The Thousand Iron Phoenixes
Almost all of us are gone now, dead of old age, which is the one way of dying we never thought we’d have to concern ourselves with. Of the Thousand Iron Phoenixes, few are left to tell their story. Books have been written about us, and movies made, but what do people know about the individual lives behind the epics? We’ve been called heroines, but heroism was the last thing on our minds. We didn’t fight in the hope of glory; I’m not even sure we fought in the hope of victory. We fought because of who we were, and where we knew we belonged. We would have fought to the last one if we’d had to, and then we’d have begged the gods to come back to this world to once more give our lives to China.
In the end it’s always about duty. Not petty duty, the kind we were expected to obey when we were born, the lowest of the low, the peasant women of China; great duty, the one we realized deep down was our own to follow.
I was born in Hebei, in the seventh year of the reign of Jianguo—1919 if you prefer. The fifth child and third daughter of a poor family that eked out a living growing wheat and sweet potatoes on rented land. My parents’ initial impulse may have been to kill me, as was still done back then in the countryside to surnumerary female babies. I shall never know. As it turned out they suffered me to live, but just barely. My birth wasn’t registered at the local yamen, despite the new laws; as for schooling, that wasn’t even considered. The Qian’s rule was still quite new, and many of the changes had yet to reach the rural areas, where things went on as they had for centuries. As soon as I could walk, I became an extra farm hand. But there were too many mouths to feed, and too little food to go. One evening, not long after I had turned eight, a man came to our house, and my father rushed to greet him as though he’d been expecting him. I remember that some bargaining took place, and some money changed hands. Then my mother hugged me and started to cry; she wrapped me in a threadbare coat, put in my hand a dumpling, and told me to be brave. I had just been sold as a servant to a brothel in the town of Xindian.
Not that it changed much for me. I worked all day every day, ate whatever scraps were thrown my way, and slept on a thin mattress in a corner of the kitchen. That was all the life I had ever known. Patrons came and went, oblivious to the raggedy girl who brought them tea and changed the bedsheets after they’d got their money’s worth of a prostitute’s body. Years went by; I overheard more conversations about the rising tension with Japan and the increasing incidents along the Korean border. Then one day a customer wasn’t so oblivious of me, and inquired of my price to the brothel owner, an old harpy of a woman with a thick Manchurian accent; the following night I changed status from servant to whore. I was fourteen.
I did eat a little better, and the clothing I was provided with was a definite improvement—I got to wear real dresses for the first time in my life. Of course, it came at a steep price. While I never seeked solace in opium, as some of the girls did, I understood why they did it. Soon after that, a new girl was brought in; her parents had given her off as payment for some debt, and she had been sold by the loan shark to the brothel I worked in. Her name was Lili, and she was from a village not far from mine; I shared with her what experience I had, and we became the closest of friends. Another ray of light in my life came in the form of a woman named Cheng Lu, who worked for the Red Swastika Society. We called her Cheng Dajie; she was a frequent visitor to our establishment, giving us prostitutes free health check-ups, and relentlessly petitioning the owner to limit the number of tricks to twenty a day per girl. Heated arguments regularly erupted between the two women behind closed doors, which we tried to eavesdrop on. The owner would certainly have barred her from the place altogether, but Cheng Dajie seemed to have leverage with the town’s official and unofficial authorities, which kept doors open that otherwise would doubtless have been slammed in her face. Every once in a while she obtained to take some of us out for lunch or dinner; Lili and I would go together, relishing every minute spent in her presence and away from the brothel.
