by Teng Fei [滕飞], based in Shandong and an intern of Hong Kong Wenhui [文汇] Newspaper
‘Bury me by the upper peak of this tall mountain;
So that I may see the mainland.
But I cannot see the mainland;
All I can do is weep.
Bury me by the upper peak of this tall mountain;
So that I may see my home village.
But I cannot see my home village;
I can never forget.’
For the majority of Chinese mainlanders who escaped to Taiwan in the wake of the Communist takeover in 1949 and who have since spent the remainder of their lives here, their dying wish has been to see their homeland one more time. But most of them died before travel became possible across the straits. Their only remaining wish became one of yearning for their ashes to be carried home and buried there.
When the Peonies Bloom
At the Taiwan HeZe [荷泽] Folk Association Gao Binghun [高秉涵] was the youngest member; but being an attorney and one brimming with enthusiasm, he was nonetheless elected president of the Association shortly after its founding. He was surprised but did not shirk from the volunteering demands of the position. He promised that every year when the peonies would be blooming in their home village of HeZe in Shandong Province, they would be there.
When Gao first began organizing these trips back to HeZe, there were thirty or forty members going along; but the number dwindled and by now, he is the only one left. All his fellow veterans, who had fought their wars together with so much valor before seeking refuge in Taiwan, had been leaving this world one by one. To a one they mentioned Gao in their wills. When his closest friend was dying, he implored Gao, ‘Good friend, please take my cremated ashes back to our small village. There will be $1 million left in my estate, please give $500,000 to my aged mother, $400,000 to our village school, and please use the remaining $100,000 for legal fees to accomplish this.’
Gao agreed and set out on the journey to take his friend’s ashes back to their small village in HeZe. However, once there he found that many changes had taken place. The old homestead of his friend’s family had changed hands many times and his relatives had all moved away. Many of them had since passed away. After many days of searching he finally managed to find his friend’s mother. She was overwhelmed to receive news of her long lost son, her eyes brimming with tears of happiness. Gao could not bring himself to tell her that her son had already passed away. He just told her that he would be returning home soon. He took his leave, went out to an empty open field, lifted the lid to the urn holding his friend’s ashes and threw them into the wind. He whispered, ‘Good friend and brother, you are home!’
From Opposition to Respect
Since 1992, Gao has brought the cremated remains of over 100 veterans back to HeZe. His many shared experiences with them from their soldier days together gave him a deep understanding of the yearning in the hearts of these veterans to return home. He never hesitated when he promised them that he would fulfill their wishes, and has used all his resources to carry out this promise.
Among Chinese households, there are not many that are willing to allow urn after urn of human remains into their abode. When Gao brought the first urn home, his wife raised many objections, but finally gave in at his insistence. Then his son came home, saw the urn and screamed. This put Gao in a dilemma. He told his family that if his friend’s ghost were to come to their apartment, the ghost would only want to look for him and not the rest of the family. But seeing the continuing fear on their faces Gao decided to take the urn down to the basement, apologizing to his deceased friend for the inconvenience and promising that it would be only a few days before they would embark on their journey home to HeZe.
As more and more urns began arriving at their apartment, Gao’s family eventually got used to them and no longer objected. But then his neighbors in the building got wind of what he was doing and started complaining, commenting that the idea of sleeping on top of dead souls gave them shivers. They also remarked on the pale look of death on Gao’s face. Despite these incessant innuendos Gao persisted in his mission. Gradually his neighbors got over their fears and came to think of Gao’s honoring his friends’ wishes as an act of grace, one that would accumulate goodness and fortunes for his descendants.
Through Thunderstorms and Landslides
Once Gao put his own life in danger during one of his missions. In 1997 he was taking a friend’s ashes back to his village of Dingtao [定陶]. He had flown from Taipei to Hualian［花莲 ] and then taken a taxi to the Soldiers’ Cemetery up a steep hillside. On their way there a severe thunderstorm broke. The rain was coming down in sheets and, after a while, the taxi driver did not dare to continue, fearing that there would be a landslide. But Gao did not want to wait. He got out of the taxi and walked the rest of the way to the Cemetery in the rain. At the Cemetery office he completed all the necessary paperwork, but found that it was already evening by then. The thunderstorm did indeed lead to a landslide and the road was no longer passable. Unable to contact his family, he spent the night in a small pagoda at the Cemetery, huddling with the urn of his friend’s ashes and sheltering it from the rain. He was finally rescued the next day.
Suspicions of Drug Smuggling – For a slight man like Gao who weighs only around 90 pounds, carrying a marble urn of ashes weighing around 40 pounds is no easy matter. To ensure the safety and correct identity of his charges and, being afraid of breaking the large urns during transit, Gao always insists on hand carrying them personally. He says, ‘I am only at ease when I hand carry these ashes. I don’t want them to feel lonely. Sometimes I even talk to them!’
