The Journey in Discovering My Mysterious Grandfather

By Yuxin Gao

May 2020

I didn’t know my grandfather at all. Since he died several decades ago, he’s become a forbidden subject in my family. My father never wants to talk about him, so my grandfather has been a mystery to me for 23 years.

Days have become extra long and unhurried during the coronavirus outbreak. As usual, I was lying on the sofa like a couch potato for a nap in the afternoon. While I was having a dream about my grandfather, my father interrupted. I got so frustrated because I had almost seen his face, so I took courage out of my anger and asked my father the question that had haunted me for a long time.“Your father was Manchukuo police; that wasn’t something to be proud of?”I asked. He said nothing.

In 1931, Japan invaded and occupied Manchuria in northeast China. In the next year, the Japanese government created a puppet state called Manchukuo.

For Chinese, especially older people, it was a humiliating history and people who worked for Japanese were considered ignominious.

But for me, he was just my grandfather, someone I should remember.

Therefore, I turned to my aunt, my grandfather’s eldest daughter, and she started my journey to discover my mysterious grandfather.

“What he wanted was to glorify his family and support a family. He had no choice in that situation and being a police was the best way out,”my aunt said.

My grandfather was born in Tonghua, a northeastern city in Jilin Province, in 1916. He studied hard and graduated from high school at the age when young people who have just stepped into the society normally wanted to show their abilities and honor their ancestors.

After the Japanese invasion, the only jobs left for local people were low-level labor positions. So he decided to go to police school and become a police officer, which was an admirable and high-paying position at the time.

“Chinese didn’t have the strength to resist, but they had to survive in those poor days, so did your grandfather,” my father finally said.

Having learned Japanese and made progress in his career, he became Manchukuo chief of the police in his small town. As he expected, he had the ability to support his big family and his family was proud of him, and later he married his first wife, who was not my grandmother.

He thought they would live happily ever after; however, everything came crashing down overnight.

In 1945, the defeat of the Japanese led to the complete end of the Manchukuo. Four years later, the People’s Republic of China was established and the northeast returned to the embrace of the motherland. Due to his job as a Manchukuo police officer, my grandfather was regarded as a counterrevolutionary and was put into the Fushun War Criminals Management Centre, where the last emperor Puyi was also imprisoned.

He lost everything in a second. His wife divorced him, his family stayed away from him and worse, he lost who he used to be.

Getting out of prison after five years, he was given a chance by the government to work as a quarry worker to reform himself, he was told.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the words “family background’” was a political shackle that bound many young people. Those who came from landlords, rich peasants or even middle-class peasants were all barred from joining the communist party of China, being promoted into the army and at times, finding partners. No matter how good you were, if you didn’t come from a good background, you were not taken seriously.

Due to his past, my grandfather also belonged to the group of people with bad backgrounds. Not surprisingly, getting remarried was a challenge.

“No one wanted to be with him because of his background, though he was handsome and educated,” my aunt said.

With the help of friends, my grandfather bought his second wife, my grandmother, who had fled from famine from Shandong province.

When my aunt looked back, she said their marriage was full of quarrels and thought they were not happy in the relationship. “They were people from two worlds,” she said.

In 1966, Chairman Mao launched the Cultural Revolution. My grandfather’s life was broken again.

Wearing a tall white hat, he was paraded in public by the Red Guards during the day and was sent to squat in the stable to reflect during the night. “When I came home from school, I always saw people from the government asking about your grandfather’s past, which left a big impression on me,” my aunt said.

“He was a kind person, a good father, he always ate a little and saved all of the good food for us,” she added. “Your grandfather’s life fell from the sky to the earth, so he drank down his sorrows every night,” my aunt said and wiped her tears.

Life changed too fast for him and he couldn’t keep up. At the age of 68, he died of cardiovascular disease.

After his death, my grandmother burnt all the pictures and clothes of my grandfather because of superstition. Since then, the family stopped talking about him, like he never existed. He floated away with the ashes.

At the end of my investigative journey, I still wonder why my father doesn’t want to talk about my grandfather.

“Adults always like to escape,” I thought. But my right to know is important.

“I was so wayward when I was a teenager that I missed seeing him for the last time before he died,” my father finally told me, and then he cried.

Looking at my father’s sobbing back, I realized that I hadn’t put myself in his shoes.

Adults always like to escape, but it’s probably because they’re carrying much more than we think.

Possibly, we won’t talk about my grandfather anymore, but I know he’s always on our minds no matter who he used to be, just because he’s our family.


Your grandfather’s life fell from the sky to the earth, so he drank down his sorrows every night.