The Sino-Burmese Road

by Xiaodong Bu

Along the treacherous mountain road, five men, sweating and panting, rested by the roadside. The weather today was not too hot, with the occasional breeze blowing. They had trekked for several days, and lost count of how far they had travelled. As new blisters formed on the feet, even as the old ones barely healed, Bu bore the pain, and decided to simply take off his socks, and lay on his back on the slope, as he stared at the white clouds fleeting in the sky. Bu felt more comfortable as the breeze cooled his feet. Small wounds like these were nothing to him.

A few months ago, even though many refugees were sheltered by the International Committee for the Nanjing Safety Zone led by German businessman, John Rabe, there were still many Chinese people who were killed by the Japanese army after Nanjing fell. The Japanese left marks of their atrocities everywhere, from Hanzhong Gate, Xiaguan to Jiangpu. The boundless Yangtze River mourns as it flows to the sea, pouring out indescribable grief and anger. The Japanese army forced the refugees who had gathered in the safety zone to go back to their homes and claimed that order in this fallen city had been restored, and that there would be no more killings when in fact, the brutalities continued in and around city.
When Bu left the safety zone, he was shocked by what he saw. The ancient capital of Nanjing, under the savage bombing by the Japanese, and their subsequent burning, killing and raiding, was completely devastated as broken walls and ruins scattered around, a sight most unbearable. Japanese soldiers in groups of twos and threes stopped and deliberately humiliated the Chinese on the street as and when they fancied. The Japanese lies collapsed on their own.
Bu did not return home. He had no home to return to.
When he left Nanjing, Bu set out to the west. Countless times, he barely escaped with his life as his journey was fraught with difficulties, and no place was safe. Once, he fell into the river, trying to evade his Japanese pursuers when he was passing through Wuhan city in Hubei Province where the fighting was intense, but fortunately a kind-hearted person rescued Bu. After stumbling through several similar incidents, he finally arrived at the Yunnan Province.

Painful memories consumed Bu.
Suddenly, his thoughts were interrupted by shouts from the guide, Zhang Meng, “Come on! Get up! We have to move!”
Bu sat up, put on his socks and shoes, and followed the guide to continue his journey.
Except for the guide, these young men had arrived at Yunnan Province from other parts of China. They had gathered here together in response to an appeal by Long Yun, the governor of Yunnan Province, to build the Sino-Burmese Road. The two tall men were brothers, Qi Zhansheng and Qi Zhanliang, whose parents had long passed away. The Qi brothers were farmers in their hometown but had fled from the Hubei Province when the Japanese army began to besiege Wuhan city. The shorter and youngest man was Wang Jiang, who was urbane and had had several years of schooling. Wang Jiang rushed to Kunming city from Hunan Province with just some simple clothes and baggage because he wanted to serve the country.
The Sino-Burmese road was an extremely challenging construction. Long Yun had put forward the proposal to construct the Sino-Burmese road and its railway to Chiang Kai-shek some time ago, but the timing coincided with the Sino-Japan war and Chiang Kai-shek was too preoccupied with the enemy to attend to this until Nanjing fell. It was only after the National government moved to Chongqing city, that Chiang Kai-shek realized the importance of this Sino-Burmese road. As the Japanese army continued to close in, and as blockages built up, there was an urgent need to build a transport corridor between China to the world outside. Otherwise, it was impossible to resolve the issue of resource shortages as the war progressed. Hence, Long Yun began to mobilize labourers from different counties in the Yunnan Province and encouraged people to come forth to complete the Sino-Burmese road at all costs. Many urgent letters were sent to the local officials along the planned road, each accompanied by a pairs of handcuff in small box. The meaning is clear, Long Yun expected the local officials to bear the responsibility and come forth to plead guilty themselves if the road could not be completed in time.
Bu had met the other three others in Kunming city. They had attended the training course for the Sino-Burmese Road construction organized by Long Yun. They gained some basic knowledge of the geography and geology to build a road during this short period of study. Training during wartime is unlike training during peacetime, after a very brief training, many trainees had been quickly dispatched to the construction sites along the road. Just like this, the four of them went to Longling County with their guide and prepared to join the local team in the massive construction.

