Democracy with a Tommygun by Wilfred Burchett
One had mixed feelings leaving Calcutta to fly to Chungking in June, 1942. On the one hand there was relief at leaving the Empire's second city with its ostrich head stuck well into the sand and legs waving wildly in the air. It was a relief to get away from the snobbery and exclusiveness of its clubs and hotels, dressing and bands for dinner, burra sahibs keeping a "stiff upper lip" by refusing to admit that ragged, disease-ridden British troops were battling with the Japanese a few hundred miles away to keep the borders of India safe. Calcutta was a replica of Rangoon, Hong Kong and Singapore before the axe fell and left the ostrich head in the sand. On the other hand, there were feelings of trepidation in returning to Chungking when the Japs might isolate the place at any time by pushing those last few hundred miles up the Burma Road to capture Kunming.
The C.N.A.C. plane flew low along the valley of the muddy lazy-looking Brahmaputra, to avoid the piling monsoon clouds impaled on the sombre green peaks that marked the Indo-Burma border country. We stopped in at Dinjan, an airfield torn out of an Assam tea plantation by the hands of thousands of plantation labourers, men, women and children. We took on a few cases of Red Cross supplies and boxes of ammunition for General Chennault's fighter planes. Drenched but cheerful-looking air transport command personnel waded across the muddy field, slush half-way up their knee-boots, rain streaming down their waterproofs. The monsoon had just started in earnest, and these boys straight out from the United States wondered what they had run into when three or four inches of rain plummeted down within a couple of hours.
The idea of trying to supply China across the sixteen thousand feet Karakoram mountains with a few planes and half-finished airfields must have seemed crazy to them, anyway.
Leaving Dinjan we had to head for the monsoon clouds and climb through them till we reached around 17,000 feet. Then, if we held a straight course and level altitude we would just scrape over the lowest of the peaks. It was an uncomfortable feeling, flying through cloud formations so solid that even the tips of the wings disappeared into rushing vapour, trusting only to the pilot's navigation and the correctness of the instruments. I have flown the "hump" several times since, but usually in clear weather when one could gasp at the beauty of the gleaming white peaks, depthless black shadows and deep green valleys; when one could calculate how much the plane had to increase elevation to negotiate the lowest saddle between the peaks ahead, and incidentally keep a look out for enemy planes. On this day the air was bumpy and at each sudden drop several of our Chinese passengers were sick, and I expected any moment we would drop right down a sharp, cold chunk of rock about five miles high.
Three hours after leaving Dinjan, however, we dived down through the swirling clouds and mist over Kunming to repeat what to me is still an ever-recurring miracle, the finding of a few dozen acres of ground without land or skymark of any sort. That negotiating the "hump" and finding Kunming was no easy job was soon demonstrated when traffic was stepped up. For several months our losses due to "operational hazards" averaged nearly a plane a day.
Late that evening we put down on the tiny island airstrip in the Yangtse river at Chungking after nine hours' flying time from Calcutta. Incidentally, we had traversed in one hour the area over which I had spent four days' Jeep travel and seven days' walking out of Burma to India.
My bags were nearly torn apart that first evening at the press hostel by correspondents and publicity department officials ferreting out the extra supplies of razor blades, shaving cream, tooth paste, flashlight cells and other small items I had brought from India. At the first indication the Burma Road would be closed, most trade goods of this nature disappeared from the shops, either hoarded by the shopkeepers themselves or bought up by the large-scale hoarders for resale when black-market prices reached their zenith. Whisky was fetching about 80 dollars (American) per bottle, cigarettes 12 dollars for 50, and the lowest price for a girl was around 30 dollars for an hour, according to those best-informed on the subject. The mess bill at the press hostel was about three times what it was when I had left five months earlier.
Europeans in Chungking were still anxious, although the Jap drive along the Burma Road seemed to have been halted. Maps were being studied and trails from Chungking to India via Tibet and to Russia via Turkestan were much under discussion as possible escape routes. To Chinese friends, visitors from the outside world were doubly welcome as symbols that Chungking was considered safe for at least a while.
China was now facing the most difficult period of her long years of war. Her last supply line was cut. Since the fall of Burma the Japanese were closer to Chungking than they had ever been. China's bankers and merchants were unashamedly hoarding, and dealing on the black market. China's idolised allies seemed to have feet of clay, and the early pipe dreams of America and Britain finishing off the Japs while China settled her own affairs had resolved into a sober awakening that she was for the first time really alone. Some of their crack troops had been lost in Burma, including the first fruits of lend-lease equipment in the way of tanks and light artillery. For the first time there was open talk that China would quit the war and make a deal with the Japs.
In Calcutta correspondents had even been cabling back stories that China was on the point of folding up. I don't think there ever was that possibility as long as the Soong family held the reins in Chungking. Madame Chiang and the Kungs knew America, had seen what American production meant. They knew whatever happened temporarily the Japs would be beaten. They would not want China to be on the wrong side at a future peace conference. Dr. Kung confirmed this viewpoint a few days after I returned to Chungking. At a United Nations' Day banquet China's Finance Minister said: "China won the war against Japan when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour." Shrewd, rotund, little "Papa" Kung knew the United States and Britain and knew what he was talking about.