Then what little light I had in my life was snuffed out by the cold wind of war. It was September 1934; the Devils from the Three Islands, which had been trying to invade China since the previous year, had in the spring staged a series of attacks all along the Yalu river, combined with amphibious operations at several points along the coast. They had overwhelmed our defenses and were now pouring in from the northeast. Already the Manchurian provinces and Shandong had fallen, Beijing was under siege, and Hebei was being rolled over by the barbarian hordes. For its misfortune, Xindian was on the way of part of the invaders’ army. All those who could left town ahead of the Japanese arrival, but our owner kept us locked in our rooms, afraid to leave with us lest we escape her at the first opportunity—which we probably would have; plus, she reasoned, barbarians or not, the Japanese were men, and as such potential customers like any others. We heard from our rooms the clatter of townsfolk hurrying south on any vehicle at hand, from automobiles to ox carts to rickshaws to wheelbarrels, the latters’ ungreased wheels creaking slowly past our place down the street. Then we heard another noise; horses and trucks, and men in leather shoes: our army retreating. For two whole days battalion after battalion trudged through Xindian’s main street, some of the men staying longer, though we had no idea what for.
On the third day death rained on our town. Japanese planes dropped bombs that fell one after the other with an ominous hiss, and destroyed whole buildings at a time. Our brothel was spared, though not one window remained intact, and I suffered minor wounds from shards of glass. One wall of my room was almost blown apart by the blast of an explosion, and I managed to squeeze out of the place through the hole. I tried to reach Lili’s room from the outside in order to help her escape as well, but as I was circling the brothel, I heard in the street shouts in the devils’ language; the Japanese infantry had reached Xindian. I hastily hid under a nearby collapsed wall. Shuddering with terror, I watched from my place of concealment a group of devils break open the brothel’s main door and rush in. A gunshot rang. Soon cries of fear and pain could be heard inside, followed by men’s laughter. After what seemed to me an eternity, the cries stopped, and the soldiers walked out, the bayonets on their rifles bloody. As soon as they were out of sight, I crawled out and ran in the brothel. Greeting me inside was the slumped body of the owner, a bullet hole in the head. I ran to Lili’s room; the door was smashed in, and my friend was sprawled lifeless on the floor, her clothing torn off, her intestines spilling out of her slashed belly. Something soft and fragile died in me at that instant.
I don’t remember how long I stayed with my dead friend. I had arranged her body as best I could, and whispered prayers to Bodhisattva Guanyin, She who hears the cries of the world, that Lili’s soul may find peace. Night had fallen by the time I left the brothel, and with the only light coming from the burning buildings, sneaking past the soldiers and out of town wasn’t difficult. I spent the night huddled in a ditch.
The next morning, I considered my options. Going south would mean walking in the wake of the devils’ main force, and risk being caught myself, so I decided to stay and hide in the vicinity of Xindian. I was a peasant’s daughter, and knew where to look in looted farmhouses for the hidden food; I also found more practical clothes than the torn, muddy form-fitting dress I still had on. My cheap, European-style high heels were likewise discarded in favor of sensible felt shoes. In one of the farms I visited in my search for food, I found in the backyard a pile of rotting bodies. I saw that all of them wore white armbands with the Red Swastika. One of the faces, bruised though it was, and bloated by the heat, seemed familiar; bracing myself for the overpowering stench, I edged closer. My heart broke a second time when I recognized Cheng Dajie.
I have no memory of the following couple of months. Summer ended and autumn began, but I was only aware of it because of the growing chill. I scrounged for food like an animal, caked all over with dirt and grime. But one cold evening, as I inspected what seemed just another abandoned house, I felt a presence behind me. Turning around, I found myself facing the barrel of a rather impressive handgun—just not, a part of me noted with puzzlement, of the type I had seen the Japanese touting. "A girl?" the man said aloud in Mandarin. He spoke with a local accent, and I relaxed somewhat. "Guys, come take a look," he called, and several other men came out of the cellar, surrounding me. "Who are you?" he asked. "Hey, I think I recognize her," one of the others said. "She was one of the girls at that Purple Blossom place in Xindian. I heard they were all killed. That one was lucky to get away." They led me into the cellar, and I followed them like a sleepwalker. There was a woman there, a stout, middle-aged farmer’s wife; I collapsed into her arms, and she patiently cleaned me up. I was given something to eat, and fell asleep right afterwards.
