The twin brothers are standing on a railway platform in Hengyang, in central China, saying what they think is their final farewell. It is a spring morning in 1949, and they are surrounded by refugees and wounded soldiers. China's civil war is reaching its climax. The 16-year-olds have received a letter that is to change their destinies forever. It is a message from their father Yang Deyuan: "You two take different roads, so no matter which side is going to win or lose, I will have a river on my left and on my right."
With China's future in the balance, Yang, a wealthy landowner with three wives, is breaking up his family. Yang Peiyuan, the older twin by half an hour, is to return to their hometown of Liuyang in Hunan and join the communists. Yang Peiji, the younger twin, is to go south to Guangxi to join the Kuomintang (KMT) and fight in their Nationalist army. The train is about to leave. Peiji tells his brother to try to persuade their father to escape to Hong Kong. They hug, and Peiyuan boards the train.
For decades neither knows if the other has been killed. Fast-forward a half-century. The twins have survived. Peiyuan, politically maimed from the Cultural Revolution, lives quietly on a small pension in Changsha, the gray, polluted capital of Hunan. Peiji, who made his way to Taiwan with the retreating KMT, lives very unquietly in neon-struck Taipei. He is president of CTS, one of Taiwan's main TV networks. As boys they were indistinguishable--their father put them into different schools to stop them from making trouble, but they would sometimes swap places and nobody could tell. Now their appearances tell very different stories: Peiyuan's face, thin and ravaged, is the story of a China that Mao wrought, with its famines, executions, political persecution and harsh labor camps. Peiji's face, fleshy and grinning, is the story of another China, a military dictatorship that became the industrious and democratic society of today's Taiwan.
But the plot is not black and white; despite his ordeals, Peiyuan is more self-assured, more confident of his Chinese identity. His brother Peiji, the eminent achiever with a salesman's smile, broadcasts insecurity and a trace of guilt at the good life he has enjoyed. Peiyuan is resigned to China's failings. Peiji has indigestion from Taiwan's success. Tell their family story, and you also start to tell the story of China over the past 50 years, with all its contradictions, betrayals and unburied ghosts. Confucian thought has always seen the family as a model of the state. Obedience to the father was a model for loyalty to the Emperor. In his quest to create a new China, Mao tried to destroy the family: children informed on parents, ancestral graves were desecrated, meals were eaten in work groups, not at home. But the family survived. As China puts itself together after the ravages of Maoism, the family is one of the few institutions that people still believe in.
"The family is the most important thing. If you destroy the family, how can society exist?" says Peiyuan, sitting in a car on the road to Yueyang, five hours north of his home in Changsha. This is a journey into the dark past for him. Yueyang is where he was sent to prison in 1969 for 11 years during the Cultural Revolution, accused of being a counterrevolutionary rightist. His wife left him because he was politically tainted, taking their three-year-old son with her. She later married another man.
The Yueyang labor camp is a large farming commune on the edge of Dongting Lake. It is still in use today, although most of the political prisoners have been replaced by common criminals. "We slept in a dormitory, 10 to a room," he recalls. Communist orthodoxy ruled. When one of the cadres' daughters fell in love with him and talked of marriage, he could only laugh at her: "I told her, don't be ridiculous--how can you marry me, a prisoner--a reactionary rightist?"
Peiyuan's crime, in the eyes of the communists, was to have been born to a relatively prosperous landowning family. His father, who had five younger sons and a daughter as well as the twins, ignored all pleas to flee to Hong Kong before the revolution. His attempt to ingratiate himself with the communists by having Peiyuan join up failed. He was executed in 1952 during Mao's anti-landlord campaign, which took perhaps a million lives across China. At that time Peiyuan was with the Chinese army in Korea, fighting the Americans in a war that was to claim nearly 2 million lives, half of them Chinese. His left wrist was shattered by shrapnel. He still keeps his shirt sleeve pulled down to cover the deformity.
After the war ended in 1953, he studied for two years in Beijing; then he came back to teach at the Hunan Finance and Economics Institute in Changsha. In 1958 he was one of half a million intellectuals who lost their jobs in Mao's anti-rightist campaign. This was the beginning of two decades in the political wilderness for Peiyuan that would culminate in labor camp. "I lost the golden years of my life, from 1958 to 1979," he says.
The Yangs' collision course with history continued. The family home in Liuyang was pulled down in the Great Leap Forward in the early 1960s: the peasants wanted the wooden beams for their backyard iron smelters, which Mao thought would transform China into an industrial power. Most of the iron was worthless, and the neglect of agriculture led to the worst famine of the century, in which more than 20 million people starved to death. Peiyuan's "first mother"--his father's first wife--died of hunger in 1962, but the twins' mother--the third wife--survived and held together what was left of the family. They were destitute.
"At the time I knew none of this," says Peiji, sitting at his desk in his 11th-floor office. On the shelves are pictures of him with the President of Taiwan, the Vice President, the Prime Minister. His aides bring in files for his attention; he scans them, makes a few quick notes and tosses them on the floor, where his aides retrieve them. The night before, he had put on another of his lavish dinners, with endless toasts and flattery for his guests. Now he is recovering by drinking heated apple vinegar--"cleans the stomach. Exceptionally good."