, that was wealth beyond comprehension. This was when my father formed many of his life-long friendships, for his was the first group of fourteen Chinese students to enter the program and they were bonded by the experience. 

After a week of briefings, the students were given packages of provisions and train tickets to Bombay. My father recalls the consternation they felt on the train several days into the trip, when they realized that they could not possibly finish all the food before it spoiled. The rations were packaged in portions suited to hearty American appetites, not stomachs accustomed to years of making do with very little. Yet they could not bear the thought of throwing food away. 

The issue resolved itself as the train chugged through India. Whenever it stopped, the students would be accosted by beggars calling out to them, hands outstretched. My father said that although he had seen terrible suffering in China, he had never seen anything so wretched as the misery of the untouchables of India. The students felt their lives full of hope when compared to these unfortunates, and threw their rations out the window and into that pitiful throng. 

In Bombay, my father and his little party boarded a ship bound for New York City via the South Atlantic route. The students were so excited at the prospect of seeing America that they cheerfully bore the discomforts of seasickness as the freighter navigated the Cape of Good Hope. They were nearly oblivious to the dangers of crossing an ocean battlefield, and only looked forward to the moment when they would reach New York. That is how my father came to spend the final years of the war as a student in the United States. 

First they were sent to Georgetown University for an intensive four-week course to improve their English. Then the group separated, assigned to professors at different universities. Father was assigned to Professor M. L. Jackson at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and that is why many years later, he chose Wisconsin as his school when he went back to the United States for his Ph.D. 

When my father finally returned to Pinghu, it had been more than ten years since he had seen his home. On the day after his return, my mother happened to be visiting her best friend, who was also my father’s youngest sister. My mother says that she glanced out the window and saw him walk past, tall and scholarly, freshly-arrived from an American university, and she fell in love.

A bout this story

My parents’ recollections of the years of war, when they were refugees in their own country, explains quite well the ancient Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times.” This curse reveals much about the Chinese mentality that reigned for centuries, a deep-seated desire for stability that outweighed minor benefits such as scientific progress and gender equality. When a culture can point to thousands of years’ worth of examples of every kind of war and calamity, it puts aversion to change in perspective. 

What these stories have helped me appreciate is that our parents and many others of their generation began their lives in a China that was still a near-feudal society. As adolescents, they adapted to wartime conditions harsher than anything we could ever imagine. As adults, they left behind the security of their own country, familiar customs, language, and friends, so that we, their children could grow up with more opportunities.  

I used to get exasperated that my mother couldn’t be bothered learning all the features of her microwave, or that she had no interest in computers. But she had already accommodated so much change in one lifetime, and these gadgets were not essential to her survival.  She had already done what was necessary to survive and I doubt that any of us could have done better. 

If you like this blog, please do me the honor of sharing on your social media. Leaving a comment is great, too!  -- Janie

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