Jul/Aug 2020  •   Fiction

Taierzhuang: A Secret History

by William Han

Artwork and photo by Baird Stiefel

Artwork and photo by Baird Stiefel

My grandfather passed away a couple of years ago at the age of one hundred and one. At the funeral, my uncle read aloud the president's message of condolences for Colonel Yan. It was customary for the president to send such messages to the families when the deceased was a veteran. Then, on a drizzly November afternoon, we buried him at the military cemetery in Taipei.

Afterward my mother went through his personal papers. It took a while for her to go through half a lifetime's worth of correspondences, of calligraphic scrolls, of diplomas and certificates and awards and commendations, which is why it was some time before she found the following letter and recognized its importance.

My grandfather almost never talked about his experiences in the war, or wars. Or at least, when he talked about them, he always did so in vague terms. "We engaged the enemy for a few days," he might say, or "my platoon lost a few men." Never a gripping narrative, never the details. We, his children and grandchildren, always figured that he couldn't bring himself to face the trauma of it all, not directly, not head on.

Grandpa was—at least by the time I knew him—the most genial of men, quick to smile and slow to anger. We his grandchildren grew up in the warm embrace of his tanned arms and callused hands. Even so, we all could only imagine what traumas he went through in 12 years of fighting in the Second World War followed by the Civil War, followed by exile from a hometown to which he would never be able to return and refuge on an island he had never known. Trauma leaves its unforgiving scars on even the kindest and gentlest of men. So we gave him space and never pressed him for the details, even when we really would have liked to hear a war story. Even as young children, my sister and I could sense we shouldn't ask too many questions, and so we never did.

But then my mother found this letter, addressed to all of us, his descendants, telling the one story—we realize now—he dared not tell in life. And, once we read it, we could all see why.


My dear children,

I wish to tell you—I wish to muster the strength to tell you—about the truth of Taierzhuang.

I sense the end coming. I can feel the spirits of a hundred generations of ancestors calling to me. That's fine. I have lived a long and full life, a life made full not least by all of you. Whatever difficulties we may have had over all these years, whatever arguments and disagreements, you must realize my life would have been immeasurably poorer without any one of you.

I cannot say I have lived a life without regrets. Some tremendous regrets there have been. You can probably name one or two. But I wish to go to my rest with as few of them as I can manage. That's why I cannot take the secret of Taierzhuang with me to the grave.

You have all heard of the Battle of Taierzhuang in 1938: the first victory that, after the better part of a year of fighting, the Republic scored against the Japanese Empire. When news of the victory reached the British and the Americans, they assumed it was false information, maybe even psy-op. The Chinese, they said, were simply too far outmatched by the Japanese to emerge victorious from any battle. But we did. I was there.

Which is not to say the Westerners didn't have good reason to doubt us. In truth, the battle didn't happen the way you have all been taught, the way the government tells it in its official accounts, the way your teachers all told you about it in school. In truth, we lied to the Americans and the British about what happened, just not in the way they thought.

But before I can tell you what really happened at Taierzhuang in March 1938, I must go back even further to the difficult years shortly after my own father's premature death.

You all know your grandfather or great-grandfather died suddenly and unexpectedly at only 40 years of age while away from home on business. And you all know that about a decade later I joined the army. But I don't believe I ever said much about the intervening years, years that, most unexpectedly, ended up becoming terribly relevant when we faced the enemy at Taierzhuang.

After my father's passing, the Yan family inevitably began sliding into poverty. To help my mother make ends meet, as her oldest child, I had to get a job. There weren't too many jobs for preteen boys at the time. But fate determined I should chance upon Master Xukong, the Daoist priest working at the time at the village temple.

I was going around asking every adult who would speak to me whether they knew of any odd jobs I could do when I happened to pass by the temple. Master Xukong just happened to be coming out, and he did a double take when he saw me. He stopped me and asked me whose child I was and why I was wandering through the village knocking on doors. When I told him I needed work, his eyes brightened. "Boy," he said, "you're in luck. I am newly in need of an assistant. I hope you don't frighten easily."