I would learn in the next few days that those people were a partisan cell, assembled and in the process of being trained by a plainclothes operative left behind for that purpose by the retreating regular army. Because the Japanese onslaught was too strong to be stopped, he explained, our forces pulled back, trading space for time. But they planted a number of sleeper agents among the civilian population, and hid caches of weapons and equipment in various locations in order for partisans to strike the enemy from behind. The Japanese occupation notwithstanding, the province of Hebei was now under the authority of the Taihang Military Command, which served as an underground wartime administration, and took its orders from the provisional Imperial capital of Chongqing. Our cell leader went by the name of Gao Ying; he was a graduate of the Nanhai Military Academy, with the rank of lieutenant, though in his current outfit he looked just like another nondescript young country-dweller. He showed me a book that, he said, every Nanhai trainee was required to learn by heart—Sunzi’s Art of War. The name meant nothing to me, and I couldn’t read anyway. "You’ll learn to," he said. "And in the meantime you’ll make yourself useful to us in other ways. In for a fen, in for a yuan."
And that’s how my life as a partisan began. Initially I’d run errands for the others, carrying messages or bringing food, looking for all the world like some dull-witted peasant girl. As the months went by, and the eighth year of Guoxing’s reign began—year 1935—our small group linked up with other similar ones throughout the province, building up an underground resistance network. Initially our actions were modest enough—dispatching isolated Japanese soldiers, disorganizing their supply lines whenever possible—but we gradually moved on to coordinated larger-scale operations, and by the middle of that year we had a full-fledged guerilla war going on. The invaders’ reaction was predictable, a bloody, ham-fisted repression that only heightened our determination, and brought more people into our ranks; after all, if they were going to be executed by the Japanese no matter what, then at least they’d die fighting. For every one of us killed, three more stepped forward; and we received either passive assistance or active support from the overwhelming majority of the population—people who had been given back their pride for the first time in more than a century, and who would willingly sacrifice their lives in the name of the Qian, so that their children would never know the humiliation of foreign occupation, of being dictated what to do by foreign devils whether Western or Japanese.
Whatever task I was given, I accomplished it without a complaint. It was as though my life had ended on that day when the Japanese killed my best friend, and I had turned into a vengeful ghost, single-mindedly exacting retribution. Gao Ying understood how determined I was. He gave me firearm training, and any waking moment not taken up by other activities was used to teach me reading and writing. Day after day, those elegant characters that seemed to give such power to those able to understand them ceased to be a mystery to me. The first two that I learned, and the last two I shall ever forget, are the most beautiful of all; Zhong Guo, my country, my home. Zhong, an arrow hitting the bull’s eye; Guo, a wall around a halberd.
He also gave me some political education. Up to then I had been wholly unaware of political questions; I knew we lived under the Qian dynasty, that the Emperor’s name was Guoxing, and that he lived in Nanjing; and that was it. As the saying goes, the mountains are high and the Emperor far away. But thanks to Gao Ying I began to acquire the basics of a political awareness. Not just that the prime minister was Yan Xishan or that the ruling party at the National Assembly was the Jinbudang; but an understanding of how politics affects people’s lives in general, and mine in particular. I now realized the extent of the changes that Jianguo and his successor Guoxing had been implementing in China, and the full extent of what was at stake with the struggle for national liberation.
The first good news for a long time came almost one year to a day after Lili’s death. We heard on the radio how our soldiers’ long retreat had finally ended, and how the city of Kaifeng became the battleground between the devils and the defenders of the country. As the weeks went by and the battle to the south intensified, the Japanese pouring more and more forces in a vain attempt to break the stubborn resistance of the Chinese, we partisans indirecty took part by engaging in relentless operations. None of us barely got any sleep during those three long months, and not a day went by without a train wreck taking place, a bridge being blown up, a supply depot going up in flames, a Japanese patrol being ambushed, an officer getting shot dead by a sniper. Even as the Devils from the Three Islands found their advance stopped still on the southern front, they found that their control of occupied territories was in name only, and that beyond the cities, the railways and the larger roads, we partisans were the ones in charge. And when the Japanese Fifth Army finally surrendered in Kaifeng, we made sure that not a man, woman or child remained unaware of that victory.
