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Two Generations of the Lin Family: the Curse of a Legend

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From left, the "Double-Gun Woman", Lin Zhuxi (Mr Lin's father), her son-in-law Lin Xiangbei, and his wife.

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Mr Lin with his daughter and grandchildren.

LIN XIANGBEI, aged eighty-nine, son and son-in-law of revolutionary martyrs, interviewed in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in south-western China. Lin's father called him "comrade" when he was ten, and Lin joined the Communist Party before he was twenty. But he was branded a counter-revolutionary because he married the daughter of Chen Lianshi, the legendary "Double- Gun Woman", a Chinese revolutionary, and because his father had been Chen Lianshi's lover. He spent over twenty years as a political prisoner and lost family members on both sides during the struggle between the Communist Party and the National Party from the 1930s to the 1970s. Six of his seven children survived more or less as orphans.

In China, the "Double-Gun Woman" is a national heroine: a legendary female revolutionary, ruthlessly dispatching enemies and traitors with a gun in each hand, dry-eyed even at the deaths of her husband and children – as fast as a bandit, as tough as a peasant.

In the Archives of the Imperial Academy stored in Beijing Library (which, by some miracle, survived the Cultural Revolution), we can trace the family history of the Double-Gun Woman, Chen Lianshi, back through several generations. Her earliest traceable ancestor on her mother's side is an imperial academician from Sichuan called Kang Yiming, who served during the reign of the Qing emperor Jiaqing (1796–1820). Her father's forebears were equally illustrious, many of them scholar-officials or high-ranking military men.

After the foundation of the Republic in 1912, several members of the family left Sichuan to study elsewhere, some heading to Japan, some joining Sun Yat-sen's revolutionary Tongmeng Society. Having been, in the last years of the Qing, a high-ranking official renowned for his justness and benevolence, and for his work in helping the poor and needy, her father was selected as member of parliament for the area.

Sources that emerged during the 1980s state that, as a girl, "the Double-Gun Woman demonstrated exceptional intelligence, covering in two and a half years the curriculum that took most students seven. After enrolling at the local women's Normal College, she then passed the entrance examination to one of the country's top universities in Nanjing, where she hoped to help her country by studying to become a teacher. She excelled also at painting." The Double-Gun Woman was clearly neither a poor peasant, nor an illiterate bandit.

In Communist China, the designation of national heroes has been a fiercely controlled business. Under Mao, in particular, only members of the proletariat – workers or peasants – were officially permitted to be heroic. More or less since Chinese history began, the country's great patriotic heroes have been mostly male: unflinching individuals permitted to shed tears in only two cataclysmic sets of circumstances: at the death of their mother, or the loss of the motherland. With the rise to power of the Communists – and of the idea that "women hold up half the sky" – women, too, were allowed to become national heroes, but only in the superhuman, patriotic male mould. When I was very small, I saw Red Crag, a classic revolutionary film of the 1960s featuring the Double-Gun Woman. In a 1995 book about her published in China, Chen Lianshi wasn't allowed to behave like normal women – weeping at the execution of her husband, or at the death of her daughter. She had to be invulnerable: a Party killing machine devoted to robbing the rich to help the poor.

A few years ago, while researching the possibility of publishing a book about the Double-Gun Woman outside China, I was lucky enough to meet her son-in-law, Lin, her grandson and her five granddaughters. After I had heard them talk about their mother and grandmother, she began to take shape in my mind. In particular, three things furthered my understanding of this national heroine and of the historical period she lived through.

The first was a 1926 painting by her, A Fish Rises to Jiang Taigong's Bait. At the time, her husband had been seriously wounded in an armed uprising against a local warlord, in which a great number of their comrades-in-arms had been lost and many others had gone over to the enemy. In these bloodily uncertain circumstances, the unit to which the Double-Gun Woman belonged found itself under constant threat of annihilation. Studying the delicate strokes of the fish scales and the ripples in the water, together with the relaxed lines of the fisherman, it seems incredible that the painting was completed in such dire circumstances. It is equally hard to imagine that the hand capable of such refined brushwork could, hours, or even minutes later, take up a gun and open fire with ruthless impunity. How could a single individual be made up of two such contradictory impulses? The turmoil of twentieth-century China has forced its people – its artists included – to coexist for long periods of time alongside the near constant threat of violence. While war has not succeeded in annihilating modern Chinese culture, it has left an indelible imprint on its development.

