Huang Zhangjin (黄章晋):The Tale of Eight Thousand Hunan Maidens Going Up Tian Mountain (2/2)

Born and raised in Xinjiang, Huang Zhangjin (黄章晋) has worked as a journalist for several media organizations and is also a longtime blogger. Huang was also an editor of online forum, Uighur Online. The following post “Please Tell Them, Yahximusiz” was published on his Sohu blog on December 31, 2005, but has also recently been recirculated in the Chinese blogsphere following the violence in Urumqi on July 5. In the post, Huang tells about his experience reporting on a commemoration for the so-called “Eight Thousand Hunan Maidens Going Up Tian Mountain,” women from Hunan who were recruited by the People’s Liberation Army to go to Xinjiang in the early 1950s after being falsely promised a place in a Russian language school or better jobs.

In this second part of the post, Huang brings the story into the present with a discussion of relations between ethnic groups in China. Translated by CDT’s E Shih; Part One of the translation can be read here.

One of my family’s old neighbors was a soldier under the leadership of Wang Zhen at the end of the war against the Japanese who entered  with Wang. When he has spoken of the past, he would tell us how some soldiers would look upon a life of emptiness and loneliness stretch out before them and choose suicide out of despair. When the first group of female soldiers arrived, it was as if there was a whole pack of wolves fighting over scraps of meat. The middle and lower level officers didn’t see so much as the shadow of a woman, and this made them even more desperate than before. So, there was a large assembly, during which a high level officer—a new groom himself—made a grand promise: The Central Party Committee and Chairman Mao will do what they said they would do. Some revolutionary soldiers say, mistakenly, that only the Headman gets a wife, and that simply isn’t true! Chairman Mao will make good on his word, you can be sure of that. Everyone will certainly be distributed a wife!

Perhaps it is simply that people raise extreme examples to make a point when they tell stories. But the wife distribution that the old man was talking about really did happen. The female soldiers were immediately allotted to Head Men who needed them. The Head Men could hardly wait for them to arrive before swooping in for the harvest. It wasn’t ideological work, the way it is depicted in“Years That Burned With Furious Passion,” to say the least. Because the dearth of female companionship in Xinjiang was so desperate, and because criticism doesn’t always work as weaponry, it is necessary at the critical moment to use weapons as criticism: when the door is locked, no means yes. How much resistance do you think those young girls could put up? The next day, everyone came to congratulate the newlyweds. The old man even said, laughing, that the distribution was done in the style of dividing war booty in order to prevent brawls and competition among the Head Men. When the women arrived, they all grabbed one, and you were stuck with whomever you happened to grab. I’m not sure how much this tone was exaggerated for the benefit of the mass media; but when I first heard someone tell of this chapter in history, it was like an example of one class violently overthrowing another, contained in an elegant, leisurely depiction that recalled painting or embroidery. Hearing this story before emotional maturity, I didn’t entirely feel the shock and terror that I do now. But I did once hear that a truckload of female soldiers was once kidnapped by a group of minority race bandits mid-way, and what was meant to be rations for our soldiers became their war loot. Oh, the indignation!

In reality, whether we’re talking about war loot or “supporting equipments”, there were far more than 8000 Hunan maidens. There were also many more female soldiers from various other provinces being allocated to local soldiers. According to the current narrative, the educated youths who reported to Xinjiang as members of the construction army corps numbered in the tens of thousands, and that is why the women were also called to duty. That old man’s wife is from Shandong, for example. Some say that it was from Shandong that the first female soldiers were procured, because the war had caused a particularly serious imbalance in gender in that province. Several widows were among those drafted and sent to Xinjiang. Besides those women and the young female students, there was also the odd reformed prostitute from Beijing or Shanghai. But as time progressed, there was more and more freedom in military marital affairs, and it was not as tragic as it was initially. The other provinces had also offered up so many of their daughters; but without data, they were all forgotten save the Hunan maidens.

I can roughly imagine what the response of the still living Hunan maidens will be when faced with microphones pushed at them by young reporters. Their fate is like that of China today: they were forced into marriage, but after living through the difficult years one by one, their youthful black hair was bleached white by the Gobi desert. That person became a husband, a father to their children. After years of taking it and taking it, everything became part of our history, and a part of us. Patriarchal language manipulated matriarchal memories and sentimental knowledge. Transforming forced pairing as honest wooing liberated the women from psychological pain. This is not necessarily a coping mechanism, but the effect of ubiquitous indoctrination: The authority of official language finally became their internalized understanding of themselves. Do the children of the Hunan maidens criticize their parents’ weddings? Only the batch of latecomers my own parents belonged to were free from grand phrases such as “sacrificing oneself in the hinterlands,” because in their case no one was deceived or forced to do something against her will. Nobody resigned themselves to life; they just lived life. When government policy softened, those who could move out did so, and those who could not focused on making sure that their children got into college and left this place.

