A soldier's battlefield bravery in China's darkest hour was lost to history when he defied the Communist party line. Eight decades later, the government resurrected this ninety-two-year-old's story, while whitewashing his true beliefs.
The year was 2012. It was a cold December night in Nanjing, China, and a solemn memorial ceremony was taking place. Buddhist monks from China, Korea and Japan chanted looped prayers. School children lit candles for the vigil and left written notes beside the flames. “May the world no longer see war,” one note read. “We hope you can all rest in peace,” read another. White flowers were laid at an altar for the dead.
One by one, party apparatchiks, all wearing the same black wool suit, the same white shirt, and ties of varying shades of red, congratulated one man: Cheng Yun, then ninety-two, was the last surviving native Nanjingese man who fought the Japanese army here seventy-five years earlier. The same ceremony takes place every year, organized by the city officials of Nanjing.
Cheng limped into the spotlight, supported by a well-worn cane. Dozens of microphones and cameras were pointed at him, reminiscent of the Japanese rifles and bayonets he faced more than seven decades ago. His eyes darted from camera to camera, alive with alertness. Cheng spoke of wanting peace with Japan. When the media’s interest was exhausted, he walked slowly toward the exit, aided by his nephew.
Before leaving, however, Cheng handed out cards with his contact information to anyone who would take one. His card showed fourteen titles, including “member of the Nanjing Defense Force of 1937,” “graduate of Huangpu Military Academy” and “officer of the police force of Original China.”
Original China, meaning the Republic of China, was ruled by the Kuomintang (KMT) before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power in 1949. The card also explicitly noted that he was a member of the KMT, the ruling party that fled to Taiwan when it became clear that Mao Ze-Dong was going to take over the country. It was a touchy gesture in China’s terrain of extreme censorship.
Within Cheng’s skinny frame is the history of a nation that has endured dark days at the hands of both foreign and domestic forces, and a tale of the people its leaders left behind in the country’s quest to become a world power.
* * *
The year was 1937. China was suffering its “century of national humiliation.” Japan’s Imperial Army swept through Manchuria to take over large swaths of the Eastern Chinese seaboard and was knocking at the gates of Nanjing, then the capital of the Republic of China. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, leader of the Kuomintang and the nation, was in the midst of a civil war against Mao’s Communist Party. Japan took advantage of the widespread infighting and managed to establish a foothold on Chinese soil, and their rapid engagement led them to China’s capital.
A kid named Cheng Yun was ready to fight the battle of his life. He had turned seventeen only a month earlier, and joined the Nationalist Revolutionary Army (NRA), the military arm of the KMT. As a native Nanjingese man, defending the capital meant he was fighting to protect his home.
On December 10 of that year, the Japanese Imperial Army waged a full-scale attack on the Chinese capital, closing in on three gates of the ancient city walls. Chinese defense forces were not in position, but managed to rally and engaged in a series of counterattacks. Like the other soldiers who formed the city’s defense forces, Cheng was issued a helmet, a rifle and a few grenades. Japanese tanks rolled in through Nanjing’s ancient city portals, the gates normally kept open for traders moving goods in and out for commerce. Warplanes zipped overhead, tearing through infantry with machine gun fire and dropping bombs that destroyed Nanjing’s fortifications.
Hours into the battle, Cheng was shot in the leg. A medic tied a tourniquet around his calf to control the blood loss, and Cheng kept fighting until he received orders to retreat.
Many other Chinese soldiers, having abandoned their posts, filed out of the gates that hadn’t yet fallen to Japanese control. During their exodus, reinforcements were streaming into the city — military leadership, seated far from the battlefront, issued conflicting orders. While some units received orders to leave their defense posts, others were told that they could not retreat a single step without permission. Continuous air raids severely weakened Nanjing’s defense. The NRA had anti-aircraft guns, as well as their own air force and support from foreign pilots, but none of that was enough to repel the wave of Japanese planes that were bombing Nanjing.