Second, I learned that the Double-Gun Woman had had two lovers. The first had been her husband, killed by the Nationalists. What had attracted Chen Lianshi – so exceptional in both looks and talent, a woman who could have had any man she chose – to an obscure young man from the countryside? It was not only his looks and abilities, but also his courage: the courage to stand in the vanguard of his era, to wake – in a people numbed by the suffering of war – a new sense of national pride and dignity. The second was Lin's father, an unconventional idealist who stood by her for the rest of her life though she would never marry him. As a surrogate for the married life they could never enjoy themselves, they eventually betrothed their two children – Lin, and Chen's daughter, Jun. Chen's husband was her inspiration, a soulmate to whom she would remain loyal till her death by refusing ever to remarry, while Lin's father provided her emotional ballast, willing to efface himself almost completely to give her the unconditional love and support she needed.

These two different presences in her life – the great love to whom she devoted herself, and the emotional prop from whom she drew the devotion she herself required – comfortably complemented each other. A great many people feel the need for similar kinds of close, complementary relationships in their lives. But for thousands of years, right up until the 1980s, Chinese women who required ballast outside their marriages were condemned as faithless "bad women", and were punished, even murdered by their fathers and husbands for forming such attachments. Like so many chaste widows of the Chinese past, the Double-Gun Woman, widowed at thirty-five, put up with decades of lonely nights after her husband's death, in order to protect her reputation. I don't know how she stood it. At no point in Chinese history was it ever suggested that remaining virtuously loyal to a dead husband's memory was a form of tyranny, or self-harm. Even the Double-Gun Woman – in all other respects, a liberated, educated modern Chinese woman – found herself unable to shake off the shackles of tradition, demonstrating the slow pace at which civilisation changes and progresses.

The third thing that I discovered concerned the death of the Double-Gun Woman in 1960.

Chen Lianshi died in 1960 of anger and regret, after the failure of the last uprising – involving some thousand people – she organised and led against Nationalist Forces, on Huaying Mountain in Sichuan. In the waves of political campaigns that started in the 1950s, the leaders of the Huaying Mountain guerrillas were condemned by China's Communist rulers as "bandits", "traitors" and "counter-revolutionaries", their failure blamed on treachery. As a result of these groundless charges, not long after 1949 the Double-Gun Woman and her comrades-in-arms were forced out of the Party. The woman who had sacrificed everything – for the Party – including her husband and daughter was denounced as a traitor.

Some said that she died of sorrow and resentment because her Party membership was never returned to her. Party membership was not only a source of personal validation and identity, it was also a promise she had made to her husband, who had also devoted his life to the Party and wished that she should remain faithful to it until her final breath. And yet the Party had rejected her. Some said that she died of despair, because the cause to which she had devoted herself – the Party that was supposed to be for the People – turned its back on hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of the Huaying Mountain Uprising. Why had it abandoned them? The damning official verdict on the uprising turned the children of the "treacherous" guerrillas into orphans and beggars. And yet the Double-Gun Woman silently left this world without pronouncing final judgement on the Party that had dominated her life.

In July 1960, Chen Lianshi lay alone in hospital, dying of cancer, her relatives – punished for her own political disgrace – scattered far and wide. A woman who had denounced her came to visit – perhaps because she had been tormented at night by the ghostly cries of those who had been persecuted to death, or perhaps because she had seen for herself children who had lost their parents in political campaigns picking food out of rubbish, or perhaps because the grief and anger of the Double-Gun Woman had woken her conscience. No one really knew why the woman secretly approached the Double-Gun Woman's bed to beg her forgiveness. She took the skeletal hand of the Double-Gun Woman in both her hands. On the Double-Gun Woman's wrist was the dark green jade bracelet that, all those years before, her husband had given her. Face to face with the revolutionary heroine that she had denounced, the woman wept. In the ten years that had passed since the political trauma to which she had subjected Chen Lianshi – organising a small group charged exclusively with collecting a dossier of materials against her and orchestrating a succession of progressively more frenzied denunciation meetings – a great many other campaigns had taken place. By 1960, the woman herself had suffered from political violence and had long since regretted her actions. But there is no medicine to heal the pain of regret.