But there is nowhere to hide from fate. If I ask my mother today, was it fortunate or unfortunate that my auntie, a fresh middle school graduate at the time, did not become one of the 8000, she might think for a moment and say: It doesn’t matter if it was fortunate or unfortunate, because your auntie was quickly married off to a faraway mining town to become part of a mining family. Even if she didn’t die early, if you look at her several decades later, you couldn’t tell if she was better off there or not. You could even say that Xinjiang held more possibilities, because in that era, people of that family background had no other choices. One day, when I tell my own child about history, I will tell him, that tragic era for our people was not just the felling of a great tree, but also the falling of every family, every individual, like the twigs and leaves of the tree raining down into muddy water.

And so after 55 years have come and gone, when the Hunan maiden who could never return home or leave Xinjiang hears of today’s activities, she is, of course, moved. Who’s to say that she doesn’t still privately think that the past is too painful to remember, but now takes solace in that long-dissolved official language which continues to give her life some meaning. At the very least, suffering always turns into a special sort of sentimental memory. That fulfils our psychological needs. If you think of the Japanese who participated in the colonization of Manchuria and Mongolia, and who even now quietly return to their Manchuria to remember the past, you will understand that this is a common human characteristic. Whether it is on the level of the individual or the group, people have a certain tolerance for suffering, life and fate. Back in the day, Jianzhou troops swarmed into the homeland, drowning countless men and women in a fateful sea of blood and death; but in the end, we all became part of the great Qing empire. Reading Zhao Wumian’s “If Japan Had Triumphed Over China,” one feels great indignation and finds it hard to accept his conclusions; but logic is calm and unfeeling.

Maybe using Japanese colonialists in my analogy is wildly politically incorrect. But when each group answered their nation’s call and arrived at their destinations, how were these situations different? The difference today is that one of the two is still being affirmed as a contribution of great value to the nation, and the other has been deemed a great deception for a long time now. And yet, and yet. The reason that the Hunan maiden’s homecoming event has aroused such a strong resonance is that an alternate history remains in the hearts of many. My mother said herself, back when she was considering how to name her unborn child, she thought immediately of using words from Yang Changjun’s poem, “Praise of Zuo’s Western Conquest in Gantang.” I’m not sure whether those who feel a strong resonance with the homecoming event also have that same subconscious ideology. But if we use Yang Du’s “Song of the Hunan Youth” to describe the fearless attitude towards Xinjiang-Hunan, it would sound like: “Across thousands of miles of boundary land, nine out of ten are of Hunan. General Zuo conquers the Qilian Mountains, winning them as colonies for Hunan.” (”茫茫回部几千里,十人九是湘人子。左公战胜祁连山,得此湖南殖民地。”)

Yes, I have finally brought the discussion back to here, carefully. This may already be a frightening political transgression; but has anyone ever thought about what the Uighers must feel when they watch a commemoration of the Hunan maidens’ journey? That was my real first reaction when I first heard of this topic. Because I grew up there and experienced what went on there at the time, I know that the race problem has only gotten more sensitive and more nuanced. I can’t keep from making these mental connections at a time when ethnic chauvinism is on the rise.

Yes, the Hunan maidens were an unlucky bunch. They received invitation letters to go to Heaven, and were taken to Hell instead. But they were never in want of ideology and rhetoric provided by the central organization, and they are commemorated by flags and drums in the land of their origin. Their fates were always accompanied by a steady main melody. And what about the Uighurs? Back then, they leaned on their hoes at the side of the road watching car after car of Han Chinese come from the East, put down roots, and raise children. Afterwards, countless Uighur social spaces in the old cities disappeared and were never reconstructed, while Han Chinese spaces seemed to spread everywhere of their own volition. A Uighur student studying in Beijing wrote on a BBS bulletin board that no one would listen to their voices. The official policy of ethnic benefits became a twisted and almost mocking reality. As to what they must have thought at the time, we would have to return to the beginning and think through the situation from their point of view in order to understand that.

