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My Great-Grandfather. War Hero?

Scott Tong travels to China to discover how his great-grandfather saved the Tong family village during World War Two.

Credit: Creative Photo Corner


  • During World War II in China, my great-grandfather saved the Tong village from slaughter. At least that’s what villagers tell me—all the villagers.
  • Oral history is challenging. On one hand, several people corroborate the basic story. On the other hand, I wonder how so many memories can converge on the version recalled by the best storyteller.
  • By this time in World War II, the Japanese had taken advanced positions across China. Many of these were the same locations controlled by European powers a century prior.
  • Around 1940, Japanese troops approached the Tong village. My great-grandfather talked to them, fed them and pleading for them to spare the village.

During World War II in China, my great-grandfather saved the Tong village from slaughter. At least that’s what villagers tell me—all the villagers.

This is the challenge of oral history. On one hand, several people here corroborate the basic story and details, so it seems hard to make something up in such a coordinated way. This passes the two-source rule of journalistic confirmation.

On the other hand, I wonder about historical groupthink, how so many memories can converge on the version recalled by the best storyteller. Or the loudest or most frequent storyteller.

In this case, the people I’m talking to were either quite young at the time, or they’d heard the story from elders.

Japanese occupation

By this time in World War II, the Japanese had taken advanced positions across China, occupying key rail and river strongholds. Many of these were the same locations controlled by European powers a century prior: Tianjin, Qingdao, Shanghai, and the Yangtze cities at the bottom of the Grand Canal.

When the Japanese marched on the river cities of Changzhou, Zhenjiang, and Yangzhou, and then took Nanjing in horrific fashion, they were just 120 miles south of the Tong village.

News came quickly, even to this Jiangsu backwater. “Pregnant women, they raped them,” Tong Daren’s niece tells me during my village visit with her. “Stabbed with bayonets.”

My great-grandfather was still living in Nanjing when the Japanese came, and somehow he escaped the bloody winter of 1937/38. His son, my grandfather, had retreated to Sichuan in the remote southwest with the forces of Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang.

There in Sichuan, his wife bore a son—my father—before she succumbed to tuberculosis four or five years later.

The Rape of Nanking

Much has been written about the Rape of Nanking, but there is one account most searing to me: The recollection of Japanese soldier Deguchi Gonjiro, recorded in activist and filmmaker Tamaki Matsuoka’s book Torn Memories of Nanking.

His words are imprinted on the wall of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall—in a section describing a Japanese soldier’s confession:

On the day when Nanjing was seized, the corpses outside the city wall piled into hills when we entered the city. I felt something soft under my soles, so I lit a match and found the ground was covered with dead bodies as if it was covered with mats. There were women, children, old men and old women. . . . I once saw they took women on their shoulders and raped them, even old women were captured and they were killed immediately after they were raped. It was extremely cruel. Now we must apologize to the Chinese people.

After the Japanese took Nanjing, and then Wuhan further west, fighting in the China theater came to a relative standstill. Tong Zhenyong left Nanjing and went up the Grand Canal to the Tong village.

Around 1940, according to oral interviews, Japanese troops approached the village. And my great-grandfather went up to talk to them. “Tong Zhenyong told us, ‘Don’t be afraid,’” Tong Daren’s niece says. She was less than ten at the time. The story from her and several villagers goes something like this:

Saving the Tong village

Tong Zhenyong hosted the Japanese troops in a village granary for about three hours, talking to them, feeding them, and pleading for them to spare the village. “He saved us,” she says.

I ask, “I heard he cooked something for the Japanese soldiers to eat—some kind of egg?”

“Dan cha.” Poached egg with sugar.

“And did he wave some kind of white surrender flag?” One villager had mentioned this to me.

“Don’t know anything about a flag.”

Among the people I try to confirm all this with is the despised Tong Guangde, the tall man with the hat from Tong East. I meet him at an outdoor table in the village just outside his house. This time he’s wearing a baseball cap.

“Xun gen?” he asks. Searching for your roots again?

When a stranger comes, people pounce

As we exchange pleasantries, another elderly man joins us. This always happens here. A stranger comes, the people pounce. Representing himself as in his eighties, this man would have been a teenager in 1940. His hair is jet white, as is his thick moustache. He is wearing blue sweatpants and a red warm-up jacket with a logo of Michael Jordan soaring for a dunk.

“I remember your great-grandfather,” Moustache Tong says. “I grew up here and then moved away. I’m just back from Anhui province.”

Hat Man Tong interrupts with the requisite host greeting: “Did you eat?”

