Feature: Digging a road to victory by hand
by Xinhua writers Chu Yi & Lin Bifeng
KUNMING, Sept. 3 (Xinhua) -- Yang Xiandou was only 15 years old when he joined thousands of local people to dig a road through the mountains in southwest China's Yunnan province to help the country fight the Japanese aggressors during the Second World War.
The Japanese army escalated the invasion into a full-scale war against Chinese in 1937, blocking ports in China's coastal areas and cutting off the Yunnan-Vietnam railway, thus making it extremely difficult for China to get supplies from allies.
At that critical moment, a road was the key to all.
China on Monday marked the 73th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese People's War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War, memories of the hards days eight decades ago resurfaced.
Japan signed the formal surrender on Sept. 2, 1945, and China celebrated its victory the following day and declared Sept. 3 Victory Day.
Yang, born in 1922, was the youngest of four kids in a farming family that had been living in Lijia village in the city of Baoshan for generations.
Local leaders came to every household and required villagers to help build a road linking Yunnan and Myanmar.
"But I was too young to know what was going on," Yang said.
As the dawn broke on a cold winter day, the little boy set off on foot with a carrying pole. He packed tools including a hoe, two dustpans and a sickle and daily necessities for ten days -- a quilt, clothes, as well as potatoes, rice and pickles for food.
In the jungle, vines wrapped themselves around his ankles. Due to safety concerns, usually, around 50 villagers traveled together.
"To get to the construction site, we had to climb up steep mountains more than 2,000 meters above sea level, with more than 30 kg of luggage for at least one day, from dawn to dusk," he said.
Upon arriving, they need to build a shed in the nearby mountains first. Adults and the strong were responsible for the work. They cut four trees to form the foundation and then used sheets made from bamboo for the walls and roof. The only things inside were self-made straw mattresses which served as their beds.
"A larger shed can fit four people while a smaller can fit two," Yang said.
As one of the youngest workers, Yang's duty was the easiest, mainly digging into the hillside and transporting stones and soil to less elevated areas.
From morning to night, the road was filled with thousands of workers -- teenagers, adults, and the elderly.
"Without any advanced equipment or machinery, everything depended on human forces," he said.
In the evening, the road was the most dangerous part. Using ropes, a dozen workers pulled a huge stone used to flatten the mountainous terrain.
"A large stone roller can weigh several tonnes and its speed was hard to control, especially when going downhill. It was common that the stone ran over workers who failed to pull it back," Yang said.
Despite the hardships and dangers, nobody gave up. "Even during rainy days, workers would continue with raincoats made from straw."
Yang worked a total of 100 days, completing over 40 km of road.
Besides Yang, about 200,000 Chinese people paved a miracle in road history, completing more than 540 km in nine months during the war, about half of the 1,146-km China-Myanmar road (also known as the Burma Road) that connects Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan, with Lashio of Myanmar.
A total of 242 new bridges and about 1,800 culverts were also built along the road.
Since 1938, trucks and cars have sped in an endless stream along the road. During China's war against Japanese invasion, about 490,000 tonnes of supplies from Western allies carried over the road first arrived in Kunming, then traveled over mountains, passing through cities such as Guiyang, the provincial capital of Guizhou, before continuing to Chongqing, where the interim government was based.
"The China-Myanmar road played a vital role in China's victory of its war against Japanese invasion, and the construction workers are the real heroes that have made the impossible come true," said Yu Ge, writer and WWII expert.
"They leave us with great spiritual heritage, motivating Chinese to pursue a better life with hard work," he added.
About 80 years later, most of the workers have passed away and Yang is one of less than 10 workers still alive. His life has undergone tremendous changes.
Yang retired from a state-owned forest farm in 1980 and now enjoys pension and subsidies of about 3,000 yuan (439 U.S. dollars) a month.
At the age of 96, he keeps reading and watching TV every day. He has a large family of 36 people; his eldest great-grandson is seven years old.
Living a tranquil and cozy life with his daughter in a two-story house in the countryside, Yang often tells his story to his offspring.
"Life is better but history should never be forgotten. Surviving through wartime makes me cherish the hard-won peace more than ever," he said.