I SAW THE CHINESE REDS TAKE OVER
Civil war, China-style, paraded back and forth through this city while a Canadian watched. One of the few Westerners to live under Oriental Communism, he gives his own story of how the “new order” came to the country town of Pehpei
as told to Herbert Steinhouse
THE SUMMER of 1949 wasn’t the best time for my first trip to China. And the straggling, hilly little town of Pehpei ("pronounced BayPay) wasn’t the most serene place to live for eight months. But history swirled by me in Pehpei as I watched.
I arrived when the Chiang Kai-shek regime was still in power. I was there when the Communist troops marched in and the Nationalists marched out. I watched the change-over. I lived under the Communists. I am one of the few Westerners who have had this experience and I was the first to come out of the southwest region of China after the Reds took over. My “Foreigner's Travel Permit,” issued by the Chungking Communist Government, was No. 001.
Pm a film animator employed by Canada’s National Film Board. A summer ago the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization—UNESCO to most people—asked me to go to its pilot project deep in China’s interior and teach Chinese artists film techniques for use in health campaigns.
I got leave from the Film Board and in August, 1949, found myself plucked from Ottawa’s summertime calm and dropped in Hong Kong’s hurlyburly. A decrepit Chinese cargo plane dropped me in Chungking. A jeep took me over 50 miles of dusty road northwest to Pehpei. In this little town of 20,000—no larger than, say, Brandon, Manitoba—I was to live for the next eight months.
I walked right into the civil war on my first day.
I had been welcomed to town with a lunch of what appeared to be hot tennis balls. After that I had purchased at the local market place a tremendous straw hat, a pair of straw sandals and two bamboo mat beds. Returning with my purchases I strolled along the river bank to avoid the town’s stifling heat. Turning a bend I almost stepped onto a whitened, corpulent body, washed up by the river. Later I was told that it was the corpse of a Nationalist general who had committed suicide. The strange part was that no one seemed excited by the event.
I sat on the darkened verandah of the brick and bamboo UNESCO headquarters after supper and listened to the sudden music of a percussion orchestra of drums, gongs and cymbals which began a frantic and insistent cacophony somewhere nearby. It was a fierce Continued on page 73
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rhythm of the highest nervous tension, coming in sudden spurts and ending in abruptness. A singer’s voice, in high falsetto, snaked through the taut machine-gunning of the percussion and then lapsed into short periods of solitary chanting. The eerie effect of the sounds in the cool summer stillness was indescribable. I had never heard anything like it before.
When the sounds faded away I learned from a passerby that this had been funeral music for the general whose body lay white and cold on the river bank below the hill.
My earliest impression of Pehpei was that everyone lived in small warehouses. In the place of Western-style door and ground-floor windows each dwelling had a long row of shutters. These were taken down during the day, exposing the whole interior to the street. The shops were similarly exposed and as you went by you could see their stocks of hanging pots and kettles and boiled candies. At the openfront tailor shops small boys sat all day long behind antiquated sewing machines. The busy sidewalks were jammed with stands and vendors seated on rugs amid their spread-out wares.
The streets themselves, curiously enough, were wide and often of excellent asphalt. But they seemed reserved for pedestrians who usually let any passing vehicle know that it had no business there disrupting their traffic. In the middle of the town stood a magnificent modern movie palace, with posters garishly advertising Hollywood films.
Compared with other Chinese towns of its size Pehpei was quite advanced. Its modernism stemmed from the vision and public spirit of two brothers, Lu Tso-fu and Lu Tso-ying. They had invested in the area about 20 years ago at a time when it was infested by bandits. Lu Tso-fu (the older) had started a shipping company and had sunk most of the profits into civic improvement. The younger had become the town’s honest and energetic mayor. Together, they had erected the modern hotel, hospital, school, movie house, park and similar town landmarks.
