Huang Zhangjin (黄章晋):The Tale of Eight Thousand Hunan Maidens Going Up Tian Mountain (1/2)

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. Translated by CDT’s E Shih.

The print version of the article on the Hunan maidens will be ready tomorrow, perhaps. Since I conceived a plan to go until the draft was written, something has been constantly bugging me, and I’m experiencing a strange feeling over and over. As the boss patiently tried to convince me that I could not go to Xinjiang, I would let out secret deep breaths. I was afraid that if I let my apprehensions accumulate, that once I sat down to write down the details in earnest, my mind would be blank. I would not be able to write anything.

When I first heard of the topic, “Eight Thousand Hunan Maidens Going up Tian Mountain,” I could only shake my head. It wasn’t the fact that I’d read the long form journalistic piece by that name several years ago, but that it would be too difficult to do it justice. I would be better off not doing it than botching the job. In my mind, it was an extremely intractable subject matter. It was like a frozen snake that could be warmed against one’s chest: As it slowly awoke, it would immediately sink its teeth into one’s heart. I had two aunts who were members of the Eight Thousand Hunan Maidens way back when. One had long passed away, and the one who was still alive was still struggling through life. Neither of them had ever returned home, and I had never seen them. I heard very little news of them. And I’m not sure if my other aunt was lucky or not. At the time, she waited alone with her bags on the path between Ningxiang and Changsha for the army car of the women’s division. After half a month, she returned home, disappointed: She missed her chance to attend the supposed Russian language school, or to become a woman tractor driver or accountant.

Hunan Economic Television Channel was promoting the return home of Hunan maidens at the time, and they would compensate us for travel expenses if we were to take up this topic. Mother said, even if the Hunan Economic Channel host was too shallow and made her want to curse, she couldn’t help being moved whenever she watched the segments. She was one of those “Mangliu” (“Blind migrants”) to Xinjiang in the 1960s. Because she wasn’t one of those tricked into going by government organizations, she naturally had no right to be written into history. Of course, they also never experienced the heavy bitterness of the previous generation, which had thrown themselves towards heaven only to find themselves in hell’s turmoil. Then again, the Eight Thousand Hunan Maidens were mostly minors at the time.


Since we had all agreed to do this topic, I finally got myself excited to do it and made a strong request to be included. I said, Can anyone do this topic better than I can? And so, Deng Fei, a journalist stationed at the other end, in Hunan, replied quickly. The Hunan Economic Channel would pay my way if I wanted to join the interviewing trip.

That was when I realized the extent to which the Hunan Economic Channel had played up the topic: Apparently, they were sending a private plane to bring some representatives back, and called for everyone to pay for their own trip along the same trail that the Eight Thousand Hunan Maidens had taken so many years ago. They wanted the entire convoy of thousands of vehicles to go escort the old maidens back home. At the end of the event, they would raise a giant, weathered stone excavated in Xinjiang as a monument on the bank of the Xiang River in Changsha. It was a commercial enterprise from the beginning, and stunk of that television drama I hated, “Years that Burned With Furious Passion.” But for many people it stirred something in them which I can’t define. In any case, whatever the melody, I believed this monument would be slightly less ridiculous than the movement, spearheaded by a certain newspaper in Beijing, to build a monument to the triumph against SARS. Once they got in position and the suona began playing, the sound of home brought tears to one’s eyes, no matter how far away one stood. To have given up one’s daughter so many years ago, and to have people still remember the sacrifice today—even if some sort of fatuous meaning was forced upon the commemoration–to have one’s daughter remembered in the land of China that was so bent on forgetting her sons and daughters: That had never happened before.