By this point too weak to speak, the Double-Gun Woman placed the woman's hand on her bracelet, indicated that she should remove it, then tremblingly placed it on the woman's own wrist. She smiled, a single tear rolling down her cheek, then closed her eyes again. The woman could sense the gesture was a kind of pardon, and on learning later that the family were looking for the bracelet, she was even more moved by the Double-Gun Woman's generosity of spirit.

Chen Lianshi's grandchildren were shaken when they found out. They had thought they'd understood their grandmother at the end; they thought that she had died angry and resentful. Instead, she had died forgiving her bitter enemy. By placing this family heirloom on her enemy's wrist, Chen Lianshi had embraced her as a member of her own family.

I cried every time I heard this story. In the two decades I have worked as a journalist, I've frequently been moved by the ease with which China's old people forgive. Some people cite this generosity as proof of their numbness and lack of spirit. I can't agree. You can see the sorrow they still feel: in the tears they shed as they tell you their stories; in the twitching of their hands as they unearth painful memories. But, somehow, many of them manage to forgive the terrible things that history has done to them, the callous, unjust treatment they have received at the hands of the Party – as easily as they forgive the mistakes of children. But while we should commend their refusal to pass the bitterness of their tragedies down through the generations, we still need to commemorate their suffering.

On 3 August 2006, I arrived in Chengdu, intending to interview the surviving family of the Double-Gun Woman: her son-in-law Lin and her grandchildren. This was the fifth trip I'd made to Chengdu. I still remembered very clearly how poor and run-down it had looked on my first visit at the end of the 1970s, how primitive and backward. In the 1980s, incomes in Chengdu seemed on average several times lower than in other Chinese cities. But the Chengdu I now saw was a refreshing contrast: clean, well ordered, no longer cluttered with ramshackle old hotpot and dumpling stalls – clearly a place on the up.

My awareness of the changes that time had brought intensified during the time I spent with the Lin family, especially as I flicked through albums of photos taken between the 1950s and 1980s. I could sense a deep sadness in the expressions of the people I saw pictured, even in the children. The 89-year-old Lin, in particular, seemed to be carrying a heavy weight inside him. Even though he would laugh and joke when talking about China and about his life, you could sense the reserve in him, typical of many Chinese people: an unwillingness to discuss personal things or political views. It was, it seemed, only in his poetry that Lin truly revealed himself. He seemed to have shut himself firmly away in a box, as so many Chinese have done and continue to do. I wanted to find out what lay inside.

Because of the work Lin had done as a young man helping survivors of the Huaying Mountain Uprising, and because he was married to the daughter of the "traitor" Chen Lianshi, the government branded him a dissident – "a Rightist" – when he was barely thirty. Having joined and offered outstanding service to the Communist Party before he was twenty, he was hit hard by the label of counter-revolutionary. "Chairman Mao," he had sobbed to himself, "why don't you come and save me?" Accused and reaccused throughout every political campaign of the Maoist period – the Four Clean-Ups, the Anti-Rightist movement and the Cultural Revolution – he ended up spending the best part of thirty years in and out of prison, during which time he lost his mother-in-law and great mentor, the Double-Gun Woman, and his wife, her daughter. His six children were forced to survive alone, wandering the streets like beggars, scorned and humiliated by society. But, as his acerbically satirical poems reveal, his spirit survived and was even strengthened by his tragic experiences.