The reason he asked me if I frightened easily was Master Xukong was the local exorcist for our county. The reason he needed a new assistant was the previous one had hit puberty, or more to the point had gotten himself a girlfriend. And the reason he needed his assistant young and as yet unfamiliar with feminine charms was—sorry, kids—the urine of a virgin boy was a critical component in many important rituals—rituals which just might save an exorcist from falling prey to the very demons he meant to hunt.

The position of an exorcist's assistant was by far the best offer I had received. So I steeled myself against the prospect of facing ghosts and ghouls and accepted Master Xukong's offer. For the next few years, even as I obeyed my mother and still attended school during the day, by night I followed Master Xukong, hunting for fox demons, snake demons, and particularly the jumping corpses that used to haunt the night in the small towns and desolate countryside.

You kids have no experience with those creatures, of course. They disappeared with the advent of modernity. And, having never seen them, the younger generations are liable to dismiss them as myths and superstitions. But certainly in the imperial days they were very much around. And even in the early days of the Republic, when I was a child, when the new slogan was "Democracy and Science," these pre-scientific beings were still very much with us.

Steamships and railways, telegraphs and electricity—these modern trappings had come. The ships troubled the seas once ruled by dragons, the railways and telegraph lines carved up the landscape and disturbed the fengshui, and electricity lit up the night where creatures of darkness once roamed. Bit by bit, the old magical zoology was coming to an end—but not quite yet. The ancient powers, autochthonous to this country, would not die so easily. The creatures' numbers were dwindling as the old magic leaked out like air from a balloon. But there were still enough of them, at least, for local farmers and county magistrates now and then to hire and pay the Daoist priest and his boy assistant.

Those were sleep-deprived days for me. But I learned a great deal. Master Xukong never meant to take me on properly as his apprentice. But by having me assist him through all of our nocturnal hunts, he necessarily had to show me what to do. And, being a loquacious man, Master Xukong was happy to explain the principles and ideas behind his spells and traps as soon as I asked. From him I learned how to sniff out a fox demon, the subtle difference in her scent as compared to a real woman. I learned the incantations handed down from Laozi himself to drain the power of a snake demon. But most of all I learned how to deal with jumping corpses, those of the dead whose souls had pass on but whose bodies had grown stiff but not rotten in the ground, who burst out of their coffins on moonlit nights and hopped around looking for living victims, into whose necks they would jab their poisoned fingers. They were, for a time, a particular pest in our part of the country.

I learned how the mirror marked with the trigrams of the I-Ching could hold them back. I learned how they were impervious to weapons made from metal but were vulnerable to swords carved from mahogany. And I even learned how a skilled exorcist could use spells written on paper, pasted onto the foreheads of the jumping corpses, to control their movements: to bring them to a stop when they threatened the living, and to march them into the holy fire at the temple to bring them to their end. Master Xukong even allowed me to study his grimoire, a precious compendium passed down by the great Master Chongyang of the Song Dynasty, impressed both that I understood classical Chinese well enough to read it and that I took enough interest even to try.

Those were memorable days. Of course I had to lie to my mother: I told her I only performed janitorial duties at the temple. If she actually knew about my nocturnal adventures going up against demons and the undead, I'm sure she would have grounded me for the remainder of my childhood. And, honestly, a couple of times I only very narrowly escaped the deadly grasps of the jumping corpses. Today, Master Xukong would be prosecuted for child endangerment. At the time, I greatly enjoyed spending time with a mentor who helped fill the lacuna left in my life by my father's passing. As it transpired, I got my adventures, brought home the money, and received an education in the supernatural all at the same time. Not a bad deal.

But before I knew it, my voice began to crack, and I started to grow hair on my chin and in my armpits and elsewhere. Not to mention I had grown a foot taller than when I started working for Master Xukong. My exorcist employer looked at me sadly one night and broke it to me that, though I had been the best boy assistant he had ever had, I was no long quite a boy, and soon enough young ladies would come into my life. As had happened with my predecessor, it was now time for him to look for my successor.

Only later would I learn that the business of exorcism was starting to dry up anyway, and Master Xukong was less and less able to afford an assistant. He never did hire anyone to replace me. In fact, I never found out what happened to him in the end, whether he lived to see the wars, whether he survived them.