But in those days of mid-1942, when German armies were racing across to Stalingrad, there were riots in India, and the Japs seemed set for a junction with Germany somewhere in the Near East, there was dark pessimism in Chungking and a sense of tremendous disillusionment with the western allies.
One of the attracting reasons for my return to China had been a half promise from Assistant Information Minister, Dr. Hollingtos K. Tong (Holly to the press corps), that he would arrange an interview with the Generalissimo. But the Generalissimo was very busy, and the days went by without any signs of my interview eventuating. Meanwhile the Japanese had launched an attack against China's eastern provinces of Chekiang and Kiangsi in order to liquidate the "bomb Tokio" bases in this area. The Japs were still not sure from where the Doolittle raid had been staged, but were taking no chances on further raids from the heavy bomber fields at Chuhsien, Lishui and Kinhwa in Chekiang province. Impatiently I suggested to Holly that I see the Generalissimo quickly so I could set out for the new front, but Holly countered with the idea that I should first make my trip to the front and then I would have something to talk about with the Generalissimo. He would be much more inclined to see me if I had something of interest to tell him. That seemed a reasonable idea, so I left Chungking on 15th June by air to Kweilin on the first stage of a three months' trip that was to take me through many of the provinces left in Free China.
Kweilin, the capital of Kwangsi province, is a delightful spot, and at that time was still receiving hundreds of refugees from Hong Kong. (It was occupied by the Japs in late 1944.) In an apartment house, which might have been moved straight out of Montmartre, I found the well-known writer on Chinese affairs, Israel Epstein. He had cut his way through the barbed wire at the Hong Kong prison camp, and in a patched-up boat with a broken paddle reached Portuguese Macao, thence via guerilla territory to Kweilin. He lived in a sort of communal living establishment with a dozen Chinese writers, intellectuals, artists and musicians, including the famous Chinese ballerina, Tai Ai-Lien and her artist husband. It was an open house for as many fellow-refugees as could squeeze in. Most of them had long waits in Kweilin until they could wangle a ride to Kunming or Chungking.
Kweilin, despite the fact that it was a town of refugees with little money, was the brightest spot in Free China. There were art shows, music recitals, Chinese opera, even a showing of Gogol's "Inspector General" during the few days I spent there.
The interpreter that the Information Department was to send to Kweilin never arrived, and as I was eager to push on and knew little Chinese, I set about finding a substitute in Kweilin. Great good fortune was with me! Through the refugee circle I met a highly intelligent and cultured Chinese poetess and writer, formerly literary editor of the Hong Kong edition of the "Ta Kung Pao," China's most liberal newspaper. Her name was Yang Kang; her paper had recently transferred from its palatial offices in Hong Kong to a cave in one of Kweilin's rocky outcrops, and her old Hong Kong boss was agreeable to her travelling as my interpreter as long as she was free to write stories for her own paper. Her front-line reports were later hailed by her fellow journalists as the best account of front-line conditions written for years.
Her job was a difficult one — to interpret as accurately as her intellectual honesty urged her, and at the same time as a patriotic Chinese to prevent me from seeing and hearing those things which would give me a bad impression of China. At times, in her eagerness for her own story, she would take an interview right out of my hands, then tell me what she thought I ought to know afterwards. But on the whole she did a magnificent job, interpreting not only words, newspapers and interviews, but every facet of Chinese life as it was presented us.
After reducing my baggage to a roll I could carry in one hand, and fitting Yang Kang out with a few sets of blue dungaree trousers and shirts that she thought most appropriate for visiting the fronts, and after a rousing farewell dinner given by our "Montmartre" friends, we set out on the next leg of our journey, by train to Hengyang. Our train was held up for an hour outside that city next morning while the Japs bombed the railway station.
We ran into our first experience of the peculiar outlook of some of China's missionaries later in the day. Hengyang's hotels were closed and we had been advised to stay at the large missionary establishment near the centre of the town. I introduced Yang Kang as a fellow newspaper woman and the missionaries were glad to have us stay, suggesting, though, that I should dine with them and Yang Kang with the servants. I explained gently that Yang Kang was a colleague, a writer who had translated many English and European classics into Chinese, a cultured savante and linguist, but to no avail. Apparently it was feared the servants would get wrong ideas if they saw a Chinese girl sitting at table with Europeans. We therefore ate at Chinese restaurants during our stay in Hengyang. I don't know how the missionaries reconciled the doctrine they preached of all human beings being created equal with their personal lives. In Kweilin another large missionary establishment, with accommodation for hundreds of people, was kept almost entirely locked up, though refugees were living practically in each other's pockets.
The A.V.G. were still using Hengyang as an air base and the Japs were doing their best to drive them out. We reached Hengyang on 3rd July, and that night being bright moonlight, we had three raids, with bombs falling uncomfortably close to the mission. Fortunately there were deep shelters to which the hospital inmates walked, crawled or were carried according to their condition. The rest of us stood around until we heard the familiar swoosh of falling bombs, then dived for the shelter entrance.
