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Road sacrifices recalled on 80th anniversary

Updated:2018-11-01 10:12:32   China Daily

A section of the Burma Road building materials for the route were local stone and simple farm implements were used as tools. (Zhao Yun/For China Daily)

Vital wartime lifeline built at considerable human cost

Meandering past jagged mountains cloaked in mist, the 724-kilometer expressway from Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, to Wanding, a town on the border with Myanmar, is a popular route among travelers.

They can stop in towns along the way to experience at least seven ethnic cultures and enjoy the picturesque scenery in a region that boasts China's richest cultural and ecological diversity.

Yet, few notice the deserted dirt-gravel Yunnan-Myanmar Road, also known as the Burma Road, that runs alongside the expressway through deep grass and forests.

Apart from some short sections that are still used by villagers in mountainous areas, this road has remained largely undisturbed for over 20 years.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the old road, which was used until 1994.

Six months after it opened, in June 1940, the old road became the sole land route connecting China to the outside world when Japan occupied Vietnam.

An air route known as the Hump, which passed over the Hengduan Range on the eastern fringes of the Himalayas, replaced the road as a vital lifeline to China from May 1942 until the end of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45).

It is estimated that half a million metric tons of supplies, including weapons, gas, tires, automobiles, flour, medicine and medical equipment, were transported to China by truck along the road.

Most of these supplies came from the United States, as well as other allies and overseas Chinese.

In return, China sent them tungsten ore, tin, tung oil and other raw materials for use by military industries.

After Japan sealed off most of the coastline, the Chinese government issued an urgent order to 30 southwestern counties in November 1937.

It demanded that they mobilize workers to forge a road link through the mountains connecting Kunming and Wanding to transport supplies to China from Burma, which was under British rule.

The order was issued in case the Port of Guangzhou in Guangdong province fell into Japanese hands.

The funding provided by China for the project was insufficient even to buy building materials for bridges and culverts, work that was carried out by the most experienced engineering corps in the Chinese army, with help from local laborers.

Trucks carry overseas Chinese from Southeast Asian countries to work on the road as volunteers in the 1940s. (File photo and Liu Chan/Xinhua)

More than 200,000 farmers from the Han, Yi, Dai, Jingpo, Bai, Wa and Miao ethnic groups were soon mobilized to take part in the work, many of them seniors, women and children, as most young men had joined the army.

According to records in Longling, the county's then-head, Wang Xiguang, received a message with a feather attached - a sign of urgency - ordering him to complete a certain section of the road ahead of a deadline. The order came before the work had started.

The message also came with a pair of handcuffs, signifying that if this work could not be finished in time, Wang should surrender himself to the authorities as punishment.

The engineering corps organized short training courses on civil works for some volunteers from home and abroad who safely avoided the Japanese blockade of the mountains. Along with farmers-turned-laborers, almost all of them were illiterate and had no experience of building roads.

Local government records show that the courses included instruction on leveling road surfaces with grit, avoiding sharp bends and steep slopes, building a basic road drainage system, and constructing simple bridges with a load-bearing capacity of at least 10 tons.

Most building materials were local stone, and the tools were simple farm implements along with stone rollers.

The distribution of labor was clearly defined. The limited number of men were assigned to pull the stone rollers and dig holes to set the detonators. Women, the elderly and children broke large rocks into grit with hammers, and delivered it to the construction sites.

Columnist Ji Shaoyu, who has researched the Burma Road, wrote on his microblog: "This huge group may have appeared to be the strangest road builders the world has ever seen. They wore different kinds of homespun clothes from their ethnic groups, spoke different languages, but worked together.

"Some women carried their babies on their backs while hammering rocks. The older children took their pets to the construction sites, and some Dai children even kept monkeys."

Dangerous job

But a lack of food, medicine, tools and experience meant that death was always a threat.

Statistics from local governments show that more than 3,000 people died in accidents, from infectious diseases, hunger, floods and landslides at construction sites in eight months, meaning that three people died on average for every kilometer of the road built. Most were buried beside the road in unmarked graves.

Fu Shimin, chairman of the Historical Culture Institute of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression in the West of Yunnan, said: "It took dozens of men to pull a large stone roller up one side and push it down the other side of a slope. Everything was controlled by manpower. It was a dangerous job, and many lost their lives under stone rollers.

"Some elderly people I interviewed who helped to build the road are still haunted by memories of these accidents. Herbs and maize were their main food. The heavy labor, shortage of food, and malnutrition quickly sapped their strength."

Keywords:   Road sacrifices