Current Chinese propaganda suggests that many of the soldiers defending Nanjing, like Cheng, held their ground. However, plenty of soldiers knew that their equipment, supplies and tactics could not match those of the Japanese and simply left their posts to attempt escapes from the onslaught.
Soldiers blended in with civilians shuffling out of the city gates, but the crowd was fired on by other Chinese troops, resulting in the deaths of about 1,200.
Cheng didn’t witness that particular incident, but he recalled pure chaos. “The [Japanese] planes never stopped coming. Our anti-aircraft guns weren’t effective in shooting them down. Maybe we weren’t trained properly, maybe something was wrong with the guns. Probably both.” The NRA wasn’t short of warm bodies, but the training they received, according to Cheng, was rushed. He no longer had faith in the generals who were issuing orders from afar, but Nanjing was his home, so he stayed to fight.
It didn’t take long for the Japanese Imperial Army to overrun the capital. By December 13, the city fell. China’s capital belonged to the Japanese emperor, Hirohito.
Some of the Chinese troops who were still in the city discarded their arms and tried to leave but were stopped, gunned down by Japanese soldiers who held positions at the gates.
Five days after the fall of the city, The New York Times (using an alternate name for the city) reported that “The capture of Nanking was the most overwhelming defeat suffered by the Chinese and one of the most tragic military debacles in the history of modern warfare. In attempting to defend Nanking the Chinese allowed themselves to be surrounded and then systematically slaughtered… The graveyard of tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers may also be the graveyard of all Chinese hopes of resisting conquest by Japan.”
Cheng somehow managed to leave the city, staying at a temporary camp on its outskirts. He was lucky: his bullet wound wasn’t infected. Other injured refugees were in much greater pain, with no medical assistance in sight. He looked towards Nanjing. “There was such thick smoke, and the dust looked like it would never settle. Our houses were on fire, but only in some areas. The Japanese wanted to loot.”
They did much more than that. Historians call it the Rape of Nanjing. Japanese occupying forces pillaged the capital, tortured the Chinese who were still there, experimented on some with biological weapons, and abducted females to use them as comfort women — sex slaves. Killing contests between Japanese soldiers made headlines in Japanese newspapers. A handful of Westerners who were living in Nanjing at the time — missionaries, educators, businessmen and a doctor — established a “safety zone” to protect Chinese refugees who were trapped in the city, and managed to save up to 250,000 lives. The Japanese, however, went on a killing spree and extinguished 300,000 over the course of six weeks.
Cheng Yun had never left his hometown before the invasion. He didn’t know what to expect, and was fearful of the unknown. There was no way for him to know what was happening inside the city walls. He tried to sneak back into Nanjing, but fortunately failed.
The loss of Nanjing to the Japanese Empire united the CCP and KMT. They didn’t exactly fight side by side against the Japanese army, but the civil war was put on hold until the invaders were defeated. However, Cheng didn’t seek out NRA units to rejoin them. He was seventeen years old, and as much as he loved his country and understood the need to fight the Japanese, he just wanted to make it out alive.
* * *
With rocketing national wealth built over the last two and a half decades, historians in China — both independent academics and party apparatchiks — have developed a renewed interest in the narrative of contemporary China. For decades, Japanese statesmen and academics have denied that the Nanjing Massacre ever happened, and Japanese textbooks reject all references to the Rape of Nanjing and comfort women. Failure to resolve these issues severely affects Sino-Japanese negotiations, and nationalism in both China and Japan runs deep, often trumping logic. To address this Japanese denial, Chinese historians gathered testimony from the survivors of the Rape of Nanjing. Reporters and television personalities flocked to interview Cheng Yun at the turn of this century because he was the sole surviving native Nanjingese soldier from that tumultuous era.
He poured his heart out. It was finally time to tell his side of the story.
