Photo: The Mystery Woman

by Peter Y. Chou

The year was 1930. The huge stock market crash on Wall Street and economic depression in America did not seem to affect China adversely. Storm would come the following year when Japan invaded Manchuria, a turmoil that eventually led to World War II. But for now, it was Mom's happiest moment. She had graduated first in her class of 37 students in Hupei Normal School. Letters arrived from five elementary school principals offering her teaching positions in the third grade. Her parents and friends were proud of her achievements. She was the first woman in her village to have completed a high school education.

In Mom's photo album, there is a 4x6 black and white photograph dating to this period that has always intrigued me. It shows eight of her schoolmates posing in a studio with a painted canvas of a park as the background. Mom considers eight most auspicious, perhaps it is because the number appears prominently in the three major religions of China. There are eight immortals (pa hsien) of Taoism who had mastered nature's secret elixirs of immortality. Buddha had taught the Eight-Fold Path (pa cheng tao) to enlighten the mind. Confucius made commentaries on the eight trigrams (pa kua) of the I Ching, to understand the relationships of heaven, earth, thunder, clouds, mountain, wind, fire, and lake. Through these spiritual studies, students would learn to gain fresh insights into human nature and the vicissitudes of life. The photographer was probably aware of these principles. He also had a real camera's eye, grouping the eight women in a semi-circular bowl, framing the majestic weeping willow tree in the background, which stood alone and unobstructed. The distant hills on the canvas also added to the scene's serenity.

Two women in the photo were curiously dressed in army uniforms with caps on. The other six had Western fashioned hair-styles. Three of them including Mom had bangs covering their eyebrows. Two others had bobbed hair made popular by Irene Castle, the stylish dancer who introduced the tango to the ballroom. Was the photographer trying to capture that mood of elegance in this picture?

One woman in the photograph appeared to embody these qualities of refinement and innovation. Unlike the others, her hair was parted stylishly in the middle with more of her forehead showing. While the others were smiling, her round face had a more serious pose. Thin-lipped and squinting like a cat, this woman had determination and self-assurance. While the others were standing or sitting, she was reclining, nestling herself comfortably on Mom's right lap. While the heads of two groups of three women had a trine configuration, Mom's head and hers were in conjunction, almost touching. Clearly, they were the best of friends. Mom mentioned that her friend was more interested in the theater and performed in several of their school plays. In this photo, they have the center stage with the parasol-like willow tree sheltering them. Mom was dressed in a traditional dark robe, while her friend wore white with wide sleeves. It reminded me of Mickey Mouse's magician robe in the Sorcerer's Apprentice. Mom once wrote a story called "Conversation between a Dog and a Cat" in high school. When her elder brother, a medical physician, read it, he threw the paper on the floor and rebuked her, "What nonsense is this!" It was the last fiction piece Mom ever wrote. I often wondered whether the cat in Mom's story referred to her cat-like friend.

What was on this woman's mind that made her different from her other classmates? Mom was smiling and glowing in the picture, no doubt from the many job offers she had received upon her graduation. But what about her friend? What kind of work was she going to embark on? Did she have a boyfriend? What would the future hold for her? I never asked Mom these questions which stirred in my mind. Curiosity about this mystery woman soon faded away in my memory.

After I moved to California from Massachusetts in May 1985, I had more time listening to Dad and Mom recollecting their experiences of a lifetime. When the September 30, 1985 issue of Time magazine arrived, there was an interesting article on Deng Xiaoping— "The Little Man Who Could Never Be Put Down" written by Harrison Salisbury, Pulitzer prize foreign correspondent for the New York Times. At the age of 75, Salisbury undertook a ten-week voyage retracing the Chinese Communist's Long March of 1934-35 which led to the 1949 conquest of Mainland China. The article was an excerpt from his forthcoming book The Long March, the Untold Story. The Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping (Time magazine's "Man of the Year" for 1978 and 1985) related to Salisbury in an exclusive interview how he survived China's worst upheavals to lead a country of a billion people. During the Long March, a pro-Soviet faction of the Chinese Communists tried to deprive Mao Tse-tung of his power. Deng supported Mao's strategy of guerrilla warfare and was arrested. Since Mom is not fluent in English, I translated to her this untold story:

One day as Deng was being brought back to his detention cell by his guards, he encountered Tang Yizhen. She was the wife of Lu Dingyi, deputy premier of the Soviet Area. "I'm so hungry," Deng told her, "I don't get enough to fill my stomach." She took pity on him and bought two chickens for a silver dollar. After she cooked them, she sent a message to the guards to bring Deng to her house for dinner. Deng came, ate a chicken, and took the other back to his cell to eat later. Lu Dingyi made the Long March and survived, but his compassionate wife was left behind to die.

"TANG YIZHEN!", Mom shouted, dropping her sewing basket. Her excitement startled me. Rushing to her bedroom, she brought out a photo album which I've not seen in more than two decades. Flipping quickly through the black pages, she found the 4x6 photo of her classmate, and sighed:

“I have heard that she was buried alive by her enemies during the Long March. Today, over a half century later, she's now resurrected in my memory. Deng Xiaoping would have died in jail from starvation. Those two chickens that my friend Tang Yizhen cooked for him save his life.”

She was the mystery woman nestling on Mom's lap in that 1930 studio photograph.

[Note: This story was written (October 28, 1987) as a "Photo Sketch" assignment in Nina Holzer's Autobiography class CRWR-38A at Foothill College. Nina liked it so much that she wanted to include it in her Autobiography Anthology. Because of the story's political nature, Mom told me not to publicize it. I'm now sharing it after her passing in honor of Mom and her friend Tang Yizhen.]

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: peter(at) (1-14-2006)