Personally, I’m always suspicious as to how warm a welcome the Hunan maidens will receive when they return home. Other than the fact that their unique fate is moving, it is true that the Hunan populace has a deeper emotional interaction with the territory of Xinjiang than people of other provinces, even if immigrants from other northern provinces now far outnumber the Hunan immigrant population. But the key juncture in history certainly had something to do with the Hunan people. First there was Zuo Zongtang and Liu Jintang, who conquered Xinjiang as a province. There is even a poem: “The great generals have yet to return from the borderlands, Hunan peoples fill Tian Mountain.” In the peaceful liberation of Xinjiang, the lead protester and guard, Tao Zhiyue, and the master of the handover Wang Zhen were both from Hunan. According to legend, there were less than 100,000 Han in the whole Xinjiang territory, yet there were 200,000 soldiers of the liberation army. They thought that they were fighting for the people, and that they could thus liberate themselves. They were ready to enjoy “electric lights and telephones on every floor of their new houses.” [military mobilization slogans encouraging peasants to join the PLA during the civil war.] No one expected that they would be left out to dry with no prospect of descendants. And so, [General] Wang Zhen asked Huang Kecheng [another PLA general] of Hunan for female soldiers. Thus, the Eight Thousand Hunan Maidens went up Tian Mountain.

My father’s family can trace its history back to when Zuo Zongtang began his western campaign. According to legend, one ancestor had been a soldier since a young age and returned to Hunan alone after several decades in Xinjiang. He looked like a beggar, and there was only one family within his nephews’ generation that did not mind taking him in. Later, his great nephew turned out to be good at academics, but the family was too poor to support his learning. The old man took out the knife from his belt and cut open his army boots, took out the gold that he had hidden all those years. It was because of this that my father’s family was able to rise out of poverty. However, the two following generations all went to military school. The second generation mostly served under Tao Zhiyue and were dispatched to Xinjiang. When the PLA army advanced westward in 1949, they raised their flags in favor of liberation, and all became criminals in the aftermath. Later, my father found that he could not make a living in his home town and left for Xinjiang with a document written by Tao Zhiyue himself. Before long, Tao Zhiyue was left without followers and cast aside.

By the time my parents got to Xinjiang, the children of the Hunan maidens were already school age. What’s more, youth from every province were flooding in endlessly. The Hunan population was already a miniscule percentage of the total. My mother was actually the first Hunan person in her military company. They all said, “Oh! Hunan girls are impressive!” And so, my mother heard the tale of the first Hunan Maidens. The main character was the daughter of a rich family in Changsha, who was so beautiful that she made an overwhelming impression on the Headman as soon as she arrived in Xinjiang. The Headman drove his jeep into the fields every few days to see her, but the girl in question could not be moved. This resulted in nobody at any level of leadership being able to do his job properly, as the Headman exhibited a shocking bourgeois patience. When he didn’t go to visit himself, he had his secretary write letters expressing his intent to build a revolutionary family. Once, the Headman went on a visit in the company of escorts, but the girl in question didn’t even turn her head at the great trail of followers in his wake. The Headman broke open a watermelon and offered it to her with both hands, but the girl in question took the watermelon and immediately smashed it on the Headman’s head. The Headman had killed countless multitudes in his lifetime of conquering and battle, only to be humiliated in public by a mere girl. Angered, he pulled out a gun and shot her dead on the spot. The Headman somehow avoided due process, and got away with just a period of incarceration and a transfer to a lower position within the army. The younger sister of the departed heard of this and left on a mission to get revenge, saying that she would wreak justice with her own hands even if she had to give up her life to do it. Finally, this alarmed the central authorities. As for that unfortunate Headman, no one can remember clearly whether he continued pursuing his love in the after life, or simply stayed in the land of the living as a perpetual prisoner.

Today, when we see news of the Hunan Maidens, it is almost all “introduced by the ‘organization’ [CCP], with their personal blessings.” The stories are of them finally finding happiness, and especially focus on how activists of the past have become illustrious members of the eight thousand. Perhaps the majority of them do not wish to bring up the copious tears they shed in the past, and the countless nights they spent dreaming of home, thinking of mom and dad, with no recourse but to turn their teary eyes towards the mountain and pray that their parents were well. Their days of yearning for the flora of the homeland while living in the borderlands were long past. Their generation’s bad fortune even passed on to the next generation: By 1978, their sons and daughters had long become farm laborers, and could not return home through the national examination system. Nor could they uproot their families and move back to their place of origin. They couldn’t even consider themselves in service of the nation’s expectations anymore. All they could do was place expectations on the shoulders of their grandchildren.

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 Xinjiang 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!

[To be continued]

See more photos of the Eight Thousand Maidens on


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