It was an unusual story in a land where, traditionally, the rich landowner sucked the wealth out of the land and the people, where the industrialist grew fat and oblivious to his neighbors, and where the civic official thought chiefly of the varied techniques of lining his pocket out of the public
Coal in God’s Storehouse
Pehpei was in the middle of a region just emerging from feudalism into the early stages of capitalism. The industrial revolution was barely perceptible and there was still as much poetry in the names of the few local factories and machines as in the names of mountains. Let me quote from Pehpei’s official “Sightseeing Guide”:
Pehpei is located in the Flowery Bright Mountains, which the Ga Ling River cuts into three gorges. The first gorge has stone caves in the mountainside that resemble nostrils, out of which spring water trickles into the river. Hence the name, Running Nose Gorge. The second is called Warm Springs Gorge. The third has a temple to the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, from which comes its title, Mercy Gorge.
In the west is Splendid Cloud Mountain; in the south, Rooster
Mountain; in the east, Gold Sword Mountain; and in the north, West Mountain Plateau. Three tributaries enter the Ga Ling River at Pehpei, namely: the Summer, Bright Home and Phoenix rivers. Level land is very scarce.
“The most important product is coal. The Storehouse of God Company outputs daily 1,000 tons; the Precious Spring Company, the Three Talents Company, the Fire River Company, the Peace Company and the Prosperity Company together produce 12,000 tons.
“Besides coal, there is a monthly output of 2,000 tons of limestone, 1,000 tons fire-resistant materials, millstones and ink-slabs from Warm Springs Gorge, and stone tablets from Running Nose Gorge.’’
But there was little poetry in the lives of the neighboring peasants. Pehpei’s townspeople were not doing too badly but the poverty in the fertile countryside was appalling.
The farmers ate little but rice and sold almost all the eggs and vegetables they produced just to buy salt. They broke their backs in the rice fields each year and then watched most of the harvest disappear in rent, taxes and the 50% interest rates charged by the landowners on previously borrowed money. They were exploited shockingly. There was illiteracy and disease. UNESCO, in attempting to teach public health, had an uphill job. Even boiled drinking water, though it could have prevented typhoid and dysentery among the farmers, was a luxury that demanded precious fuel beyond their means.
No wonder that, as the Communist forces advanced toward us in the late autumn, life around Pehpei continued normally. The peasants had no alternative but to stick to the daily pattern of life. Were they secretly welcoming the approach of the Red Army? We Westerners didn’t know. But we did feel that they had little personal stake in the old system they had experienced all the long, bitter years of the past.
The fighting reached Chungking in November. But in Pehpei, only 50 miles away, there were still no signs of alarm. Even after the recent fall of Canton many people retained illusions about the Nationalists’ power to resist. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek himself flew into Chungking at the last moment to broadcast a pledge of last-ditch defense. It seemed certain to Pehpei that it would be many months before the war passed that way.
But soon after that rumors and atrocity stories spread through the town. Before it had become apparent that the Communists were winning, it was the Communist troops who appeared as the villains in the stories. Now it was the retreating Nationalists.
Chungking was a culminating military victory for the Communists. All of China’s great cities were now in their hands. The last exit for foreigners like me disappeared with the capture of Chungking’ airport. When November ended the war was on our doorstep.
First came the caravans of rich refugees. They were transporting truckloads of furniture and belongings, and many were desperate. One man stopped Hu Chia-chwen, my interpreter, in the street and pleaded for some sort of job in town. He needed camouflage. He was a banker in Chungking, he revealed, and felt that the Communists would jail or kill him if they ever found this out. There were many others like him, all demoralized, petrified with fear and clutching at straws.
The richer townspeople of Pehpei, too, became panicky. Goods were carted away for concealment. Fat pigs which had been a family pride and joy were slaughtered in the streets all over town. The wailing and frantic scream-
ing of the animals made you shiver. In our own house the owner of our UNESCO premises began hiding all his valuables too under a concealed trap in the floor of our office.
Lu Leaps Into Action
In the wake of the refugees came inflation. It swept in like a roaring tide, engulfing us all helplessly. It was run-away and mad. Our Chinese paper dollars rapidly became nearuseless. Listen to my diary entry for Tuesday, Nov. 29, 1949:
Try to think of ways to spend my $240 Chinese (then $20 U. S.). Buy a dozen prs. of straw sandals for $1.50 each. They were 20 cents last week. Buv some tangerines at 25 cents each. Paid a dollar for 200 a week aso. Go to a restaurant and plan a small feast for my interpreter, his family. Hugh Hubbard and Dr. Nutting. (Hugh Hubbard and Clara Nutting, both Americans, were the other two foreign members of the tiny UNESCO group stranded in Pehpei.) Decide on menu but owner cannot estimate what price will be by evening.
