Thursday, June 02, 2016

Chinese soldiers' suicides in 1950s Taiwan: a few notes

A particularly poignant part of Vern Sneider's novel A Pail of Oysters occurs when the American journalist Ralph Barton, aided by the KMT government-appointed interpreter Paul Huang, interviews Chin Poo-liang, a Chinese soldier who retreated to Taiwan in 1949 (see chapter 18). I've written a bit about the interview elsewhere (see pp. 47-48), but here I'm interested in the context of that episode and in the tragedy that Chin Poo-liang represents.

Chin is portrayed as a twenty-one-year-old private (actually an acting sergeant) who originally came from a village in Guangdong Province. He joined the Nationalist Army after his village was taken over by the Communists and his family was killed, but then had to retreat to Taiwan with the Army in 1949. His daily activities are described: they are busy every day with training and studying (Chin is studying math so that he can become an a clerk when they retake the Mainland), and Huang tells Barton that they subsist mostly on rice, tofu, and vegetables--eating pork twice a month and fish three times a month. He is paid 30 Formosan dollars a month, which Barton calculates is equivalent to less than US$2 a month. Private Chin, says Huang, wants Barton to use Chin's real name and home village in his article; as the interpreter tells Barton, "'No one there on the mainland can do anything to his family now, because you see, none are left'" (150).

Joshua Fan, in his book China's Homeless Generation: Voices from the Veterans of the Chinese Civil War, 1940s - 1990s (Routledge, 2012), calls soldiers like Chin the "Homeless Generation"; not only were they dispossessed of their physical homes in China, but they were tormented by the fading hope that they would ever be able to return home--a hope that was kept alive as a result of KMT government promises to "retake the Mainland." In the novel, Huang expresses confidence that Chin will have a better life once the KMT returns to China--a return Barton considers highly unlikely.

In addition, despite Huang's description of Chin's Spartan yet livable conditions (note that attending the interview are a general and a regimental commander), according to Fan, things were not so pleasant in the Army:
In addition to the pressure to maintain readiness, the poor physical treatment made their lives unbearable. A soldier was not worth much then and officer Zhao witnessed a soldier being beaten to death as a punishment for not cleaning his rifle properly. He added that, "Because we had no family, who was going to report the wrong doing on your behalf, and who was going to seek revenge for you? No one!" (L. Sun 2001: 35). (79)
Fan argues that because of the lack of family who could be counted on for support, soldiers from the mainland were treated even more poorly than Taiwanese conscripts. Fan observes that suicide was a common act among the Chinese soldiers, especially "after the young soldiers realized they they would not be going home" (78). He quotes interviewees that reported having heard the sounds of gunshots in the barracks and others who reported having seen the bodies of soldiers who had hanged themselves.

Even more disturbing is the story of soldiers who went to movie theaters with hand grenades and "took others with them," as reported here on Zhongtian's "台灣大搜索":

The program recounts incidents ("attacks" might be an appropriate word) in Taipei (March 4, 1953, in Ximending), Taipei County (2 weeks after the Ximending explosion), in Kaohsiung (January 24, 1954), and in Taichung (April 1, 1958). According to the reporter, it's possible that there were more attacks, but that news of other attacks would be suppressed.

According to one interviewee, author and TV host Wang Benhu (汪笨胡), the government characterized these attacks as the work of Chinese Communist spies rather than admitting that these were the last desperate acts of Nationalist soldiers. As he puts it, the soldiers "probably felt that if they were going to go, they might as well take others with them."

Another interviewee, author Guan Renjian (管仁健), argues that one reason for these incidents was that the Chinese veterans were unable to marry due to their poor salaries. In Sneider's novel, Barton estimates that Chin will never be able to marry on his salary, which is the equivalent of US$1.90 a month. Wang Benhu suggests that Chiang Ching-kuo helped with this situation by allowing Mainland soldiers to marry after 1970. He doesn't mention how Chiang might have made it possible for the veterans to afford it, however.

Guan also notes that before 1970, gun control (and I assume hand grenade control?) for members of the military was very loose because everyone needed to be ready to fight the Communists. This loose policy probably also contributed to the "Nantou shooting" of 1959, in which an Army captain killed 10 people with two rifles before killing himself.

Sneider doesn't come back to the character of Chin Poo-liang later on in the novel, so we're left to wonder about his fate. This quick review of the soldier's situations during the 1950s  gives us some sense, though, of what is in store for Chin.

[Update, 6/3/16: Something that I wasn't able to read yesterday due to a limitation on the number of pages I could read in Google Books: Fan explains that the government issued regulations in 1952 that heavily limited the ability of military personnel to marry in Taiwan:
According to the 1952 Military Marriage Regulations, only those officers and NCOs with special skills and over the age of 28 could marry. "NCOs with special skills" referred to a small number who worked as technicians in military facilities; other NCOs and enlisted men were not allowed to marry during their terms of service (ZMNJS 1953: 181). (66)
Fan also notes, however, that the penalties for personnel who broke the rules weren't consistent. He gives some examples of enlisted men who secretly married but were not penalized (except that they didn't get any extra allowance for their families); on the other hand, he mentions a soldier who was punished for marrying without permission (67). He also mentions that the rules "were relaxed in 1959 to allow for any NCOs over the age of 25 and enlisted men who had served for at least three years to marry" (67).]

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