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The Value of Suffering 2

Walking with God through Peril

During this period, something happened which allowed me to experience the sweetness of being with the Lord when in danger. This incident happened at the end of 1946. It was a time of utter unrest in China. The Sino-Japanese War had just concluded and everybody was hoping to catch their breath after eight years of turmoil. However, the Nationalists and the Communists were setting the stage for a civil war. We heard that in some areas, combat was already very intense. Not far from our home, north of Jiangsu Province, the New 4th Troop of the Communist army and the Nationalist army were gathering their forces. Their conflict was intensifying. Although we lived a good hundred kilometers from the combat zone and could not hear the gunfire, we heard many rumors and all kinds of news about which side was winning, and how badly the other side was losing. Everyone was frightened.

My third brother and his wife both belonged to the New 4th Troop, and we worried ourselves sick over them because at that time, the Communist army was not a good match for the Nationalist army. After a major conflict in Southern Anhui Province, the 4th Troop had to be totally regrouped after losing their commander-in-chief, Ye Ting. The army had shrunk substantially in size and it was badly equipped. If they had to engage in battle again, they would lose without question. It was precisely at this time that our worst fear was realized.

As soon as I read the letter,
I went straight to the
headmaster of our school.

In mid-December, 1946, I unexpectedly received a letter from Siyang County in Jiangsu Province. We had no relatives in Siyang. Who could the letter be from? Since the Communist and the Nationalist armies were fighting in Siyang County, I guessed that it must be news from my third brother. Hastily, I tore the envelope open and found a letter in unfamiliar but fine handwriting which suggested that it was written by a woman:

Dear Younger Sister,

I have been arrested and locked up in Siyang Detention Camp.

You know that I am innocent. Please come quickly to Siyang as soon as you receive this letter because they need a guarantor in order to release me. Please come quickly – the sooner the better.

Personally written by Sister-in-law

I received the letter in the morning. At noon, I told my family about Sister-in-law’s predicament. The whole family was both shocked and distressed. I told them that we must go and rescue my sister-in-law. I thought, God wants us to love others; we cannot stand by passively when someone is in such danger.

I went to see the Headmistress, a sister in the Lord, that very afternoon. After listening to my request for leave, she was put in a difficult situation. The end of the school term was fast approaching and the school was at its busiest. We were preparing for the finals, marking papers and writing report cards. In addition, nobody would be able to substitute for me, because we were already short-staffed. What’s more, the Headmistress was also very worried for my safety.

After some moments of deep thought, she said, “Not only can I not do without you at school, but I am also concerned about the dangerous situation you would be putting yourself in. As a young woman, how could you cross through battle lines into a war zone? Furthermore, even if you were able to rescue your sister-in-law, where would you put her up? She’s a Communist, and if the government were to find out that you’re hiding her somewhere, you would face the death penalty. We are a Christian school. As such, we should refrain from getting involved in politics.”

When she finished, I said, “Whatever she is, Communist or Nationalist, she is my sister-in-law and her life is in danger. How can I watch her die with my arms folded? I cannot let her die. I must go.”

The Headmistress frowned. “If you insist on going, what will happen to your work at school? How will we cope with the final examinations? Who will substitute for your classes?”

I was caught in a dilemma, and yet I could not let my sister-in-law die. So I replied, “I know I have put the school in a very difficult situation, but a person’s life is at stake.”

There was a long pause. Realizing that I was beyond persuasion, the Headmistress finally said, “If you insist, the consequences could be grave.”

For the sake of my sister-in-law’s life, I just had to make the decision to launch out to Siyang, whatever the cost. Upon hearing the Headmistress’ remark, I indicated immediately that if my decision to leave made me unsuitable to continue teaching, I could resign. I would not, on the other hand, abandon my sister-in-law for my own interests. The Headmistress remained silent and returned to her office.

All the brothers and sisters in church, as well as my colleagues, objected to my going. They were anxious for my safety because of the heavy fighting going on in Siyang. However, my mind was made up.