I left Master Xukong's service with great regret and turned my focus on my formal schooling. Now that I was able to sit through classes without dozing off, my grades improved dramatically. By the time I graduated from high school—a relative rarity already in those days—Japan had already occupied Manchuria, a prelude to the full-scale war ultimately to come. Maybe a small part of me missed the adventures I used to go on with Master Xukong, but at the time I really just felt that an able-bodied young man ought to serve his country in her time of need—we weren't as sophisticated as you all are now, knowing to be skeptical about government propaganda. We were innocents who believed whatever the posters said. I applied to the Central Military Academy and was accepted as a cadet. I left home to train to become a soldier.

As chance would have it, I graduated shortly before the war started in earnest. So in March, 1938, I was a freshly commissioned second lieutenant under the command of the famous General Bai, "half a Sunzi," as they used to call him.

I admired General Bai greatly, as did almost all of us. And, like everyone else, I knew about our famous leader only all of the facts but none of the truth.

I knew he was born in the final years of the empire in the complex ethnic stew in the southwestern corner of the country. Considered something of a backwater, it was an unlikely place for a great hero of the Republic to come from. In fact, for a brief period, "the Southwestern Faction" of military officers had challenged the authority of the central government, until the Southwest and the Center reached accommodation.

Bai was a leading figure in the Southwestern Faction. Growing up, he had no intention of becoming a soldier. But then the republican revolution happened when he was a teenager. When he threw himself into the revolution, he showed such natural military instincts, he quickly rose through the ranks of the Revolutionary Army, particularly in the fight against the warlords.

He was a man familiar with being on the outside, both because of the Southwest's backward reputation and because he was a devout Muslim. Centuries ago, during the Mongol era, the Bai clan had converted to Islam, and they never looked back. Indeed, the general sometimes went by his Arabic name, Omar. Muslims were rare, though, in the Army of the Republic. And it was the sort of religious background that often attracted discrimination from other officers. General Bai used to joke that he kept earning promotions because he wanted to make sure he outranked whomever would make light of his religion.

As a further contradiction, his beloved southwestern homeland was rife with the sort of pagan idolatry for which Allah was supposed to have no patience. The tribal peoples of the Southwest had rich and varied traditions of black magic, divination, and necromancy distinct from the rest of the country. So, as I came to learn, General Bai was a man intimately familiar with the voodoo of the hinterlands, whose faith at the same time told him not to credit any of it.

Because we admired him, we wanted to trust him and to follow him wherever he would lead us. Even so, we couldn't help but suffer pangs of doubt when we marched toward Taierzhuang. General Bai spoke of launching a counterattack to put the enemy on his heels and shatter his confidence. The problem was, though, the Japanese were so overwhelmingly superior to us in training and firepower that in the eight months of war thus far, we had lost every single engagement we had fought against them. They had tanks; we barely had bullets. We still carried broadswords like troops from imperial days, not out of some nostalgia but because the steel coming out of our foundries was too poor to forge bayonets.

And some of our defeats had been catastrophic, like when Nanjing fell and the massacre ensued. After so many defeats, it was growing difficult to accept the role of cannon fodder all the time. Counterattack? That would be like throwing eggs against rocks. Most officers were quite proud of themselves if they only stood their ground for a respectable interval before retreating with their lives. We wanted to believe in our hero, the valiant General Bai, but as we marched, the rank-and-file men couldn't help but whisper words of doubt among themselves.

As we were setting up our defensive line south of the Japanese positions in Taierzhuang, Major Liu, my company commander, passed down the order. "Hey, Yan," he said to me, "General Bai wants to see you at division HQ." Liu was an uptight man lacking in humor as well as imagination, but he always did his duty.

"Excuse me?" I felt certain I had not heard correctly. I was a mere second lieutenant, as junior as an officer could get. And I wasn't a staff officer but a platoon leader on the frontline. There was no conceivable reason a three-star general should ask for me by name.

"Artillery burst your eardrums?" Liu said a little roughly, no doubt also puzzling over why the general wanted to see me. "Division HQ, now." I allowed myself a hurried minute to straighten my uniform and to comb my hair before making my way over.

Compounding my surprise and further straining my nerves, upon my arrival, General Bai asked his secretary and other staff to leave us, so that he and I could speak in private. After we exchanged salutes, he told me to take a seat. I had never seen the general from this up close before. Now I couldn't help but study him surreptitiously. His face, which in public always seemed such a perfect image of granite-like resolve and authority, in private allowed itself to show the weary bags under the eyes and the wary lines around them.