The following day was the last on which the A.V.G. operated. Henceforth the Army Air Force was to take over. On the airfield on the "Glorious Fourth," talking to the pilots, many of whom I had known in Burma, the alarms went again, and I watched the squadron go into action for the last time. They had their beloved "pea-shooters" (P.40's) high into the air by the time the Japs arrived, all except one, which had stalled during take-off. Within a few minutes one of the Japs headed groundwards to crash in nearby paddy-fields. But three more managed to sneak under our screen to strafe the stalled machine, setting it ablaze after the third attempt. That was our only casualty for 7 Japs shot down, and the pilots came in tossing off their helmets in even higher spirits than usual after a good day's work. For most of them that was their last flying, except as passengers for many months. They were officially disbanded next day and most of them returned to Chungking to await transport back to the States. Some transferred to the A.A.F. and went right on fighting.
Yang Kang and I set out for Kian in Kiangsi province in a car that was sent to collect a pilot who had "baled out" several days previously. We drove along a fairly flat highway lined with green rice-fields, till we came to the village of Anfu, still about 60 miles from Kian. Here, our fine, well-surfaced road petered out into a narrow bridle trail, flanked by water-filled ditches.
The driver was puzzled because he had travelled the same road a few days previously right through to Kian. We sought out the local magistrate, who is the chief civic authority in a Chinese village, and asked what was happening. He was a dignified old man, with trailing mandarin moustaches and beard, clad in black silk cap and long-sleeved padded gown, into which his hands disappeared after the first salutations.
He explained through Yang Kang that the military situation was very had. The Japanese were advancing on Kian and orders had been given to destroy the road to embarrass the enemy in case he tried to drive through to Hengyang.
Since early morning the peasants had been out tearing the road to pieces with their hoes and bars. The magistrate would be pleased to arrange for us to sleep in the local gendarmerie, and to arrange for sedan chairs in which we could continue next day to Kian, if we still insisted. The pilot for whom the car had been sent was well and already on his way to Hengyang by another route, so our driver's problem being solved he turned back.
The gendarmerie arranged a fine scratch meal for us from those little bits and pieces with tasty sauces that the Chinese seem able to produce from nothing but their long sleeves. We had an embarrassing half hour going to bed that night. The garrison commander was pushed for space, and seemed to conclude naturally but very wrongly that Yang Kang and I were rooming "a deux," so gave us one room in the front of the building. We blew out the miserable little oil lamp and commenced undressing prior to retiring to our respective plank beds, when we heard suppressed giggles from the curtainless window. Inspection revealed that the major part* of the village population had gathered there, apparently to see what a "waigworen" wore underneath his uniform. No shouts of mine, no threats or cajolement from Yang Kang could persuade them to go away. The moon was still bright enough, the window tattered enough, for them to have a good view, so there was nothing to do but button up again and go to sleep fully dressed, doubtless to the great disappointment of our audience.
I felt ashamed next morning to clamber into the bamboo seat of a sedan chair and be lugged off by two stalwart Kiangsi peasants, but the eager look on their faces as we paid out their preliminary wages, and the thought that if the Japs did come to Kian we would have enough walking to do, helped quieten my conscience. They were good but hard seats, with black hoods to protect us against the sun and mounted on stout bamboo poles which bounced up and down on the shoulders of the bearers as they jog-trotted along. Each chair had a spare porter, and they would change places without hardly missing a stride. We had a breakfast of delicious creamy bean milk into which a couple of raw eggs had been beaten, before setting out after sun-up.
Men, women and children were already at work on the road, hacking and digging at it until only a winding path about nine or ten inches wide was left. The rest was cut down to the level of the rice fields and flooded with the water that lay deep over the fields. Every couple of hundred yards gaps were cut in the winding centre trail and across the gaps were laid planks, easily removable in case the Japs should come. Bridges were torn down with only sufficient framework left to support a narrow plank. Along these roads the Japs could bring no trucks or tanks; no artillery except what could be carried on their own shoulders. Not even the big, raw-boned Jap horses could pick their way along such narrow tracks. It was just about wide enough for the two favourite Chinese transport media — the ubiquitous wheelbarrow and their tiny, nimble-footed ponies.
Road destruction was China's most successful "secret weapon." The land is under water for most of the year, and for horses or motor transport to try and travel off the roads over paddy-fields is to be hopelessly bogged down within the first few hundred yards. Later I was to see bodies of scores of Japanese horses which had bogged down in the paddy-fields and died trying to extricate themselves.
Our chair carriers, who had small farms of their own, were grumbling about wives and children having to turn out on the road destruction work when they should have been working back on the farms. They explained that though their crops were good, taxes were so high that since the collection of taxes in grain was enforced they had to take outside work to buy enough rice to feed their families. They seemed to be caught in a vicious circle.