In afternoon my interpreter has news all paper currency has just been void by Mayor Lu Tso-ying. Silver will be used, plus barter with rice and cotton thread. We go to restaurant to see if meal still stands. All other shops closed up tight now. Restaurant will honor order since made earlier, though already has sign up saying no more meals will be served. Will take $120 Chinese, will buy supplies tomorrow and will return me any change if he finds he has overcharged on basis of tomorrow’s prices. Seems a fair enough deal.
And then, that same Tuesday night, came the report that troops were approaching Pehpei. They were Nationalists, wearily retreating from Chungking and moving vaguely to the northwest. They were living off the land as they moved.
Mayor Lu went into action. He was a thin and fragile little man, but as energetic as a dynamo. Inconsistently, he combined a wide-awake intelligence with a superstitious penchant for fortunetellers. But he was an excellent organizer and a tireless worker and he was determined to save his beloved town of Pehpei at all costs.
I remember how we saw him as we returned home that night after our inflation banquet. Silent and alone, he was mounted on a small pony
which he eased up and down the town’8 deserted streets while he checked over the situation. He could have been a ghostly Napoleon, quietly surveying his sleeping forces on the eve of battle. He smiled at us in passing, but he wore a sad and worried expression.
At 10 o’clock the next morning Lu’s shrill voice came over the loudspeaker perched on the town’s water tower. He spoke very slowly, articulating word by word in a thin, tense pitch, and the people froze in the streets to listen.
“Don’t act rashly and don’t be frightened,” he warned. “It is unfortunate, but one route of the Nationalist retreat passes through Pehpei. Only if we are careful will we be left alone.”
Last night, he continued, the Nationalists had passed through Cheyma-kuan, a neighboring town, where the people had taken to the hills after locking their homes. The troops, finding the town deserted, broke in and looted. “They are tired, hungry and bitter,” Lu said, “and they must be treated decently.”
A Feast for Officers
The plan he announced was simplicity itself. “Let the tea houses open up and the food stores take down their shutters. Let the restaurants and housewives get busy cooking food and preparing tea.” Each house was to set a table outside in the street and ply the incoming Nationalist troops with hospitality. If the town’s poor could not afford the food they would receive it from the municipal depot. Do this, and do it with smiling fares, said Lu, and there will be no looting.
Ten minutes later his voice floated through the air again, declaring martial law for Pehpei.
In China there never has been much distinction between soldiers and brigands. Nevertheless, the mayor’s plan worked.
The motley Nationalist band—you could not call it an army: some of the men had even brought their wives and youngsters along—began coming into town that afternoon, Wednesday, Nov. 30. An amazing sight greeted them. Pehpei looked like one huge outdoor dining hall. The astounded soldiers hungrily tackled the bowls of rice. The weather was drizzling and the mood of the people sombre, but the incoming soldiers were pleased.
“I have been 15 years a soldier,”
one of them told my interpreter, Hu, “but never have the people of a place treated us like this, giving us hot rice, vegetables, even cigarettes. We will repay the people of this town by behaving well.”
They poured in all Wednesday and Thursday, day and night. The women worked around the clock cooking rice. The mayor took care of the officers himself, feasting them at the main hotel, side-stepping their constant demands for protection and civilian clothing and successfully dissuading them from looting. From time to time we heard his nervous voice over the loudspeaker, coaxing the soldiers to eat heartily and then to jump into one of the five or six rickety buses which he had magically mustered to drive them in relays out beyond the town. His white-uniformed militia moved discreetly up and down the streets, offering the soldiers second helpings and politely but pointedly telling them where the buses waited.
At last, on Friday morning, the last of Chiang Kai-shek’s disorganized troops had come and had been hustled out of town. About 3,000 had been fed without incident. Calm returned to Pehpei.
