Scene: Port of Qingdao, Mainland China, 1949
Every speck of earth along the shore of Qingdao harbor was packed with all manner of military and private vessels rushing to load refugees fleeing this ancient place. A bird’s eye view revealed that even out into the open sea, the water was jammed with passenger and cargo ships slowly navigating out of the crowded harbor. Beyond them, more ships and boats of all sizes lined up, preparing to enter the port, ready to take on passengers, take on wealth.
On the shore were lined brokers of the nation’s treasure, directly facing ref- ugees begging for passage who were being charged exorbitant prices. In this setting, paper currency was worthless; apart from gold bars, boat ticket sellers would not even lift an eye to consider jewelry, paintings, and antiques that had no recognized value. Refugees desperate to sell off precious family heirlooms to obtain gold of sufficient weight were observed by antique merchants off to one side waiting to appraise and negotiate.
“We’re old. We can’t take the tossing about on the high seas, you go and don’t worry,” his mother said.
“I’ll take care of your mom; we’ll await your return,” his father said.
“Pa!” The son, tears and snot streaming down his face, kneeled on the ground. In his hands only two tickets for passage, not enough to transport the destiny of a family of three.
Who could say how this final farewell would end? Would the son, unable to cast aside the fetters of family ties, surrender the tickets just obtained to some other refugee, and stay with his aged parents to face an unknown fate? Or would he comply with his father’s will to continue the family line and burn incense at the alter to his ancestors, which meant turning and boarding the ship to face yet another unknown fate on his journey? In that moment, there was no one who cared about this tragic scene or touching story. And no one with enough heart or position to decide—who should stay behind? Who should leave?
In an era when war must be employed to decide cardinal questions of right and wrong, or have and have not, it is from the barrel of a gun or bore of a cannon that such human-destroying instruments of war issue their awful judgments. They cannot distinguish who is the evil person that should die, who is the kindhearted filial son on whom mercy should be shown. In the key moment when firepower decides everything, the wisest men of old have never stepped forward to protect the weak and preserve life.
Leaving the shoreline on a sampan, a wealthy family of six mouths plus their servants squeezed onto the deck, their brows knit, their two arms clutching the one precious bag each allowed by the captain, staring at the anxious and chaotic scene. In the bottom of their hearts they were clear, no matter how influential and illustrious their family had been, no matter how well socially connected, once they left the coast, any asset they could not carry was sealed up for safe keeping. For those things that could not be carried, sold, or shipped to someone to manage, they relied on an old lock, like a trusted servant who would refuse to yield, to seal up all their things until that day—that day when things were better, that clear and sunny day after the storm—when they could return from overseas, reclaim their land, wield their key, open their gardens, and resume the family business.
Only no one knew whether this old lock would be like Wang Bin-chuan, the virtuous wife of Peking Opera fame, able to resolutely protect the memo- ries enshrined in the courtyard during the long absence of her husband. Who could say as soon as the boat left the coast, as the nation’s masters changed, what claims this key making the ocean crossing could make? What did it prove? For a refugee fleeing turmoil, I am afraid that only the few precious items they pressed to their chests could be relied on to face an unknown future in a new land, relied on to protect them.
“Ai! Didn’t I just change the lock this morning? How could the government fall so completely the same day, what’s the rush?” On a small craft laboring against the current in the busy harbor stood a middle-aged man, his face lined with his thoughts, his back to the wind on the bobbing sampan. Gazing at the far shore and the hazy images of constant life-or-death encounters as people scrambled to escape or say farewell, he thought he saw his own silhouette. He could not tell if it was his spirit torn from his body by the war or his physical body. Only the icy spray of the ocean water clashing with the hot tears flowing on his face woke him to his existence. On the overcrowded deck, he strained
to create a small space and dropped to his knees, his two hands clutching the gunwale, his head pointing in the direction of that ancient land where he had grown into a successful man. He bowed his head against the gunwale over and over, again and again, vowing, “When the war is concluded, I will return.”
In that moment of his great pledge, on that enormous sea, besides the sound of a steam whistle’s cry, neither heaven nor earth offered any reply.
The above is an excerpt from Blurred Boundaries: A Martial Arts Legacy and the Shaping of Taiwan by Hong, Ze-Han and translated by Christopher Bates, Publication Date November 2023, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN 9781594399800.