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Handwritten letters from battlefields and deathbeds touch viewers nationwide

(China Daily)    09:40, April 04, 2017

In 1647, three years after Manchu forces overtook the Ming court to rule China, the country was still in turbulence as advocates of the old regime battled the new. Xia Wanchun was one of them. The 16-year-old was captured but he refused to surrender, instead choosing to die for his cause.

The teenager's sacrifice has fade in modern history, but a recent TV program on Heilongjiang provincial satellite channel brought the 17th-century fighter back to spotlight.

Letters Alive, a 12-episode culture program to showcase the enduring charm of written correspondence, invited actor Lin Gengxin to read Xia's last letter to his family. To date, the program with 11 star performers reading 90 remarkable letters has been watched nearly 200 million times on the streaming site v.qq.com and miaopai.com. There's a studio audience as well.

Up to 14 percent of the letters read on screen were written toward the end of a writer's life. The majority are from Communist revolutionaries and military officers, with the rest penned by famous people who either committed suicide or suffered from major diseases.

Hailed as "serious" among mainly entertainment programs today, Letters Alive got high marks on Douban.com, a popular Chinese platform.

For producers, the overwhelming response to the program has not only been uplifting but has also highlighted a trend that they want to explore further.

Zhang Zixuan, the program's chief editor who led the selection of letters from more than 10,000 entries, has read many wills and death-bed letters.

He said the crew selected the letters from online resources or handwritten copies, and the team discovered that military officers and soldiers regularly wrote final letters before big battles.

"China's mainstream education actually avoids talking about death, with such clues seen clearly in ancient school texts influenced by Confucius philosophy. It values the meaning of life and urges people to optimistically strive for this life," Zhang said.

Most Chinese would not prepare for death even after being seriously ill for long, he said.

"But wartime is an exceptional time and probably creates the largest number of wills in every era," he said.

"Warriors were ordered to write the last letters to their families. And the survivors would write other 'last letters' for the next battle if they didn't die in the last."

Many letters were written during the Chinese attempt to protect Changsha, capital of Hunan province, against Japanese invasion that caused 130,000 casualties among Chinese troops between 1939 and 1944. Up to 1,500 such letters were penned by Chinese troops during the battle, Zhang said.

The TV program displayed one letter from Chu Dinghou, a Kuomingtang sergeant who was killed in a battle near the north bank of Liuyang River in eastern Hunan in 1941.

His last letter to his older brother showed his determination in a desperate situation: his army column was ordered to fight until the last person to resist the Japanese invaders after a Kuomingtang backup failed to arrive in time.

Zhang said the letter shows unyielding Chinese patriotism.

For Guan Zhengwen, the program's chief director, the letters give a glimpse of Chinese values.

He cited the example of Yang Kaihui, Mao Zedong's wife, who was executed by a warlord in 1930 at the age of 29 after she refused to renounce Mao and the Communist Party.

"She was the mother of three children. You can sense the affection for her children through her letter," Guan said.

Guan also mentioned that Xia, the 16-year-old who died for the Ming court, made a moral choice to be faithful to the education he had received and the culture he had inherited.

"Reading his last letter thrilled me. It's really hard to imagine how a teenager calmly wrote down the words as he prepared for his execution," Guan added.

Other than letters from brave people, the words left behind by some others are also thought-provoking. Such cases include the last letter by Qiu Wenzhou, a Taiwan father who wrote to his daughter, who was 6-year-old, before he died of cancer.

Liu Yu, executive director of the program, said a last letter is "a solemn ceremony to say farewell".

"For family and friends, a last letter is an important legacy," Liu added.

He said many Chinese don't write wills or publish obituaries, and that they should write such letters to make sure that their children and loved ones follow their wishes after they are gone.

But a look back at China's history and culture over the past 2,000 years may help understand more about Chinese outlook on life and death.

Yang Yu, a professor of ancient literature at the Changsha-based Central South University as well as a guest commentator on the TV show, said Chinese mainly regard death as an inevitably end of life.

"Deeply influenced by Confucius philosophy, they can use faith to resist the fear of death, as well as the wish to pass on their knowledge and wealth to blood relations," she said.

Giving the instance of Zhuang Zi, an ancient philosopher who played a drum to laugh and sing after his wife's death, Yang said Taoists take death as a natural process to see a return to life's origin.

Qiu Anxiong, a Shanghai-based artist, echoed the view. He said the Taoist philosophy rooted in the theories of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi over 2,000 years ago, deems life as eternal to make followers more accepting of death.    

Best of letters

Chairman Mao's wife Yang Kaihui

Yang Kaihui married Mao Zedong in 1920 and joined the Communist Party in 1922. She was captured by a warlord loyal to the Kuomingtang in 1930 and beheaded as she refused to repudiate Mao and the Party, making her one of the earliest Communist martyrs. One year before her death, Yang predicted the danger and wrote a letter to her younger cousin Yang Kaiming, asking him to take care of her three sons. She hid the letter in a crack in a wall of her house, because of the turbulence at the time. The letter was discovered during a renovation in 1982.

"I may have already seen death. Well, its face is cruel and thrilling. Speaking of death, I am not scared and, in some sense, even looking forward to it. But I feel sorry for my mother and the boys. Such emotions have been frequently haunting me. I couldn't fall asleep last night. I decide to entrust my boys to you, their uncle. I believe you will not ignore them if you are still alive ... They need your love to grow up, like (flowers to blossom) in a warm spring, not to be destroyed by the wind and storm."

Naval officer Chen Jingying

Chen Jingying, a second officer on the Chinese Jingyuan of the Beiyang Fleet during the first Sino-Japanese War over 1894-95, wrote a farewell letter to his father before sailing to a battle at sea. He died in a bomb attack, sinking with more than 200 sailors after their vessel was besieged by four Japanese warships.

"We've just received a telegram from his excellency Li (Li Hongzhang, then supreme official of the navy), who has ordered the troops to sail to Korea at 1 pm tomorrow. We don't know what we will do, but I'm ready for death. I have benefited from the motherland as a youngster. Now it's my duty to fight for it. Besides, it will be a glorious moment if I die in the battlefield. I know you (his father) will be very sad if I die, which I can picture now. But if I choose to be loyal to the country, it means I cannot take the responsibility to be a dutiful son at the same time ... My son is still very young. But what comforts me is that my younger brothers will soon become adults and have their own families and take care of you and mother. Please don't mourn me all the time, otherwise, I will not stop worrying about you."

Imperial martyr Xia Wanchun

Xia followed his father to join an army that fought to reinstate the Ming rule overtaken by the Manchu forces in 1644. Xia was captured and executed in 1647, after the 16-year-old refused to surrender. It is said that the Qing court even offered to appoint him as an officer.

"I will soon die ... As I've decided to devote my life to my father and the country, I cannot serve you, mothers (his father's first wife and his biological mother) ... I married two years ago. My wife's piety and virtuousness is known in the family ... If she (at the time pregnant) delivers a boy, it will be a fortune for the family. But if not, please don't adopt a son for me ... Every man will die. If a man dies for what is right, he will become immortal. My father died as a man loyal to his country and I will die following him. I will smile to face it (execution). Let me just finish what I should do."

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Kou Jie, Bianji)

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