FOOT LOOSE IN CHINA
Despondent, War-Torn Country Side
The Chinese countryside was a land of deprivation. Not a living plant or bush existed. Theo made notes in his journal: “The Chinese can boast of 5,000 years of culture but it isn’t evident in their mud villages.” He couldn’t help making comparisons between the Chinese and the primitive Kanakas of the New Hebrides. What did civilization bring to the Chinese peasant, certainly not food? The Kanakas had at least grubs and worms they could eat but the Chinese had nothing, nothing but a flat, dull, insipid countryside. “Nothing extraordinary in any way,” he wrote.
The sense of their grave and oppressive existence grew heavily upon Theo. He was trudging along, moving ahead but he knew not to where. He felt he was no different than the poorest of the poor peasants they met on the road; they too were marching off but to nowhere. Mankind was not moving ahead but backwards.
Then, what they hoped wouldn’t happen, did happen. Armed Chinese blocked the route ahead of them. They were bandits. They were ruffians, clad in a hodgepodge of clothing from peasants’ sheepskin vests to discarded military uniforms. Though they respected the doctor’s flag, they demanded medicine from the doctor. Seeing the opportunity, and with an idea in mind. Theo took out his sketchpad and began sketching the leader of the group. Upon seeing Theo, he turned away from the doctor and marched up to Theo. He stopped short, smiled and then laughed aloud, a big coughing laugh when he saw the caricature Theo was drawing. When it was completed Theo tore the sheet away from the sketchpad and handed it to him. But Theo did not wait for neither praise nor comments. He immediately began sketching other bandits, and he gave them their portraits. Pleased with the sketches, the bandits let them pass without further harassment, and with all the doctor’s medicine intact.
With the next bandits they met they were not so fortunate. The new gang of ruffians wanted money, which the doctor duly gave them. He anticipated this would happen and had Chinese currency in neat little red packets ready to hand out. But still not satisfied, the bandits took the doctor’s horse. Figuring there would be further ambushes, the doctor asked for written acknowledgement they had already been robbed. This was most unusual but nevertheless, with a bit more cajoling, the leader signed a paper the doctor scribbled out. Theo remarked in his journal “this was his first experience of banditry in Asia. What would be next?”
Now that the doctor had no horse, he walked side by side with Theo, and as he did, he talked on incessantly about the greatness of the Chinese culture; Theo made no attempt to stop him. Theo simply wondered how he had the capacity for such blindness, not to take notice that there was no hope for these unfortunate people with their thousands of years of culture. Their only salvation would be a strong leader, and who might that be. Dr. Wong considered General Chiang to be no more than a warlord himself Sun Yatsen might have unified the country, but he was dead. Dr. Wong named others, strings of others; some he favored, others he wrote off as scoundrels.
Theo heard but he did not listen. He was more interested in the faces of the Chinese that he saw. To Theo their faces told their whole story, and every time he had the chance he sketched them. Sometimes he made sketches as he walked, remembering a face they had just passed. As for the countryside, he sketched outlines, mountains, hills, valleys, clouds, and then wrote down the colors he would later use when turning the sketch into an oil painting. It was a technique he used over and over.
Theo did find the naked hills worthy of dramatic compositions. When they stopped during a rest break and he took out his paints, the Chinese gathered to look at what he was painting. It was obvious by the transparent looks on their faces that they were bewildered. Why paint a picture of a forlorn hillside? Nature to the peasant was something that simply existed and didn’t need an interpretation. Theo found this not so unusual for he had similar experiences when he painted landscapes in Polynesia. Why paint a landscape, the natives often asked him? It’s always there, so why do you have to paint it? But it wasn’t always with primitive minds, he recalled. Back in Basel in the old section of town he came upon an old and warped door with peeling red paint and a sagging lintel that fascinated him. He rushed home, collected his paints and easel and went back to paint the door. Some old folks stopped and laughed at him. “Don’t you have something better to paint?” As results would have it, one of the art shops in town took the painting and displayed it in the front window. Soon when people passed down the street in the old town and saw the door, they stopped to admire it. But it’s not very likely that people would think much the same of a painting of the bleak and barren hills of China,” Theo thought, blowing his warm breath into his cupped cold hands.
The countryside became monotonous, unchanging, bleak and barren and void of even a dried twig. The Chinese had left nothing standing. The villages were no better than the devastated countryside. Every village, even the smallest, had the scars of warfare with roofs of the houses blown away. Exposed rafters and beams, like skeletons in a house of horrors, lent a macabre air to the whole experience. The watershed in the fields with aqueducts that took centuries to build were in ruin. Tracks from vehicles crisscrossed the fields, having destroyed the continuity, the very symmetry, of what had once been order and purpose. How the peasants survived the devastation was a mystery to Theo. How could humans possibly survive in such total ruin? They have nothing, nothing.
“The little food they did manage to keep,” Dr. Wong explained, “they had to hide from the warlords.”
Traveling was extremely difficult with the road conditions the way they were. To add to the misery, now that it was winter, the tufts of mud along the ruts were frozen and made walking terribly cumbersome. Theo found it much easier to walk at the rear of the caravan for then much of the surface was flattened out from those who preceded him.
