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Grave mission to the motherland

TAIPEI resident Gao Binghan holds an urn containing the ashes of an old friend, a former Kuomintang soldier, and looks for the special pagoda tree half a kilometer west of a village in Shandong Province.

That's where his friend wanted his ashes to be sprinkled - on the soil of the motherland, the Chinese mainland, on the plot that his family once owned. That was 61 years ago before he and others fled to Taiwan during the Chinese civil war.

Gao promised to return the ashes to Heze City in southwest Shandong, where he and his refugee friends grew up. Gao's father was a KMT soldier who was executed and Gao, then 14, fled. He later became a lawyer and judge in Taiwan, but always remembered his home.

So 75-year-old Gao made the journey from Taiwan to honor his friend's last wishes.

Unable to find the pagoda tree - undoubtedly long gone as the village expanded - he sprinkles the ashes instead in a cornfield, the solemn act witnessed by local residents.

"Brother, the falling leaf has returned to the soil. Rest in peace," Gao murmurs, his mission accomplished.

Gao has spent 61 years in Taiwan and has the same longing for the Chinese mainland. He has made it his mission to take his friends' ashes back home to Heze, and since 1992 he has escorted 57 urns from Taiwan to the mainland.

Years ago Gao was elected president of a society of around 200 from Heze in Taipei; he was the youngest and best able to carry out their wishes.

His story was told by the China Youth Daily on October 13. The date of Gao's visit was not given, but his tale speaks to the hearts of China-born people in Taiwan who long to go home, at least in death.

The task is not easy for Gao, a thin man standing 1.75 meters tall but weighing only 44 kilograms. The urns are heavy and each weighs around 10 kilograms.

Following his friends' last wishes, Gao collects urns from military cemeteries in Yilan or Hualien in Taiwan. He takes four at a time.

Once his return from Hualien was cut off by a typhoon and he was marooned with an urn. He and the urn were rescued by helicopter the next day. Gao has been stopped at airports for narcotics checks because the ashes seemed like a suspicious substance - Gao never sends the urns via special delivery, for fear of losses.

He conceals urns on aircraft to avoid discovery by passengers or crew. He even persuaded his family to allow him to store the urns at his own house in Taiwan until he is ready to undertake his mainland journey.

Gao once lost an urn at customs when he was looking after a frail old man making the same journey. Once he dropped an urn and it shattered, but he scooped up the ashes, placed them in another container and took them home.

As president of the Heze society, Gao offered to accompany any of his friends back to Heze on Qingming Festival (tomb-sweeping day) or Mid-Autumn Festival, both important traditional Chinese holidays.

Gao lived in Heze for 13 years but no longer has family there. His mother urged him to flee. After traveling through several provinces, Gao and thousands of others found themselves in Xiamen City, Fujian Province, opposite the island of Taiwan.

They surged toward two incoming landing craft, and there was a deadly stampede in which many people died. Many, including Gao, had to step over corpses to reach the vessels. A soldier smashed Gao with the butt of his rifle to get ahead of him.

Gao clambered on the overcrowded boat at the last second; then a shell hit and killed people beside him. The closing of the vessel's boarding sliced people in half. There was nothing to do but throw the bodies into the bloody water.

The date was October 16, 1949, two weeks after the People's Republic of China was established.

Years later, Gao read in a library book that he had been on the last evacuation vessel.

The old timers often recounted their tales of escape.

One man later emigrated to Argentina and visited the Chinese mainland in 1982 as a welcome overseas Chinese from South America. He brought back local delicacies, and more important, a bag of soil from Heze.

He returned to Taipei and the society threw a big party; each family got two or three homemade pies, some pieces of preserved fruit and - most important - a teaspoon of soil from the motherland.

Gao was in charge of distribution and as a reward was given an extra spoonful of soil. He locked one spoonful in his bank safe deposit box and put another in his teapot; for the next week he would sip tea and soil, and weep.

Though he lost most of his possessions during his flight from Shandong, Gao kept his primary school graduation certificate and two group photos showing him with his volleyball team and classmates.

Gao wrote down all his memories of his hometown Heze, they filled seven books. All were destroyed in a flood in 1991.

That was the year when Gao first returned to Heze and found that so many things had changed.

His mother, a primary school teacher, told him that his father had been executed during the seesaw battles of the conflict. It was 1948 and she could see the tide of the conflict; she told him to run.

Over six months, the boy followed retreating KMT soldiers across six provinces, covering round 2,000 kilometers before arriving in Xiamen at last. During the journey his legs were seriously burned and later infected after a soldier accidentally spilled scalding hot congee. They were fleeing the People's Liberation Army at the time. Gao bears scars to this day and never wears shorts.

In Taiwan he graduated from the law school of a military academy and later acted as a judge and then a lawyer. As a judge he had to hand down a death sentence to any army deserter who tried to swim across the Taiwan Strait to see his half-paralyzed mother.

Gao understood what was in the deserter's mind as he, too, missed his mother and his hometown. In 1979 he sent a letter home via a schoolmate in the United States; he found out that his mother had died.

Gao named his granddaughter Youhe, meaning "to bless Heze."

As for his own earthly remains, Gao says that half would remain with his wife's ashes in Taiwan; the other half would be taken back to Heze. "When return," he says, "my fellow townsmen will be waiting for me."


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