A family torn apart by the forces of history is reunited.I arrived in Taiwan on May 18, 2015, ready to meet my great-grandfather for the first time. It was a rainy night and my granduncle welcomed me at the airport with a hug. He is my great-grandfather’s youngest son, a member of the family my great-grandfather established in Taiwan. It was my first time traveling to this place to which I’ve long felt a connection. I was excited to meet the mysterious person about whom I’d heard stories over and over again during my childhood. At the same time, I was anxious, too.
Sending Yiyao Xie, an international student from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), to Taiwan was a first for the Dean Rusk program. Taiwan began admitting visitors from the PRC only a few years ago, and individual PRC visitors are limited to a two-week stay. That’s a short visit for a Dean Rusk summer grant, but how often do you get a chance to unite a family that has been divided for 65 years?
When I was a child, my grandma told me the story of her father, a brave soldier who had to leave his family and go to Taiwan alone. I was introduced to the Taiwan of her memory—a distant land she visited in her heart all the time. My grandma missed her father very much: she talked about him with pride, and told me about how he used to wear his soldier uniform home every evening. For years, I thought the soldier image that my grandma had of her father was real. But it turns out that my great-grandfather had to leave his wife and my grandma when my grandma was only two years old. So she created this image of her father as a way to remember.
In 1945, the Japanese empire gave up Taiwan, its colony since 1895. The island fell under the control of the Republic of China, led by Chiang Kai-shek. Between 1945 and 1949 two million people, mostly military personnel, moved from mainland China to Taiwan. At first, they were sent to help the ROC establish control over the island, but when the ROC lost the civil war with the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, Taiwan became a refuge for officials and soldiers associated with the old regime. Taiwan remains under the ROC flag today. After the PRC was created, no one associated with the ROC could return to the mainland; the two sides were technically still at war. Many soldiers, including Yiyao’s great-grandfather, thought their deployment to Taiwan would be temporary, and they would see their loved ones soon. Instead, a curtain of hostility dropped between the two sides, and all contact was lost.
For most of my young life, I could not understand the pain of this family separation. It was never explained to me—my family believed that the reasons were too complicated for me to understand. My mother and grandma would mention him, always avoiding the fact that he was not with us, but in another place called Taiwan. I wondered why he had to leave us behind and why, after all this time, we still could not see him or even reach out to him.
Something else Yiyao’s family avoided talking about was the suffering her family in the PRC had endured because of this relationship. In Mao’s China, having a connection to someone in Taiwan made a person politically suspect. Yiyao’s grandmother was punished for being the daughter of an ROC soldier, sent to the countryside to work and “learn from the peasants.”
Taiwan kept its mystery until I became an adolescent, when I saw a documentary on TV about Taiwan and China. I finally understood why we could not reach him, even though we knew he existed. As a loyal soldier, my great-grandfather had to leave his whole family. However, he left us with the determination that he would come back. He left us believing that this family was going to reunite again.
As a college student at Davidson, I took a political science class with Dr. Shelley Rigger on the “Politics of Taiwan, Japan, North Korea and South Korea.” I told her about my family background, and she encouraged me to investigate further. She also introduced me to the Dean Rusk International Travel Grant, which eventually sponsored my trip to Taiwan.
Many of the men who came to Taiwan as soldiers in the 1940s lived as outcasts much of their lives. They arrived in a society that had been living under Japanese colonial rule for 50 years. The people who lived in Taiwan before the war resented the new arrivals; they viewed them as a privileged elite. But if this was a privilege, it was one that few of the soldiers, now veterans, would have chosen.
My great-grandfather’s name is Zhu Shiqing, which could literally translate as “the peace of the world.” The wave of history pushed him to Taiwan, forcedly separating him from his original family. But it most definitely did not wash away his personality and the soldier spirit. He told me he had waited for 30 years for the chance to go back. During that time, there was not a single day that he did not suffer from loneliness and nostalgia. He thought as long as he waited, there would be a chance for him to reunite with his family.
After realizing the chance of reunion was almost impossible, he had to give up waiting. I tried to imagine how hard three decades of waiting must have been for him.
My great-grandfather was not the only one who experienced this unfortunate history. Millions of families were separated because of the military retreat. They missed one another every day, just like the members of my family missed Zhu Shiqing.
In 1987, Taiwan’s government decided to allow its people to travel to the mainland to visit family members there. It was a humanitarian gesture aimed at giving aging veterans and others one last opportunity to see the loved ones they had left behind. Once the door was open, it opened wider. Today, Taiwan and the PRC are close partners in economic development, although they are still politically distinct. Many Taiwanese have visited their relatives in the mainland, but for a PRC citizen, especially one as young as Yiyao, to visit family in Taiwan is rare.
Over the next few days, my great-grandfather took me to meet his friends, a group of nearly 90-year-old people who climbed a small mountain every afternoon just to hang out together. When I asked them what they usually talked about, they replied: “Memories… you know….” They treated me with tea and snacks.
When we moved to the topic of their families, they told me that they all had happy big families in Taiwan now. Some of their grandchildren studied abroad, just like me. They also had family trips every year…
As Yiyao discovered, many of the veterans living in Taiwan eventually gave up hope of being reunited with their families on the mainland and created new families in Taiwan. Nonetheless, their tragic history is a story in which few on either side of the Taiwan Strait take much interest. Both sides are better at looking toward the future than examining their complicated pasts.
To my surprise, they all agreed to let me interview them about their pasts without hesitation. At first, I thought the trauma of the past would be hard for them to recount. Instead, they were very passionate and motivated to tell their stories. One veteran said, “Nobody ever interviewed us before, but I would love to share my stories.”
As I looked into their eyes during the interviews, it was as if I could see history flash back at me, like an old-fashioned movie. Their eyes told me everything. They shined when these veterans were talking about their past honors. They told me how they shook hands with President Chiang Kai-shek after winning a battle.
Their memories became paths back in time, which they traced with great joy. They felt and described the excitement of bygone days. I was surprised that after all these years, their memories were still fresh.
Throughout our talk, I was most surprised by their mental peace. I found that no matter how hard life had been for them in the past, they viewed the present as a “happily ever after.” For all of their effort and sacrifice, they deserve a happy ending.
Yiyao may be reached at email@example.com. Brown Professor of Political Science and Assistant Dean for Educational Policy Shelley Rigger is an expert on Taiwan.