Or is calm the correct word? Though the citizens were tired after their antilooting struggle the air was electric with anticipation and suppressed excitement. How would the Reds act when they arrived? Many of the rich,
I noticed, were taking no chances. Our next-door neighbors, the Wongs, dismissed their servants and hung a hotel sign on the front door to camouflage the near-empty mansion. Others shed their usual finery and appeared in the streets in their oldest clothing.
See! The Conquerors Come!
At 11 a.m. the loudspeaker suddenly switched from the foreign American jazz tunes that had interlarded the mayor’s many announcements. The Communist anthem“ Chi-lai, Chi-lai” (“Rise Up, Rise Up”), blared out, followed by vigorous songs of the new order. Squads of elated students went to work on the streets, tacking up pink paper posters offering welcome to the People’s Army of Liberation. Triangular cloth banners were strung from telegraph poles, trees and buildings. School children lined up with their teachers in chattering, excited ranks along the main street. But most of the older people seemed to be showing no particular enthusiasm.
The big moment had arrived for Pehpei. And then came an unexpected drama in its place. People began murmuring in groups and several men rushed to the flamboyant welcome signs and frantically took them all down again. The school children rolled up their little flags and dispersed to the side streets. I kept rubbing my eyes in disbelief for, in a flash, all the color, the crowds, the open shops, the singing had disappeared and I felt that I had just seen a mirage.
The mayor had been advised of the approach of 3,000 more Nationalists. They were retreating from Chungking over the hills and had not been spotted earlier. Pehpei had almost been caught in the act of welcoming the enemy. And, at the same time, the Communists were now only seven miles away. The situation looked desperate. We were all caught with confusion.
But there was to be no pitched battle in Pehpei, after all. Ever resourceful, Mayor Lu organized a fleet of boats and sent messengers to persuade the Nationalists to cross the river downstream before the town. His next mission was to contact the Communists and ask them whether they
would mind waiting until welcome preparations had been completed. His scheme, amazingly enough, succeeded.
The Nationalists crossed the river without entering the town and disappeared. The school children and the crowds returned to the main street, the banners went up again, and the loudspeaker resumed its program of recorded Red Army marching songs.
All eyes were now fixed on the highway. With either foreboding or eagerness the people of Pehpei impatiently awaited. And then, at last, the powerful Communist legions materialized. An incredulous murmur ran through the crowd. The Communist Army had arrived in one solitary truck.
These Soldiers Pay
But, after the first bewilderment, the youngsters suddenly let themselves go in great waves of cheering and most of the town soon jumped on the bandwagon and began yelling and singing as lustily as the kids. Fireworks went off and made a great din. The school children waved their flags and jumped up and down in frenzy. Bands competed shrilly with each other and with the non-stop loudspeaker. And then the college students took over, marching up and down the streets leading long processions and i shouting the slogans of Communist China over and over and over again.
It went on like that for most of the evening. Two other truckloads of Communist soldiers looked into town for an hour or two. Mayor Lu tried his feasting strategy again and the soldiers ate the rice, then startled everyone by paying when they had finished. The officers shattered the mayor’s poise completely when they politely declined his already prepared banquet at the hotel and suggested he send the food out to the troops with whom they would share it. I had heard much of the puritanism of the Communist Army.
When I awoke the following morning everything was over. The original truckload of Communist soldiers had departed, shops were functioning again, prices were controlled at the rate prevailing three weeks earlier, the streets were quiet. Only a Communist political commissar remained. The date was December 3, 1949. Pehpei had been “liberated.”
I stayed on at Pehpei, living under the new regime until the middle of April. There was little alternative. For five months I struggled to get the necessary travel permit to get back to Canada. But the Communist authorities had put the problems of foreigners pretty low on their list. Even as a UN employee I got no special consideration. With Red China and the UN not recognizing each other, officially, I did not exist.
Where Was the Revolution ?
There were very few transformations in Pehpei after the changeover. Every day I went out expecting postrevolutionary upheavals and found only the old routines continuing.
The businessmen and merchants complained of the slackness of trade and feared controls. They also objected to the high-pressure sale of government reconstruction bonds. Their purchase was not altogether compulsory but most businessmen thought the prudent thing was to buy.