At this time, almost everyone – every man and woman, young and old- in Longling County was involved with the construction and scattered along the planned line. Climbing to the top of the hill, they saw a crowded and dusty scene. This was one of the sites of the Sino-Burmese Road. They had finally arrived.
They ran down the hill excitedly in spite of the fatigue and pains from their journey, looking eagerly for the leader of project to report to. Finally, a dusty grizzled old man appeared. During introduction, Bu found out that the leader’s name was Liu Zhiyang who had studied in Tangshan Engineering and Mining College and had experience in building roads, bridges and mines. Their guide left the four young men under the safe hands of their leader to return to Kunming city.
Liu was very glad to get four new men. Since most of the local young men had been enlisted, the project faced a severe shortage of strong young men. The elderly and women, even children from nearby villages had to work as well. The four newcomers, even though the number was small, as long as they labour, would definitely be a boost for the project.
Liu instructed the villagers around him to first bring the newcomers to a rest shed by the roadside before he assigned them their tasks, Wang Jiang was excited and wanted to start work immediately. Bu took a look at the construction site as he walked around. People in blue national costumes ran around the road and chanted work songs from time to time. Their songs were difficult to understand, but Bu believed they had made a concerted effort to build this transport channel as soon as possible in order to drive out the Japanese invaders and to defend the motherland.
After the young men had rested for a while in the shed, Liu entered with a young girl to assign them their tasks.
“Her name is Kai-Guo, a girl from the Jingpo tribe. She can understand the inland language. You can consult her about the local dialect. She will be your translator for now,” Liu introduced the girl cheerfully.
Liu and Kai-Guo assigned the tasks to the newcomers. It was finally agreed that the Qi brothers would be responsible to explore the excavation areas, and help to transport the soil and rocks. Wang Jiang and Bu were placed in charge of the evenness of the road and slope. Then, they took up their tasks and started their work.
Wang Jiang and Bu measured the technical parameters of the road laid using simple tools and what they had learned from the training course, according to the engineering requirements. Although their professional knowledge was limited, they attempted to use what they had learned as if the engineers would. Kai-Guo’ eyes were filled with admiration for them. She asked questions frequently, as if she had a myriad of problems that needed to be answered. Bu answered these questions patiently and earnestly. Gradually, they became familiar with each other.

They worked until it was really late. Liu arranged several villagers to take turns to be on duty at the construction site. The others dispersed, preparing to go home and to rest. Kai-Guo arranged for accommodation for Wang Jiang and Bu. Packing up their tools and walking for a while along the trail, the three youths came to a small village. The girl’s home was just here.
Bu took in what he saw in this beautiful village. Although every house was simply-built, this peace in the southwest border was really precious. Thinking of his own hometown which had been occupied by the Japanese and trampled on wantonly, Bu was overwhelmed with sadness and grief. He cherished this rare peace and relaxation even more. Although his body is tired, he was feeling somewhat relaxed, he just wanted the war to end as early as possible so that he could return to Nanjing city safely.
The bamboo huts here were all built on stilts. Walking up a flight of narrow staircase, Wang Jiang and Bu entered the house. Kai-Guo started cook. Wang Jiang was somewhat puzzled and whispered to his friend, “Where are the other relatives? Does Kai-Guo live alone?”
Actually, Bu was also surprised. Kai-Guo did not seem to be married, but Bu had not seen her parents and siblings in the house. As a guest, Bu could not ask her such a private question without being rude.
After a while, dinner was done, and when in Rome, do as the Romans do, as Wang Jiang and Bu tried the authentic Jingpo dishes. There were only rice, some common vegetables and a soup of wild herbs soup. Although there was no meat, these were considered delicacies for Wang Jiang and Bu. Their hungry stomachs had already growled, and finally they got to eat their fill.
Watching how her guests wolfed down the food, Kai-Guo could not help laughing. The three of them ate and chatted. By nightfall, a quiet dusk descended on the whole village, the Nujiang River and the Gaoligong Mountains.