Only afterwards did I come to learn that the skirmishes between the Communist New 4th Troop and the Nationalist army had already escalated into war. The Nationalists had mobilized troops to surround several Communist forces and defeat them at the side of Hongze Lake. The Communists’ strategy was to withdraw to the North to join forces with the 8th Troop in central and southern Shandong Province. When the Nationalists discovered this plan, they were very worried. The chief commanding officer held that should the New 4th Troop manage to cross the Longhai Railway Line, the Nationalists would have “released the tiger back into the hills.” Therefore, the Xuzhou commander was ordered to block the Communists at all costs, keeping them to the southeast of the Longhai Railway Line. Thus was the ferocity and brutality of the war.

The troop that my brother and sister-in-law belonged to was aggressively pursued by the Nationalists when it was withdrawing to the north. My brother and some others managed to cross a river to avoid being encircled by the enemy, but my sister-in-law was among those who were blocked on the southern bank of the river and taken prisoner. It was fortunate that she never revealed her identity. When she was arrested, she was in civilian dress and insisted that she was only visiting her family. So she was held in a detention center, awaiting a family member to bail her out.

Alone on the Road

I made preparations to launch out to free my sister-in-law the day after I received her letter. Siyang was a good hundred kilometers away from our hometown, and transportation was suspended in many places because of the war. The only route I could take was first through Xuzhou, then through Suining and Suqian onto Siyang, which meant that I had to make a large, semi-circular detour. Most of the routes were along the provincial borders of Jiangsu, Shandong and Anhui. I did not have much money. At school, we were not paid in cash. Instead, every teacher got ten or twenty kilos of wheat every month. When I sold my ten kilos for twenty dollars, I started off. I took with me a cloth bag in which I put my Bible. You can imagine how dangerous it was for a woman in her twenties to travel alone through a battlefield at that time. All I could do was to commit everything into my omnipotent Father’s hands, praying to him to open the way for me.

I got off the train in Suzhou
into the reality of the war.

Because the war had not yet spread to the eastern part, the cross-river route of the Jinpu Railway Line was still in operation. I could therefore travel smoothly from home to Xuzhou. I did not have much money left, however, after buying my train ticket. As the train set off, I looked out the window at the bleak landscape. There was nothing but yellow mud everywhere. I wondered what my destination would be like, as I prayed to the Lord silently in my heart. I knew that he is our omnipotent Savior and would lead me, whether through tall flames or deep waters, as written in Isaiah 43:1-3.

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.”

I stepped off the train in Xuzhou into the reality of war. It was only a year ago that I had studied here, but the transformation of the city was alarming. The atmosphere in the streets was tense and somber. Most of the shops had closed down, and the few that were open were half-empty. Yet, the place was teeming with soldiers and army trucks. Since ancient times, Xuzhou had been a transportation hub for five provinces and it was known as a peaceful, yet bustling city. For the same reason, it had also been a much-fought-over military strategic point. It was now a little more than an army camp, with the Nationalists’ Central China Head Office of Bandit Control also being set up here. The very ground seemed to give off the stench of brutal killing, discouraging anyone to pass through.

I walked around the main streets, trying to inquire about how to get to Siyang. I was told that all forms of civil transportation had stopped and would not likely resume. More importantly, with war having broken out, this area had become a military zone, restricted only to authorized personnel. I trusted the Lord to prepare a way out for me. So I approached those in army uniforms to see what plans could be made.

A soldier saw me and asked, “What do you do?”

“I’m a teacher,” I replied.

“A teacher?” He looked at me again and asked, “Where are you going?”

I told him that I wanted to go to Siyang.

“Siyang?” Eyeing me suspiciously, he asked, “What for?”

I told him that I had some business to attend to. This made him even more suspicious. He began to question me. What kind of business? What was my place of origin? Where was my home? In order to gain his trust and sympathy, I told him that my eldest brother was a regiment leader in the 46th Troop of the Nationalist army. Only then did he mellow a little.