Although price controls were imposed, a rather slow and steady inflation set in. This started at 12,000 Chinese dollars to one U. S. dollar and by ahout three months later the ratio had r sen to 40,000 to 1. Price controls
had broken by then and prices rose at about the same rate as the Chinese dollar dropped.
Around Pehpei it was in rural areas that the first signs of change appeared. Redistribution of land began by means of a steeply graduated rice tax levied on land owned in excess of a basic minimum. This forced the large owners to sell.
Though debts were erased the peasant remained poor. He would require modern labor-saving agricultural implements, fertilizers and much investment to lift him out of the poverty of centuries.
The most striking thing about the changeover, during my term there, was the fact that life in Pehpei seemed to pursue, pretty well, its normal course. I saw no shootings or jailings. If there were any they were well hidden.
Mayor Lu carried on at his post for a short time, but with the new political commissar at his elbow. He had a lot of awkward explaining to do when the Communists cross-examined him on his generosity toward the retreating Nationalists. He did manage to convince them that his actions had been for the protection of his townspeople, but he was fired anyway, a few weeks later, along with a few of his assistants. Just before I left town I heard he was back in the Communists’ good graces and was considering an offer of a job in the Reconstruction office in Chungking. I never discovered whether he accepted.
A Struggle for Minds
On the first day of the Communist entry a leaflet had been distributed setting out the Communist aims and suggesting that the public “co-operate”, and carry on with their jobs. “Heavy” penalties were prescribed for stealing even a needle or a piece of thread from the public funds. (The exact penalty was not specified in the leaflet.) All who did not resist, except those connected with the Chiang Kai-shek Government, were promised protection. So far as I could see the new Government in Pehpei followed the leaflet almost to the letter.
The most obvious development in Pehpei probably was the new struggle to sell the people not only the physical fact of Communist supremacy but the Communist ideology. Wall newspapers went up everywhere. This year’s British elections were reported: “Communists get strong backing of the people . . The Press as a whole began to hammer away at United States foreign policy and to refer to American “warmongering.” Russian news did not appreciably increase, as far as I could see, and the vast bulk of the news content was concerned
with domestic affairs under the new government. At the big movie houses American films gradually disappeared and in came new Chinese and Russian features.
The students were the most enthusiastic supporters of the Red regime. The young ones loved the parades, the games and the radical changes in school. The Communists catered to them and filled them with a new sense o importance. A typical example was the 16-year-old son o ' Hu, my interpreter.
Mrs. Hu had a special flair for making stylish clothes. One day the boy returned from school to find his mother looking elegant in a new creation. He looked at her intently for a moment and then, in quiet authoritative tones said, “Mother, I think it is time we sat down and discussed this question of clothes.” Young Hu was not having any of this “bourgeois and Occidental influence” around his house.
Came the Concert Corps
With the spring came a great influx of padded khaki-clothed soldiers, men and women, as well as the “People’s Army Aesthetic Corps” which had been ordered to set up regional headquarters in Pehpei. As they rehearsed the townspeople were treated to concerts, parades, dances, plays and operas, most of them with the same political themes that made the corps the mobile schoolroom for the Communist Army. Several hundred artists, actors, singers and dancers worked with incredible energy at entertaining and “politicizing” the troops.
As all this went on our position as isolated Westerners became increasingly uncertain. We put up a new UNESCO flag with Chinese characters replacing the original English lettering. We asked our Paris headquarters to address all mail in Chinese. And American Hugh Hubbard was replaced by Chinese Eugene Fan, of Peking, as head of the project.
The Communists who dealt with us were scrupulously polite but distant.
In April permission finally arrived for me to leave. Riding boats and trains I took three weeks to reach Hong Kong. From there I made my way around the world to Europe. I stopped at Bangkok, Calcutta, Cairo, Athens and Rome. At Paris I left the plane for I had to spend some time at UNESCO headquarters. When at last I reached Ottawa, unpacked and took the year’s layer of dust off the furniture, Red China seemed far, far
But I came home feeling that if Pehpei is a typical example, the threat of Communist expansion in Asia is very real. if