"I read your file, Lieutenant," General Bai said in a gentle tone that told me that he wanted to put me at ease. "Something in it piqued my interest: you once worked as an exorcist?"

I blushed despite his effort to make me comfortable. I had no idea my part-time job as a child would make it into my army personnel file. Though I had youth as my excuse, in a time when our entire country craved airplanes and machine guns and other modern devices to help us stand up to a highly modernized enemy, to be associated with the folk beliefs of earlier generations could be an embarrassment. For that reason, I had never talked about it with my comrades. I suppose it is also partly why I never told you about it.

"Not an exorcist," I replied after a moment's hesitation, "only the exorcist's assistant." There was no point pretending otherwise if it was already in my file. "I was young. And I was looking for work. The priest needed a young boy to assist him."

"The piss of the virgin boy," General Bai nodded knowingly, surprising me with his knowledge about the occult. My face must have turned another shade redder. "What kind of creatures did you hunt?"

"Your standard menagerie of demons: fox demons, rat demons, snake demons... and jumping corpses, of course."

General Bai's eyes brightened. "Did you only assist your master, or did you learn the tricks of the trade yourself?"

"Master Xukong was a kind boss and a generous teacher," I said. "He taught me the spells and rituals as I helped him in performing them."

"Do you still remember how to deal with jumping corpses?" General Bai's eyes were intently focused on mine now, so sharp as to almost drill holes through my skull. The way he looked at me told me the importance of this question and, in turn, my answer. I must neither exaggerate my own abilities nor allow myself any false modesty.

"Yes," I said, "I still remember." But why did he want to know?

General Bai relaxed a little and settled back in his chair. "Good," he said simply.

"Permission to speak plainly, sir."

"Go ahead."

"What is this about?" I asked gingerly. "Am I being disciplined for something?"

General Bai smiled with what seemed like mild but genuine amusement. "No, Lieutenant, you're not being disciplined."

"Then why am I here?"

"You are familiar, no doubt," he said, "with the story of the great General Tian Dan and his Fire Oxen Formation."

Of course I was. The Fire Oxen Formation was in the Academy's textbook for history of warfare, a required course for all cadets. Long ago during the Warring States period, when China was divided into seven kingdoms, Tian led the army of one kingdom against another. In one crucial battle, he brought hundreds of oxen onto the field, tied bundles of hay to their tails, and then lit them on fire. The crazed oxen charged headlong into the enemy lines, serving as Tian's shock troops and decimating the opposing army.

Mention of the Fire Oxen Formation gave me a pretty good hint of what General Bai had in mind. Even so, I couldn't quite believe he was proposing it until he explained my role in no uncertain terms. That was when I understood, truly understood: Bai was like a deep and dark well you could look down without ever seeing the bottom.

A few nights later, when the moon was full and yet obscured by thick clouds, my company under Major Liu climbed up a hill just outside Taierzhuang. Under strict order of silence and stealth, none of the men said anything as they hiked. The only sounds in our ears were the shuffling of our feet and the panting of our breaths. The path up the hill was overgrown and never meant for human traffic, so in the darkness some of us inevitably stumbled. We helped each other steady ourselves without saying a word. A rifle was strapped over one shoulder of each man, and over the other he carried a shovel like an ancient Roman legionnaire.

My comrades were no less surprised by the briefing they received than I had been when the general told me his plan. Coming from anyone else, even the mere notion of what we were about to do would have been dismissed as utterly preposterous. But General Bai had enough credibility with the men that they did as they were told, albeit skeptically. Major Liu in particular couldn't hide his annoyance at having been reduced to essentially supporting me, who was supposed to be his underling. But he, too, carried out his duty.

The hill we had hiked up had been used in imperial days as a luanzanggang, an unplanned cemetery where local families buried their dead anywhere where they could find a patch of earth not already occupied by a coffin. By speaking with elders from nearby villages, General Bai had learned that the hill became a popular area for interment when the villagers realized that some peculiar property in its soil tended to preserve the bodies from corruption. Even now, dead bodies from as far back as the Kangxi era lay almost perfectly preserved just beneath the topsoil. The locals stopped adding residents to this necropolis only when there was no more space.

