SURVIVAL IN A MAELSTROM
When Family and Love Mean Everything
It was not experiencing the Japanese takeover of Shanghai, the devastation of war, the underground serving with the Chinese army, fighting the Japanese, nor the public humiliation and banishment to the countryside because of political reasons that caused the break in conversation for Sylvia Yao.
It was recalling the separation from her husband and children, and she could not hold back the tears.
Sylvia, now 93, was editor of a newspaper when she and others followed the call from the leader “ Free Airing of Views.”
Caught up in the Chinese government’s Anti-Rightist Movement of the late 1950s, her home was taken away and she was forced to labor in the countryside of remote Henan province, one of the poorest in China, where there were days without food and to survive meant living off grass in the field. Her children were sent to live with their grandmother, as she was separated from her husband, Bob, who was working as an engineer in the same province for four years. For doing nothing more than make a few good suggestions in answering the call by the government, Sylvia Yao was then regarded as an enemy of the State.
Recalling that period, during a recent conversation, she paused to wipe the tears from her eyes. Finally, after some two minutes, she continued: “I had a family and kids, and I needed to survive. Foreigners would not understand the hardships I had gone through and the political movement in China at that time.”
But the thought of her family “made me overcome all hardships and to some day prove that I am not wrong and that you, the persecutors, are wrong,” she said, with determination in her voice.
All three children, son Wei and daughters Julia and Jean, eventually emigrated to the United States in the early 1980s with student visas, enjoying their professional careers through their own efforts. Finally, after retirement as a journalist and teacher, Sylvia joined her children in 1988 and husband Bob, now 91 and a former hydraulic engineer, followed a year later.
In 2009 the Chinese government recognized both as “hero and heroine,” because of their “dedication to heroic deeds during the second world war.”
Sylvia Yao and Bob Zheng met as college sweethearts in 1940, but their courtship was interrupted by the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, where they attended college. Both left school to fight against the Japanese – he to the Chinese interior to work on engineering projects and she as part of a student underground that eventually joined with the Communist Army north of Shanghai, where she created propaganda encouraging resistance against the occupation.
The couple were reunited in 1945, at the end of the war, and a year later had their first child, Wei, now working at John Hopkins University as senior research scientist in its Astronomy Department.
After the war, Bob was sent by the Chinese government to study hydraulic engineering in Holland. He attended a National exam and was selected as one out of 1000 candidates to study aboard in Europe on government scholarship.
In 1951, he returned to help the government harness the Huai and Yellow Rivers. The two were reunited in 1951 and later had daughters, Julia and Jean. While Bob continued his work as a hydraulic engineer working on controlling floods along the Huai River, Sylvia gave up her career in Shanghai and joined him in Henan Province, where she served until 1958, at the beginning of China’s “Great Leap Forward,” a movement initiated by Mao to transform the country from agrarianism to rapid industrialization through collectivism.
The Great Leap Forward ended in catastrophe and a conservatively estimated 18 million deaths because of a mandatory process of agricultural collectivization According to historian Frank Dikötter, “coercion, terror, and systematic violence were the very foundation of the Great Leap Forward” and it “motivated one of the most deadly mass killings of human history.”
It was this maelstrom that engulfed Sylvia Yao and her husband,
In 1958, for four years, Sylvia and Bob were forced to work in the countryside when the anti-capitalism movement began. So their children would not be discriminated against, they sent them to live with his mother in Shanghai. Throughout the separation from her husband, said Sylvia, “our love for each other was strengthened.”
That strength was forged through letters.
“At the time, there were no other ways of communication,” said Sylvia. “We have lots of letters written by both of us, telling about life then, my telling him of family life.” “By loving each other and caring for their children,” observed daughter Julia Cheng, “we are able to observe and preserve that so that it is deeply rooted in our souls and hearts after community. We know what kind of person we want to be in the future and what we can do for the family, society and the community.
“Everything we do, good or bad, comes back to that,” Sylvia added.
“We both wanted to devote ourselves to a new China and build a happy family and prosperous country. That was our common aim. At that time, many Chinese people cared about the future of China to be democratic and prosperous,” said Sylvia Yao. “We relied on the Communist Party. We thought these were the people to help us build a new China.”
Instead, Sylvia and Bob were forced to move their homes more than 30 times before they have a stable life and permanent home in the United States. But in the end, she says: “I was released from persecution and returned to formal career and position. The history witness that I was right, and they did wrong things to good people.”
By 1962, the couple were allowed to reunite with their family – right before the next socio-political movement, the Cultural Revolution, to remove all cultural elements in Communist society. The movement lasted from 1966 to 1976. This time they were not touched by the changes.
The emergence of China as an economic superpower in the last ten to fifteen years has negated much of the possibility of repeating the past.
Says Sylvia: “China is changing. I don’t think it will ever be like that. It depends on the leader of the country, but the people today are not so submissive like we were many years ago. People are clever and understand the change to capitalism. So all those things will not happen. The country is on the right road – to live a prosperous life and to have entrepreneurship to earn good income and enjoy the quality life.
“The train of history is going forward. Democracy is on that train. And it cannot be turned back.”