Two Sons of China Q & A
What was your inspiration to write this novel?
Anyone who knows me knows that history is my passion—particularly military history. It has always bothered me that, compared to the other theaters of World War II, there has been relatively little written about the war in China. Ten to twenty million Chinese died during the conflict. Thousands of American servicemen served in China. Yet the CBI (China-Burma-India) Theater has been considered “forgotten” by many.
As I began to study this part of the war, I discovered the amazing true story of the Dixie Mission—American soldiers who ventured to Mao’s Communist stronghold of Yenan in 1944—and I thought everyone should know about them. I also gained a greater appreciation of the Chinese perspective—from both the Nationalist and the Communist sides. I wanted to share what I’d learned with others, and decided writing a novel would be a good way to do this in an entertaining way.
Your two main characters, David and Yuen, are very different from each other. David is enthusiastic but naïve and inexperienced. Yuen is disaffected and sullen. What was your inspiration for each of them?
It was important to me that these two men be as different as possible to better demonstrate the polar opposite worlds they come from. David grew up in China, the son of a missionary, so he speaks Mandarin fluently. He’s young, so he finds the war exciting and he has dreams of medals and glory. I think a lot of young men can identify with this mentality.
Yuen, on the other hand, has already endured two decades of war. His only desire is to accomplish his mission, survive, and keep as many of his men alive as possible. You can imagine why he might initially view David with disdain. For Yuen’s character, I imagined the difficult life of one who had been with the Communists since the beginning—someone who had experienced constant warfare, fear of betrayal, and the feeling of being relentlessly hounded his enemies (in his case, both the Nationalists and the Japanese).
At first glance this book appears to be a war novel, but you have said that the book’s main theme isn’t military. What is it?
I think the most important theme of the book is probably love—not just the obvious romance between David and Katherine, but even more so the “love” between David and Yuen, whose bond of brotherhood grows so strong that these two men of opposite backgrounds and beliefs ultimately make great sacrifices for one another. Yuen’s love for his daughter, Mei Fong, is also a strong part of the book, as is the love and ardent passion that some characters, like Yuen’s wife Jiang Hong, have for the Communist Party.
Many of the characters in the book are real historical figures, like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Chiang Kai-shek, but you also portray less well-known figures, such as Colonel David Barrett and American Foreign Service Officers like Jack Service and John Paton Davies. Why do these people play a significant role in the book?
I wanted people to know more about what these unsung heroes did in China. Barrett, Service, and Davies were important members of the Dixie Mission who served our country with honor, but each paid a very high price for participating in the Mission. Service and Davies reported accurately about the Chinese Communists, but their favorable reports were not what policymakers in Washington wanted to hear, and both men were later driven out of the State Department during the McCarthy era. Colonel Barrett was the Dixie Mission’s commanding officer, but his views ran counter to those of the U.S. ambassador to China. He was relieved of command and his promotion to brigadier general was blocked. Not enough Americans know these men’s stories, and I think everybody should.
What is your own, personal connection to China?
I’m a 3rd generation Chinese American, which means my grandparents immigrated to the United States. My family’s story was directly impacted by the war in China. When the Japanese invaded in 1937, my paternal grandfather, Wing Ching Lam, left China for school in America. He didn’t know he would never see his homeland again. While studying in Boston at M.I.T., he met my grandmother, a Radcliffe student whose family had also sent her to America to escape the war.
My maternal grandfather, Chung Tam, was the only son of a prosperous family in southern China. He became a civil servant in the Nationalist government in Chungking. When the Communists took over in 1949, he fled with his family to Hong Kong, leaving all of his possessions and property behind. They came to the U.S. in 1968.
My grandfathers’ lives always remind me never to take our freedom and political stability for granted. They were both well-educated men from wealthy families, but their government could not defend itself against a foreign invader and nothing could protect them from the chaos of war.
Sometimes I wonder how I might respond if I lost my home, my bank account, my career as a surgeon, and was exiled to a foreign land where I did not speak the language and had to work menial jobs that were far beneath my skill set and level of education. This exactly is what happened to countless Chinese who were forced to flee their homeland.
This is why I will never take being an American for granted.
In your research for this book, what did you learn about China that you didn’t already know?
I think the most striking thing was a realization of how abusive Western nations were to China. The Opium War, foreign concessions in port cities where Westerners were exempt from Chinese law, Chinese territory given to Japan at the conclusion of WWI—these are just a few examples of how China suffered at the hands of foreigners. I know the Chinese have not forgotten these insults, and they continue to color their perception of other nations today.
I was also struck by China’s abject poverty during this time period. The pitifully low value of human life and dignity at that time and place would appall us today. Basic survival was a daily struggle. Given this reality, it’s no wonder that the Communists won the country.
Do you see China and America as allies or rivals in today’s world?
Allies, I hope. There is so much to gain from cooperation: economic growth, greater international security, the chance to work together in support of developing nations. To achieve these goals, both sides need to understand the other better, and also look inwardly.
Many nations view America as arrogant—a country that thinks nothing of intervening in the affairs of other nations, sometimes in the name of altruism, always in the name of national security. Is it any wonder that this grates other nations? I think America is a strong force for good in the world, but a humbler stance and spirit of cooperation would do much to improve our relations with other countries.
China, understandably, is ambitious to become an even greater power than it has already become. The West would do well to understand how history has impacted the Chinese mindset. We cannot forget the abuse they suffered at hands of Western nations, that most Chinese lived in extreme poverty in the last century, that after the fall of the last Qing Emperor, they endured forty years of almost constant violence, followed by the privations and social harm done by Mao’s failed policies like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese suffered greatly in the 20th century; now they are fiercely nationalistic and are anxious to improve the lives of their children. An appreciation of their history is important to any nation that wants to be viewed as a friend of China.
And I hope this book helps demonstrate that, on an individual level, people from different cultures can form very strong bonds, irrespective of tension or rivalry that may exist between their governments or political leaders. The two main characters of this novel are fictional, but in my opinion, their experiences are entirely believable. And if there is ever anything good that comes from war, surely the bonds that form between men of honor and goodwill is one of them.
What is your next book about?
My next book is a novel called Repentance, a story about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team – Japanese-American soldiers who fought heroically in Europe during WWII while many of their families were incarcerated in internment camps at home. Many are not aware that the 442nd became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history and I hope this book helps spread their story far and wide. I’m currently finishing some revisions to the book and hopefully, it will be available in the not too distant future.
If you have a question, please email me at email@AndrewLamMD.com and I’ll get back to you.