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Hua Shaoyu

A week ago we received a phone call telling us that that Hua Shaoyu, my father-in-law, passed away peacefully. It was a shock to us - he was ill and had been bedridden for a year, but over the last week or two had seemed to be improving.

According to his national ID card he had just turned 84 the day before, completing his 7th 12-year cycle of the Chinese calendar. According to his relatives, though, he was several years older than that. I could easily believe it. For some people 84 is not so old, many maintain an active and full lifestyle well past that. But his 84 years were hard. He lived amidst invasion, civil war, famine, purges, anarchy, and repression. Through it all he maintained his pride and integrity, in all his roles as teacher, governor, warrior, prisoner, accountant, and father.

Born in 1920, Hua Shaoyu graduated from college, becoming first a teacher and then a county governor. When the Japanese invaded China in the 30s his county was overrun and so he joined the army, entering the prestigious Huangpu (Whangpo) Military academy. This was China's West Point, originally formed for the purpose of overcoming the warlords who had divided China. By the late 1930s the purpose had changed to expelling the Japanese invaders. The school was run by a coalition of both the Nationalist Guomindang (Kumintang) party and the Communist Party: both Chiang Kaishek and Zhou Enlai were on the faculty. On graduation Hua and his classmates had to decide which of the two armies to join. He said no one cared about politics, but there had shortly before been a purge of the Communist ranks in Yenan. While he was willing to risk his life against the Japanese, the possibility of being purged by his own comrades seemed unnecessary, so he joined the Kumintang.

He wanted to fight the Japanese; he did, and was seriously wounded twice. Once he was shot through the mouth and lost part of his tongue, making his speech sometimes difficult to understand even for those with a better grasp of Chinese than mine. The other time he was found and hidden by peasants, who risked their lives and sacrificed one of their precious chickens to save the life of the soldier who was trying to free them.

As time passed he rose to colonel, and once the Japanese were finally expelled became involved in the civil war against the Communists. He was given the chance to flee to Taiwan. by this time he was married, and his wife, my mother-in-law, refused to leave China. In 1949 he was one of the officers who surrendered Beijing to the Communists peacefully rather than having it subjected to a prolonged, destructive bombardment that would have decimated the population and leveled architectural treasures, and merely delayed the inevitable.

In the agreement with the Communists,he was given the chance to go to Taiwan or transfer to the Communist army. He did neither; he wisely recognized that the Communist army needed no more officers, especially ones from the army they had just defeated. So, he stayed home for a short time and later in 1950 studied accounting and tried to blend in as a normal clerk at a university. Events, and his character, caused the breakdown of his camouflage. He could not be silent when faced with folly. In one example, at a propaganda meeting where they were presented with totally impossible statistics for the grain harvest, he stood up and declared before all that if the given figures were correct, the fields cited would have to be buried knee-deep in rice.

When the anti-rightist campaigns and the Cultural Revolution came he was an obvious target, with his wealthy background, former Kumintang membership, and history of outspokenness. One weekend he came home from work to find his wife had been taken from their home and put to work sweeping the streets. He sought out the leaders responsible and told them if they had a problem with him they should deal with him, and leave his family out of it. He was a big man, with the resolution and discipline of military training, and so successfully faced down the neighborhood committee. However, as the enemies grew in power his personal force was not enough, and he ended up jailed for over a year, and then sent with his work unit to an isolated area of Sichuan Province.

The fall from wealth to poverty, jail time, manual labor, and exile did not change him. During the Democracy Wall period, after he returned to Beijing, the family practically had to restrain him physically to keep him from going downtown and posting his honest opinions publicly on the wall. In going over his papers his family found books of poetry he had written, as well as notes and description of his life.

I met him in 1988, around the time I became engaged to his daughter, now my wife. He and I got along reasonably well, considering we could not communicate. His try at speaking English, a language he had not used in 40 years, was only a friendly gesture, and when he spoke Chinese his accent, the old injury to his tongue, and his frequent use of literary language was often difficult for Chinese to understand, much less someone with my limited ability. His hearing was poor, as was my Chinese, so I had little luck speaking to him either.

When my wife announced her intent to marry me, an American, his reaction was as decided and honest as his history would indicate. Fortunately my wife warned me to stay away for a while, but I have been told he blew up, and told her "either you will leave the family or I will." Time, reflection, and judicious intermediaries sent by my wife to reason with him had their effect. In addition, his army experience had left him with a good impression towards Americans - he felt they were the only ally that had treated the Chinese as fellow soldiers rather than coolies or colonials. Within a few weeks I was able to show myself again, and have been treated as his own son ever since.

Or, more precisely, as the son he never had, since his family consisted of his wife and 5 daughters. Our relationship was cemented with the birth of our son, whose Chinese name uses my wife's (and thus my father-in-law's) family name. After his 5th child turned out to be another daughter he never expected to have a grandchild carrying on his name, so this was one point in building the special relationship between grandfather and grandchild. Even as his health suffered and he sank into immobility, the one thing that could still consistently arouse him was Aaron's walking into the room and taking his hand.

Educated in the old culture, Mr. Hua followed some of the old traditions. One of these was every Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) he would put up pictures of his ancestors in a kind of temporary altar, and all would bow towards them in remembrance. I always felt like an imposter or an actor, bowing towards these old pictures of people from backgrounds so foreign to mine whom I did not know. Next year when Spring Festival comes around it will be different. When his picture is up along with the others, I will no longer participate just out of politeness, but with love and respect towards a man who lived a much tougher life than I will, and lived it well.

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