The powerful will be much less psychologically sensitive than the weaker ethnic group. It was only many years after the fact that I remembered how, back at the school for kids of military families, I often participated in beating up ethnic minority students. They came from small villages in the area and were very few in number. When they were faced with a beating, they could only resign themselves to a position of non-resistance. I don’t know how many of my classmates finally became conscious, as adults, that what may have seemed to us the normal rough play of children must have left a certain psychological mark upon those Uighur classmates. Perhaps the majority ethnicity—those who delivered beatings—have long since forgotten, but I believe the minority ethnicity—those who received beatings—will never forget. Even their former attempts to assimilate to Han culture become a sort of humiliation. I remember there were two Uighur students in our class who had very unusual names: Revolution and Revolution Guli. I don’t know if those two classmates, who have long since become mature women still keep the symbols branded onto them by the times? And how in the world do they explain their strange names to their children in the present day?

When I see posts by angry youth on the BBS railing against Xinjiang independence, I notice that they give examples of Uighur classmates being indifferent, even revealing mocking expressions, when they hear condemnations of Japanese wartime criminality—and I believe that these scenarios have the ring of truth. It would be more shocking if they were to feel a strong sense of solidarity with their Han classmates against the Japanese. Of course the opposite occurred. I thought the angry anti-Japanese youth would be very understanding of their Uighur peers’ reaction. If only that youth could just exercise a little compassion, and spend even a tiny amount of time understanding some history. The problem is, small-minded people are small-minded, no matter what the problem at hand may be. An ethnic group that already has an advantage in sheer population size and in real power should really try to understand that history has left certain psychological sensitivities within ethnic minority groups. Because they do not have a voice, and no one listens to what they have to say. In the era of the first protectorate of Xinjiang, Yang Zengxin, Yang himself applied himself to learning the Uighur language, and required the same of his Han ethnicity officers. But today, are there any Han officials who speak Uighur? Although this may not be an appropriate comparison, that martial era, and the period of Japanese colonization in Manchuria was definitely better handled than the present day situation.

When I speak to Taras about the small-mindedness caused by the unfortunate recent history of Muslims, Taras himself said that he faced a certain internal contradiction: He can sense with full clarity that he is entertaining the small-mindedness fostered by mass historical memory, but he cannot find it in himself to put aside his prejudices. This is the standard of a saint, is it not? We must say that, in Xinjiang, the native Han ethnicity inhabitants had long term experience living amongst different ethnicities, and so understood how to respect their differences. The large-scale influx of inlanders that followed had no such experience in living with different ethnicities. Even though government policy merged the two groups of Han ethnicity inhabitants, the inland immigrants were so great in number that generations of accumulated interethnic understanding was completely diluted. When the children became adults, their understanding of the different cultural habits of ethnic minorities is mostly built on extremely humiliating demonization.

Perhaps out of a sense of reparation, I stand consciously on the side of the minorities. Interestingly, one time when I agreed to meet up with a friend I’d met online, he arranged the meeting at a Halal restaurant—because he thought I was a Muslim. Maybe a Muslim like me would be even more effective in time of war than Taras. A few days ago, he was enraged again because he saw disrespectful words about Muslims on a blog. It seems he errs on the side of extreme sensitivity. Allegedly, every year there are fellow journalists who are punished because of such slanderous activity, but it seems that such official protection of culture and religion does not weaken the divide. In fact, in some ways, it strengthens the wall that separates the ethnic groups. When I spoke to one of my colleagues here, who had been to Xinjiang a few times, it was revealed that he, too, had always thought that the banning of pork came from some sort of religious totem. The responsibility for closing this gap in understanding does not lie, I believe, with the side with less population and fewer real rights of speech. Even more so because the official language has covered up history. When many angry youth criticize American imperialism, they emphasize the fact that the Americans slaughtered and stole from the Indians, and that the apology for these grievances was several hundred years too late. But, at the very least, they have admitted this history.

When I made a trip back to the family home in October from Shenzhen, I passed a young Uighur under cover from the rain beneath an awning, manning a stand. Suddenly inspired, I said to him, “Yahximusiz! (Hello!)” His eyes were immediately filled with joy and passion. While he grilled my mutton for me, he was exceptionally garrulous in Mandarin. Actually, what most normal people care about is life—not ethnic consciousness, emotions, and what others possess. People are pragmatic whenever they can be pragmatic. It doesn’t take much: One simple sentence is enough to light someone up. That is because they are usually forced to answer to “terrorist” or “thief.” One day, you will believe, like me, that this is unfair.