When I was only five or six years old, I appropriated a photograph
of the whole family and stuffed it away in the bottom
drawer of my personal chest of drawers. I was very upset, and
determined never to let anybody see that particular picture,
because it was indecent.
The photograph had been taken in a small photo atelier to
commemorate the addition of a new member to the family----me.
In the picture, I’m three, no, four months old, cradled in my
mother’s arms with my chubby baby thighs resting on her young
legs. That year, my mother was 25.
My father is setting next to her, himself only 30 years old
but already father of three! My eldest and second sisters are
wearing neat little dresses, but me, I’m half naked, with my
lower body frontally exposed to the camera. In modern terms you could say that I was a victim of “indecent exposure.”
Later, I used a pencil to scribble the characters “34 Bishan”
on the back of the picture in a flimsy handwriting.
The “34” stood for the year of my birth (Year 34 of the
Republic of China), but my mother said that “Bishan” should be
written with a different character for “bi.”
“Bishan” was a small county near Chongqing (Chungking)
That’s also what it said on my ID card, “Place of Birth:
Bishan County, Sichuan Province.”
At one time, I would go around and ask all my friends from
Sichuan, “Where exactly in Sichuan are you from?” No one ever
answered, “I’m from Bishan.” Never, not even once, did I meet
anyone who was from Bishan.
Today, Bishan has already been incorporated into
Chongqing City. Chongqing itself has become one of Mainland
China’s municipalities. Administratively, it no longer belongs to
In 2006, I returned to the place where I had been born in
1945. I went to Chongqing, and I also visited Bishan.
In terms of population, Sichuan is China’s biggest province,
just as Chongqing is China’s largest city. Of course such a huge
populace is at least partly explained by the municipality’s large
territory. Chongqing covers an area of 82,000 square kilometers.
That’s almost three times as big as Taiwan. As many as
31,590,000 people live in Chongqing (compared to 2,620,000 in
The first traces of human habitation in the Chongqing area
date from the Old Stone Age, more than 20,000 years ago. By
the New Stone Age, there already were “dense clusters of primitive settlements.” Between three and four thousand years ago,
during the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties, this area became the
heartland of the “State of Ba,” which was later wiped out by the
Zhou who then made Ba a prefecture. Under the Qin, “36 prefectures
made up the empire,” and Ba was one of them.
The name “Chongqing” has been in use for more than 800
years. It was preceded by many other denominations, including,
in roughly this chronological order, Ba, Chiang Chou, Chungching
Chou, Ba Chou, Chu Chou, Yu and Kung Chou.
I carefully studied the history of Chongqing, but at the
same time I had to tell myself that I was only born in
Chongqing’s Bishan, while my earliest ancestors had hailed
from Shandong Province. Later they had migrated to Sung-chiang
Province, which ceased to exist when it was incorporated
into today’s Jilin Province. Even so, my connections to Sungchiang
or Jilin are much closer than those with Chongqing: I
have the looks and bearing of a “Northeasterner.” And obviously
Chongqing meant much less to me than Taiwan, where I spend
my childhood and my youth, my entire life in fact. Now that I’m
slowly entering old age, I know that I’ll be buried in Taiwan as
well, and I’m perfectly fine with that. Then why is it that my
birthplace----literally just the place where I was born—triggers
such strong emotions in me?
Another question I asked myself was, where did the name
Chongqing come from?
In the January of 1189, Prince Zhao Dun of the Southern
Song Dynasty was made “King of Kung” (in the area of today’s
Chongqing). In the following month, he was crowned as
Emperor Guangzong after the previous ruler had abdicated the
throne to him. Calling this repeated good fortune a “double
happy celebration” (shuangchong xiqing), he promoted Kung Chou to the status of a prefecture and renamed it Chongqing—
the name it has kept until today.
Like most people from Taiwan who travel to Mainland
China, I happened to go to Shanghai and Beijing first. Again like
many, I’ve been to those two cities more than once. But
Chongqing? Who’s ever been to Chongqing? It seems like very
few people even think of going there.
I told my mother that I would go to Chongqing, and very
likely to Bishan as well.
A faint smile flickered in my 86-year-old mother’s eyes as
she repeated those same old words she’d spoken before, “We
used to put you on the city wall in your little baby chair, and
you’d sit there and watch the people go by. Sometimes you’d
watch until you fell asleep. . . .”
Ah, I was actually going to see that Bishan city wall my
mother was always talking about! But would the city wall still
be there at all? And would our tour group even visit Bishan
while we were in Chongqing?
I was in the habit of doing quite a bit of research before
going to a new place that I had never been to before. Yet no matter
how many books I read or how many websites I browsed,
Chongqing and Bishan,...