'Soul ferryman' returns ashes of those who never came back from war across Strait
Ahead of the Mid-Autumn Festival, the ashes of a deceased veteran were brought back from Taiwan to his birthplace in Jiangxi province by Liu Te-wen, a resident of Taiwan's Kaohsiung.
Over the past two decades, Liu has carried the ashes of more than 200 veterans in Taiwan back to their hometowns on the Chinese mainland for burial, which has brought him to over 20 provincial regions, including Xinjiang in the northwest.
That is why netizens call him the "soul ferryman" shuttling across the Taiwan Strait.
"As the old saying goes, 'returning to one's homeland in old age is just like fallen leaves return to the roots of their trees.' It's a tradition of the Chinese nation to remember our ancestors and roots, so I'll keep doing this until I can no longer move," he said.
The 56-year-old worked at a bank after graduating from college. He moved in the 1990s to Xiangheli, a neighborhood in Kaohsiung, where dormitories were built by the local government for about 4,000 veterans, more than 90 percent of whom were unmarried.
The soldiers were brought to Taiwan in the end of 1940s by the Kuomintang when it was defeated in the civil war, and had to retreat to the island of Taiwan. Many of them had been unable to return to the mainland, due to difficult cross-Strait relations, until the late 1980s, when people from the two sides were again able to visit each other. A large number of them have remained single in Taiwan due to their advanced age when they retired from the military, and some had a wife on mainland.
After work, Liu often visited to chat with the veterans who lived alone. The elderly in the community came from various provinces on the mainland, each with different accents and dietary habits.
"They were happy and cheerful when talking about their hometowns, but they became silent when speaking about their parents because they missed home so much," Liu said.
Liu especially recalled that during reunion holidays, like Spring Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival, the veterans felt the strongest longing for home. On Tomb Sweeping Day, they would face in the direction of their hometowns and pay their respects to their parents from afar.
"I have seen several of them crying because of homesickness," he said. "I was like a son to them. When veterans passed away, I accompanied them on their final journey."
In 2003, a veteran in his 90s found Liu and asked: "Would you please bring me back to my hometown and bury me near my parents' grave when I die? Let me fulfill my filial duty and be reunited with my parents."
Liu agreed to the old man's request, and he has been bringing veterans back home since then. During the journeys to their hometowns, he always buys a ticket for the departed soul. He keeps their ashes in a red cloth because the color red symbolizes a joyous homecoming. The ashes are placed in a red backpack he always wears on the chest as a sign of respect.
"I always tell them which flight we are taking and which bus we will ride. Once we are underway, I always remind them to stay close to me because we are heading home," he said.
Gradually, people on mainland began turning to Liu to help find their fathers in Taiwan who had not been heard from for decades. Many third-generation descendants of the soldiers have asked Liu to fulfill their elderly parents' wish to find their grandfathers in Taiwan and bring them back.
Two years ago, a 72-year-old man from Beijing sought Liu's help to search for his father, in order to fulfill his mother's dying wish to be buried alongside her long-lost husband.
The correspondence between the veteran and his wife in Beijing had ceased in 1987. Shortly before that, he had promised his family that he would quickly return to mainland as soon as it was possible.
In April, Liu finally located the veteran's grave in central Taiwan. Sadly, he had been killed in a car accident there just before he could fulfill his promise to return. For over thirty years, his family in Beijing had been tirelessly searching for him.
The 72-year-old son was overcome with emotion when he learned that his father had been found. Liu still remembered the man's excitement over the phone and that he said, "You have fulfilled my lifelong wish and my mother's final wish."
The son sent a photograph of his mother to Liu and requested that it be printed and placed on the veteran's tombstone, allowing them to symbolically reunite. He also promised to bring his father's remains back to their hometown.
For over half a century, such reunion stories have been made possible by Liu's persistence. But finding veterans' burial sites has not been an easy task.
Liu has visited cemeteries around Taiwan and checked about 100,000 tombs. He has gone to unattended graves overgrown with weeds, and checked in temples where ashes were kept.
In some cases, only a client on the mainland knew of a veteran's presence in Taiwan. The searches would normally take a year or more.
Over time, Liu has built his own database. Whenever he goes out to search, he takes photos of the tombstones and documents the information of the deceased veterans. Their birthplaces and dates are usually carved on the stones.
When he has new clients, he first sifts through his database. Liu has information filed on over 6,000 veterans and has helped many people on the mainland and in Taiwan to reconnect. In recent years, Liu has also made use of the mainland social media platforms to share information on veterans he has uncovered so as to help more of them to be reconnected with their mainland families.
Liu said that each time he completed a trip, it deeply touched his heart and that this is an enduring motivation to remain dedicated to his cause.
In one instance, a 90-year-old man from Shandong province entrusted him to find his long-lost brother, the dying wish of his parents. When Liu appeared with the brother's ashes, the old man fell to his knees and wept uncontrollably.
"It was a heartbreaking scene, and I couldn't help but shed tears," Liu said.
After witnessing such scenes many times, Liu said his determination to continue the work has only grown stronger.
"Through this work, I have many relatives on the mainland. Many families of veterans consider me part of their family, and I truly feel the two sides of the Strait are one family," he said.
For the future, he feels driven by a sense of urgency, as the number of veterans and their descendants dwindles. There are only about 20 surviving veterans in the community where he lives.
This year, Liu has already planned several trips to mainland. On these occasions, he will be accompanied by a few veterans whose remains will return home with him.