With this attitude change in him, I tried to make some requests. I asked, “Since there is no civilian transportation, can I travel with you all?”

He was a little taken aback. Perhaps he found my request a little too far-fetched. Perhaps he was struck by my determination. After some thought, he said, “It’s very dangerous. But if you’re not afraid, we can ask the Head Officer for permission.”

After arrangements had been made, I started out with them. Their troop was heading for the southern part of Siyang County and therefore would pass the town of Siyang. The army truck I was in drove out of the east gate of Xuzhou and sped on towards the southeast. It is said that this was the route by which Xiang Yu and Liu Bang fled after they lost a major battle in Xuzhou near Nine-mile Hill. Standing in the army truck, I was surrounded by somber-looking soldiers.

Shortly after leaving Xuzhou, we heard gunfire from both our right and left, increasing in intensity as we drove on. In no time, we found ourselves in the midst of the crossfire, with bullets flying overhead like swarms of locusts. It was as though there were big firecrackers going off continuously all around us.

I was terrified, and even the soldiers were nervous. I thought to myself, if I were to die here, my family would never know. And what would happen to my sister-in-law? Who would go to the detention camp to save her? I knew that at a time such as this, hardly anybody would care that a few more people had died. While bullets showered down around me, I called upon the Lord. He gradually calmed me down and helped me to believe that no matter how difficult the circumstances would be, no danger would befall me.

As the trucks drove on, a command was issued from the front line, ordering us to stop and await further orders. Our truck stopped. Later, we drove on again – and had to stop again. With many such stops along the way, it was dusk by the time we reached Siyang. Having left Xuzhou early in the morning, we had traveled for almost a whole day in the cold, without a single drop of water to drink, let alone food to eat. Yet, I continued to thank and praise the Lord. He had miraculously brought me through a forbidden area that would have been impossible for me to cross, even with wings!

As night set in, I walked along the streets of Siyang. I did not know a single soul. What worried me more was the fact that I had not even met my sister-in-law before. Guided by the address she had sent me, I finally found the place where she was detained. After studying my travel pass, the guards asked me, “What’s your relationship with Zhang Zhi?” Only then did I know that my sister-in-law was called Zhang Zhi. So I replied, “Zhang Zhi is my sister-in-law.” Then I continued, “I don’t know why she’s been detained, but she wrote to ask me to bail her out.”

“All right then,” they said. “Wait here.”

More than half an hour passed before they brought out not one, but four women. I was shocked. They all looked about the same age and were dressed in almost the same fashion. Which one was my sister-in-law? I knew that they were testing me. If I picked out the wrong person, not only would my sister-in-law be in danger but also myself. In my panic, I called upon God to help me calm down in order to get through the crisis.

As I stood there, lost in thought, suddenly one of the women exclaimed, “Sister, you’ve come!” She appeared to be very happy. My heart, too, leaped with joy. This must be my sister-in-law! How clever of her! Looking her up and down, I saw that she was about my age and very pretty. I thought to myself, what should I say?

In order to relieve the tension, I sighed and said, “Oh my! I nearly got myself killed getting here! Had I not got a ride with the army, I would never have made it, even with wings!” I pretended to be angry and scolded her, “What’s the matter with you? What on earth have you been doing, running around when it is so dangerous?”

After this, the guards cross-examined me, asking me about my province of origin, my profession, my family members, my social connections, and so on. I knew that this was a routine procedure, so I stuck to the facts. I told them that I was a teacher at a missionary-run school and that I was a Christian. To win their trust, I deliberately told them that my eldest brother was a regiment leader in the Nationalists’ 46th Troop. Only afterwards did I realize that the 46th Troop was actually stationed in the vicinity. Pulling this string was definitely conducive to obtaining my sister-in-law’s release. I also told them that I had a cousin in Xuzhou, who was also a Nationalist army officer, in order to strengthen our family’s credibility. Indeed, they became so friendly that they did not prevent me from talking to my sister-in-law. They even began asking me where I had graduated from. When I told them I had graduated from the Provincial Teachers’ College in Xuzhou in 1945, they began chatting about who was the head and who were the teachers of that college and so on.

