Travel Journal

Retracing History, the Changs (Zhangs) of Manchuria

(Wednesday 14 September 2011) by Joanne Chang
My father's family history had been recounted to me on many occasions, but I always found it difficult to hold on to. Taking place 100 years ago in a faraway land called Manchuria (now Dongbei, or Northeast China), it seemed intangible, a bunch of characters in a complicated story that didn't all seem to fit together. Now visiting this faraway land, surrounding myself with the history and the stories, it's realized.

My grandfather's uncle, Zhang Zuolin, was the warlord of Manchuria from 1916-1928. He and his brother, my great grandfather, grew up in Hei Shan, Liaoning province, very poor and without formal education. To survive they resorted to hunting, fighting and stealing, becoming powerful gangsters and eventually amassing an army of dedicated soldiers. My great grandfather was killed early on by rivals, but Zhang Zuolin went on to rule all of Manchuria, moving his headquarters to Shenyang and growing his army (the Fengtian Army) to 300,000 men. He was assassinated by the Japanese in 1928 and succeeded by his eldest son, Zhang Xueliang, my grandfather's cousin.

Zhang Xueliang was 28 years old when he took over Manchuria, pledging his allegiance to President Chiang Kai-Shek and using his army to fight the Communists under Chiang's direction. But Chiang's continued focus on fighting the Communist Red Army ignored the growing power of the Japanese in China, who forcibly took Manchuria from Zhang Xueliang in 1931. In 1936 Chiang flew to Xi'an to coordinate a major assault on the Red Army, but with the loss of Manchuria and the increasing threat of Japan, Xueliang intervened and kidnapped Chiang, forcing him to unite with the Communists against Japan (The Xi'an Incident). Chiang agreed and was escorted back to his capital of Nanjing by Xueliang before placing Xueliang under house arrest for 54 years deep in the mountains. He was allowed to leave China at a very old age, living out his last years in Hawaii.

The following year in 1937, the Japanese took Shanghai then Nanjing (Nanjing Massacre), and were not forced out of China until 1945 with the US bombing of Hiroshima. In 1949 the Communists took China. Because of the Xi'an Incident, Zhang Xueliang is regarded by the Communists as having assisted their cause in the overthrow of Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang, and is recognized as a great national patriot who fought for the unification of China despite his lack of political support for Communism. Ironically, you could also say he's responsible for my family's escape from China during the Communist takeover, for my eventual upbringing in the western world.


Shenyang, 5/17-5/19

The morning after we arrive in Shenyang, we head to the train station to see about getting to Hei Shan or Beizhen in a couple of days, the towns nearest to where Zhang Zuolin and his brother grew up. The train station doesn't show routes to either of these places, so we ask the ticketing agent how to get there. His response: "Ni zheji shang banfa", or "Figure it out for yourself." It's so rude and unhelpful, we can't help laughing. If Mom wasn't there with me though, I might have cried. We slip into McDonald's to have a coffee -- this becomes somewhat of a ritual during our time in China, coffee here is scarce and/or very expensive -- and check out the scene. Contrary to the US, McDonald's in China is where people with money go. The cost is the same, which turns our mega budget chain into a restaurant only well-paid professionals and wealthy kids in China can afford. Interesting contrast and example of supply and demand marketing.

Shenyang is where Zhang Zuolin lived and ruled Manchuria, and his former palace and government offices have been turned into a museum. Mom's visit to China 20 years ago included a visit here, but it wasn't open to the public then and has been expanded and changed so much that it's new for both of us. The greatest significance for me is that my grandfather grew up in this compound with his mother, uncles and cousins, since his father died when he was a baby (perhaps before he was born, the story isn't clear). It consists of traditional Chinese courtyards, rooms and residences surrounding the courtyard, and larger modern residences where Zuolin and his (5) wives lived. We walk through slowly and I imagine my grandfather running around here, sleeping here, being surrounded by power, wealth, and fear. It's pretty cool and a little strange to see a life-sized statue of someone related to me, standing tall on a pedestal facing the city streets as if he still commands them, while tourists snap photos. There are a good number of tourists here, and it's neat to experience the significance our family history has in modern Chinese history.

The houses are filled with photos of Zhang Xueliang as a boy through adult years and old age, pictures of him with Chiang Kai-Shek, pictures of his armies and his wives. Plaques tell his story, that he was a "super star" and "legendary celebrity" who lived a "brilliant life", that he "ensured the unity of the country and avoided the breakout of civil war in China", that his actions in the Xi'an Incident "had a great effect on saving Chinese nation in peril". I'm not sure how to feel about this man, so highly regarded for what seem to be the wrong reasons. He was not a Communist. He wanted to fight the Communists. He forced Chiang to fight the Japanese first, but it was too late for that; the Japanese wreaked havoc anyway for the next 8 years. He was also quite brutal, having flipped a silver coin to decide the fate of his late fathers' executors who were hindering his progress, resulting in their death in Tiger Hall. My mom tells me he also had his cousin, my grandfather's brother, killed for conspiring with the Japanese. My grandfather's mother was heartbroken but had no recourse, having been widowed and indebted to this powerful family. It's likely that this is the reason my father, who was very close to his grandmother, has never seen Xueliang as any kind of hero.

Afterwards, we take a quick look inside what used to be the royal bank, now filled with dozens of life-sized wax statues in various forms. Pretty amusing. Then an obligatory tour of the Imperial Palace (Mukden), which I do solo while Mom waits, and definitively decide I've had my fill of ancient Chinese palaces. They all look the same to me. It's late afternoon and we're both starving, and plop down into an empty restaurant where the staff performs a choreographed dance outside to draw business (thank goodness they didn't start doing this until after we were seated), and eat a delicious bowl of pork chop soup with those cornbread things floating on top. Sounds strange but quite tasty. Bellies full, we decide to check out the shopping district. Mom asks a teenage girl on the street which direction we should head, and when her friend arrives they personally escort us across town to the shops. Wow, what hospitality! I wonder if that ever happens in the States.

The next morning, Mom wakes up early and goes back to the train/bus station to get tickets while I stay in bed. When she returns empty-handed, she tells me how she infuriated the bus agents with questions to the point they would no longer help her. She's laughing about it, but I feel her pain. Or maybe she's that much stronger than I would be. So together we go back to the station and buy tickets for the afternoon locals bus to Hei Shan.


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