After the Cultural Revolution, he wrote his autobiography at the age of seventy with the help of his daughter, Lin Xue. Reading it, I was once more reminded of the generosity and vitality of the Chinese. I saw in it an innocent, though doggedly determined child refusing to accept defeat, even at the hands of his own father; a rebellious teenager, unhappy at his father's choice of second wife; a young man falling in love, at the same time as his father, with the legendary Double-Gun Woman, though this was no blind, youthful hero-worship; a mature adult constantly searching for the truth, reflecting on the best means of saving China, adoring his wife, and weeping over his children's suffering. Perhaps the most remarkable thing of all was that, even after decades of political persecution, he remained a free man, capable of independent thought and perfectly at ease with himself because – like his legendary mother-in-law – he had remained throughout all his ordeals a man of honour.

When I asked if I could interview him, he requested that we meet outside his home. I agreed, as sometimes overfamiliar surroundings and associations can inhibit the process of remembering.

And so I met Mr Lin in my hotel room. I also asked his relatives to let us speak alone, for I knew that people often disclose secrets to strangers that they conceal from their children. I guessed that there were at least two Lins, on the one hand a father and grandfather respected by his family for his dignity and self-control; and on the other a fiery, uninhibited, passionate revolutionary. Later, when he showed me a picture of his new wife, I had said how pretty she still was in her sixties. Turning away from his daughters, Lin winked at me. "I wouldn't have married her if she'd been ugly!" he whispered, revealing the exuberance that none of his sufferings had been able to subdue. I wanted to discover who the real Lin was.

Below is an excerpt from our talk in the hotel.

*

XINRAN: Some people say that a person's life is decided by their personality. Would you agree?

LIN: Yes.

XINRAN: Why? Could you describe your personality to me?

LIN: Your personality causes you to make choices. Take me: I've always been competitive, always hated losing – even to my father. We used to skim stones together, across the river by our house. You got a point every time the stone bounced on the water. When we started, he'd always win a lot more points than me because I hadn't got the hang of it, but quite soon I began to beat him. His stones would sink halfway across, while mine often got to the other side, fifty or sixty metres away. I still remember how surprised he was when I first managed it. I practised and practised, just because I didn't want to be beaten by someone else.

*

At this point, Lin – suddenly a teenager again – gave me a quick demonstration of his throwing technique. I had no idea how he had maintained his joy in life through those three lonely prison-like decades. How had someone as competitive as him tolerated so many years of public disgrace? For the time being, I didn't dare put such a sensitive question to him.

*

XINRAN: What shaped your personality?

LIN: I think I've been influenced by three people: my father, my aunt and my mother-in-law, the Double-Gun Woman. It was my aunt who first taught me never to accept defeat. Because my mother died while giving birth to me, my father sent me off to live with his older sister. She was incredibly good to me, treated me like her own son. From time to time, she even lectured her own children that they shouldn't bully me, because I didn't have a mother. She was very sensitive to complaints from her parents-in-law that I was getting free board, so at the start of each month, she would secretly give me five or ten yuan then get me to give it to her in front of everyone else and say my father had sent it to pay for my food. One summer, I remember, when my cousins all had white linen waistcoats to wear, my aunt gave me an extra two yuan, then got me to give it back to her in front of her husband and say my grandmother had sent it to pay for some summer clothes. The next day she produced the white waistcoat she'd already bought me. She would often say to me when we were alone that as long as I worked hard, I'd have a good life. But if I didn't work hard, if I didn't do something with my life, it would reflect badly on her. From that moment on, I struggled constantly to be the best at everything I did.

It was my father who gave me my belief in the Communist Party. I remember once, when I was still very small, seeing my father looking out over the river by our house, deep in thought. I walked over and asked him what he was thinking about. "All sorts of things," he answered. "I'll tell you when you're older."

"Don't worry," I said to him. "When I get bigger, I'll be a filial son and earn plenty of money to look after you and Granny."

Father shook his head. "I want more than a filial son," he said seriously. "When you're older, I want you to be a revolutionary, a comrade."

Though my teachers at school talked a lot about China's national crisis, about the heroes who were working to save the motherland, I didn't really understand much of it, and certainly didn't know what a comrade was, or why it was so important to my father.