It was also on that occasion that I realized how my feelings for Gao Ying went beyond respect and friendship—and how, to my surprise, they were reciprocated. Though he knew of my past as a former prostitute, he didn’t seem to mind, and as we celebrated that victory a comradely hug became an embrace, and by the end of the night we were lovers. Everyone else in the cell found out of course, that was hardly something you could hide from the rest of the group when we all slept in the same room and shared our living space with only the most cursory form of privacy; but they all took it in stride. We rubbed elbows with death on a daily basis, and many members of the original cell had either fallen to Japanese bullets or, faced with imminent capture, had taken their own lives; so the proprieties of courtship, even had they been applicable to someone like me, who was on the receiving end of the basest desires of men long before I knew of true love, felt like a rather abstract concept in the heat of the moment.
It was a relationship lived very much from one day to the next. How to make plans for the future anyway, when one can’t even be sure of making it to the end of the day? Still it gave me my first taste of happiness since those moments spent with Lili and Cheng Dajie. And just like them it was wrenched away from me by the war. For, angered by their humiliating defeat at Kaifeng, the Japanese proceeded to exact vengeance on the unruly civilian population of the provinces they occupied. It would be known as the "Three All" policy—loot all, burn all, kill all: a series of scorched-earth operations intended to pacify the insurgency’s strongholds. And because ours had so successfully disrupted the flow of supplies and reinforcements to Kaifeng, as we happened to be near the main road and rail links to the southern front, we knew we were high on the list. The winter snow, which hampered troop deployments, bought us some time, but with spring came a merciless series of offensives combining air raids, artillery barrages and search-and-destroy infantry strikes. Those of us who could found refuge in the Taihang mountains, but our own base was stuck between the anvil of the Beijing-Kaifeng communication axis, and the hammer of occupied Shandong, from where fresh troops could be brought in at will thanks to the Yellow Sea ports. From March 1936 our lives became a deadly game of hide-and-seek, forcing us to move from one hiding place to the next, the devils on our heels.
In their attempts to exterminate the partisans, the Japanese used every last means at their disposal. One day, as the farmer’s wife we knew simply as Lao Ma had been sent to carry instructions to another cell, the hamlet they were in was bombarded with ordnance that released a thick cloud of yellowish-green gas; one of our scouts witnessed the scene from a distance, but by the time the cloud had dissipated, all that was left was corpses, twisted as though they had convulsed in pain before dying. On another occasion, several of us came down with what looked like typhus, and we suspected—rightly as it later turned out—a deliberate use of bacteriological agents by the Japanese. Eventually, of the group’s original members, Gao Ying and I were the only ones left; and I was the de facto second-in-command of over eighty combatants. No longer the ragtag bunch of the insurgency’s early days, those had been forged by the war into grimly determined paramilitaries. Though I was then only seventeen, several of them were actually younger than I was, some in fact barely into their teens, and almost a fifth of them females—adult women out to avenge the killing of a relative, and younger girls who, like me, simply had no lives left outside of the insurgency, and for whom the fight itself was the last reason to stay alive. The caches originally left by the regular army had long been emptied of their supplies, but more came from nocturnal parachute droppings, the transport planes sneaking past the Japanese air defenses to bring us weapons and ammunitions. Small but efficient workshops had also been set up in carefully concealed locations with painstakingly-assembled machine tools parachuted in wooden crates, churning out pistol and rifle rounds, and even, in the later stages of the war, actual guns. The clunky but impressive Mosi pistol—I believe the original name was Mauser—was ubiquitous in partisan hands, as were the Li’an rifle and the Shimei submachine gun—or, to give them their Western names, the Lee-Enfield and the Schmeisser. We also had heavier weapons—mortars and machine guns—but, though our comrades-in-arms in Shanxi and Manchuria could field artillery pieces, we in Hebei didn’t; here in the heart of Japanese-occupied territory, mobility was a higher imperative than firepower.
