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Looking Back from Age Ninety

May 1944: Based on a language aptitude test, I was taken out of the infantry, training in the Oregon snows, and shipped down to sunny Stanford, to be trained in Japanese. I opted for Chinese instead, thinking this would bring me home earlier. And then….

And then I totally fell in love with the Chinese language, the culture, my Chinese teachers. And it was two generations and three worlds later before I finally came home.

But that’s another story. This is about my first trip to China.

In 1945, after forty-five days crossing the Pacific on an Army transport, we finally arrived—not quite in China, but in Calcutta, India.

Then, four months later on September 16, as the Japanese were surrendering, I flew over the Himalayan Hump to China.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that flight, in a sense, previewed what awaited me in China. Our unit climbed on board and sat in a long row, backs against the wall, wearing our steel helmets, carrying full pack and gas mask, holding our rifles.

Each of us was ordered to pay a one dollar deposit and issued a parachute for the dangerous flight, by a First Sergeant who assured us that if the chute failed to open our deposit would be refunded.

But we were finally going to China!

As the plane rose steeply from the airport at Barrackpore, Bengal, one of the engines shut down and the propeller stopped turning. At the same time, a steaming hot liquid seeped back out of the flight deck and started down the aisle past where I was sitting.

One of the flight crew came down the aisle, headed for the “head” (bathroom, to you civilians). I said, “Look that engine’s stopped, and what’s this hot stuff?”

He glanced through the porthole at the motionless propeller and said, “Humph.” He pointed at the hot liquid as he went on down the aisle and called back over his shoulder, “Battery.”

But we were finally going to China!

They got the engine restarted and we crossed the Himalayas without further incident.

And as the dawn gently broke over the Western Hills of Kunming, we saw the airport below us.

China! A softly-tinted red basin with tree-lined canals snaking through the fields, the fields themselves in bits and snatches, looking like somebody’s crazy quilt.

As we swooped down to land, we could see endless lines of carts pulled by great black water buffaloes or by the little Yunnan ponies.

China! This was where we could “use our language”—“ours,” because we had put a full year into the Army’s immersion study program at Stanford. Then, since the Army urgently need Chinese language personnel, we were shipped out the day after graduation—to Camp Crowder, Missouri, where we were told to “forget about your Chinese” and were trained for one year to climb telephone poles, run field switchboards, and repair telephone lines. (You’ve heard about Army efficiency?)

We raged for a year about “not being able to use our language,” we complained to the Inspector General in Washington—and now, finally, we were in China, where we could use “our language” to make a difference.

When we landed, we were taken to our barracks at “Hostel #8,” and introduced to our logistical hosts, the Nationalist WASC (War Area Service Corps). Our hosts proved skilled at showing GIs around, quietly relieving them of many prized possessions, procuring village girls for one dollar a night, and scrutinizing their activities.

But I would have none of that—I went out, as soon as my duffle bag was stowed in the barracks, to see what friends I could make with “my language.”

Of course, I found that “their language” was quite another story. They spoke a Yunnan dialect, which I learned to understand only after some time. But they could understand my amateurish Beijing dialect.

On the first afternoon, I went with two of my buddies to visit the Nationalist Army company command post, across the road from us. This was part of Chiang Kai-shek’s elite Fifth Army, commanded by Generals Du Yuming and Qiu Qingquan—both of whom ended up as POWs in the later Civil War days.

The square in from the command post was an amazing sight. It looked like the set for some Cecil B. DeMille movie: medieval instruments of torture lined the square—stocks, a crooked bench for bending the spine, rings for hanging victims up by their thumbs…

I asked one of the guards on duty—a chubby, baby-faced Hunanese farm boy—“What are these for?”

“For us, when we’re naughty. And for bad laobaixing (civilians).”

Everything we had learned at Stanford about the Old Regime in China suddenly became very real.

On the way back to the barracks, I ran into a little boy, six or seven, coming back from school, with his book-bag slung over his shoulder—like me, when I used to walk home from Bennett School in Charleston.

I stopped him to practice my Chinese. He was learning Standard Mandarin, so I could understand him.

Lao Mei ding hao!” He started off—“Americans are the best.” Many local people would sing that out, with a big “thumbs up” whenever we appeared in public—we were fighting the Japanese, we had money to spend, we were popular.

