Soul mates, sisters, and soldiers

Updated: 2014-06-23 14:13

By Zhao Xu (China Daily)

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Soul mates, sisters, and soldiers

Huang Jingwen, 108 and her daughter Luo Xiaoqing in the hospital. Huang entered the Whampoa Military Academy in 1927, becoming one of its earliest female students. Wang Jing / China Daily

Hard times

Those times were equally tough for men and women, said Wang, the high-school teacher, who has investigated the lives of Zhou and Zheng - the only female Whampoa graduates she's met in person - deeply enough to understand their longings, loves and regrets.

After Japan's surrender, Zheng returned to the countryside in Hunan province with her husband, a surgeon whom she met and married at the field hospital. He died during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), not as a hero but as an "historic anti-revolutionary", a phrase used to describe those who fought under the Nationalist flag. With two children to support, Zheng worked as a nanny and a housemaid until the late 1980s, when she was in her mid-70s.

"These days, due to pure age, she's unable to move, and can barely see or hear," Wang said. "But every time she knows someone has come for her, she holds the visitor's hand and feels it with her own again and again, gently, softly. It's a habit formed over the long years of babysitting. She always makes you feel loved, in her heartbreaking, maternal way."

Although Zhou's story is different, it's also tinged with sadness. She gave birth to four children, but was forced to give her first and third - both boys - to her older sister, before leaving with the troops. Nowadays, the 95-year-old lives in Jiangsu province with her second son, who suffers from severe liver disease, and her only daughter. In late April, Zhou returned to her hometown in Hunan for the first time in almost 70 years. Her sister has long since passed away, but one of the boys Zhou entrusted to her was still there, aged 75.

"The other boy drowned in childhood, and Zhou only got to know about it years later, after 1949," said Wang, who accompanied the elderly lady on the trip and shared a hotel room with her. "Those were sleepless nights. We talked into the wee small hours," Wang said. "She told me she felt guilty about all her children. Because of her former association with the Nationalists, her only daughter was denied the opportunity of entering university in the 1970s."

The meeting between mother and son was rather "uneventful", according to Wang. "The son has cerebral thrombosis and was brought to our hotel room in a wheelchair. While he spoke in a slur, Zhou just wept. We all did."

But there was one other person Zhou insisted on seeing - Zheng. Both entered Whampoa in 1939, when the war against Japan was in its most critical stage. "The meeting was a crucial moment, delayed by well over half a century," said Wang. "Days before, Zheng had just celebrated her 100th birthday. And because she can't see, the two just held hands for a long time. And I guess that soothed a lot of the pain for both of them."

Reflecting on the remarkable, yet often little-known, lives lived by the women of Whampoa, Chen Yu felt that their existence has embraced a dichotomy: "I spoke to many of them in the 1980s, and they impressed me as both 'hard' and 'soft'. As hard as a soldier and warrior, and as soft as a mother, a wife and a daughter. When they talked about China, its past and future, they spoke with such infectious enthusiasm, yet when they spoke about themselves and their lost loves, they occasionally let out a sigh that went beyond all interpretation."

For Luo, Huang's daughter, the things shared by the members of this special group are far more important than their individual differences. "Throughout the latter half of her life, my mother has been looking for and writing to her classmates at Whampoa, and I believe that it was not just for the sake of memory," she said. "It's true that they lived disparate lives: Some became famous while others settled for anonymity; some reaped love while others waited for it their whole lives. But all of them answered the call when the country was in need. They are pioneers and patriots. And for that, they will be soul mates forever."

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Yang Yang and Zhang Yuchen contributed to this story.

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