As I write these words, Russian bombs are flooding homes across Ukraine. Men were called to fight, women and children were forced to flee. This war is not just about separating families in Ukraine; This will tighten the divide of many extended families living across the Russian-Ukrainian divide. In fact, as I have learned from my own family’s experience, it is possible to make difficult choices for survival and see to it that the resulting pain and sadness do not heal completely forever. I fear that the Ukrainians and Russians will find as much as the Chinese who were separated by the Strait of Taiwan- long after the guns were silenced, despite best efforts for reconciliation, the partition did not end when the war broke out.
In 1949, the Chinese Civil War divided China geographically and politically into the Communist-controlled mainland and the Nationalist-controlled Republic of China in Taiwan. The final battle of that four-year war took place on a 60-square-mile island called Jinmen (otherwise known as Kinmen or Qumoy), just over a mile off the mainland coast and 100 miles off the island of Taiwan. The nationalists retreated.
When the war for the Jinmen began, our aunt Jun-my mother’s step-sister was there, celebrating her college graduation with her best friend. After two days of fighting, the nationalist army halted the communists’ hitherto unstoppable progress. Then the boats stopped and June was stranded. Her family, her new job and everything she owns are on the mainland. All she had was a small suitcase with a few changes to her summer dress.
The communist defeat at the Battle of Jinmen brought the Chinese Civil War to a standstill and in the clear vision of the People’s Republic of China on the mainland Jinmen remains today the frontline defense of the Republic of China. Yet these two parties — the Nationalists and the Communists — emerged from the same cultural, historical, and linguistic background, and as soon as the stalemate arose, they each launched a multifaceted campaign to establish their mandate as the only legitimate government throughout China.
The Nationalists, or KMT, published maps with additional articles highlighting the direct historical path from the last Chinese dynasty to the founding of the Republic of China and to the leadership of President Chiang Kai-shek. National treasures shipped from Beijing to Taiwan are housed in a newly built museum on the outskirts of Taipei; “Restore the mainland!” The slogan was proclaimed and Mao Zedong printed “Mao the Bandit”.
The Communist Party of China is no different. It launched a series of state-building campaigns, with many thinking that Chiang was a “counterrevolutionary” leader on the run and that his comrades needed to be wiped out and punished. Therefore, anyone with distant ties or vague sympathies with nationalists would be persecuted. I grew up in Fuzhou, a short distance from Jinmen, and my generation grew up with mantras such as “Only the CCP can save China” and “We must liberate Taiwan”. We Refers to the Chinese people in the mainland.
After Jinmen Nationalist closed down as a military base, Aunt Jun became a journalist. Two years later, in 1951, when Chiang’s wife visited Jinmen, Zun wrote an admirable report on the expedition, there, to boost the courage of the KMT troops there. Her writings are now in the public eye, and as her position clearly matches that of KMT, Zun has become an extremely politically responsible, life-and-death liability to all her relatives in CCP-controlled China.
In the mainland at this time, the revolutionary waves aimed to eradicate the feudal past, clean up the remnants of the KMT and increase full allegiance to the CCP. In order to survive, our family had to remove June from the family narrative. As a result, the whole new generation — my generation — comes of age unaware that we have an extra aunt.
Aunt June moved from Jinmen to Taipei and established a successful business. But her dream of being reunited with her family never died. In 1982, after the United States changed its diplomatic identity from the Nationalist government in Taipei to the Communist government in Beijing, travel from the United States to mainland China became much easier, and she joined him in late June, when she immigrated to the US. The mainland family, after 33 years of separation.
To me, her timing was perfect. This aunt, whom I did not know, stepped into my life the moment my government boss refused to let me apply to graduate school. June sponsored me to study in America, and she did not stop there. She also sponsored my cousin. She also bought her older brother, our uncle, his first apartment in a new high-rise building in Fuzhou. At a time when many around us had not even begun to dream of such miracles, she alone pushed our family into the modern age.
Yet true reconciliation has proven difficult. June returned to the mainland to restore shared family memories of the pre-revolutionary past. Her mainland relatives, however, were not interested in reviving the past that contained June, which contributed to their suffering during Mao’s revolutions. However, for June, her solitude on the wrong side of the Taiwan Strait was not a matter of choice, but a coincidence of fate.
Before Aunt Zun appeared in my life, it was the story of my family, it was full of holes, it was my whole world. But since Aunt June, I learn about a lot of big missing pieces, including one of the family’s hundreds of years of famous history, ministers and emperor preachers. After moving to America, I learned to ask questions about this family history. Asking questions on the mainland was discouraged and repressed: the officers only asked questions, not ordinary people. With this newly acquired skill, I have come to see things that have been plain for a long time. For example, the Jinmen War was never taught in schools or discussed in the mainland books, deliberately imposing a national memory on all of us, which parallels my family’s decision to make Aunt June disappear.
Living in America has helped me to make sure they are on both sides of my family. Zun never experienced the same revelation. She and her mainland family lived in different worlds after the abrupt split and were confined in many ways and never had the opportunity to see and understand each other’s world as I did.
At times risking his own financial risk, June continues to try to repair every broken strand with his best efforts to the past. At one point, she even planned to include herself and her husband in our family grave plot in Fuzhou so that she would be next to her parents for eternity. In those early years after she first met us, she reminded me of the Chinese proverb, “Leaves come to the root of a tree.” But decades later, after her husband died in Taiwan, she finally accepted the futility of that plan. She explained to me that she realized that those who attended her children’s or her husband’s memorial service in Taipei – political, military and social celebrities – would never go to Fuzhou to pay tribute in the future. She was then 86, and it turns out to be her last visit to Fuzhou. The moment of Aunt Jun’s revelation came at the end of her life and she reluctantly and very sadly accepted it. Her life was built after her separation from her family in Taiwan and America, with no emotional or cultural connection to her mainland relatives.
Many families were torn apart by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Each one has its own story. In fact, each division in the story of any single family is unique with its own holes and erasers. It is the unchanging result of the compromises that people have to make to survive and continue to capture the potential of life. However, these stories take their own trajectories as told to future generations. And, one day, someone in the family may find a way to reassemble these unfinished articles.
Sixty years after Aunt Jun’s dutiful visit to Jinmen, I finally visited the island for the first time as an American citizen. As a child, I learned to swim in the waters off the mainland, but only knew Jinmen as an “enemy island”, an unpredictable place to visit. Now, standing on the ginseng, I could see the apartment on the shores of the distant mainland where my parents lived. At the water’s edge, I was finally able to keep my family stories-All Like our stories-polymphysest, each is imperfect in its own way, but layered on each other, feels perfect.