To be separated of course means having been together once, and Jun and Hong started out from the same place, a home named the Flower Fragrant Garden, a spacious, verdant family compound, one of Fuzhou’s biggest and richest homes. It crowned what was called the Cangqian Hill across the Min River from the main part of Fuzhou, like a tiara encircled by a low stone wall. The main building was a grand, two-storey red-brick Western-style house rising from the lush greenery of the rolling grounds. A winding path dipped under the canopy of green, linking smaller buildings like beads on a necklace. Growing up, I knew of the Garden the way one might know of a big old house in town, no more than a noteworthy part of the scenery. My parents returned from their political exile in the countryside when I was 10, and they took up posts at the Teachers’ College next door to the Garden. They weren’t senior enough to be assigned housing there, in the exclusive compound for the leaders of the university, so we lived instead in a more modest faculty apartment building not far away. From there I used to go often to visit my maternal grandmothers who lived at the foot of the Cangqian Hill. Yes, I had two maternal grandmothers, a relic of Old China, where wealthy men like my grandfather could, and often did, have more than one wife. There was Upstairs Grandma, who was Jun and Hong’s biological mother; and there was Downstairs Grandma, my mother’s mother. The front door of my Grandmas’ home had a large hibiscus tree, and through its checker-work of leaves we could see pieces of the Garden on the peak of the hill. The Garden looked down on us like something from a fairy tale, forbidding and aloof, off-limits to ordinary people. Guards were posted at its main gate. I didn’t know that in times past, when the Chen family, my mother’s side of the family, was one of the wealthiest and most prominent in Fuzhou, it had owned the whole compound; or that several branches of my extended family lived there under the same roof, where they raised many children, worshipped their ancestors, and celebrated festivals in lavish style. During my girlhood, nobody in my family spoke of the place. But the trail that took me to school ran along the outside of the stone wall that encircled the Garden. I’d walk past a ditch that overflowed in every heavy rain, skirt an abandoned graveyard that always sped me up, and at the last turn, look out on a spectacular view of the Min River below where I’d pause to catch my breath. So I knew of a hole in the otherwise impregnable wall, and one day when I was seven I went through it, pursuing a runaway ball. I lingered: the cicadas’ buzz was especially intense there, so was the mélange of floral and fruity fragrances. The families left with fading dreams of a reunified Korea There was nobody inside the wall, only me and my ball. What captivated me was the gigantic and massive front door of the main building, fortified with a rich layer of red lacquer and two fierce lion-face bronze knockers too high for me to reach. It stood tauntingly ajar. My heart beating, I leaned all my weight on it, and it gave way a few inches, emitting a deep, throaty, scary growl. I flinched reflexively even as I peered within. The cavernous hall inside sent out a gush of cool air seeming to threaten to suck me into the vacuum of the house. I pulled away and ran for my life, but not until I paused for a glimpse of the porcelain toilet behind a half-closed door in a small outhouse before making my way back to the hole in the wall. Nobody spoke of my Aunt Jun either, and this was perhaps even stranger. She was my Aunt Hong’s older sister. The two of them had been nearly inseparable when they were girls, especially during the eight years of war with Japan, when the Chen family was forced into an internal exile. But their lives were disrupted again by China’s Civil War, and then they were abruptly separated when the bamboo curtain fell between the Communist and non-Communist regions of China. Hong never mentioned to anyone in my generation that she even had a sister, much less a sister whose own life and associations had caused both emotional anguish and political trouble for the family. By the time I came along, Hong had become a prominent physician in Fuzhou, famous as a pioneer in bringing medical care to China’s remote countryside, and later the “grandma of IVF babies”, in vitro fertilisation, in Fujian province. She was an important, unsentimental person, too busy perhaps to recount tales of days bygone. But none of my other aunts and uncles ever breathed a word either, about Jun or the Garden, to me or to my cousins. Not my own mother, not even Jun’s own mother, my Upstairs Grandma, ever told me or my cousins that we had an aunt named Jun. It was only when I was finished with college in China and my application to graduate school was blocked by my new employer that Jun appeared in my life. My mother told me that I had an aunt I’d never met, and that for the first time in 30 years, she was there in Fuzhou, visiting her family – something made possible when China and the United States established diplomatic relations in 1979. “Maybe you should meet her,” my mother said. Maybe with her foreign connections she would be able to help me go to graduate school, and in America. And so I did meet her – and she did help me. She was a slender, elegant woman, with a confident manner and an amiable smile, somehow different from the other women I knew, even while wearing the Maoist outfit that she must have picked up from some local store in order to fit in. It was she who talked to me about the Garden. Then, shocked and saddened by my complete ignorance, she started to paint me a picture of the place that she once called home. As she reminisced, I felt as if she were holding my hand and walking me through the gate, pushing open that door that I’d been too scared to go through as a