Now my comrades, with the shovels they brought, began to dig up the dead. I had written up hundreds of copies of the control spell for jumping corpses and handed them out. As soon as my fellow soldiers pried open a casket, they stuck one copy onto the corpse's forehead. Meanwhile, at the top of the hill, I set up my ritual platform with the help of the youngest few soldiers in our company. It was common during the war for clearly underage boys to lie about their age to enlist and for the army not to care, so these boys still could have qualified to be Master Xukong's assistant. A few days ago, we had found a mahogany bed in an abandoned farmhouse, and the carpenter in the company had carved from it a wooden sword for my use. When the time was right, I ascended the ritual platform painted with trigrams and began my incantations.

For a moment, I doubted myself. It had been years since I'd commanded a corpse. And when I worked under Master Xukong, I only ever commanded one corpse at a time, and always with the purpose of stopping it, not urging it on. Was I really sure I remembered all the spells correctly? Was I sure I could command the dead to move as well as to stop? Was I sure I could do it with so many? Was I sure there was still enough of the old magic in this country ravaged by modern bombs for me to conjure? The truth was I couldn't be sure of any of these. But I had promised my general and my hero I would try my best. And a short distance away, on the other side of the Japanese encampments, General Bai was counting on me and waiting for Major Liu's signal.

I wore the robe of a Daoist priest over my khaki uniform. Now I stood at the center of the platform and waved the mahogany sword according to the patterns Master Xukong had once taught me. And I chanted Master Chongyang's incantations passed down from 800 years ago. My comrades, who had formed up behind the ritual platform with their rifles ready, watched with a combination of fascination and skepticism.

For a moment, nothing happened. I controlled myself and held my self-doubt at bay. Master Xukong always said, the key to spells was faith. If you didn't even believe in your own power, then the dead would not answer your call, and the demons would laugh at your feeble efforts. And General Bai, when he gave me my orders, had patted me on the shoulder like the father I had lost and reassured me I could do what he asked of me, if I would only believe in myself. I tried to picture both of their faces now, kind and paternal mentors both. I would not fail them.

Throwing caution to the wind and ignoring the standing order for stealth, I raised my voice and repeated the incantations with all the conviction I could muster, with all the unquestioning patriotism that had led me to volunteer to serve in uniform just when my country seemed on the brink of war. And silently in my mind, I prayed to the great gods of the Daoist pantheon:

Hear me, O Lord Guan, the God of War, and protect your disciples in arms who now seek to stand firm against overwhelming odds as you once did, to face their fate with a small fraction of your valor. Hear me, O Black Goddess of the Nine Realms, and let your magic flow through me once more, unworthy as I am, as you allowed it to flow through generations of your loyal priests before me who defended the living against the demons of the dark. Hear me, O Jade Emperor of the Empyrean, and guide me through this night, as your brightest stars across the Milky Way guide wave-tossed sailors at sea into safe harbors and the warm embrace of their families.

I heard my comrades' cries of shock before I saw the movements of the dead with my own eyes. One by one, stiff as popsicles, hundreds of the unnaturally well-preserved corpses buried on this hill leaped up and stuck out their arms. Without blood flow, their faces were pale as snow, their lips gray and purple. Their eyes were open, but there were no souls behind the pupils. They belonged in the valley of shadows between the realm of the dead and that of the living. In their uncanny resemblance of and ghastly division from both, they were a most troubling vision.

And they had arisen not a moment too soon. My loud chanting had attracted the attention of the Japanese sentries. Now we could see them turning the lights on us and hear them loading their weapons, getting ready to fire. I ordered my army of the undead to face the Japanese. Then, with one final wave of the mahogany sword, I urged them forward. Initially only a few of the corpses obeyed. But then more began to jump, and still more, until all of the undead did as I commanded and hopped stiffly toward the Japanese lines.

