I am chipping away at a family memoir about my grandfather, a Chinese man who spied for the Soviet Union during the Cold War. From Bolshevik memoirs to leaked Soviet intelligence documents, I piece together what is known about his life.
Below, is an excerpt.
The Chinese Communist Party said no, simply no. And that was the end of the conversation. A famed filmmaker wanted to produce a documentary on Zhang Yiwu, a Chinese man who spent a large part of his life as a spy for the Soviet Union. It would be nationalistic, the filmmaker argued, but his words were in vain. The Chinese Communist Party did not want people to know what they had done to Zhang and they did not want people to remember how he died. From a corner window, the rays of a late afternoon sun seeped into an otherwise dark room. At that moment, a man who was instrumental to the development of the Cold War began to vanish from history.
Zhang spied in seven Asian countries. He spied in Japan. He spied in Vietnam. It was said that Stalin knew Zhang by name. Zhang was my grandfather, and his story begins on a farm in Central China.
As the last dynasty of China was toiling in its final days, a wan infant with uneven eyelids was born on February 25, 1909. His parents named him Zhang Yiwu, which meant a just person with a strong sense of self. They raised him on a farm in Xiaogan, Hubei. Zhang went to the village school, where the male teachers still wore their hair in Qing Dynasty queues, a style that required the men to shave the front of their heads every ten days and wear the remaining locks in lavish, long braids. The last dynasty had fallen three years after Zhang’s birth. China had toppled into modernity. But the rural teachers remained loyal to their emperor.
The Xiaogan village rested on Hanjiang River’s southern bank. The name of the village meant filial piety in Chinese; legend has it that a man named Dong Yong once sold himself to pay for his father’s funeral. In Xiaogan, there is a mountain called Baizhao where the ancient poet Li Bai lived in solitude for ten years. He had a lot of liquor with him. The village was famous for its rice wine, a white drink made from the fermentation of glutinous rice and Fengwo yeast. It made one’s stomach warm after consumption.
The villagers of Xiaogan took pride in a Chinese scholar-tree that had grown quite large. Its thick, angular branches extended far to create ample shade beneath the searing summer sun. That was nice because life in Xiaogan was about work. Life was lived in bamboo hats; it passed by as one knelt in brown waters and planted rice by hand. Life was spent cutting wheatgrass in a field that swayed softly to the cadence of the wind. One hoped it would not flood. Many people lived in mud huts. Much of the landscape was blanketed in loess, a fine kind of yellow dirt that got in the way as one cooked over open hearths in the ground. One grew millet. One irrigated. If one was rich one had oxen to plow and cultivate some crops.
Teenagers dropped out of school to work. So it was decided that schooling formally ended at age 14. By the time Zhang graduated, his family’s farm had lost a large sum of money. Zhang’s father was the landlord, but he was unfamiliar with the process of agricultural production. His wealthy parents had sent him to study at a college in Japan.
Zhang chopped and sold firewood in the winter to help pay for expenses. Zhang was told he must stay on the farm to help his family. He tried, but he could not imagine himself growing old and dying in a place that only had tools, mules, paddies, wetlands, and vast open lands that brimmed with fog. He felt there was more to know.
He pleaded with his parents to let him go to school in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. It was close to home so he could visit often. Zhang’s father would not hear it. But his mother saw the secret sharpness in his eyes. He wasn’t like the other farm children, whose miserable surroundings had withered their consciousness. Out of her four sons and two daughters, Zhang was the youngest, her favorite. A year later, behind her husband’s back, she took the remainder of her dowry and gave Zhang three dragon dollars (around $90). Zhang left the next day before daybreak. He walked into the dark with his dragon dollars and a bedroll on his back. It was 1924, and the last time that he walked on that dirt path.