In the course of the questioning, a young man who appeared to be an officer came in. He immediately addressed me. “You’re from the Provincial Teachers’ College? What are you doing here?” He, too, happened to be a graduate of the Provincial Teachers’ College, a year my senior. Naturally, I was overjoyed at meeting an old schoolmate. I thought, God’s planning is just amazing! This man’s arrival will be my trump card. My judgment was proven correct. The guards stopped their questioning and told me to take a rest so that they could further discuss my case. I felt a sense of relief. Upon their return, they told me to fill out some forms according to procedure. I had to document my family background and explain why I was acting as the guarantor for my sister-in-law. After two days of review, my bail request was approved.

When I received the wonderful news of my sister-in-law’s release, I was overwhelmed with thanksgiving that she had escaped death. But just as I was accompanying my sister-in-law out of the prison compound, something interesting happened. One of the soldiers said to me, “Now that we are handing her over to you, don’t you think you should thank us?”

According to Chinese custom, ‘thank’ can mean many things. Although I was young, I understood the connotation. I felt cornered because I had very little money on me. If I gave them what I had, we would have nothing for our return fare. But in order to leave with my sister-in-law as soon as possible, I could not afford to hesitate. As I gave them all my money, I cried out to God in my heart, “O Lord, I hand everything over to you. Just as you have led me all the way here, I trust you can save us and bring us safely home.”

As we left the detention center, penniless, I wondered how we would get home. All I knew was that we had to leave this place as fast as we possibly could. There was no public transportation available and we couldn’t afford to rent a private vehicle. Right then, I ran into my schoolmate from the Provincial Teachers’ College again. When I poured out my difficulties to him, he surprised me by saying, “Relax! Leave it to me. I will arrange for you to get out of here as soon as possible.”

He came looking for me early the next morning. Coincidentally, an army truck going to Xuzhou was passing through, and the driver was a good friend of his. My schoolmate urged me to get into the truck saying, “There’s no time to talk now. Just get on the truck and go home. That’s the most important thing!” It was a fine but very cold winter morning. My sister-in-law and I sat in the truck and stared at the sun-bathed city walls of Siyang. We knew that we were finally heading home.

Looking back, I recall it was an ordeal. During the fifty-kilometer journey, we had nothing to eat or drink and little clothing to keep us warm from the cold weather. We traveled home from Xuzhou lying on heaps of coal in a cargo train, chilled to the bone by whipping winds as the train rolled along. I thank God for this, however, because I know that he was training me through these hard times to prepare in me a willingness to suffer.

Everyone was overjoyed when we arrived home. Although the brothers and sisters in church complained that I had taken too much of a risk, they were happy that I had returned safely. The final exams were over and it was time to grade the papers. After helping my sister-in-law settle in, I decided to drop by the school. With my heart pounding, I walked into the schoolyard, expecting the Headmistress to show me the door. When she saw me, however, she said only one thing: “It’s high time for you to get on with the marking.”

We did not see a single soul
for a mile.

My family lived in a small city, so all our neighbors knew that we were putting up a Communist in our home. Some were worried that this secret might leak out, but my family and I were determined to protect Sister-in-law, come what may. We did not know that something was about to happen which would change our plan completely.

No sooner had I completed all my grading and student appraisals that a letter from my third brother arrived. It was brought from Tengxian, Shandong Province by a messenger who knocked at our door at night and left immediately afterwards. My brother did not know that I had already brought his wife home. In his letter, he told me to go to Siyang immediately to bail his wife out and accompany her to Tengxian. I was to contact Pastor Li Zai Dao of Tengxian church when I arrived. Pastor Li was our own pastor’s classmate in Huabei Seminary and was a responsible person. The very next day, I set off with my sister-in-law, again carrying only the cloth bag that contained my Bible.

(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church