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Manoa 15.2 (2003) 142-161
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The Mystified Boat
On 23 March 1928, the vanguard of Chiang Kaishek's Northern Expedition Army suddenly appeared on both banks of the Wu River. Warlord Sun Chuanfang's garrison at Yuguan was surrounded so quickly they had no alternative but to surrender without a fight. The Northern Expedition Army now held Yuguan, a town strategically located at the confluence of the Wu and Lian Rivers in the lower Yangzi Basin, several hundred miles west of Shanghai. Massing his troops at Jinkou, warlord Sun Chuanfang dispatched a crack unit to defend the Chi Mountain stronghold downriver, opposite Shaohe. The subsequent battle was tinged with mystery by the disappearance of an officer of Sun Chuanfang's army, Major Xiao.
Xiao received his orders on the morning of 4 April. Headquarters had put him in command of the Thirty-second Brigade to defend the town of Shaohe on the bank opposite Chi Mountain. This peasant village of just a few dozen families jutted like a cow's horn into the main stream at a bend in the river—an ideal defensive position. Headquarters ordered Xiao to slip into Shaohe in the early hours of the seventh and ascertain as quickly as possible all available details about the situation there. Headquarters warned him: Now that our forces have taken notice of Shaohe, the Northern [End Page 142] Expedition Army cannot ignore this mysterious, unprotected region.
But the evening before, as Xiao was making his preparations to cross the river, something unforeseen occurred.
Xiao was riding alone on the bank of the Lian River. The oppressively hot, humid weather on the afternoon of 8 April made him listless and sleepy. As he passed through a stretch of shining army tents at the bottom of a valley on the north slope of Chi Mountain, a roan horse caught up with him.
To Xiao's left, his bodyguard pulled back on the reins of the roan horse. The sun was right in front of Xiao, and he couldn't keep his eyes wide open. His bodyguard straightened in the saddle before the roan had settled down, swiftly swept his right hand past the brim of his cap in a salute, and said,"There's an old woman waiting to see you at division headquarters."
Xiao rode on steadily a few paces before pulling up his horse. It was so muggy. Although a cool breeze swept across the ridge above, the hot air collected at the bottom of this valley on the north slope. Without reaching up to wipe away the beads of sweat rolling down his face, his bodyguard looked fearfully at Xiao, awaiting his reply.
"Think of some way to get rid of her," Xiao said with an impatient wave of his hand.
The bodyguard whipped his horse forward a few paces and then said in a low, tense voice, "She says she came from Shaohe."
Without replying, Xiao threw him a glance, whipped his horse around, and returned quickly to division headquarters. His bodyguard followed thirty yards behind, in his dust. Xiao was weary of these annoying trifles. He knew that it was common for the rank-and-file's families to appear at headquarters with questions about casualties. These strange-faced people clutching brief notes with the name of a son or a husband were liable to make absurd requests: to collect the deceased's belongings or to learn details about the death of some common soldier. Since his special unit never kept any record of casualties—officers or men—these pathetic folks were often driven away with the threat of a rifle butt and shouts of abuse from the noncommissioned officers. Although Xiao now commanded a special force, his unit frequently couldn't avoid front-line action because of their army's lack of men. Sometimes, the men under his command went through one complete turnover after another, and villagers who'd barely played with birdguns were called upon for the most exacting sniping missions. On an afternoon like this, quiet as usual...