"Comrades struggle together towards a common revolutionary goal," he told me. "Being a comrade is more important than being filial, because a filial son is loyal only to his family, while a comrade is loyal to his motherland."

"Let me be your comrade, Father! Tell me what you were thinking about just now."

Father smiled, then thought for a while. "Do you think I'm mad?" he said eventually.

"Only the local officials say you're mad. Ordinary people say you're a good person, and my teachers and classmates all say you're a good father."

Father smiled again. "You're sounding more and more like a comrade."

And then there was Chen Lianshi – my teacher, my surrogate mother almost. It was mainly through her guidance that I became the person I am today. It was through a winter coat that I first came to hear of her.

One evening, while I was eating dinner, a courier came to tell me that a big parcel had arrived for me. Hurrying to the post office to pick it up, I immediately saw it was postmarked Chongqing, which was where my father was, though his name wasn't on the parcel. Inside, I found a brand-new herringbone wool coat, but no message. Because it had been the middle of summer when I left home, I'd only brought thin clothes with me. Now, though, the weather had turned cold. A friend of my father's had given me a cotton-padded army coat, but it was too big – so long it reached down to my feet. Afraid of being laughed at, I only used it as a quilt at night. The friend's wife had also given me an old cotton jacket. Though it was warm enough, I was embarrassed to wear it, because I'd just started courting, and what I really wanted was a properly smart winter coat in which to parade up and down the streets of the small county town I was then living in. And now I had one: but who was my mysterious benefactor?

That evening, I dreamed my mother stood before my bed, her eyes red from crying. "It's so cold outside," she said, "and you've so few warm clothes. Your grandmother used to look after you when you were small, but now, you're all on your own, away from home. Why isn't your father looking after you? Here, try this warm coat I made you. Does it fit?"

The mother in my dream was so young, so pretty and kind. I buried my head in her warm, comforting chest, then looked up to see her smiling and crying. I began laughing with joy that I had such a beautiful and loving mother. My own laughter woke me, and I realised the whole thing had been just a dream – apart from the coat, which I was still lying under.

Unable to go back to sleep, I made up a poem in my head:

I was saved by a lucky star,

In the darkness, I saw a light.

A coat brought me warmth,

And my mother back to me.

The next day, I wrote to Father, asking him who had sent the coat; he was as surprised to hear about it as me. Much, much later, I finally received a letter telling me that a revolutionary heroine called Chen Lianshi had sent it to me. I began to imagine to myself what the great Chen Lianshi was like, wishing I could have had a mother like her. The first time I met her was with my father. By this point, I'd heard any number of stories and legends about her: about her incredible marksmanship, and about her generosity and concern for others, for the society around her. She wasn't one of those people who joined the revolution hoping for a better life for themselves and their families – she had a genius for sensing other people's needs. She'd learned honesty and a sense of justice from mountain bandits, simplicity and courage from workers and peasants, her moral principles from religion, and cunning and ingenuity from merchants and traders. She could cut through complexities and difficulties as easily as a fish swims through water. You've heard the jade bracelet story, haven't you? It took an extraordinary person to do something like that.

XINRAN: I read your four volumes of poetry last night. One is entitled Remembering Jun, in memory of your late wife. In another, Regret for My Family, you mention Hua – was she your daughter?

LIN: Our first daughter. When my wife was heavily pregnant with her, we got a tip-off that we were about to be arrested, that the police would come for us in the middle of the night. We left our home there and then, in a torrential downpour. But we couldn't think where to go: there was a friend of my father's, but we weren't sure he'd dare take us in. There we stood, in the rain, under the umbrella, until I managed to hitch a lift for my wife on a narrow, single-wheeled cart to the friend's house – I ran along beside it. He was very good to us, and hid us somewhere no one would find us. But soon after we'd got there, Jun's labour began. We didn't even have a bed for her to lie on; we just put lots of rice straw on the ground. We didn't have anything for the birth, nothing was sterile; we just had to make do. And even after the child was born, there was fighting to be done and we had to move on. As we couldn't take Hua with us, we left her with a local family. A little later on, she got pneumonia. Though it would be easily treated these days, back then the peasants were very ignorant and superstitious. They all worshipped a dead carpenter, and believed that earth from his grave would cure any sickness. Without proper medical care, forced to eat mud, she died – just two years old. There was no one to blame, really, just ignorance, because the locals thought eating earth from a good man's grave could cure sickness. Thinking about it still makes me sad.