"All the rice we grow is taken by the government, the landlord and the army between them. We must work in town or act as chair carriers to earn enough to feed our families. If we go away the ground isn't cared for properly and the crop is smaller. Now they take our wives and children, first to build roads and then to destroy them. Our crops get still smaller, but the landlord, the government and the army still demand the same number of baskets. And for the rice we buy we must give three times the price the army pays us."
We saw many farms which had been abandoned, the rice terraces overgrown with rubbish. The porters exclaimed:
"Those farms have bad land in them, but the government levies taxes by the mow (one-third of an acre) whether it's all good land or not. These people couldn't even grow enough rice to pay their taxes, so they have gone to the town."
"Well, what will they do in the towns?"
"Maybe they get work shining shoes or pulling rickshas. Maybe they starve. But they think if they do starve at least they don't have to work so hard in the town. Here we work hard all the year and grow good crops and still we starve."
Most of the time they avoided the road and carried us between the rice-fields, along little paths of cobblestones, across streams, pausing here and there at some old farm house for a cup of "cha," actually nothing but hot water, as few peasants could afford tea in these hard days.
They were romantic souls, those bearers. For all their worries they chanted across to each other as they jerked and bumped us along through the countryside. Perhaps we would be passing through a particularly large and flourishing rice-field and they would speculate whimsically as to what they would do if it were theirs. One would hoard it and wait till his landlord was starving then sell him rice for a fabulous price. Another would turn his horse and pigs into it to watch them grow fat. A third would sell it and have a big feast for all his friends. Once, as we approached a little willow-lined stream, Yang Kang heard them calling across to each other:
"Here is a beautiful, wide river. What shall we do?"
"Let's build a great bridge and march straight over it."
"No. We shall carve a beautiful boat and sail across."
One, more practical-minded, without a sense of fantasy, suggested: "I think we should just walk straight through it." At each sally there were terrific guffaws of laughter that threatened to shake us right out of our chairs.
At night we stayed at little wayside inns where the villagers gathered round and anxiously asked for news of the Japs. There were few men to be seen anywhere, and the women told us they were either all in the army or were hiding in the mountains in case the Chinese equivalent of the "draft board" came to grab them.
Several times we saw batches of unhappy-looking farmers marching along the road, their hands tied behind their backs, the whole batch roped or chained together and guarded by a couple of armed soldiers. That was the Chinese way of bringing in the conscripts which so horrified the Generalissimo recently when he saw it outside Chungking that he reputedly abolished the practice. The poor fellows might well look unhappy. Not five in a hundred would see their home villages again.
Some of the little hamlets were incredibly poor. At one farmhouse, where we stopped to peel a few woody pears we had bought at a previous village, I noticed a woman fixedly watching my actions. No sooner had the first crescent of peel hit the dirt floor than she pounced on it and crammed it into her mouth. A younger woman, probably her daughter, hurried shamefacedly out of the hovel, but soon returned when Yang Kang called to her. They wolfishly devoured the rest of our pears within a few minutes.
Kiangsi province, through which we were travelling, was once the base of the Chinese Communists. It was from here that the famous "Long March" to their present base in North China started. It was noticeable that years later the Red Army was not forgotten. People would ask us casually was it true that the Red Army was marching south to join in the fighting at Chekiang? Was it true that Japan had attacked Russia and the Red Army had occupied Manchuria? All sorts of rumours and legends about the Red Army were in circulation, though no one wanted to give the impression that he or she favoured the communists. That was a quick way of getting into trouble.
It took us 24 days to travel the 60 miles to Kian, although the porters would have done it in less had we not insisted on halts to talk with the peasants. In Kian the situation didn't look too good. The Japs were only 60 miles to the north up the Kan river. The banks had evacuated, and with them our chances for travelling further. Chinese money in the quantities necessary for travel in those days of inflation took up a lot of space and weight, especially as it was useless carrying notes of large denomination in backward areas. I had arranged to pick up "bricks" of money at three or four places en route, and Kian was one of them. The next was at Kienyang, in Fukien province, a long way from the front, so there was nothing to do but wait in Kian till either the fighting came to us or the banks returned.
A magical pass with an enormous red seal provided by the Military Affairs Commission in Chungking procured us quarters in the Kian Y.M.C.A., with a bed for Yang Kang in the secretary's office. An impressive-looking Chinese newspaper man took us in charge and volunteered to keep us posted on the war news. With a shock of unruly hair, massive head and pock-marked face, he looked more like Danton of the French Revolution than a Mr. Hu of the official Chinese Central News Agency. He was a genial soul, had just returned from the front where he described the situation as "dangerous and confused," and had a nice appreciation for his country's cooking.
The Japanese did not get to Kian after all, though as the largest city left in North Kiangsi and terminal of the road from Hengyang, it was an important prize for them.
They were stopped by a handful of courageous and ingenious peasants, led by the "pao chieh," or headman, of their village about 50 miles north of the city.