In the ensuing hours, I felt sorry for the invaders for the first time since the war began. The Japanese soldiers had no idea what hit them. The aspects of the jumping corpses were an image of blood-curdling horror and nothing the Japanese Imperial Army had ever trained their troops to face. The enemy soldiers shot the jumping corpses and stabbed them with their bayonets, but to no effect. Meanwhile, the undead went for their throats with their blood-poisoned hands. And from behind this vanguard of animate corpses, my comrades fired gleefully at the panicked Japanese, picking them off one by one. Hundreds of them fell, and hundreds more ran in terror as the jumping corpses pursued them into town.

Major Liu fired the signal flare into the night sky. From the western edge of Taierzhuang, General Bai led the remaining units of our division into combat. The rest, as they say, is history.

Strategically, Taierzhuang was not a major battle. But its psychological effect on our troops was enormous. Government propaganda offices went to work in earnest, supported by civilian newsmen who were no less eager to promote the legend of the "Grand Victory at Taierzhuang." The pamphlets and posters flew off the printing presses. Outsized headlines on newspaper special editions screamed in black ink. We had broken our losing streak. We had proven to ourselves as well as to the Western powers that victory was possible even against an enemy of such overwhelming superiority. It soon became for us what Trafalgar was to the British and Lexington and Concord were to the Americans: a symbol and a rallying cry.

And all of the officers involved in the Taierzhuang campaign were suitably rewarded for their roles. Major Liu became a lieutenant colonel. I received promotion to first lieutenant as well as a medal for conspicuous valor. And General Bai earned his fourth star. By the time of the Civil War, he would be appointed Minister of Defense.

The rest, as they say, is history. Except it is a false history. The British and the Americans already had trouble believing we won; the government wasn't going to tell them we won by conjuring up a battalion of the undead. The Westerners already thought of us as a hopelessly benighted, superstitious, and backward people. And the new Republic was supposed to be the opposite of all of that—it was meant to represent progress, science, enlightenment, and modernity. If any of us breathed a word about "jumping corpses" to the Western officials or the international press, they surely would have laughed until they cracked a rib and then written us off as incapable of advancement and unworthy of their help.

So we agreed: from General Bai down to the lowliest boy private who helped to build my ritual platform, we swore ourselves to secrecy. The official line was that the victory at Taierzhuang was due to precisely two factors: General Bai's tactical brilliance and the ardent fire burning in the heart of every patriotic soldier under his command. After the battle, we tracked down all the jumping corpses. They ceased to move once the light of day hit them, and we reburied them in their proper places upon that nameless hill. Now no one needed to know. Neither did we need to worry about the surviving Japanese soldiers. If any of them were to report the truth to their leaders, they would have been dismissed as insane or disciplined for cowardice.

But there was another reason we made our secret pact. Jumping corpses were monsters, foul creatures of the night. When I worked under Master Xukong, no one ever paid us to raise them, only to put them down. What I did on that ritual platform that night, what all my comrades helped me do, went against everything an exorcist's art was about. What we did was unnatural. There was no provision in the penal code of the Republic against raising the dead. But none of us felt much doubt that, in a deeper and older sense than the law, what we did was a crime. We justified our actions by reminding ourselves we only unleashed the dead upon enemy invaders. We did what we did in defense of our homeland. Even so, though we took pride in our victory, none of us felt any glory in the specific way in which we had achieved it. We had succeeded only through moral compromise.

And as far as I know, for the remaining seven years of the war or later in the Civil War, no one ever repeated General Bai's "Jumping Corpses Formation" ever again. Indeed, as far as I could intuit as the former exorcist's apprentice, the dead no longer rose in China. There were no more jumping corpses. I never again tried to command a dead body to rise. But I was certain if I'd tried, no matter how hard, no matter which spells from Master Chongyang's grimoire I used, I would not have succeeded.

It was as though the old country used up its last reserve of dark magic at Taierzhuang, all it still had left after the onslaught of railroads and power grids, of tanks and airplanes. And yet perhaps it was enough. The incredible news out of Taierzhuang restored the faith of our people. Before, many were on the verge of losing hope and giving up. Now they carried on the struggle for another seven long years, relentless and unwavering, prepared to sacrifice themselves now that they could believe that the sacrifice was not for nothing.

Until the American bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And victory came.

I like to picture the country as an ancient and maternal creature, the dragon of our folklore. On a cloudy night on a desolate hill dotted with tombstones, she gave up her last ounce of magic for the sake of her children, to give them courage. She breathed her last so we might survive.