One day in June 1936, as Gao Ying and I had found ourselves in the open, we ducked too late for cover when a Japanese scouting plane appeared out of nowhere, the noise from its engines covered by the wind. We tried to reach a copse of trees, but the plane’s gunner opened fire on us just as we were about to get there. Gao Ying, who was running right behind me, shoved me into the undergrowth, and as I tumbled down I heard the bullets hissing just above me. The plane circled us for several minutes, firing blindly into the vegetation, and I kept low, praying to Guanyin as round after round hacked into the trees all around me. Finally it left, and I looked up to see where Gao Ying was. My heart broke for the third time when I saw him lying face down at the edge of the vegetation, his cotton jacket punctured and bloodstained in four places, his arms still outstretched—the shove he had given me had saved my life, but at the cost of his own. I carefully turned him around; his expression was peaceful, and I thought I saw a half-smile on his face.
With Gao Ying dead, and no matter how heartbroken I was, the most pressing question was the choice of his replacement as cell leader. Taihang Command simply couldn’t send anyone over while the Japanese had so many forces deployed in our area; we were for all intents and purposes cut off. I consulted our senior member, a ruddy, big-fisted former barge-driver from Linqing on the Grand Canal we called Hong Zou, and he told me, "Come on, Jiejie!" (It always struck me as odd to be addressed as "elder sister" by people who could be my parents) "You may be young and a girl, but you’re the most experienced of us. You were Gao Ying’s right hand, and nobody could find fault with your decisions then. Now that he’s gone, only you can rightfully succeed him. And I say that as someone who, two years ago, wouldn’t have dreamed of taking orders from a girl. If I, grumpy old curmudgeon that I am, can live with you as leader, then so can all the others!" Much to my surprise, the majority’s opinion did turn out to match Hong Zou’s, and the other girls and women in particular stood solidly behind me; the rest seemed to endorse my leadership mostly out of respect for Gao Ying, whose symbolic heir I was in their eyes.
Despite the terrible losses we kept suffering, our numbers increased steadily, and so did our effectiveness as a fighting force. Throughout the following two years, we didn’t give the Japanese a moment of respite. When they advanced, we pulled back; when they stopped, we harrassed them; when they retreated, we attacked. Between our actions and the growing setbacks they experienced on the battlefront, where the full force of the Empire’s all-out industrial and military mobilization was inexorably tilting the balance in China’s favor, the Japanese’s strength was beginning to wear out. The devils had hoped to defeat us with the knock-out blow of a lightning invasion; but they hadn’t understood that China was too big for them. Now we became stronger every day, while they became weaker. And they were choking on the very territories they had tried to bite off but found too hard to chew. By the eleventh year of Guoxing’s reign—1938—the Hubei resistance under Taihang Command numbered some 380,000 combatants, and that leaves out the support network we enjoyed among the population at large; in all occupied provinces only the Manchurian resistance had larger forces than we did. Of those over 600 were now under my direct authority.
Though most supplies, and the odd advisor, kept being parachuted from night-flying transport planes, our group also had a small, well-camouflaged airstrip that was occasionally used to exfiltrate visiting higher-ups or downed pilots that we could get our hands on before the Japanese did. We even had the visit of a Western woman photographer named Agnes Smedley, and the pictures she took of us, I later heard, were published in an American magazine. One night in August 1938, one of the sturdy Beiren planes (Noorduyn Norseman as they’re called by their original designers) that provided our airlink to the free provinces brought in, along with the usual equipment, an unexpected order: I was personally summoned to Chongqing, and instructed to leave someone in charge for the following ten days. I entrusted that job to Hong Zou, and took off an hour later for both my maiden flight and my first trip ever out of Hebei. We flew barely above tree level to avoid detection, and when reaching the Japanese lines, the pilot took up some altitude and actually turned off his engine, so that we silently glided past the front and into unoccupied China; when he finally told me we were above safe ground, I felt as though I had been holding my breath the whole time. We landed a couple of hours later in Nanyang, Hunan, where a larger two-engine plane—the kind I had got used to glimpse in the night sky when supplies were dropped, and that I knew was called a Douge, or Douglas—took me for the second part of the journey to the Empire’s wartime capital.
