I am in the process of reading a biographical book by the Chinese writer Yue Nan (岳南) entitled “Nandu Beigui/南渡北归” （“Move South and Return North”). The book is not yet available in English translation, so the title translation is my own.
The book is a detailed account of the lives and fates of a large number of Chinese academics and other prominent figures during the period from the 1930s to the late 1960s. The name of the book refers to the fact that many of these individuals moved to China’s southwest during the late 1930s when Beijing University, Qinghua University and Nankai University transferred their staff and students from the Japanese occupied area of north and east China to the newly established Southwest Associated University (西南联合大) in Kunming, Yunnan Province. When Southwest Associated University ceased operation in 1946, the staff and students returned to the north. Hence the book’s title: “Move South and Return North”.
I have read about two thirds of the book over the past six months, I am unlikely to finish until the summer. It is a very lengthy book, containing many excerpts from personal correspondence and diaries, biographies and interviews with the subjects and surviving friends and relations. Some of the individuals who feature in the book are well known to people in western countries, like Hu Shih and Fu Sinian. Others are not so well known, but their stories are in some ways more interesting. The author is based in China and has written a number of other historical works.
Two of the individuals whose stories the author relates were brother and sister, Zeng Zhaolun and Zeng Zhaoyu. They were descendants of Zeng Guofan, who was a senior official in the Qing Dynasty government during the mid-19th century, and also a general who raised an army to resist the Taiping Rebellion. Zeng Zhaolun was a chemist and a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He was famously eccentric and was once seen in Beijing in an apparent conversation with an electric wire pole about something he was researching. He also wrote widely and took a serious interest in Chinese defence issues. In 1946 he led a number of brilliant young students from Southwest Associated University to the United States to study nuclear energy and bomb technology. They were unable to secure access to secret US research but were able to obtain positions in leading US universities. One of the students, Li Zhengdao, had been an undergraduate in China but was able to enrol at the University of Chicago where he studied under Enrico Fermi. He remained in the United States and later shared the 1957 Nobel Prize for Physics with Yang Zhenning. Zeng Zhaolun meanwhile returned to China and decided to remain on the mainland in 1949 rather than follow the nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan. He carried on his research in China and was appointed a Vice Minister of Education by the government. He was subsequently branded a ‘rightist’ during the Anti-Rightist Campaign in the late 1950s and further persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, dying in 1967. His wife Yu Dayin, a Professor of English at Beijing University, was also a victim of the Cultural Revolution. The author describes in excruciating detail how she was beaten and humiliated by Red Guards and later committee suicide, at the age of 60. The Red Guards in question were themselves students of Beijing University, supported by local high school students whom they bussed onto the university campus. It is extremely hard to understand how students could treat their own professors so horrifically. Mao Zedong truly unleashed a whirlwind.
Zeng Zhaoyu, Zeng Zhaolun’s sister, was a leading Chinese archaeologist and became the head of the Museum of Nanjing. During the late 1940s she oversaw the construction of the main building at the Museum, which I visited a few years ago. Like her brother, she chose to remain in China instead of moving to Taiwan (as many other members of their family did). The author describes how she and her brother were ‘asked’ by the Chinese authorities to make radio broadcasts to family members in Taiwan urging them to ‘see the light’ and return to the mainland. The author also discusses at some length the fact that she never married, an unusual state of affairs at the time. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Zeng Zhaoyu came under more and more pressure over her family connection with Zeng Guogan, the Qing official and general whose resistance to the Taiping Rebellion was frowned on by Mao Zedong, plus her well to do background and the fact that many of her relatives had moved to Taiwan. She became increasingly despondent and committed suicide in 1964, aged just 55.
I do not want to give the impression that all of the figures the author describes came to tragic ends. He also discusses many others who either moved to Taiwan or managed to survive under the new regime in China. One of those is Jiang Tingfu, a Chinese historian who played a major role in the Republican government during the 1930s and 40s, and later went on to be the Taiwanese (Republic of China) Ambassador to the United States. The author focuses very much on his marital problems and inability to divorce his wife so that he could marry his long-time mistress, while somewhat glossing over his historical writing and educational achievements. There is a better account of Jiang Tingfu’s career achievements in his Baidu Baike entry (the Chinese version of Wikipedia).
Yue Nan’s book is enabling me to read about many prominent Chinese individuals with whom I was not previously familiar. They grew up and started their careers in a country that was on the verge of war with Japan and the subsequent civil war that led to the establishment of the new People’s Republic of China. Some then followed the nationalists to Taiwan but others decided to remain in China, tragically for some of them. In many cases they could not have predicted that aspects of their background or work would make them vulnerable to the Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Cultural Revolution. The author describes their lives at some length, with a vast amount of supporting detail, and always with great sympathy and respect.
This is also the first Chinese published book I have read that contains serious detail about events during the Cultural Revolution. It seems to me that we are not without experience in this area as well, though our own version does not extend to beatings.
Michael Ingle – firstname.lastname@example.org