Yang Youfu was 24 years old when he was drafted from his village in southwest China’s Sichuan province to fight in the war against Japan, leaving his one-year old son behind. They didn’t meet again until this month, when his baby boy had become an old man of 73 and he himself nearly a centenarian.
“Bring my grandson next time,” Yang Youfu, 96, told his son, Yang Yunqing, when he came to visit, according to the Chinese paper Huaxi Dushibao. It had been more than seven decades since they had last seen each other, even though they had only lived a few hundred miles apart.
Yang Youfu had been unceremoniously recruited by the Chinese army in early 1942, at a time when he was only halfway done building a new home for his wife and his one-year-old son. The destination was the Burma front, where China and its new western Allies were fighting a desperate battle to stem advancing Japanese troops that threatened to pour into India.
Along with other new recruits, he was marched through the forest-covered and often road-less wilderness of southwest China, crossing from Sichuan into the province of Yunnan, before finally entering Burma. It was summer when he reached the battlefield, where he was attached to a communication unit.
Battlefield conditions were fluid in Burma, and the frontline was often not clear. It wasn’t unusual for enemy troops to accidentally meet, with deadly consequences. Once it happened to Yang. While walking through the jungle on his own, he suddenly saw a Japanese soldier in front of him. A fierce hand-to-hand fight ensued. Yang prevailed. “If I hadn’t killed him, I would have been dead,” Yang told the Chinese newspaper.
In 1944, Yang returned to China and settled down in a remote mountain village in Yunnan province. He married twice and lived in deep poverty for many years, surviving on farming and bamboo-weaving skills learned as a young man. But his family eventually became the biggest in his village, comprising four generations and 50 people.
Meanwhile, he was aware that he had a son in neighboring Sichuan province. They exchanged a few letters, but he never went to see him, because he was too poor to pay for the trip.
Not until this month did they actually meet face to face, when his son traveled from Sichuan to Yunnan to see his old father. Huaxi Dushibao reports that they initially couldn’t even communicate. Yang Youfu had forgotten his old Sichuan dialect and instead spoke the Yunnanese of his adopted home of the past more than 70 years. Instead they relied on gestures, until a villager turned up and helped with the translation.
Then it was time to part. The two old men knew they would probably never see each other again. Would you like to go back, a journalist asked Yang Youfu. “I can’t,” the 96-year-old replied, pausing, and then adding: “I do remember what my old village was like. It could be fun to go back and have a look.”