After dinner, Bu asked Kai-Guo curiously, “What does your name ‘Kai-Guo’ mean?”
“Don’t you already know?” Kai-Guo smiled mischievously.
“Tell us now please! Jingpo name are so complex, we certainly do not know,” Wang Jiang also urged interestedly.
Kai-Guo stopped laughing and said, “My full name is Kai-Guo Geliang. Geliang is the last name for many people in the Jingpo tribe. An old proverb said, ‘the earliest monkey was the yellow monkey, the earliest tree was the Xing-Dian tree, the earliest last name was Geliang’. I do not know where the words ‘Geliang’ came from, but ‘Guo’ is often used in the first name for any Jingpo girl. The word ‘Kai’ refers to an orphan.”
Saying thus, Kai-Guo slowly lowered her head. She seemed to have thought of something.
The three of them lapsed into a silence together. Wang Jiang and Bu finally understood why they did not see other relatives in her family.
After a while, Kai-Guo looked up and smiled again, “That was in the past. The neighbours love me and frequently take care of me. Now with your help, we would finish the construction of the road and our life will become better in the future.”
Wang Jiang and Bu nodded. Reflecting on the confidence that she showed, Bu felt that Kai-Guo, a little girl born in poor mountainous area of Yunnan Province, was like a refreshing spring breeze that gently blew into his heart and dispel the gloom he felt.
It was night, but Wang Jiang could not sleep, instead he tossed and turned on the floor. He poked Bu who was beside him, “Hey, are you awake? I want to say something to you.”
“OK, what’s the matter?” Bu answered absent-mindedly.
“I…I think I like Kai-Guo,” Wang Jiang whispered shyly.
Bu was surprised, “Oh, really? Is it love at first sight? After all, you just met her today.”
“It’s true! I have this wonderful feeling about Kai-Guo ever since we met.”
Bu knew that it was normal for the young man. The war raged on, but love could sprout spontaneously. Both were unmarried and young, and perhaps this would be the love of their lives. Bu advised Wang Jiang, “Even if you really like her, it’s important for both of you to gain some mutual understanding. If you tell her now, you may scare her off. Don’t worry. It’s just the beginning, let’s just sleep now.”

As the days progressed, so did the road construction work.
Under the leadership of the Qi brothers, the villagers were motivated to work and the road extended on both ends section by section with each day. Wang Jiang and Bu flattened and compacted the pavement in time to prevent the rainwater from washing out the subgrade cement. Rains were frequent in this season. The busy villagers were often drenched completely. They watched as the splashing water converged together to flow into the distant valley along the roadside drains.
After he had been busily working for a few weeks, Bu fell sick, and he felt dizzy, feverish and weak. Liu sent Bu back to Kai-Guo’s home and asked the girl to take care of him. Kai-Guo agreed. She collected some medicinal herbs in the hill and decocted them twice a day. The herbs worked effectively and Bu recovered three days later.
While he was recovering from his illness, Bu found some subtle changes in Kai-Guo. Sometimes when she looked at Bu, she seemed to be avoiding him, or rather she seemed rather shy. Sometimes she seemed to swallow the words that she was going to say, and sometimes she would have kept quiet. Bu thought he understood but he was also confused. Perhaps the mind of a young girl was too complex for him.
When he got better, Bu returned back to work with Wang Jiang. Whenever Kai-Guo saw them in the distance, her eyes always seemed to be on Bu intentionally or otherwise, while Wang Jiang would have looked at Kai-Guo from time to time as he observed her every move.

The completion date approached as everybody worked hard together. Standing on the top of the hill, Bu gazed into the distance and a myriad of thoughts crowded his mind. The Sino-Burmese road, looking like a jade belt that was entwined tortuously among the mountains, stretched far beyond the border.
Before the deadline, the villagers pulled a huge stone roller up to strengthen the road and straighten the road surfaces. Wang Jiang and Bu squatted repeatedly to the road surfaces carefully.
Suddenly, the traction rope of roller broke with a loud sound and the roller rolled down along the slope rapidly. By the time they saw it, it was too late. Bu used his strength to push Wang Jiang to one side, but he was unable to escape and the roller violently landed on him.
After it had rolled over Bu’s body, the huge stone roller fell into the valley, and an echo was heard. The villagers on the slope were frightened out of their wits. The Qi brothers came running hurriedly, knelt on the ground, to pick up the injured Bu. Wang Jiang crawled over, and three youths cried loudly.
Bu struggled to open his eyes as he violently coughed out blood, his blurry eyes glanced from one man to the other as he strained to say, “Brothers, I can’t make it.” He closed his eyes and they remained shut forever.
By the time Liu and Kai-Guo, heard the commotion, and pushed their way through the crowd, it was too late. Tears welled out of Kai-Guo’s eyes, dripped down her face and seeped into the depths of the Sino-Burmese road.

The day the Sino-Burmese road was completed, on the hillside in the Longling County, a girl was heard singing, “large trees in pairs are more useful, red flowers with green leaves are more colourful, bamboo wine barrels with gold hoops are more sturdy, skirts with jade belts are more beautiful…”


The Sino-Burmese Road

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