seven-year-old, and unlocking other doors to the past that the rest of the family had preferred to keep shut. As Jun started to tell me of her own and her sister’s remarkable childhood and young adulthood, questions about Hong came to my mind for the first time: What was Hong doing and thinking at the time? What did she see and hear, and what was it like for her? I reached out to Hong for the other half of the story, and for the first time, learned from her far more than she’d ever seemed willing to tell me before. These two remarkable and pioneering women – sisters from the same family – had fought and won against adversities that might have crushed less powerful, determined figures. Their separation and gritty determination to succeed, which embodied the traumatic split of China itself as a nation, are remarkable all on their own, but how did the sisters from the same family succeed in societies that antagonised each other? Sisters or Enemies? The two sisters were born in the early 1920s and were raised in China’s southeastern coastal city of Fuzhou, in Fujian province. In a family that claims the last emperor’s tutor, Chen Baochen, as one of its ancestors, education was paramount. Despite being girls, they attended missionary school during the day and returned home to additional traditional tutoring. Both modern and bilingual, Jun wanted to be a teacher and Hong (not her real name) a doctor. The year 1949, a watershed moment in the nation’s history, would also transform the lives of the sisters. China’s Civil War between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) was now headed into a final showdown. Amid the frantic retreat of the KMT from the northern plains to the southeastern coast, the rampant inflation, and the collapsed economy, Jun graduated from the Teachers’ College and Hong from the province’s only medical school. And they both landed rare and coveted jobs: Jun was to teach in a prestigious private school in the coastal city of Xiamen, and Hong to intern in the best missionary hospital, the Union Hospital in Fuzhou. That summer, to celebrate the start of a new life, Jun went on a vacation with her college best friend to a small coastal island called Jinmen. This 60-square-mile island sits only a mile off the mainland coast, and is 100 miles to Taiwan. As soon as Jun arrived on the island, she learned from the radio that her hometown Fuzhou had been taken by the CCP’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), in their rapid southward sweep. Her two impossible choices were to return home right away or to stay and wait for the fighting to pass. Returning would mean making her way north against the south-charging PLA, an extremely dangerous undertaking, but waiting was also fraught with its own uncertainties. The sustained fighting along the coast prolonged Jun’s agony at the conundrum and by late October, the PLA had launched an amphibious assault on the beachheads of Jinmen. A three-day battle raged on the island, and the defending Nationalist army emerged victorious. This battle halted the Civil War, and the stalemate would last till today, splitting China into Taiwan and the mainland. And Jinmen itself would become – and still remains – the Nationalist frontline defence against the Communist mainland across the mile-wide water. Jun was now trapped on the KMT-controlled island right at the doorstep of the Communist mainland. The path home was in sight but out of reach. She had a home but she could no longer return. Overnight, her sister, her parents and all her loved ones in Fuzhou had been turned into her enemies. To start a life of her own, Jun took up the only job presented to her and became a journalist. She wrote positive reports on the visit to the island by Madame Chiang, the First Lady of the Republic of China, of which now Jinmen is a part; started a column for the stationing soldiers; and helped the military liaise with the local civilians and schools. To the Communist government, all of Jun’s work on Jinmen as part of her job became evidence of her service to the KMT, a counter-revolutionary crime. In fact, her mere existence on the KMT-controlled island had become a serious political liability for her mainland family. To make things worse, she would fall in love, and eventually marry, the general overseeing the KMT-controlled islands along the mainland coast. Hong, a rising star in her hospital, now had to care for a large family that her father had left behind. Her ailing father, who had been the family’s only breadwinner, was heartbroken from Jun’s sudden disappearance into enemy territory and died soon after. His surviving family – two wives and six younger children by his second wife – soon teetered on the brink of starvation. Hong, now the sole salaried family member of her generation, used almost all of her income as an intern to keep them alive. But more than the burden of survival, Hong’s hardest choice was to make a clean break with her sister trapped on Jinmen: she burned all of Jun’s letters and declared to the leadership that she would have no more communication with her sister. She did that, believing that it would be the only way to give her mainland family a chance to survive and rise in Communist China. To her, breaking with Jun was as painful, yet as necessary, as cutting off a gangrenous arm in order to save the body. On the mainland, waves of revolution would sweep across the land in subsequent years, aiming to root out the feudal past, cleanse KMT remnants, and build complete loyalty to the CCP. To survive, the family would erase Jun from the collective narrative. Survival and fighting for a chance to capture life’s potential demanded compromises. And part of that compromise was to edit out facts and details that would potentially implicate loved ones in fierce political storms. These edited narratives would eventually take on trajectories of their own as they were told and retold to