Two Lives, Two Different Paths

  • Share
  • Read Later

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."

After leaving his brother at the railway station, Peiji fought for the KMT in Guangxi. The communists pushed them back, and in late 1949 he and thousands of other troops crossed the border into Vietnam, from where they were eventually shipped, with an American escort, to Taiwan. There, he set about building a career in Chiang Kai-shek's military. He spent two years in cadet school in Taipei, and by 1960 he was promoted to captain. The same year he got married, but when his Taiwan-born wife suggested they buy a house, Peiji said no. "At that time we all thought we were going back to China. What point in buying a house in Taiwan?" he says, laughing. "It was not until 1975, when Chiang Kai-shek died, that we changed our views."

With the accession of Chiang's son Chiang Ching-kuo as President, Taiwan began to lighten up. Martial law was relaxed. The idea of reconquering the mainland was abandoned. Political prisoners were released; the press became freer. Peiji finally bought a house. He took up golf. Then a letter would change the twins' lives. By 1979 Deng Xiaoping's reforms on the mainland and the new openness in Taiwan made communication between the two sides possible. Peiyuan received a letter from an uncle with the first news of Peiji he had had in 30 years. "I was so happy," says Peiyuan. "It was like flying a kite in the sky when the string breaks and the kite disappears--and then suddenly the kite comes back into my hand."

For 11 years, the twins corresponded regularly. In 1990, after the ban on travel between Taiwan and the mainland had been lifted, Peiyuan flew via Hong Kong to Taipei. Peiji, at that point a general, had a pass to get onto the tarmac of the airport. And so 41 years after the Hengyang railway station, the two brothers embraced again. "We hugged each other for a long time, saying nothing," says Peiji. "That night we stayed up until dawn talking."

They talked about their lives, their elder mother (wife No. 3) and, most of all, their father. He had no grave. When he was executed on a river bank in 1952, the rest of the family was afraid to collect his body. Four decades on, his name was still officially disgraced.

Peiyuan returned to Changsha, impressed with his brother's wealth and position but tired of the gaudy flamboyance of Taiwanese entertainment. "Most of them were just poor soldiers when they left here," he says. "Now they show off all their wealth. One man spent $1,000 on karaoke in one night. And in restaurants they order too much food. I could not eat it all." His lifestyle is humble in comparison: a two-bedroom apartment with a concrete floor on the sixth story of a walk-up. He has pictures of his brother on the walls, drinks green tea and smokes endless packs of cigarettes. He eats in restaurants run by his former students where he can get discounts. He argues with a taxi driver for overcharging him by the equivalent of 25 cents.

When he was 53, Peiyuan remarried. His wife is a former student of his at the university, 20 years his junior. They have a teenage daughter, Weixing, who likes the Spice Girls, argues with her mother about Internet access and giggles when she sees Mao badges for sale. "They mean a lot more to Father," she says. Peiyuan shakes his head. Mao is a minor obsession for him. "Mao was a hero for establishing this country--but a criminal for the way he ran it." Like most Chinese, Peiyuan has resigned himself to the waning days of communism with stoic distaste. He concerns himself with family and passes his days with mah-jongg and fishing: "It empties the mind."

Peiji would love to empty his mind. Since he became CTS president last year, his life is a procession of meetings, press conferences and boozy banquets. He catnaps in the Cadillac that chauffeurs him from one appointment to the next. On weekends his wife, four children and five grandchildren get together for family dinners in his apartment in Taipei's upscale Guting district. He hides a large slice of his salary from his wife to send to his family in China. It is never enough. "They are always thinking up excuses--a car crash, emergency surgery," he says. "I ask my mother if what they say is true, and she decides who gets money. That way I don't make enemies. Of course, now everyone is trying to be nice to Mother--they call her the money tree."

China claims more than Peiji's money. One night, sitting in a restaurant with his wife, he ponders the question of where he would like to die. "There is a Chinese saying: The leaves fall close to the roots. No matter how far you go, you should go back to your home. So I would like to be buried in Liuyang." His wife chokes and looks at him as if he were insane. She reminds Peiji that he has spent 43 years in the Taiwanese military protecting the island against the mainland, that his children and grandchildren--and she herself--were all born in Taiwan. Retreating fast, he says, "Maybe I am like a tree that has been transplanted from China to Taiwan. In a way my roots are here now." His wife manages a smile that says the topic is far from closed.

"The funny thing is, I could have been the one in Taiwan," says Peiyuan one evening in a Changsha coffee shop. His uncle had wanted him to join the KMT, but his father insisted that as the eldest son he should stay with the family. "If my uncle had his way, I would have had my brother's life, simple as this," and he switches two glasses' positions on the table in front of him. He bears no grudges: if anything, it is Peiji who is more uncomfortable with their divided destinies.

The twins talk regularly on the phone, and in 1996 they finally got the government in Hunan to take their father off the counterrevolutionary blacklist. This meant the family could build a grave for him. They had only a hat and some of his clothing, but that sufficed to lay his ghost to rest. Peiji traveled back from Taiwan to join the rest of the family in Liuyang to worship at the new grave and for the dinner afterward. "Politics cannot damage blood ties," says Peiji.

But politics is still China's curse. The twins had planned to meet again in Shanghai this month, but the sudden worsening of relations between Taipei and Beijing has forced Peiji to postpone. Everything from an unsettled civil war to the legacy of the Tiananmen Square massacre to Beijing's recent attempts to control folk religion show how the public and the private in China are still at odds. The Yang family is at peace. But after 50 years, the greater family of China still has many ghosts left to bury.