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July 8, 2011

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Old soldier still seeks 'absolution'

AT first glance, 91-year-old Ren Tinghan looks like any other ordinary old farmer living in north China's Hebei Province. However, the scars on his body and a faded photograph on the wall of his home reveal that his life was anything but ordinary.

"It has been 70 years. Many of my fellows have already passed away," says Ren, who lives in the city of Langfang. "July 7 is when we mourn them."

On July 7, 1937, Japanese soldiers attacked Chinese forces at Lugou Bridge (Marco Polo Bridge) in Beijing, marking the official start of an eight-year war between the two countries, the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945).

Ren joined the National Revolutionary Army in 1936 and the next year resisted Japanese invaders in Nanyuan, a town near Lugou Bridge.

"The memories are still very fresh. I feel as though these events just happened yesterday," Ren says.

But Ren was later denounced during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) for having fought with the Nationalists, and he still bears that stain today.

Though the central government has acknowledged the role of the Nationalist Army in fighting the Japanese, Ren has not been absolved.

"I just want something to prove that my past in the National Revolutionary Army was not a shameful thing. I just fought the Japanese to protect my country. I'm old, but I want to erase this stain while I'm still alive," he says.

Although Ren came from a fairly well-off family, he still decided to join the military at the age of 17, one year after his marriage.

The enlistment officer couldn't understand why a man from a wealthy family, who didn't have to serve, would want to be a soldier.

"He said to me that life was strenuous for a soldier," Ren says.

But Ren was a patriot and went on to enlist in the pistol battalion of the No. 29 Nationalist Corps. His primary mission was protecting the corps' commanders.

Ren clearly remembers when his division commander, Zhao Dengyu, told him and his fellow soldiers that the Japanese had begun their invasion of Beijing in its southwest suburbs.

"He said that the Japanese had asked to enter the city, stating they were searching for a missing soldier," Ren says.

His battalion quickly became agitated. "We were excited, because we finally had the chance to fight the Japanese," he says, adding he and the rest of his battalion were still too young to truly be afraid.

Immediately after the Lugou Bridge Incident, the National Revolutionary Army defeated the Japanese. However, the Japanese soon staged a comeback, bringing 400,000 soldiers across China's border.

Ren fought in his first battle in Nanyuan, where 5,000 soldiers were killed. The defeat allowed the Japanese to take control of Beijing and Tianjin.

"Their aircraft were hovering overhead. Bullets passed over us like they were sweeping the floor of the battlefield," Ren remembers.

One of Ren's friends, a man named A Guangfu, was shot to death right in front of him.

"We had training sessions and dinners together. He was a member of the Hui ethnic minority. Every time before dinner, he would ask the cook if he used pork," Ren recalls with bitterness.

On the second day of the battle, Ren learned that their commander Zhao had died on the battlefield.

"He was a good commander, pleasant but strict," he says.

Ren and his fellow troops had no choice but to retreat.

Ren went on to fight elsewhere, including Shanxi, Hubei and Henan provinces. Finally, the Japanese surrendered in 1945, leaving Ren with a tough choice.

"I had no money to go back home, so I decided to remain enlisted, fighting in the civil war," he says. Four years later he retired, returning home to work on a farm.

Ren had kept a diary covering his 13 years as a soldier. He carried two dictionaries with him at all times to ensure that his entries were written properly.

"Sometimes I wrote in the trenches, sometimes I wrote in my tent. When we arrived at the Yellow River, I wrote in a wooden boat, listening to the sound of the river flowing," he says.

But he was gravely injured at the time of his retirement and the diaries were lost.

Ren later wrote a second version based on his memory. With the arrival of the tumultuous "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), Ren lost his diaries once more.

"I was criticized at public meetings because of my past as a Nationalist soldier - that experience was considered a stain on my life."

Ren's wife passed away in 2003. Although they had no children, they adopted a niece. Ren now lives with the niece, her husband and their family, including his niece's 10-year-old grandson Lu Xuan.

Asked what he wants to be when he grows up, Lu smiles and says, "Anything but a soldier. My great-grandfather opposes it."

Ren describes his past experiences to the boy, but Lu isn't very interested and usually runs away.

Ren has paid several visits to the Memorial Hall of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.

In 2005, he met the daughter of a former Nationalist official, who told him that the central government has acknowledged the contributions made by the National Revolutionary Army in fighting the Japanese.

However, Ren has never been personally recognized for his contributions, nor absolved of his shame.

He hopes that before he dies, he will be recognized as a patriot.


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