Theo was baffled by these wearisome warlords who ruled China at their own whim. “Do they not have compassion for the people, their own people?” Theo asked the good doctor.
“We had one good man, a general who came close to becoming the Emperor of China,” the doctor explained one evening when they were camped. “His name was Yuan Shikai, but he died a few years ago in 1928, and his death, everyone thought, brought the end to the warlord era, but then new minor warlords have started popping up and this is what we have to contend with today.”
He told how hope had turned to General Chiang Kai-shek who emerged as the leader of the National Revolutionary Army. But many of the more powerful warlords who were not defeated opted to fight against the new national government.
Theo realized they were traveling in a country in the midst of turmoil, a country ruled by bands of thieving warlords. He could see no hope for the Chinese peasant. None whatsoever. At night, curled up in a blanket and nearly freezing, he thought of fresh baked bread and the wonderful aroma that came from the bakery across the street where he lived. He thought about the buxom girl who had brought warm bread to him, rolled up in her apron. He thought how pleasant it would be to be curled up next to her now. Wasn’t that his true life, next to his own people, not like this?
They were two weeks on the road when they came to a village which, unlike all others they encountered, was ghostly still. No kids came running to observe them; no faces peered at them from behind half-opened doors. It was so strange for the village was not abandoned; there were signs of life. Smoke rose from the chimneys of several houses. Something was awry. Dr. Wong fell to the rear and joined Theo at his side as though seeking his comfort and protection. He joined Theo just in time, for just as they entered the village, armed men with rifles and bandoleers of ammunition slug over their shoulders, appeared. Those without rifles flashed mean-looking knives above their heads.
“Warlords,” Dr. Wong muttered. There was little they could do. They continued walking straight ahead. The mob of armed, unsmiling bandits stepped aside to let them pass, with Dr. Wong and Theo following up the rear.
They had gone only a few yards when an officer with medals pinned to his worn quilted coat, stood defiant in the center of the street, leaning heavily on a cane. The sight of him and his henchmen was enough to send chills down anyone’s spine. But then a curious thing happened. Theo became aware that Dr. Wong had suddenly relaxed. When he looked over at the doctor he saw a smile come to his face. Then he broke from ranks and marched directly to the head of the line. A dozen yards from the officer he extended his hand. The soldier saluted and then grabbed Dr. Wong’s hand. The officer then motioned for the marchers to break file and set up camp.
Once they had set up camp, with warming fires in the confines of an enclosed courtyard, Dr. Wong came and explained that the officer was the person he had come to see.
“He sent for me, to attend to his wife who is ailing,” Dr. Wong said. Upon hearing this, the thought angered Theo, that he was not told of the purpose of the expedition. Dr. Wong had used him as a decoy. The doctor continued, speaking in a tone of almost reverence for the officer: “He’s a general, Feng Yu-hsiang, a Christian General. He was the son of an officer in the Qing Imperial Army and had spent his youth immersed in military life. He joined the Army when he was just fourteen, as a deputy soldier. By the age of sixteen, he had proved himself and became a regular soldier. But like many young officers, he was involved in revolutionary activity and was nearly executed for treason. In time he rose to become a powerful general in Chiang Kai-shek’s army, until he criticized Chiang’s failure to resist Japanese aggression. He was stripped of his rank and power and then he joined the Chahar People’s Anti-Japanese Army. He quickly became commander-in-chief with a strength claimed by him to be over 100,000 men.”
Theo never saw the general again after that first appearance, and he felt relieved that he hadn’t, not with Chiang Kai-shek still holding the reins of power over much of China. He knew he was treading on dangerous ground. For him to be captured by Chiang’s solders would mean certain death.
It was the last time Theo saw Dr. Wong, maybe the last time anyone saw him. He vanished into the hills with the general. Theo assumed he attended to the general’s wife. After a few days, Dr. Wong sent word to Theo that he was to return to Canton with the servants. Theo never did learn the fate of his doctor friend. Later on, when Theo was in Singapore, news was that Chiang had put down the Fujian Rebellion. The rebels called themselves The People’s Revolutionary Government of the Republic of China. “Had the doctor been involved in any way?” he asked himself He would never know.
The march back was much quicker and far less troublesome. Theo’s party had papers that granted them free passage, but still Theo wondered what if the wrong warlord had seized power. He knew that some leaders of the National Revolutionary Army’s Eighth Route Army were deployed to southern China to suppress communist rebellion, but instead they negotiated peace with the rebels. In alliance with other Kuomintang forces, the 19th Route leaders broke with Chiang Kai-shek and took control of Fujian and proclaimed a new government. Theo was fortunate that he reached Canton at all, and he was a very happy man with the paintings of Chinese peasants and warlords which he had rolled up and tucked under his arm when he reached Hong Kong. He no longer entertained thought of finding a room in Hong Kong and painting. He was anxious to reach Singapore.
In Canton, Theo sent a cable to Lucas telling him he would meet him in Singapore.