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Xikou: The Small Town Origins of the Generalissimo
by Lisa Movius, Shanghai Editor

In the official Rogues Gallery of Chinese Communist history, perhaps no villain looms larger than Chiang Kai-shek. Even the Gang of Four stands a little higher: They were, after all, but overzealous Maoists. Chiang remains enshrined in infamy mainly for the bloody White Terror of 1927, in which he ruthlessly hounded out and executed thousands of Communists; for his policy of chasing the Communists instead of resisting the Japanese during the Second World War; and for his collaboration with China's most notorious and violent gangsters. And yet many Chinese have nevertheless come to hold the Generalissimo in a certain if grudging esteem as a remarkable individual and a powerful leader. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Chiang's ancestral home in Fenghua district in Zhejiang Province.

Americans know Chiang Kai-shek as either the anti-Communist crusader with the charming, American-educated wife (Song Meiling) or as the corrupt, wartime-aid-sucker christened in some Washington circles as "Cash My-check." Chinese know him best as the stern, disciplined, and rigidly traditional Chinese man depicted in countless movies about the War of Resistance Against Japan and the Civil War. A severe ascetic, he refrained not only from liquor but even from tea, restricting himself from all beverages but hot water.

Chiang Kai-shek was the son of middle class salt vendors in the little village of Xikou in Fenghua. Even today, Xikou consists of a single main street connected to the expressway, swallowed by mountains on three sides and embraced by farmlands on the other. At the foot of the mountains sits the old village of Xikou, housing Chiang's dozen or so residences and monuments. The other stretch of the street houses the bus station and an expanse of hotels: Surprisingly, the hometown of Chiang Kai-shek has become a popular tourist attraction. Filial Taiwan compatriots flock in during the grave-sweeping festival of Qingming, but they're vastly outnumbered by their Mainland counterparts the rest of the time.

Rising at dawn to a chorus of bullfrogs, we headed out in search of the enigmatic Chiang Kai-shek. We first stopped to breakfast on a long, 2 stalk of raw sugar cane--that quintessential countryside treat that dribbles down the chin and leaves fingers delectably, impossibly sticky.

The Wuling Gate divides old Xikou from the modern installment of tourist hotels; to its right sits the unimpressive Xikou Museum. Once a combination temple and opera hall, with its raised stage still ensconced in the entry courtyard, the museum details traditional customs of the region. Besides Chiang Kai-shek, Xikou lacks history of any note. The exhibits consist of the usual life-size wax people--in this case, sedan chair bearers--along with a number of smaller dioramas depicting scenes of daily life and practices during festivals, not much different from today.

Beyond the gate, passersby are swamped by an army of bicycle rickshaws offering to show them around. We found one who would take us around to all the sights for a lump fee of 30; we discovered too late that all locations were in a walking radius of five minutes. A 35 tour ticket buys entrance to all of the Chiang Kai-shek related buildings, while the 70 ticket includes that, the parks and the "Journey to the West" Children's Palace, which we opted to avoid.

The first stop is the Yutai Salt Shop, the family business where Chiang Kai-shek was born. The medium-sized building is austerely practical, and most of the rooms are conspicuously empty. Except for a few traditional chairs, tables, and cavernous Ningbo-style beds scattered about the occasional compartment, most of the building is an extended gallery of enlarged black-and-white photos, captioned in Chinese and English. One room is dedicated to pictures of the extended Chiang family and another to the immediate family and Chiang in his youth.

Next comes the requisite and impressive Fenggao Hall, the General's family home. Once a respectable, middle-class gentry home, it was expanded and embellished after Chiang's ascension with gold-painted eaves and various Shanghai-inspired Western flourishes. Apart from the ancestral shrine, Fenggao Hall is also conspicuously absent of furniture, a trend that continues in the other sights that fill our afternoon. Cultural Revolution rage was directed at the vestiges of the Kuomintang and its leaders with unmitigated intensity. Red Guards even defaced the nearby grave of the General's mother, almost prompting military intervention. It's surprising that the buildings were left standing.

Fenggao Hall's photo gallery details the Generalissimo's rather convoluted personal life. At a young age, he married Mao Fumei, chosen by his parents. She bore Chiang Ching-kuo, who inherited the leadership of Taiwan after his father's death in 1975. In 1927, Chiang divorced Mao in order to marry Song Meiling, of Shanghai's powerful Song (Soong)family, who insisted on being "head wife" instead of concubine. Mao Fumei was killed by a Japanese air raid in December, 1939; the lane in back of the Fenggao Hall kitchen where the shell exploded and the iron window bars bent by the blast are on display. Mao's remains were buried at the Chiang ancestral compound nearby at Mo Ke Dian. One intriguing photo shows Chiang and the smartly-dressed Song Meiling performing the ritual obeisances at Mao's grave. Chiang also took on two young concubines, one of whom, after being exiled to the US, wrote a bitter tell-all entitled Chiang Kai-Shek's Secret Past: The Memoir of His Second Wife, Chen Chieh-Ju. That she was actually his third wife seemed to have escaped the fact checkers.

When tired of the overdose of history and photographs, the traveler to Xikou can run for the hills, literally. Mount Xueduo looming above Xikou contains natural scenes such as the reservoir of Tingxia Lake, the Xufu Cliff and Qianzhang Cliff waterfalls, and the Three Hidden Pools. All of these are reachable by mini-buses leaving from Wuling Gate and costing 10 for the trip.

The winding trip up to the Xufu waterfall took us past rustic villages, imposing forests, and tea-planted hillsides. The Xufu cliff drops down dramatically, and the railed edge was full of rural tourists peering over the edge in blatant disregard of the signs declaring, "Beware of missing foot." A staircase tower set against the cliff took us eighteen stories down, halfway to the base of the waterfall, and a narrow path strewn with peach-colored blossoms and the corpses of crushed caterpillars took us the rest of the way. Near a picturesque old bridge, the water falls upon a heap of sturdy black boulders surrounded by sand-colored pebbles upon which the few tourists who braved the trek down reclined.

We masochistically opted to hike down from the Xufu Cliff Waterfall, and encountered a two-hour journey of disappearing trails and spectacular beauty. The descent eventually led into neglected tea plots carved into the foothills and a seemingly ancient dam restraining a glistening green lake. The hike was worth the effort, as much for the simple villages at the base of the mountains as the scenery on the way. Consider that, if not for one notable son of a salt seller, the tourist-swamped Xikou would probably still resemble these unassuming clusters.

Getting There:
From Shanghai, head to Ningbo by train (6 hours) or bus (3 hours). From Ningbo's South Station, a mini-bus (mianbao che) to Xikou takes 40 minutes and costs 7.

Where to Stay:
A number of three star tourist dives on the new section of Wuling Lu offer doubles from 150 to 200. To stay closer to the Chiang Kai-shek action, stay at the Zhongxin Garden Hotel next to the Wuling Gate or at the Wuling Hotel just across the river. The Xikou Hotel is located on Gongyuan Lu at Zhongxing Xi Lu, next to Chiang's mother's tomb.

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