The spearhead of a Jap force had outflanked the main Chinese force and was swinging unopposed merrily down the road to Kian, when there was a terrific explosion followed by a fusillade of shots, and a dozen Japs were left writhing in the dust with horrible gaping wounds. Where the road was narrow and flanked by almost inaccessible cliffs, the peasants had set an ambush with some of their famous home-made cannon. The barrels were hollowed logs, bound tightly with wire ripped from telegraph poles, muzzle-loaded with chunks of broken glass, nuts, bolts and old nails, and detonated with locally-made black powder. Fired down the cliffs at point blank range, they were very destructive — for the people firing them, too, if they weren't careful. After each shot the barrel was examined. If it didn't look too good, more wire was wrapped round or the barrel replaced.
Reinforced by hunting guns and boulders, which they cascaded down the cliffs, 107 stout-hearted villagers fought a rousing battle with about a Japanese company. The Japs weren't certain what they had struck. Their radio crackled, and within half an hour two planes came to bomb and strafe. Some of the ambushers were killed, but the others kept the battle going as soon as the planes flew away. The "pao chieh" was killed by a lucky Jap mortar shot, and before long the supply of barrels gave out. Towards evening, after they had fought the Japs for nearly four hours, the seventy-odd peasants still alive decided to take their two-handed swords, knives and hoes and die in hand-to-hand fighting. Fortunately for them, the Japs, apparently thinking the Chinese were there in force, withdrew to await reinforcements. By next morning a detachment of the Chinese 58th Army, brought by messengers from the village, arrived, and after a short scuffle, the Japs gave up the attempt to take Kian and swung back north along the Kan river.
While we were waiting in Kian to see whether the Japs would come or the bankers return, we were aware of something strange happening in some villages on the outskirts of the city. There were whispers in the newspaper offices of a peasants' revolt, and there were movements of troops from the garrison headquarters — not towards the Japanese but in the direction of the rumoured revolt.
It was difficult to get a clear picture of what was happening. The special commissioner — a sort of super-magistrate appointed by Chungking with dictatorial powers over military and civil officials in the districts to which he was assigned — primly told us there were no disturbances. He explained that one of his main tasks since arriving in Kian had been to round up all the firearms in the district, even including ancient flintlocks and blunderbusses, giving in place a nice, red-sealed receipt from the Central Government that the owners had "contributed" their weapons. He was uneasy at our questions, however, and it was obvious something was up.
With the aid of a peasant guide and another interpreter, so as not to embarrass Yang Kang, I was able to slip out to a nearby village and find out what was afoot.
It all started, as so many of China's troubles do, with the tax-collector. The one in this district was notoriously corrupt (even the Special Commissioner admitted that) and when he asked for some chickens as "squeeze" in addition to exorbitant tax collection, which left an unfortunate farmer without any rice till next harvest, the outraged peasant beat him up. The tax-collector returned next day with some of his henchmen, thrashed the peasant and burned down his house and several adjoining ones. The farmer, together with his neighbours, sent a petition to the Kian garrison headquarters demanding the corrupt official be dismissed. Soldiers were sent out, and they beat up unoffending peasants from the wrong village and burned down a few more houses.
The villagers, several hundred strong, banded together, stormed the local gendarmerie, commandeered the guns, and sent a ten-point memorandum to the garrison headquarters demanding, amongst other things, the dismissal of the tax-collector, and that the soldiers be sent to the front to stop the Japs (who were still threatening Kian at that time) instead of fighting their own people. The memo, concluded by announcing the intention of the villagers to defend their own farms as the army seemed incapable of doing so.
More troops had been sent against them, the villagers had taken their families with them, abandoned their farms and retreated to the wild mountains a dozen miles away. The government sent them an ultimatum issued from Chungking demanding they surrender their arms, return to their farms and, if they wanted to fight the Japs, enlist in the army.
I never discovered what happened to those people. Such news is hard to come by in China. General Lo Tso Yin, who had been in charge of Chinese armies in Burma, arrived in Kian while I was there, with orders, according to local rumour, to crush the revolt at all costs.
It seemed that Chungking was taking no chances of a revival of a people's movement in Kiangsi, but this little revolt was the pattern for many more spontaneous uprisings in 1943 in areas as far apart as Kansu in the north-west, Yunnan in the south-west and Kwangtung in the south. It was a warning to Chungking that the people had reached the end of their patience. They were prepared to suffer and starve if they felt that sacrifices were equal and for good cause. But the sight of a tax collector growing fat on the profit from over-charged taxes, of rich landlords' sons escaping conscription while the peasants' children were taken to the last one; of officers getting rich by trading with the enemy instead of fighting him, was enough to snap the last thread of their patience.
They would sweat and toil from dawn to dusk to grow rice for landlord, soldiers and government; turn out to build airfields, roads and bridges; farewell husbands and sons for ever when the army required them, but they expected at least some honesty and justice in return. It was a good thing for China and for the Allies that these peasants did have the capacity for such enduring suffering, and that they had the spirit to stand up and fight like wild beasts when injustice and oppression became too intolerable. For it was not the military equipment of her armies that saved China. It was the spirit of the hundreds of millions of blue-clad peasants who could work, suffer, endure — and at the last fight for freedom and their handkerchief plots of yellow soil.