new generations. ‘Even history is disposable’: photographer captures a lost past in China But Aunt Jun returned. When she left home in 1949, she had left for a brief celebratory summer vacation with her friend on Jinmen Island. Thirty-three years later, she would make her trip home as an overseas Chinese, not a homecoming daughter. She would be going through Hong Kong to enter the People’s Republic of China (PRC), holding a Taiwanese (ROC) passport, a US travel document, and a PRC visa. “No Tears for Today!” Clasping a stack of documents, Jun waited in the “non-citizens” line, an irony in itself, she felt. The Luo-hu customhouse was the gateway to China from Hong Kong, marked by an old trestle bridge, the British flag fluttering on one side, the red flag of the People’s Republic of China on the other. When she’d left the mainland in 1949, she had not needed a passport to step onto the ferry in Xiamen. In 1982, looking at the photograph in her Taiwan passport she saw the contemplative face of an ageing woman with salt and pepper hair. She would soon see her mother Ah Nai again, and Ah Niang, too, her father’s other wife, even though her father, who had waved goodbye to her on the tarmac of her first flight, was no more. Waiting in line, Jun felt like a girl who was late, very late, returning home. “Next!” called the customs officer. Jun stepped up to the window. “You have a green card?” “Not yet.” “You’re an overseas Chinese?” “Yes.” “You’re the owner of a restaurant in Maryland?” “Yes.” “Going to Fuzhou for?” “Going home.” “Visiting parents?” “Mothers only.” Jun picked out her sister right away. Her authoritative manner bespoke her years of managing the Women and Children’s Hospital, but there was also a touch of gentleness that must have come from handling so many newborns and their mothers. Hong, the sister two years younger to whom Jun had never had the chance to say goodbye, had the good fortune to singularly pursue her only dream of becoming an important doctor. There she was, waiting for Jun at her journey’s end. “Junjie, you’re back!” “I am.” They locked in a tight, silent embrace. The plane the sisters boarded the next day to Fuzhou was the same kind of Russian aircraft Jun had flown in on her first plane ride. Now from inside those strangely familiar windows, she pointed out to her sister Jinmen, site of her three-year-plus accidental exile that had stranded her on the side of the enemy. Hong knew how close Jinmen was. She had gazed at it from Xiamen. But she didn’t want to talk about it, or about Jun’s time there, because she knew that an undercover Public Security Bureau agent was most likely on the plane and would overhear them. Before coming to meet her sister in Guangzhou, Hong had had to tell the local Public Security officer about her sister’s return from America, where she had moved to in 1976 (from Taiwan, where she had lived since 1953) and that she was the wife of a former Nationalist general. She also had to submit a detailed itinerary of her sister’s stay in China. The morning was still relatively cool when the sisters left the centre of the old city to see their mothers across the river. The old farmhouse in the fields where Jun last said goodbye to her family was no more; the fields had shrunk to a few plots squeezed by clusters of cement buildings and interlocking roads. The map of Jun’s memory had to be completely redrawn. When she opened her eyes again, the car had come to a stop at the end of a narrow road. Straight ahead was a green hillside rising to the Flower Fragrant Garden. But they didn’t go there. They stopped at the foot of the hill and parked next to a low earthen wall. A crowd swelled at the front of the house as word got around that Jun was there, and she had a hard time telling apart new family members from the curious neighbours. “Wenjun, you’re back,” Ah Nai said – using her full name – her outreached hands trembling. “Yes, Ah Nai, I’m back.” Their hands locked in a tight grip, and Ah Nai’s whole body, as if electrified, started to tremble, shaking her long gown. Jun stepped up to wrap her arm around her shoulders and reached out her other hand to Ah Niang. She heard someone looking in at the kitchen window start to weep. Ah Nai turned to the crowd, partly visible through the door and the narrow window. “No crying!” she ordered. “No tears today,” she said. “This is a day of happiness. This is the day I reclaim my long-lost daughter. This is the day when my family is complete.” How Ho Chi Minh’s beliefs were shaped not in Vietnam, but in Europe These two sisters, well-educated and ambitious, made similar bargains on the two sides of divided China for the same goal: to live, and to find meaning in living. In complete separation, they both dedicated their talent and efforts to building and shaping their respective societies, and both rose to be part of the social elite. As their work was validated by their respective societies, however, they too were shaped and defined by the opposing ideologies and different social values that dominate the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. In this sense, their striving and success ultimately cemented their separation. The two sisters are my beloved aunts. Aunt Jun’s sudden separation from her family was a random act of fate. Decades later, her loss and suffering resulting from that rupture would enable me to build a life in America, one that I never imagined I would have growing up on the mainland. And although I will never have to make the agonising choices they did, I’m forced to grapple with the mixed and seemingly irreconcilable legacies that they have left behind. Adapted from Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden: Two Sisters Separated by China’s Civil War, by Zhuqing Li, visiting associate professor of East Asian Studies at Brown University. Copyright (c) 2022 by Zhuqing Li. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.