Walking cautiously and slowly, Gao often aroused the suspicions of customs and security agents serving on the busy air routes between Taipei and mainland. He had been detained several times by these agents, who suspected that he was actually smuggling drugs. After every detention he always apologized to his friends in the urns for the inconvenience. After many more subsequent trips all the customs agents came to recognize Gao, and they developed a deep respect for his loyalty and perseverance in his mission.
The Tortuous Path Home
When Gao first arrived in Taiwan in the 1940s, he was an innocent product of the twists and turns in Chinese history at the time. For many years he was not able to communicate with his family back home across the straits. Once he wrote to friends in the United States, asking them to forward a letter that he had enclosed to his family on the mainland. On the envelope of the letter he had written ‘To Gao Homestead 35 miles northwest of HeZe ‘. That was all he could remember of his family’s address. His friends in the United States mailed his letter to the mainland, and, because of the incomplete address, the letter just sat in the post office of HeZe. More than a year later, a cousin of Gao’s happened to be in the post office and saw a letter with English on the envelope. He opened it and saw that the name on the return address was [春生] Chunsheng. It was Gao’s nickname when he was a child. The cousin promptly took the letter home.
Everyone in Gao’s family had thought that in the decades since he left, he must have died. Thus this letter brought them indescribable joy. They wrote back to him immediately, telling him about the joy in hearing from him and wishing that he would return for a visit. They also told him that shortly before his letter arrived his mother had passed away. To Gao that was the biggest regret in his life, that he was not able to give back to his mother some of the immense love that she had showered on him when he was a child.
Since Gao first started carrying the ashes of the veterans back to their villages in Shandong in 1992, he has, to date, returned over 100 of them. While most belonged to friends who had come over to Taiwan at the same time as he, others belonged to strangers whom he had never met.
The Ashes of a Stranger
A few months ago in April this year, when peonies were coming into full bloom in HeZe, Gao did what he has been doing for a decade: bringing cremated ashes back to the mainland. Only this time the ashes belonged to someone whom he did not know.
A year ago a woman in Beijing, [鲁 励平] Lu Liping, by chance read in a publication about Gao’s mission. At first she thought it was fiction; but later she began to think about her own father who had escaped to Taiwan all those years ago and who had since died in a strange land unattended by family. She telephoned the publisher of the article and learned that the story, while slightly embellished, was indeed true, and that Gao was a real person. Lu was deeply shaken and moved. She proceeded to write to Gao, telling him that since birth she had only seen her father, Wang Haiting [王海亭], three times. Her dying mother had told her that her one deep regret was that she had been separated from her husband all these decades. While her yearning to be reunited with him in life would not be unfulfilled, she hoped that they may be reunited in death and buried together. After her mother died Lu Liping found out that her father’s ashes were at the [树林忠靈祠] Shulin Zongling Temple in Taipei and she wondered if Gao would bring them back to Beijing for her so that they could be buried next to her mother.
After she mailed off the letter Lu did not hear from Gao for many months and was beginning to give up hope when suddenly she received a letter from him, posted from Taiwan. In it Gao said that while they did not know each other, he was deeply moved by her devotion to her parents and would be willing to bring her father’s ashes to her in Beijing. But before he could do so there were many logistical hurdles to overcome and much paperwork to process. The first obstacle was the fact that Lu had taken her mother’s last name and lacked the proper papers proving her father’s paternity. It took over a year before everything was resolved and Gao was finally granted possession of the ashes of Wang Haiting. On the way to Beijing Gao said to Wang, ‘Oh Big Brother Wang, you are going home today because you have a devoted daughter!’
Refusing Compensation – On April 16, Lu rushed from Beijing to HeZe to meet Gao. When she saw him emerge from a room carrying the urn of her father’s ashes, she fell to her knees. In between sobs she thanked Gao for this gift. Gao helped her up and said, ‘It was easy for me to bring this urn of ashes; but it was your love for your father that moved me to bring them home.’ After Lu had calmed down she reached for the $5,000 that she had brought to pay Gao. Gao refused. He said that he had been doing this on a volunteer basis for many years. He had never accepted a penny, always paying for his own traveling expenses. He thought back to those years of war on the mainland when these veterans protected him from gunfire and escorted him on his way to school. Now was his turn to give back to them. He was delighted to meet a devoted daughter who trusted him to bring her father’s ashes home. After much coercion from Lu he finally accepted $100 as a token of her gratitude.
Editor’s Note: This article originally was written in Chinese and recently appeared in China Tribune from whom we received permission to reprint. The English translation was created by Pearl Bergad.