The communist armies in the north understood that, and they were able to mobilise the spirit of the people to an extent the Central Government armies never could. That is why the Japs had made no important gains against the communists in seven years, but were able to travel almost at will through Kuomintang China. In the Red Army areas army and people are one, according to every foreigner who has come through there in recent years. Farmers are active soldiers by night, soldiers are active farmers by day. The communist army, with at most 500,000 troops, would exist for a few months only if it were not for the millions of trained soldier-farmers amongst whom it lives and fights.
In Kuomintang China fraternisation between army and people is not a thing to be fostered. The troops might sympathise too much with the sufferings of the people. That is why troops rarely fight in the provinces from which they are recruited. I found Yunnanese troops in far-away Kiangsi and Kwangtung troops in Chekiang, Hunan troops in Yunnan. And that is why the peasants in much of Kuomintang China still regard the soldiers as foreign bandits, no different from the mercenary troops of the old-time war-lords.
I didn't find out the fate of the Kian revoltees because the Japs had moved back and the bankers moved in, so I was able to draw three or four pounds of bank notes, sufficient to take me to the next banking centre. The efficient Mr. Hu had decided we could go no further into front-line areas without a servant, otherwise officers would have to provide us with their own orderlies. He produced a spruce, lean, ex-solder called Lim. Lim had been wounded fighting under the redoubtable Chang Fa Kwei in the defence of Shanghai, and as his home was in one of the provinces through which we would be passing later, he was glad to attach himself to our party.
The Kian garrison commander came to the water's edge to farewell us as we embarked on a river launch for an overnight ride up the Kan river to the headquarters of the 58th Army which had shared in the recent fighting. A General Hsu, travelling on the same boat, insisted on Yang Kang and me sharing his cabin, and as it was the only one on the boat, we gladly accepted. A difficult problem of sleeping arrangements was solved by the appearance of so many and such persistent bugs in the bunks that we sat up all night drinking tea which the good general provided.
It was my first experience of bugs in mass formation. It wasn't till I saw the general lift his long cotton underpants and disclose a dozen or so black objects scurrying away from the beam of his flashlight that I understood the source of red hot pin pricks in scores of places on my body. The general seemed equal to all occasions, and produced little pots of Tiger Balm which magically took the itch out of toe bites.
For most of the rest of our trip we had the bugs along with us, and Lim's main duty came to be a minute inspection of our gear each day and destruction of all potential sleep disturbers.
After leaving the bug-ridden river-boat we spent nearly three weeks travelling on horseback, spending the nights at regimental, divisional or army headquarters, in the area where the Japs had finally been halted in their drive through Kiangsi. The heaviest fighting had taken place along a series of wooded ridges overlooking a tributary of the Kan river. The Japs had started off from the Poyang Lake area, quickly over-running stop-gap provincial troops, and had occupied most of the Nanchang-Hangchow railway and the airfields near the Kiangsi Chekiang border. They had hoped to break through to other air bases in the South Kiangsi area but rugged mountaineer troops from Yunnan were waiting for them along a line running roughly from just south of Nancheng to Kian. The prize tactical objectives were the ridges which dominated valleys through which any large body of troops must pass, and these changed hands many times. The Japs would seize them by day, the Chinese retake them at night.
A tall, raw-boned General Liang, who constantly mourned the fact that he hadn't seen his Yunnan home for over five years, described one of the night raids he led against Jap positions: "The Japs are very careless about posting sentries, and this night they had only three. Our scouts garrotted them without any noise. Then my men, naked except for shorts, crept up through gullies and dry stream beds until we were all around the mountain-top. We carried up bamboo whistles and hollow bamboos to beat like drums, and when everybody was ready we blew our whistles, beat our drums and threw fire-crackers. The Japs jumped out to get weapons and we killed most of them. The rest ran away and left their supplies behind them."
The Chinese seemed to have some understanding of psychological warfare and exploited it to make up their deficiency in heavy weapons.
There were ample signs that the Chinese had fought well, despite their miserable physical condition. There were plenty of dead Japs and dead horses still lying around un-buried. Most of the fighting had been of the hand-to-hand variety with surprise attacks and ambushes rather than heavy-weight slogging matches. Neither side had artillery or tanks, and battles consisted mainly of chasing each other round mountain sides, or off the tips. An interesting point was that the Chinese troops who had defended the Kian area had marched from Hunan, where they had participated in the previous battle of Changsha, 250 miles in 10 days, on short rations. To look at their emaciated bodies and tattered uniforms it seemed impossible that they could march so far — let alone fight at the end of it.
Officers complained that the rice ration had been cut down. "We used to get 30 oz. a day. Now we get only 22 ozs. and much of that is dirt and husks. How can men fight on that?" one officer said. The troops had stolen from the peasants to keep from starving, and the peasants had retaliated by withholding their help at the front. "It is so much different fighting here and in Hunan," one divisional commander lamented. "There the people did everything for us. Helped our wounded and brought us food and water. Here in Kiangsi they run away when we come near."
