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A war of words

Updated: 2015-08-31 07:49
By Peng Yining (China Daily)

During World War II, a young Chinese scholar was selected to undertake a lecture tour of Britain, where he traveled the length and breadth of the country delivering speeches to packed houses, detailing the horrors of Japan's occupation of China and urging the British people to stand steadfast in the fight against Nazi Germany, as Peng Yining reports from London.

As China fought for its life during the Japanese occupation and World War II, Ye Junjian, a Chinese professor of English literature, joined the fray, but his battleground was Europe, not China, and his weapon was the spoken word, not the gun.

In 1944, Yeh Chun Chan, or Ye Junjian in pinyin, was invited by the British Ministry of Information to visit the United Kingdom and speak about China's war to help the British government's mobilization campaign in preparation for the Allied landings in Normandy.

Over the course of a year, with a small suitcase in hand, the Chinese scholar, born in a remote village in Central China's Hubei province in 1914, traveled to every part of the UK, staying with families or in hotels or bed and breakfast establishments, and delivered more than 600 public speeches.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II, and a series of memorial events have been launched, including a grand parade in Tian'anmen Square on Sept 3.

One of those events is a photographic exhibition dedicated to Ye's life and wartime work, which opened on July 20 at the University of Cambridge, where Ye researched English literature after the war. Staged in the antechapel of King's College, the exhibition is also part of the 2015 China-UK Year of Cultural Exchange.

In 1931, Ye was in high school in Shanghai when Japan invaded China's northern provinces. During the winter vacation the following year, he heard the sound of bombing and knew the Japanese were moving toward Shanghai.

"There was such thunder from the clear sky. No matter how poor and weak China was, we never thought the Japanese would forcibly occupy such a large part of Chinese territory," he wrote. "Those Japanese militarists and fascists despised the Chinese people so much."

Those reflections made him determined to fight his own, private war of words against the occupiers.

Bridging cultures

"Ye was a geographical bridge between China and the West in both directions," said Professor Alan Macfarlane, curator of the exhibition and a fellow of anthropological sciences, at the opening ceremony, which was attended by Liu Xiaoming, China's ambassador to the United Kingdom, members of Ye's family and Leszek Borysiewicz, the vice-chancellor of the university.

In an introduction to the exhibition, Macfarlane wrote that Ye brought news of China to the West, and on his return, his fluency in 12 languages, including French, Spanish, Danish and English, enabled him to take the West to China through his translations of European literary classics.

"My father never had a gun in his hands, and never stepped onto a real battlefield, but he experienced the bombings carried out by both the German and Japanese fascists and fought his battle with a pen and his words," said Ye Nianlun, Ye Junjian's son.

Ye was one of the few Chinese scholars at the time who was fluent in English, and his linguistic skills led to him being selected to tour Britain by the UK Ministry of Information.

Although he had a comfortable job teaching European literature at a university in Chongqing, the wartime capital, he packed his bags and traveled for two months, by mail boat and military plane, through Southeast Asia, India and North Africa before finally arriving in Britain.

After a week of rest, Ye began touring the UK to make speeches. His first audience was a group of volunteer firefighters and the theme of the lecture was "The life of the Chinese people at war."

Shortly after he arrived in the UK, Ye's hotel was hit by a "Doodlebug", a German V1 missile. "A loud sound woke me in the night. A corner of my hotel had collapsed," Ye wrote in his memoir. "I went back to sleep. I had no time to be scared. There was a lot of work to do the next day."

He traveled across Britain and Northern Ireland, delivering two speeches a day on average and often at different locations. He lectured at middle schools, farms, military camps, workers' associations, businesses, juvenile correction facilities, chapels and US military camps, and his audiences came from all walks of life.

Ye wrote that the British authorities didn't censor the content of his lectures, so he chose five themes: the life of the Chinese people at war; how the Chinese army overpowered the Japanese; the war efforts of intellectuals; why China would definitely win the war; and the Chinese people's hopes for the future.

"My aim was to work with the staff at the information department to encourage the British people in the fight against the fascists. To boost the confidence of the British people," he wrote in his memoir. "An impoverished country like China was still able to pin down the modernized Japanese army, so with the joint efforts of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union, we could defeat the fascists."

Although the British people knew the basic facts about China's fight against the Japanese, Ye's lectures put flesh on the bones as he described people's living conditions, the agonies and humiliations they suffered and their hopes for the future.

Resilience and unity

After a day spent lecturing, Ye used his evenings to write articles detailing China's desperate struggle in the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45), which started two years before the outbreak of World War II. They were published by the British media to boost morale, and he was frequently invited to broadcast to the nation on the BBC.

During his trip, Ye endured the same tight rationing as his hosts - only 100 grams of tea and sugar and half a kilo of meat a month. "I have one egg every week. I always save the precious egg and enjoy it on a Sunday," he wrote in his diary.

He was deeply impressed by the resilience and unity of the British government and the people in their fight against the Third Reich. While most of the mobilized men were fighting in mainland Europe and elsewhere, the women worked in munitions factories, ran the transportation system and arranged the logistics for battlefield supplies.

Ye wrote that he was deeply impressed by the humor and fearless spirit of the British forces. He told the story of how he made a speech at a military airfield and later fell into conversation with some of the pilots. They told him that one of their comrades had failed to return after a sortie and was presumed to have been killed. One of the pilots simply shrugged and commented that it was "a poor show".

In his memoir, Ye wrote that he not only spread the story of China's resistance, but also learned a great deal about the British people and their lives, thoughts and ambitions.

"I also knew the strong empathy they felt for the Chinese people," he wrote. "Several times during my speeches people helped to hand out leaflets, and they voluntarily collected donations and gave them to the British China Aid Committee. It was very moving."

On Aug 15, 1945, Ye spent the evening preparing a speech at an Edinburgh hotel. He was just about to go to bed when he heard the sound of shouting in the streets below.

"I rushed downstairs and discovered that people were singing and dancing. Suddenly they spotted me, a young Chinese man. They ran over and kissed me on the cheeks. Some people lifted me up and cheered," he wrote. "It was then I realized that Japan had surrendered and World War II was officially over."

In recognition of his contribution to the war effort, the British Council awarded Ye a fellowship to conduct research into English literature at King's College, Cambridge.

He stayed at the university for four years, before returning to China in 1949. For the next 30 years he translated a wealth of European literature, including the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. He died in 1999, at age 85.

"My father used to say: 'My whole life is about trying to make a little contribution to the mutual understanding and love between all nations', " said Ye Nianlun, his son. "He didn't leave a penny, but as one of his literary critics commented, 'Ye Junjian is a giant book, a rich treasure that has yet to be discovered'. "

Contact the writer at pengyining@chinadaily.com.cn

 A war of words

Ye Junjian signs autographs for readers in Europe in the 1940s.

 A war of words

Ye(seventh from left, second row from back) with classmates at King's College, Cambridge, in 1945. Photos Provided to China Daily

 A war of words

Professor Alan Macfarlane and China's ambassador to the United Kingdom Liu Xiaoming at the photographic exhibition dedicated to Ye Junjian's life and wartime work at the University of Cambridge.  Peng Yining / China Daily

 A war of words

Ye Junjian with his wife Yuan Yin at their home in Beijing.

 A war of words

Part of works by Ye. Photos Provided to China Daily

(China Daily 08/31/2015 page4)

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