Nanyang, given its location near the front, had grown over the course of the last three years into a logistical hub and air force base, and the plane was ferrying to Chongqing fighter pilots on leave. They seemed to be as comfortable in the flying machine as normal people are riding a rickshaw; most simply dozed off. One of those who stayed awake kept throwing glances my way; I saw him fidget for several minutes, as though he was gathering his nerve, and finally rise from his canvas seat and approach me. Meanwhile the sun had risen, and the landscape below us was bathed in a superb morning light; I sat with my face glued to the small round window. "That’s the Changjiang down there," he said, and, training my eyes in the direction he pointed, I saw the river’s magnificent valley snaking through the steep mountains like the body of an immense dragon. "It’s beautiful," I replied, both to encourage him and because it indeed was. He seemed to relax somewhat. "We guys have seen it so often, we’re jaded now, more’s the pity. We’ve made that trip perhaps a dozen times since Kaifeng." "You were there?" I exclaimed. "Well, we’re from there, for the most part. We’re the corps that fought for Kaifeng’s airspace while the battle took place—the Shen Feng, if you’ve heard of us. We lost some 90% of the original pilots during the fighting, but I was among the lucky ones, praise Amituofo. And it seems I got lucky again." He smiled, and I noticed how handsome he was. "My name’s Zhang Tianyi. As I like to say, the fortune-teller who advised my mother on the name must have been on to something." "I’m Wu Ling," I said, "but in the resistance I’m Xiao Fei." By the time we were in sight of our destination, we knew everything of each other’s lives.
I had never seen pictures of Chongqing, and had no real idea of what to expect. The biggest city I had ever been to was Shijiazhuang, and that wasn’t exactly for sightseeing. So I was predictably amazed when I saw the sprawling industrial metropolis that filled up the valley below, factories and concrete buildings perched on the slopes of both the Changjiang and its confluent, the central promontory built over like a giant anthill. "So big!" I said. "It didn’t use to be," Tianyi explained. "Most of what you see has been built since the beginning of the war. Even in Jianguo’s time there’d been an effort to develop the infrastructures of the region to counterbalance all the stuff on the coast. But it’s only in the last four or five years, and especially since Chongqing was chosen as the wartime capital, that all those roads and factories have sprung up. Even now there are maybe dozens of thousands of workers in construction sites all over the city and its surroundings, and more stuff keeps coming up all the time. Sometimes a Japanese bombing raid manages to get through, but the damage they do makes little difference. It feels like the place has doubled in size every time I see it again." As the plane descended, he pointed to a large industrial complex near the airport. "See that? It’s where most of our aircraft are made. Western designs, local production. I hope I get the chance to show you while you’re here." He hastily scribbled something on a piece of paper. "Since you don’t know where you’re going to be, this is where you can find me."
After landing, all the passengers rushed out, obviously eager for the good times expecting them here. Tianyi and I exited together, to find a woman waiting near the plane. "Xiao Fei?" she called out. We had both seen that face on propaganda posters, but Tianyi identified her before I did. "Xie Bingying!" he blurted. "The Iron Phoenix!" The woman nodded and smiled. "Sorry to have to steal a girl from a Spirit Wind, but she’s coming with me," she said, and waved for a nearby car to approach. "Don’t worry," she added with a wink, "I’ll make sure she gets some free time." For the past couple of years Xie Bingying had been a high-profile figure; nicknamed the Iron Phoenix, she was a graduate of Wuchang’s Central Military School and a former army nurse. After her diaries were published in the New China Herald, one of the country’s most important newspapers, she had risen to the status of an unofficial spokesperson for Chinese women. I told her how honored I was to be in her presence. "I should be the one saying that," she replied. "My battleground has lately been a safe one, here in Chongqing, and since achieving prominence I’ve only been to the front lines for a few weeks at a time. Meanwhile you live in danger day in and day out. Which, I must say, is the point of your being here. But someone else will explain it all to you."