We saw soldiers limping about with leg and arm wounds, with nothing but green leaves held in place by dried pus and blood, clapped over the sores. One army we visited had two doctors and they were both kept at headquarters to look after staff officers. For the troops there were only a handful of unskilled dressers working with paper bandages and no medicines.
"Ninety per cent. of our casualties never rejoin their units," a commanding general told us. "Seriously wounded men just die. Light wounds develop into serious ones. We have no spare troops for stretcher bearers. If the local people don't help us, casualties have to get back the best way they can. Sometimes their comrades carry them back. Often they stagger back only to find that their unit has already moved on. They try to get to the nearest town and, if they have money, buy medicines. Otherwise they beg or try to get a mission hospital to accept them. They are all half-starved and have no resistance to fight infections. When they got paid regularly it wasn't so bad. They could buy pieces of meat and vegetables to supplement their rations. But now none of us has been paid for more than six months. Unless the soldiers steal they can't live."
Yang Kang always explained to army people that part of our job was to write about conditions in the field so that help might be sent, and always emphasised that I was going to see the Generalissimo when I returned to Chungking. Because of this the officers spoke freely of their difficulties.
In one division the commanding officer estimated that even without fighting they needed thirty per cent. replacements annually through malaria, dysentery and typhus. There was no quinine to be had in front-line areas. Soldiers with malaria were expected to buy their own quinine at village pharmacies for 30 cents a pill. Yet Rockefeller Institute and Red Cross officials in Calcutta and Chungking assure me there were huge stocks of quinine in the country, sent specifically for free distribution to the armies. Somehow, like a lot of other medical supplies sent in from abroad, quinine found its way to the private pharmacies where it was sold for fantastic prices. In Kian, as a "special favour," I was able to buy about a dessertspoonful of Yatren for use "in case of dysentery.' It cost the equivalent of 12 dollars. I had an inflamed throat treated at an army headquarters medical station with iodine captured from the Japanese — the first stocks they had had for more than six months, the doctor said.
Almost every high-ranking officer I met I asked about China's future. What about the problem of the communists, for example? In practically every case the answer was the same. In fact, the replies were so stereotyped that I suspected they originated from some common source. The following comment from a lieutenant-general is typical: "Well, we think the communist problem isn't very serious. In fact, it will soon be solved. Next month (September, 1942), the Japanese will attack the Russians in Siberia. Immediately the Generalissimo will order the Red Armies to march into Manchuria and then our armies will follow up behind them and occupy the present communist-held areas."
"But supposing the communists refuse to march into Manchuria?"
"They wouldn't dare refuse such an order from the Generalissimo. And if they did, the Generalissimo would have the support of the people if he attacked them."
The idea that Japan would attack Russia in September was widespread amongst all the top-ranking officers with whom I talked. Fortunately, it was incorrect, but the solution for the problem of the 8th Route Army smacked strongly of the plot to smash the Communist New 4th Army in January, 1940, when it was ordered to move north of the Yangtse river from South Anhwei. As soon as it commenced to move the Central Government armies attacked from the rear, killed the Field Commander, General Han Ying, and captured the Army Commander, General Yeh Ting.
During that three weeks on horseback I developed dysentery, and soon found that that unpleasant disease and horse-riding don't go well together. Climbing up and down the back of even a small Chinese pony several times an hour gets wearying after the first few days. The Yatren I bought had no effect, and I discovered later I had bacillary dysentery and the precious Yatren is used only for amoebic dysentery. We couldn't halt because the army headquarters had no medicines, and the only chance for treatment was at an Irish-Catholic mission at Nancheng. No one knew if the fathers were still alive after three weeks of Japanese occupation. So I was set upon a wheelbarrow and, with one lusty Chinese harnessed to the front pulling and another pushing from behind, we managed to make progress. The flagstones along the paddy-field paths were often broken and uneven, and sometimes it took three or four attempts to make the crazy barrow leap from one stone to another, which made my dashes for paddy-clumps even more frequent.
Yang Kang did an heroic job on horseback. As the favourite daughter of an old-time mandarin she was not used to the rough life, had never been on horseback, was used to having proper meals at regular hours, and a soft bed to sleep on. Now she spent her waking hours on a horse, slept on anything from the hard ground to a door pulled off its hinges, ate rice and rice alone, and usually only once a day at that, but never once did she complain. Lim seemed to enjoy himself, and soon made friends with the small escort of soldiers sent to protect us from isolated bands of Japs still in the area.
One could weep with the peasants to march through their crops, prematurely yellow and dying at the roots because the Japs had broken down the irrigation walls and turned their horses loose to gorge on the rich heads of grain. Village after village was burned to the ground, rice-grinders, threshers, ploughs and water-wheels wantonly smashed and thrown in ponds and cesspools. Peasants we met would complain to Yang Kang that the government had taken away their guns, otherwise they would have defended their farms to the last.
As we left each village our guide would confidently say, "We shall get some eggs and chickens at the next place." But it, too, would be a mess of ashes and rubble, and we had to share the rice our escort carried. We started out each morning before the sun peeped over the tips of the mountains and travelled till we reached some wrecked village just before sundown. Then Lim would search round for some doors or planks for Yang Kang and me to sleep on, start a fire to heat some water and cook our rice. It was the hottest time of the year, end of July and early August, so one could sleep well under the stars without blankets.