Cheng talked about the battles he fought and the many losses he suffered. “None of us, including the officers, knew what to do,” he said. “The commands we received were contradicting each other. As I left the city, reinforcements from elsewhere were streaming in. I now know that the defense strategy made no sense, and left big holes for the Japanese to exploit.” The troops were completely demoralized, sapped of their inner fire, unable to defend their own homeland as Japanese forces were cutting deeper into the country. Wherever he went, the Chinese army was collapsing onto itself, and his compatriots lost faith in their own leadership. Things seemed dire.
Fighting raged on and the NRA was crumbling. However, Mao’s guerrilla tactics were proving to be a success against the invaders. He was fighting back, and small victories reinvigorated a shattered population, iron will now fired red. Even though the Maoists were not a major fighting force — their own scholars point out that Mao’s troops participated in only 0.5 percent of the skirmishes — his ranks grew, and he attracted a loyal following because of his sharp battlefield acumen. However, Cheng was an ideologue, and had sworn an oath to serve the KMT. He refused to join the Maoists. Weary of killing and death, he continued to wait for the opportunity to return to Nanjing and restart his life. He left the warring to men with larger egos.
The Japanese Army had severely weakened the KMT’s military forces, which gave Mao a chance to strengthen his ranks and combat the Japanese, reaching stalemates on multiple fronts. The fighting continued throughout WWII, until American bombers dropped Fat Man and Little Boy onto Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan ceased worldwide military action and surrendered to the Allies.
That didn’t mean peace would finally arrive for war-ravaged China, and Cheng wasn’t out of the gauntlet yet. With the Japanese gone, KMT forces and Mao’s Communist Party went back to fighting each other. Having bore the brunt of Japan’s offensive, KMT’s army was severely weakened, and Mao’s forces prevailed in the civil war. To-the-bone nationalists fled to Taiwan, where they made new homes on an island just out of Mao’s reach, but close enough to the Chinese Mainland for them to dream about returning some day. Cheng didn’t have the right connections to get him across the Taiwan Strait, nor did he have the money to cover bribes and passage.
Veterans and intelligentsia who did not proclaim their allegiance to the Maoists became political prisoners. “Capitalist roaders,” as they were called by Maoists, faced public shaming during show trials and were executed. Education was replaced by propaganda.
“The Communists refused to acknowledge my status as a veteran,” Cheng said. “I fought the Japanese, I was shot, and I have the scars to prove it!” He lifted his pant leg up to show where a bullet once tore open his flesh. Whenever he recalled those harsh days in Nanjing, tears welled in his eyes. “They said I was a peasant, so that became my officially registered occupation. My military service didn’t matter even though I had official documents to prove that I was a soldier.” He lost all social benefits. His pension was seized and his leg never healed fully. His house was demolished, so he took menial jobs and lived wherever he could.
In the fields, in steel mills, at all times, Mao badges were pinned to every breast. The new cadre in charge demanded complete submission — assimilate, or perish. It was a new kind of chaos, with the same brutality that the Japanese employed, but cultish. Facing those consequences, Cheng Yun still refused to refute the KMT, so he was assigned to forced labor and political re-education, and spent seven years toiling away in work camps, where food was scarce, as was sleep.
“The Communist Party took everything! Everything!” he said. In his old age, long past his physical prime, he lived in a windowless, unheated, permanently damp room in a slum two turns on the road from the multi-million-dollar complex that is the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. It is an austere compound not unlike Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, equal parts historical archive, museum and monument.
* * *
Cheng shared all of his experiences and hardships with the flocks of Chinese reporters who visited his humble abode. But when the interviews were printed or broadcast for public viewing, his words were altered. Censors edited his life story. He was branded as a hero of the CCP, a model for modern Chinese youth who were told it is now their duty to defend their homeland from foreign invasion and interference. State-run media sculpted a stranger in his likeness. Cheng felt lost. He contacted the reporters and tried to explain that they were lying about his past. His nephew, fearing repercussions, respectfully asked him to bite his tongue.