*

His voice died away.

*

XINRAN: I'm sorry. I shouldn't have made you go back over these painful memories.

LIN: Don't worry. I'm used to them.

*

He's become used to pain, I thought – another of the legacies of China's traumatic last century of modernisation. But should people have to get used to pain? I now decided to ask him the question I had backed away from earlier.

*

XINRAN: I cried yesterday when I read your books, especially The Red Monk and Happiness in Old Age. There's such a sense of mourning, of suffering in your books. You've said yourself that you've always been ambitious and competitive. But, for decades, you lived without public acknowledgement or understanding; society turned its back on you. You insist that you love your motherland, that you believe in the Party. You yourself know you're a good person. But when you were persecuted as a Rightist, when your children were suffering because of who their father was, did you ever feel regret at what you'd done? If you could live your life again, would you make the same choices?

*

For almost two and a half minutes, old Mr Lin sat before me, staring up at the ceiling, his face twisted with pain. I didn't press him for an answer. I know my question is one that many elderly Chinese people would like to be able to answer.

After two hours I felt that I had come closer to the real Lin, though I hoped the process had not distressed him too much. I hoped the act of speaking out had lightened the burden of memory for him. Concerned that our conversation had had a bad effect on his blood pressure and heart condition, I rang his youngest daughter, Ping, later that evening to check up on him. She was surprised by my anxiety; since the interview, her father's blood pressure had remained unusually stable.

Lin had seven children with Jun: one son and five daughters, in addition to Hua. The son I only saw three times, and found him to be very shy and introverted. The daughters, however, were a real phenomenon – true granddaughters of the Double-Gun Woman. There was the frank, forthright Xue; the refined, gentle Bo; the thoughtful, artistic He; the tough, stoical Zhi; and the multitalented Ping. When I asked them what they thought about the parentless childhood that their parents' and grandmother's radicalism had bequeathed them, they had no complaints. Xue, the eldest, said that she and her sisters had been too young to have any idea what was happening. They were divided when I asked them whether they thought their elders' revolutionary endeavours had been worthwhile. But when I asked them to name the single most important force determining the course of their family's life and suffering, all five sisters replied: "History." How should we define the force that is history? Who should take responsibility for it?

In a book that Xue edited about her grandmother, I found the following passage:

Imagine that Chen Lianshi had not fallen in love with the radical young man who became her husband; that they had not gone to university in Nanjing after marrying, or that their student careers had not coincided with the anti-imperialist demonstrations of 1925; imagine that her husband had not become a student leader and that he had not been captured by spies, thereby forcing him to return to his home village. Imagine, again, that the two of them hadn't joined the armed uprising against north Sichuan's warlords, or that they hadn't subsequently fled to Huaying Mountain to continue their struggle for ten long years. Would Chen Lianshi still have become the Double-Gun Woman? Assuredly not. She might have become a teacher, a scholar, or a painter, fulfilling childhood ambitions that remained with her to the end of her life.

I knew that Lin's daughters regretted how events had, in reality, turned out. But if things had turned out otherwise, there would have been no Double-Gun Woman, and no Lin as we now knew him.

Months later, back in London, I learned that, after two years' building work, the Huaying Mountain Uprising Memorial Hall had formally opened on 24 October 2006. Inside was an exhibition about the Double-Gun Woman and 116 of her comrades-in-arms, together with displays of the guns and everyday objects they had used, of works of art and literature describing the history of the uprising, and of a few memorials and poems written by fallen heroes.

I rejoiced that this tragic episode had become a part of public history in China.

I also learned that Lin had now completed his autobiography and was looking for a publisher in the West. I wished this indefatigable old man health and every success.

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