Chou Wen-chung

My Early Years in China

By Professor Chou Wen-chung (continued)

7. Escape from Shanghai: A Nightmare

By the last year of high school, I came close to settling on music as a career. But, in the end, family and social pressure (“patriotism” during the Japanese invasion), as well as, but not the least, my realization that it would not be possible for me to have the kind of music education I thought I needed, caused me to decide to study architecture at St. John’s University (the only college in Shanghai that offered this discipline). I chose architecture as a compromise between art and science, largely influenced by John Ruskin’s comment on architecture as “frozen music.”

But within a semester, by the end of 1941, I left Shanghai around the turn of 1942, almost immediately after the Japanese occupation of the International Concession following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I escaped to the seaport of Sanmen in Zhejiang (Chekiang) Province by running a Japanese naval blockade on an armed junk from Zhoushan Island. Traveling with a group of young people (cousins and family friends), we pretended to be peasant refugees returning to our village on the island, armed with fake papers and having memorized all that a local resident was expected to know. The result was, however, nearly disastrous with traumatic episodes. The most harrowing moment was when we were discovered but managed to hide ourselves in time, amidst a wedding festivity! We then became the captive audience of the screams of innocent men and women caught by Japanese soldiers in our stead. After the victims were taken away to the Japanese camp nearby, we dashed to our waiting junk in the darkness of a moonless night. Then, as the junk moved out of its mooring, a volley of gunfire shattered the silence of the dark night. We were mortified as we knew we were the intended victims. We then felt deeply remorseful for having caused others to die on our behalf. These thoughts, I am sure, continued to haunt some of us in nightmares.

Twenty-two years later, I composed And the Fallen Petals in memory of the young who died in that war. But [sic] its emotive origin, as well as that of Windswept Peaks, was never far from such tragic remembrances as this.

From Sanmen, we trekked across the historic Tientai Mountain range to avoid the advancing Japanese army. On the way, I relished chatting with peasants and monks who were still steeped in their centuries-old heritage which was then already declining in the cities. There were moments of inspiration during our climb over the mountain. We saw calligraphy, carved many centuries ago, on the rocks and heard temple bells ringing through the air from other mountain peaks. As we emerged above the clouds, seeing only peaks and pine trees piercing through the clouds, wind currents deflected by the mountain peaks came at us from all different directions creating a particularly spectacular effect. At that moment, I understood Chinese aesthetics by experiencing it physically! Then we headed northwest towards the main highway to hitchhike, and became mired in a jungle of tanks, artillery and troops moving east to the front. Trucks and refugees on foot headed west for safety — a desperate scenario stretching beyond our sight and imagination. Fortunately, as must have been on everyone’s mind, the Japanese air force apparently was busy elsewhere!

8. A Garden in Guilin: Between Violence and Poetry

We finally hitchhiked all the way to Leiyang, in Hunan Province, where I met my father after four years in the war. I then went on to Guilin (Kweilin) in Guangxi (Kwangsi) Province, where I was assigned by the government to the National Guangxi University. My schoolmates were mostly refugees like myself or of indigenous ethnicity.

I attended Guangxi University, 1942-44, where we endured nightly air raids whenever the weather was clear. The campus turned out to be a famous garden estate with a long history, the beauty of which ultimately inspired me to return to the study of music. I discovered the wonderful library mentioned above, and spent most of my time there educating myself in western [sic] culture. While we studied hard during the day, including military training, we frequently had to skip sleep at night whenever the moon was out because of sustained air raids. We had to learn to care for the wounded and remove the dead, as strafing of classrooms, dining areas, open fields and school buses was fairly commonplace.

There was neither time nor the ambiance for practicing the violin or anything else musical — my own violin had been damaged by curious classmates. But, surprisingly, I did try to compose in my own primitive way without any help or tools. Equally surprising, at a remote outpost of the American YMCA, in the midst of fantastically shaped mountains, I not only heard recorded music, but modern music at that! I remember Walter Piston and Ernest Bloch among others. Beauty is where one finds it. There was a brook winding through the beautiful garden campus, with a little bridge strategically placed. Sitting on its banister, I could watch — and often did — the changing colors in the sky at twilight. This poetry of tranquility soon joined with the remembrances of brutality to urge me to reconsider my resolve to forsake an artistic calling in favor of a practical profession.

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