Cheng Yun’s lifelong bitterness tinged his words as he recalled the choices he made. “The soldiers who gave in to the Communist Party now receive ¥10,000 [$1,625] from the government every month, but my previous occupation is officially listed as ‘peasant,’ so I receive a peasant’s benefits — ¥300 [$49] per month.” In a drawer, he kept photographs of battle brothers who made it across the Taiwan Strait. Every letter they wrote came with a crisp $50 bill to help out an old friend. In recent years, those letters stopped coming. His friends were dead or dying.
With no cash saved up, he relied on his nephew to deliver three hot meals every day, as well as the occasional donation drive by charity groups or local historians unaffiliated with party officials. His landlord understood his plight, and waived rent entirely so long as he remained in the slum. Cheng’s living conditions were far from ideal, with faulty plumbing and trash piled outside, but he had a roof over his head and he didn’t have to travel far for his public appearances.
Those public appearances — there were so, so many.
* * *
Since its construction in 1985, the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall has undergone several phases of renovation and expansion. It has a variety of items on display, and exhibits can be graphic. Creepy, life-size wax figures are arranged to show the moments when Chinese women and children were bayoneted by Japanese infantry. Oil paintings covering entire walls depict Japanese soldiers gunning down row upon row of civilians, killing fields blanketed by corpses. A small room was remodeled to assume the appearance of a comfort station, where abducted women were raped by Japanese soldiers dozens of times each day, if not more. An open pit showed the skeletal remains of massacre victims, half-exhumed and unidentified, bullet holes and cracks in skulls visible to visitors looking down.
Nanjing is a city built upon millions of human bones, and new construction occasionally churns out the remains of those who died in the massacre. Some of the skeletons are collected and reburied. Others are covered by concrete.
The director of the Memorial Hall hosts multiple events each month. At many of these gatherings, Cheng Yun was pushed forward as a living prop. In several particularly distasteful cases, he was dressed in a surplus People’s Liberation Army uniform with a red scarf around his neck.
His story was hijacked. The Communist Party was claiming Cheng as one of their own, propping him up as “the last warrior of Nanjing” while suppressing and rewiring his experiences to fit their claims that they were the only ones who defended China from Imperial Japan.
Cheng made repeated appeals to officials he met at those public events, hoping to arrange for reasonable financial assistance since he played such a huge role in their propaganda. “I’m poor,” he would say, “I’m old and I need your help. I live in that slum across the street, and you know what it’s like there.” He was always offered a few words of comfort, assurances that help would soon come, but was ultimately ignored.
The Massacre Memorial charges journalists $65 to set up each interview with a survivor of the Rape of Nanjing, and guarantees that the money is spent on suitable transportation and lodging for the survivors, as well as some pocket money for them. However, none of the survivors I met, including Cheng Yun, ever saw a penny.
In the winter, Cheng Yun stayed in his shoebox room most of the time. He surrounded himself with memories. The foot of his bed was buttressed against a wall where framed photographs of his younger self stared back, small miracles that survived years of loss and hardship. Newspaper clippings, medals, and mementos left by visitors who never returned cluttered the tiny room. Even now, the Nanjingese have a special loathing for the Japanese nation. Cheng Yun himself swung between cursing the Japanese people and saying, “They’re years gone by.” At a time when most people in China believe that war with Japan is looming, survivors like Cheng Yun made public calls for peace and reconciliation. He was never seen in public without his favorite military cap, upon which was a pin inscribed with two English words: “No war.”
* * *
The year is 2014. Cheng Yun passed away in January. State media said his last words were, “Keep it simple. Keep everything simple.” But those close to him claim that something else was spoken over his final breath: “I want to see Taiwan.” His life was full of contradictions and conflict, and the nation he inspired never got to know his true wishes, the difficulties he faced, or the history he lived. His story was lost in Mao’s China, and then stifled again in its current manifestation, overshadowed by censors and propaganda officers.
But they did get one thing right: he was the last warrior of Nanjing.