We avoided staying in towns overnight, because cholera had broken out and was spreading rapidly. In Tsungjen, for example, the largest town before Nancheng, as we passed through soldiers were pulling putrid corpses out of the river. The Japs had rounded up all the old folks and children in the city and forced them at bayonet point to march into the river until the water drowned their cries. A few had managed to elude rifle shots, swam to the far bank and escaped to tell the story. The magistrate assured us that every inhabited house in the city was stricken with some disease. We travelled many miles that evening before we thought it safe enough to make camp for the night.
The way led along lovely valleys, over cloud-capped mountains planted with spruce, tung and individual bamboo trees, where little stone shelters and shrines provided the only shade from the fierce sun. Sometimes we found wild Chinese dates and pears, which we ate only after soaking them in permanganate solution.
One day, just after my dysentery was kind enough to let me clamber aboard horse again, our ponies slipped and slithered over a path cut out of a steep mountain-side to squeeze through a narrow pass at the top — and there was the city of Nancheng spread out before us. The romantic walled city of Nancheng, but now a blackened, flattened waste of rubble. From the distance it looked as if it had been beaten into the ground by giant bull-dozers. But there was one set of buildings standing, and as our guide said that was the mission station, we left our escort behind and trotted down the last couple of miles to see what had happened to the fathers.
They were alive and well, glad to welcome us, and eager to relate their experiences. Lean, ascetic Bishop Cleary established Yang Kang in the nuns' quarters, myself with the monks. An English father who hadn't stayed for the Japanese occupation had returned from another mission station in Fukien with some fresh meat and vegetables, so we were able to have a fine meal of roast beef and potatoes to start off with.
"We told the Japs we were neutrals from Ireland," one of the fathers said, "but the officer in charge just grunted and said, 'No such thing, neutrals. Either for Japanese against Japanese. If stay China must be against Japanese.' They didn't harm us personally, but they took everything we had. Our money, wrist watches, fountain pens, silverware and crockery, every scrap of clothing except what we had on. And what they couldn't take, the thieving devils smashed."
The Japs had thoroughly worked over the fine mission buildings, smashed almost every stick of furniture, typewriters, book cases, ripped books to pieces until they got tired of ripping, smashed chalices, destroyed vestments. They took all the foodstuffs except a little the fathers had prudently hidden, killed the two milch cows, smashed the electric light plant, used the mission cars as long as they remained and burned them before they left.
"The only time they offered violence was one night when a frightened girl ran here for protection," the Bishop said. "She had been one of our mission orphans, and when the Japs came she was rounded up with the rest of the women and herded into the salt gabelle warehouse for the enjoyment of the troops. One night she ran away and a soldier chased her up here. She rushed into the chapel just as I was saying evening prayers and, clinging to my robes, begged me to protect her. The soldier rushed in with his rifle, and seeing the girl was determined to hide behind me, levelled his rifle at me. He actually fired a shot at the ceiling, but an officer who was taking an inventory of our furnishings came in and ordered him away."
One of the pilots from the Doolittle raid had bailed out near Nancheng and was brought in by peasants; he had a broken collar-bone. The Japs knew that he was cared for in the mission hospital and they questioned and cross-questioned the Bishop to find out where the plane had come from. The canny Irish bishop stuck to the story the pilot first told him when he was brought in: "I was on my way to Chungking and ran out of gas." I didn't question the bishop further, but was fairly certain he knew all about the Doolittle raid and that the planes had been carrier-borne.
During the fighting for Nancheng the Japs had shelled the mission, although there were no Chinese soldiers in the vicinity. About a dozen shells went through the chapel and residential buildings, and the little mission school was completely destroyed.
Before the Japs left the city, which houses about 50,000 people, they went through it methodically, street by street and house by house, setting the whole place ablaze. Straw mattresses and furniture were used for kindling and gasoline where necessary. The whole city, except for the mission and one tiny corner of half a dozen houses, had been burned to the ground.
"If I had never loved the Chinese people before, I would love and admire them now," Bishop Cleary declared. "No sooner had the Japs moved out than they began moving back. With their wheelbarrows and baskets, their carrying sticks and suitcases. They looked at what was left of their homes, and perhaps a few of them shed tears. Then they scrabbled in the dust and ruins to try and find a few things that might have escaped the fire. A handful of nails, a block they used for a pillow, an old jar to keep seeds in, a sewing needle. Whatever they found would be reverently laid aside and cleaned. From the few things they found they started to build up again.
"You can go down to the riverside and see them now with their bits of shelters and stalls. Trade has already started again with the fish from the river and the fruits from the land. How can the Japanese or anybody break the spirit of a people like that?"
How, indeed? As we left the city a few days later Yang Kang translated a freshly-painted sign which hung across the east gate: "Our homes you can break and burn, but our spirit is stronger than the tiger's."