I asked him what he was studying. “Chinese,” he said.

“It’s hard for us to learn,” I said. Especially the tones.”

“Tones?” He put his close-cropped head to one side.

“Yes, tones. When you say ‘hao’ third tone and ‘hao’ second tone, it’s really the same word, isn’t it? Just the tone is different.”

Again, he put his head to one side and began repeating those two words to himself: “Hao; hao. Hao; hao.”

Then he looked up with a big grin and said, “They are a little alike, aren’t they?”

He invited me home with him to have tea. When we arrived, I had tea with his mother and grandmother, whom I could barely understand, until his father came home. His father, Li Zhi, turned out to be a captain in one of the many secret police agencies that surrounded us—this one belonged to the provincial warlord/governor, Long Yun.

Li Zhi told me that they were instructed to take every opportunity of making friends with American GIs, so he was very happy that I had come to make friends with them.

Well, of course, I hadn’t. But he dogged my footsteps, and my buddies’, as long as we were in Beijing, and was a sinister nuisance.

On the next morning, still in first flush of excitement at finally being in China and able to use “my language,” I drove into the bustling city of Kunming. In those days, it was a quiet beautiful old town with no end of unique scenic spots, a stunning lake and graceful mountains in the distance (a far cry from the grungy commercial city and the shrunken, heavily polluted lake of today).

I was attracted by a little gang of newspaper boys—ragged trousers, barefoot, Chinese cousins of Huckleberry Finn.

I nudged the jeep over and parked in front of them, and they immediately swarmed all over the car, each thrusting his papers at me.

Lao Mei ding hao” and up-thrust thumbs all round.

Dou you shenme bao?” I asked. “What have you got?”

They had the local Nationalist Party paper, as well as the national one; the commercial journal; a Catholic daily; the Nationalist Army paper…and, I discovered that, buried underneath all the others they were peddling the forbidden Communist journals, the New China Daily and The Masses magazine.

They seemed to feel safe showing me their secret wares, since I was a foreigner. And they were tickled pink when I bought both of the forbidden Communist publications.

I found out later that the CPC had a secret deal with local warlord Long Yun (later an official with no authority in the PRC government) under which Long allowed them to circulate their paper in Kunming, but sotto voce.

Finally, the whole gaggle of kids piled into the jeep and they directed me to the Confucian Temple Park—Da Guan Yuan—with its thriving market for fruits, vegetables, and sweetmeats, and we had a ball, roaming the park, chattering, and eating.

I took them back to where I had picked them up. From then on, we were fast friends, helping each other in various ways during the two months that I was stationed in Kunming. Actually, it was these ragged kids that introduced me to the underground workers for the CPC in Kunming—which changed my life.

But there was a little entr’acte that was highly instructive for me, long-term.

One day, my jeep was parked at the curb, and the little newsies were crowded around, chattering away as usual. As I was getting ready to leave, I happened to open the glove compartment and found that my big GI flashlight had disappeared. It had been there that morning, so I knew what had happened.

“Look,” I said, “do you think this is right? We’re all good friends, just sitting here talking, and somebody filched my flashlight. Is that the way friends treat friends? Whoever took it, please ask him to give it back, no questions asked.”

There was a great hubbub, like they were debating, followed by some pushing and shoving; finally, they pushed a tiny little boy to the doorway. He was in complete rags, standing there, hanging his head. He fished in under his rags and slowly produced my flashlight, which he handed back to me.

I was moved beyond words. A simple act of human love and trust, bonding across seemingly unbridgeable gulfs. I hugged him and hugged him, and then put him in the front seat as we all went off for goodies to the Confucian Temple.

Sometimes, I would look at them and wonder about China’s future. I thought of one of my favorite passages from Shakespeare—Romeo to the apothecary—

“Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness, and fear'st to die? famine is in thy cheeks,

Need and oppression starveth in thine eyes,

Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back.”

I did not know it yet, but these boys and those like them proved that they were not afraid to die, and thus did they accomplish the revolution.

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Sidney Rittenberg is founder and president of the China consulting team Rittenberg Associates, Inc. He lived and worked in China for thirty-five years after World War II, when he joined the United...
My First Trip to China

Hong Kong Economic Journal logoThis essay first appeared as part of the Hong Kong Economic Journal's "My First Trip To China" Series.

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