The chauffeur parked the car in front of a large mansion in the city center, and I followed the poster child of Chinese women’s emancipation inside. She showed me to a guest room more luxurious than any I had ever slept in, and told me to refresh myself, as we were to meet another person. After cleaning up, I noticed an elegant if conservatively-cut qipao spread on the bed, and put it on; I also applied makeup for the first time since the end of my life as a prostitute, and coiffed my hair, which I kept a no-nonsense shoulder length, as best I could. A servant discreetly knocked on the door and asked if I was ready; answering in the affirmative, I followed her to the main pavilion, where Xie Bingying and an older woman with an air of quiet authority were sitting. "Xiao Fei," the former said, "meet Kang Tongbi." Upon hearing the name, I froze for a second, and hastily knelt on the floor to perform the koutou, but the woman stopped me before I had bowed my head. "No need for those old-fashioned formalities. Do stand, dear. I may be the late Emperor’s daughter and the current one’s elder sister, but today I’m a woman talking with fellow women."
What I knew of Kang Tongbi I had learned from Gao Ying. She was Emperor Jianguo’s eldest daughter, born when he was just a graduate of the Qing civil service examination system, and hadn’t yet launched the Hundred Days reform movement. Growing up with unbound feet at a time when footbinding was still a fairly common practice, she had been allowed by her father to study journalism at Barnard College in America. She owned the New China Herald, and, I found out, it was at her initiative that Xie Bingying’s diaries had been published. The two women were now close friends. "Have a seat, dear. It is time you were explained the reason you have been brought here." And so she told me. Since the Japanese invasion, the women of China had lived under what she called a double standard. While in the occupied provinces, women such as myself had been fighting and dying alongside their male comrades-in-arms, paying the price of blood for national liberation, paradoxically here in free China their contribution to the war effort was constrained by discrimination; for, while they could—and were encouraged to—take up factory jobs if they didn’t already work full-time, and could, as Xie Bingying had, join the army as nurses or in other noncombatant roles, ancient prejudices kept them from being allowed to actually take part in the fighting. This, many of them thought, was unfair. And the Emperor’s sister, along with like-minded activists, had therefore taken to lobbying the government in order to create voluntary female battalions. "A week from now," she continued, "an executive committee will gather to examine the question. I will be there, and so will Xie Bingying. And so will you and other women resistance fighters, to bring home the fact that when push comes to shove, we females can spill and shed blood just like men. Meanwhile, you and the others will be meeting the various members of the committee. I’ve already arranged for the chairman, who was supposed to be former chief of staff Wu Peifu, to be general Sun Liren instead: younger, and more open-minded as far as our request is concerned. The rest should be easier, and I’m counting on you." With those words, Kang Tongbi rose and left, striding across the room with determined steps.
I was still feeling light-headed from that conversation during lunch, but more surprises awaited me. In the afternoon, Xie Bingying took me in her chauffeured car to what looked like a complex of warehouses on the outskirts of town. "We call it Little Dianshan," she said. "Four years ago, when the Japanese invasion began, it was decided to relocate the movie studios from Shanghai to Chongqing. Since then they’ve been churning out propaganda films by the dozen, some of them directed by Kang Tongbi, who likes to dabble in cinematography among other things. As you know, I’ve played in some of them myself." We drove past a gate where a guard waved us in, and once out of the car entered one of the warehouse-like structures. I was led through a maze of cluttered corridors to a dressing room in which a woman sat, her back to us, removing make-up in front of her mirror. Xie Bingying waved at her, and told me, "Let me introduce you to Ruan Lingyu."
Back then, Ruan Lingyu was at the height of her fame, and everyone even in the most remote village in China had at least heard her name, if not actually seen her on a movie screen. Like the rest of Shanghai’s film-making community, she had temporarily moved to Chongqing to contribute to the war effort with morale-boosting patriotic movies. Some of them, in fact, had had their reels sent to partisan groups like mine to be shown in improvised or open-air theatres to the civilian population. If anything, I was even more impressed by her than I was by Kang Tongbi, for Ruan Lingyu was the idol of millions, and like most Chinese women of the time I held her as the epitome of beauty, charm and femininity. And she, too, was involved in Kang Tongbi’s lobbying effort, which made sense considering how many times she had played the courageous woman patriot onscreen in the last four years. For someone considered a living goddess, she further turned out to be quite friendly. On that afternoon at the studios, I also got to be introduced to Lin Yutang, a writer and occasional contributor of movie screenplays, who said he was considering basing a character of his next novel on me; it would be called Moment in Beijing. "And to honor all the women like you who take up arms to defend their country," he added, "I’ll name my main character Mulan."
