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Heartfelt letters tell of hope of family reunions

Updated: Dec 26, 2023 By ZHANG YI in Zhangzhou, Fujian, SHI XUEFAN and HU MEIDONG in Quanzhou, Fujian China Daily Print
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A photo from an exhibit at the China Museum for Fujian-Taiwan Kinship in Quanzhou, Fujian, shows a man offering a ghostwriting service to a client in Fujian. [Photo provided to China Daily]

The well-known poem Nostalgia, penned by the late writer Yu Guangzhong 50 years ago, expresses the aching separation felt by a generation of homesick Chinese who lived in Taiwan, and it still resonates with people on both sides of the Strait.

It starts with the line, "When I was young, nostalgia was a tiny stamp" to symbolize the distance between him and his mother.

Yu grew up on the Chinese mainland and moved to Taiwan in 1950 at a young age. He couldn't return till decades later.

As the poem says, writing letters was a way for separated families to express their longing and ease their emotional pain. In recent years, museums and archives have started collecting and preserving these letters to document the stories of individual families.

Waves of people from Fujian, the closest mainland province to Taiwan, have migrated to Taiwan throughout history, leaving a paper trail of letters, photos and tickets about their travel and resettlement.

Shen Fushan, deputy director of Dongshan County Archives in Zhangzhou, in Fujian's south, said about 400 letters have been collected in the county since 2018, with many written by veterans in Taiwan.

The coastal county of Dongshan has had a long history of interaction with Taiwan. In 1950, when Chinese Kuomintang troops retreated to Taiwan they passed through the county. Thousands of able-bodied men were captured, forced to join the Kuomintang troops and taken to Taiwan. Most of the men who left wives and children behind in Dongshan wrote letters to them.

"Many families kept these letters and behind each one there is a touching cross-Strait family story," Shen said.

The 54-year-old remembers that when he was a child, his uncle, who was taken to Taiwan by the troops, would write to them.

From 1950 to the end of the 1980s, when communication was largely prohibited between the two sides, these letters had to be sent to a third destination, usually a Southeast Asian country, first. Acquaintances were entrusted to change the details written on the envelopes or put the letter in another envelope to hide the sender's information, before sending the letter to the mainland, Shen said.

"It could take up to six months for a letter to reach (the mainland), and some never arrived," he said, "These letters were particularly precious especially when communication across the Strait was prohibited."

He said the contents of the letters usually informed the family that they were alive and in Taiwan, and that they missed them. "Because at that time the two sides were still hostile to each other, these letters mostly avoided discussing too many personal details," Shen said.

Relatives of Li Lanfeng, who was taken to Taiwan, donate letters she wrote to her family to the China Museum for Fujian-Taiwan Kinship in 2020. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Sincerity, regret

In 2018, the Dongshan Archives received a letter donated by a local resident who was about to pass away.

The letter written by his father, who was a veteran, had been cherished by his late mother.

After being taken to Taiwan, Shen Mingchuan started a new family but he missed his family in Dongshan. In 1975, when he was elderly, he wrote a letter to his first wife and entrusted his relatives in Singapore to get it to the Chinese mainland.

Shen wrote: "Dear wife, we have been separated for a long time, and I miss you … I haven't fulfilled my responsibility of supporting the family, but I am grateful for your hard work and dedication in raising our son to adulthood."

He told his wife that he had a small business in Taiwan and was barely making a living. Due to the decadeslong separation between the two sides, he felt there was no hope of returning home. As a result, he had started a new family in Taiwan and had children, he revealed to her.

"Though full of regret, the husband wrote with great sincerity. It was filled with nostalgia and a great sense of guilt toward his wife," said Shen Fushan, deputy director of the archives.

Another letter sent from Taiwan took 43 years to arrive. Before veteran Yan Luoguo passed away in 1976 in Taiwan, he entrusted a fellow villager with a letter to his family in Dongshan. The letter contained a passbook with an amount of 18,000 yuan and a ring. Yan requested that his remains be returned home in the future.

However, due to the situation at the time, his friend was unable to return to the mainland and deliver the letter.

After this friend passed away, the letter was passed on to various family members. After many twists and turns, the letter finally reached Yan's descendants in Dongshan in 2018. They followed the request in the letter and Yan's ashes were taken back to his hometown the same year.

A family letter is exhibited at the museum. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Keeping posted

More letters were sent after postal communication between the two sides was allowed in 1988. Separated families were eager to inquire about the well-being of their relatives across the Strait, search for missing loved ones, and seek information on the procedures for returning home.

From April 1988 to August 1992, over 40,000 items of mail passed between the two sides on a daily basis, statistics show. However, these letters were scattered among people, and experts in Fujian have been calling for their urgent rescue and preservation.

The collation and research of these documents have been included in the 14th Five-Year Plan of Fujian from 2021 to 2025.

Last year, several provincial departments jointly issued a notice to collect them.

In 2020, the China Museum for Fujian-Taiwan Kinship, located in Quanzhou, southern Fujian, established a team to collect these family letters from the Chinese mainland and Taiwan. They have so far gathered 3,200 letters. In May, the museum launched an exhibit showcasing the letters that has attracted a stream of visitors from both sides.

One envelope tells the story of a cross-Strait family reestablishing contact through the letters.

Li Lanfeng, a native of Nanping, Fujian, was separated from her family when she was young and later adopted and taken to Taiwan.

In her first letter to her younger brother in Fujian in 1988, she wrote, "It's not a dream, it's real, it's real!" From 1988 to 2001, she sent her brother one telegram and 14 family letters, recalling the process of her separation and expressing her longing to see her family.

However, due to the onset of Alzheimer's, her connection with her hometown was once again severed. Her son discovered the letters his mother had kept and dialed a phone number written on one envelope, and the broken family link was once again restored.

Zhang Xiao, a museum staff member recalled when Li's letters were donated. "It was very touching. Her relatives from Fujian said the letters were memories of their elder sister. We all cried," Zhang said.

Tu Zhiwei, deputy director of the Southern Fujian Culture Research Association, said through countless real stories of ordinary individuals, the letters document the intimate interactions between people on both sides of the Strait.

"They are precious historical documents that serve as powerful evidence of the familial bonds between the two sides, and bear witness that the two sides belong to one China," he said.

These family letters will help younger generations on both sides recognize their shared roots, encourage more communication, and connect the new generation in Taiwan with their ancestral homeland, he added.

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