Moustache Tong waves his hand to reject the offer. I do the same and say yes, I have eaten, which is a lie. There is no time for lunch. It’s already midday, and I have two precious hours to gather information, grab my suitcase, and hustle onto the bus for Shanghai. Chinese hospitality is many things, but it is not efficient.

I move on quickly to the “Tong Zhenyong Saves Village” story. “I hear a hundred Japanese soldiers came that day?”

“No,” Hat Man says. “Not more than twenty.” Already he is sketching out an alternate narrative. “When they came, he grabbed a piece of paper and drew a Japanese flag on it. And then he put it on a bamboo pole to welcome them.”

The challenge of oral history

The flag details also differ. I’d heard about a white flag, not a Japanese flag. There is something extremely challenging about these oral histories. It’s a bit like that party memory game where you place ten items on the table with a sheet over it, and then lift the sheet briefly for everyone to see. You re-cover everything and see how many items each person can list.

But in this case, the actual event has been covered for more than seven decades. Each person’s recollection is colored by his own thoughts and narratives. Who knows, perhaps Tong Guangde remembers a pro-Japan flag because my great-grandfather had a Tokyo past.

The problem isn’t that people remember differently. The problem is that they speak with absolute ken ding certainty.

He leans in. “You know the Japanese soldier who first arrived in the village? He was a relative of your great-grandfather.” He leans back.

I put down my notebook. “What did you say?”

“Yes, he was a relative of Tong Zhenyong’s wife. She was Japanese, you know.”

“Yes, that I know.”

“That soldier was his wife’s brother’s child.”

Mercy in a war without any

I try to process this. If this is true, it could explain a surprising act of mercy in a war without any. But then Moustache Tong turns his face directly to Hat Man
Tong and delivers an incredulous look. “Aah?” He is calling BS.

“Aah? That is not true.”

Hat Man is emboldened. “I know this story! The next day he explained all this to us.” He goes on to say the Japanese soldiers who’d approached had been stationed temporarily at Ping Qiao town, about six miles away.

“They walked through, saw nice houses with shingles, and wanted to come loot the place.”

At this point, Moustache Tong assumes I need a primer. “Your great-grandfather went to Japan. And he had a Japanese wife. When the Japanese devils came, he saved the village.” I nod.

Hat Man Tong: “He was a hero, very respected.”

This last part I know to be only partially true, at best. Several villagers have told me that during the great famine, the Tong East leaders dug up my great-grandfather’s grave and sold the wood from his casket. Then there was the issue of the historical discrimination that Hat Man’s Tong East waged against Tong Daren.

Speaking carefully

At this point a woman joins us—someone I’ve met before. Her mother took care of my great-grandfather before he died; she was his nanny (or, rumor has it, something more). The nanny’s daughter once visited me in Shanghai, subtly suggesting I take her seventeen-year-old grandson with me to America. I have learned to speak carefully around her.

“Did you eat?” she asks. Before I have time to mention we just went over this, she presents several watermelon slices. Our conversation turns to my great-grandfather’s personality, much of which I’ve heard before.

Intellectual, good skin, tall, liked to spit. I have to go soon, so I try to run a few more questions by them, as quickly as Chinese Time allows. Did Tong Zhenyong come from
a family of wealthy landlords?

A rapid- fire exchange ensues. Hat Man Tong: “Yes, he came from a landlord family.”

Moustache Tong: “You’re wrong.”

Hat Man Tong: “I was here!”

Moustache Tong: “Go ahead and say it. You’re wrong.”

The Taiwan issue

Another question: Did my third cousin Tong Daren indeed receive a letter from my grandfather in Taiwan? Does anyone know what happened to the letter? This is often cited as the reason Tong Daren had had such a hard life—his relationship with an anti-Communist relative in Taiwan.

Nanny’s Daughter: “I know about this.”

Hat Man Tong: “No. If he did, I would have heard about this.”

I sigh and put down my pen. There are too many competing agendas and narratives, but more fundamentally, I have come too late with some of these questions. Too much time has gone by, and too many Tongs have departed.

“Stay for lunch,” Nanny’s Daughter says. “Just two dishes and a bowl of soup. That’s all. It will be quick.”

Again I decline and make my exit, not knowing when I’ll return or how many of these old people will still be around then.

Editor’s note: This feature is adapted from “A Village with My Name: A Family History of China’s Opening to the World” (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

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About Scott Tong

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s Sustainability Desk. His stories focus on energy, environment, natural resources and the global economy.

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