The rest of my stay in Chongqing went by at the same hurried pace, joining members of Kang Tongbi’s activist coterie and fellow women partisans brought to Chongqing as I was to lay the groundwork for the committee. Much of it, in fact, involved informal face-to-face appointments with its members to share our stories with them, a clever way to win them over even before the debate proper would take place. I got along particularly well with one other partisan, Jiang Yun, a girl my age from Taiyuan who had been orphaned while a toddler, and who had been taken in by the new government-run orphanages, where she and others like her had been given school classes, home economics lessons, and even taught some notions of wushu, both as a method of cultivating good health, and for self-defense purposes; she had joined the resistance at sixteen, after knocking unconscious a Japanese soldier who had tried to rape her. Throughout the week Xie Bingying kindly arranged for my schedule to be cleared up in the evenings, so I could spend some time with Tianyi. He was a little clumsy at first, but I found out that turning the conversation to the topic of aircraft was wonderfully effective to put him at ease. Making good on his word, he showed me the brand new fighter planes just out of the factory, Fouke-40 he called them, "Excellent fighters against the Nakajima KI-27 of the Japanese, and highly manoeuverable. Much better than the Fouke-30 we still flew back at the time of the battle of Kaifeng, better even than the Daweiting-11. And with newer designs being developed in Europe now that it looks like they’re going to have a war over there as well, I don’t think we need worry about being outmatched by anything the Japanese can come up with." Every day I looked forward with increasing anxiousness to the moment I could see him again—and not to hear him talk of planes.
Kang Tongbi had done things right. "Lobbying is like cooking," she once told me, though I was unsure how much cooking an upper-crust lady like her had done in her life. "Long preparation, short execution. Your presence, and that of your fellow women partisans, was the finishing touch. I’ve pulled all the strings I have at my disposal, and there are a lot of them. And many of the members of the committee didn’t need that much convincing to begin with—the idea has been making its way for some time now in decision-making circles, and we are just providing the little shove that will make it all fall into place. Just you watch." And, true to prediction, the meeting of the committee was practically over before it began. Anodyne statements were given, and perfunctory objections raised, but it was obvious that the actual decision had already been taken. By the fall of that year the first voluntary female battalions would be formed, and those women who took part in the fighting whether in regular or partisan forces would become known thanks to propaganda as the Thousand Iron Phoenixes. For now, all of us were given one last free evening before being sent back to our respective cells.
I took advantage of mine to see Tianyi one last time. Suffice it to say that I didn’t show up at the mansion until the wee hours of the morning, with a certain precious promise still ringing in my ears. Neither of us knew whether we would make it to the end of this war, but now we knew we both had a reason to. The following night I was back in Hebei, and back in what Sunzi called the "killing zone", that situation in which a given army will fight to the death because it has no other choice. Six more long years went by, during which I kept an epistolary correspondence with Tianyi, insofar as some mail could be carried across the front lines—we could remain without news of each other for months at a time. But during that time China’s patient, stubborn struggle against the invader was bearing fruit. Inextricably bogged down on the Chinese front, their strategic supplies running low, the Japanese were forced into a gamble that hastened their final undoing: all-out expansion throughout south-east Asia and the Pacific ocean. After occupying French Indochina in 1940, they decided to attack America in 1941; but although their strike at Pearl Harbor bought them enough time to capture the Philippines, most of the Dutch East Indies, much of Malaysia, a bit of Burma and a number of Pacific islands, eventually the force that the two powers on either side of the ocean brought to bear on the hubristic devils crushed them into surrender. And I am proud to say that the Thousand Iron Phoenixes, of which I was but one, contributed to that victory.