Caring for history's forgotten men
Sun Mian, the publisher of New Weekly Magazine, a fashionable news and lifestyle magazine based in Guangzhou, has not worried about the editorial work of the magazine for years. He spends a great deal of time climbing high mountains on different continents. Recently, he and a group of volunteers started a campaign to look for soldiers who fought in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) but who are having a miserable time in their twilight years. Sun has vowed to raise enough money to take care of each of them for the rest of their lives so that they can live on with dignity.
When did you start caring about the living conditions of former soldiers?
I started to realise that some former soldiers are leading a poor life at the end of 2010. I heard about the miserable life of a retired soldier in Chengdu, Sichuan. He was a Nationalist soldier in the 1930s and 1940s, and his two sons had refused to have anything to do with him for fear of being involved in political troubles. The old man was poorly looked after in the nursing home. So I asked the old man's daughter, who was in her 60s, to rent a small apartment to have him live in, and hire a helper to take care of him. I paid for the rent and the hiring. When the old man died six months later, his daughter wrote me a message which I have kept to this day. She said her father had experienced the dignity of living in the past six months. The word 'dignity' touched me a lot and made me cry the whole morning.
So this is not a single case?
This is far from a special case. I have got to know about the Chinese Expeditionary Force who fought against the Japanese troops in Burma in the early 1940s. Around 400,000 Kuomintang soldiers went to Burma, and the casualties were almost 200,000. Most have already died over the years. Those still living are having a miserable life. I then got in touch with a website specially focused on caring about the retired soldiers. They have found nearly 1,000 such retired soldiers.
How miserable are their lives?
Many are senile and suffering disabilities left from the war but have no money for treatment. We visited some of the surviving soldiers. Their living conditions were unimaginable. A former soldier, aged 92, was living alone in a narrow room within a Taoist temple in Hunan . Both his eyelids bulged outwards, and his eyes were bloodshot because he had to cook and warm himself by making a fire all year round. His mosquito net and his bedding were all blackened with smoke and soot. Another man, aged 94, was living with his younger sister, who was around 90. His sister was too weak to go out and buy groceries. She also worried that her brother would die when she was away. Some even rely on begging. It is upsetting to know about one such case, but I've met dozens of them.
Why couldn't these retired soldiers live on government pensions given that they have served the country?
Many retired Kuomintang soldiers were denounced publicly in political campaigns after the founding of the People's Republic of China. Some were put in prison or experienced so-called reform through labour and suffered a lot during the Cultural Revolution. In 2005, Hu Jintao gave the first positive appraisal of the role they played in fighting against the Japanese invasion. However, they still can't enjoy the pension, unlike soldiers from the People's Liberation Army.
Why don't their families take care of them?
Their children denounced them as hatred developed between them over the years. Some children were very ignorant. When the parents weren't able to bring them any money, they refused to look after them when they got old.
How did you find them?
Volunteers are looking for them village by village. They will ask those around 90 years old. The retired soldiers remember clearly when they joined the army, which war they were engaged in and their officers' names. The volunteers, who are quite familiar with war history, can check the unit designations they belonged to after careful verification. They've made a map showing the locations of these retired soldiers. Most are in Guangdong, Hunan, Sichuan and Zhejiang.
As a magazine publisher, have you ever called on the government to take care of these soldiers?
I've separated the editorial work from my personal volunteer work. We can't afford to wait for the government to take action. We have disturbing data - among the retired soldiers found by a website focusing on their plight, one died in 2008, nine in 2009, 45 in 2010, 55 last year, and more than 40 in the first three months of this year. They are passing away in groups far too quickly. It is very pressing. When more people start caring, I believe it gives impetus to the government. But so far, we haven't seen any action from the government.
How is the programme going?
We are raising money and looking for the retired soldiers at the same time. We set out a practical plan as soon as we find one, either to put him in a nursing home or hand out money and buy necessities.
I guess the programme won't last long. The youngest we've found is aged 86, and the oldest is 110. It will probably finish in five years.
You see hopes and prospects with other philanthropy programmes. When this programme is finished, what you will see are rows of tombs.
How do they respond to your visits and help?
They are very happy and many see us as representing the government. In Taizhou, Zhejiang, a traffic policeman often visited the local retired soldiers in his spare time. They always regard him as [representing the]government and [they] salute us when we visit them.
You said the country's memory was lost. Have you collected the history during the process?
Yes, the country chooses to forget this part of history. But we have collected the history from the retired soldiers. They remember clearly everything about the war. In Burma, people found vey beautiful tombs created by the British to commemorate the soldiers. The Japanese even made tombs for their war horses. But we found only one small tomb in Burma for Chinese soldiers.
We have a former journalist who quit his job and is now focused on writing the history of the Chinese Expeditionary Force. We've also established files for each soldier.
Do they have any other wishes?
Their biggest wish is to get the country's recognition. They've fought for the country.