He is an old soldier now, almost as old as the republic he fought to defend.
As Taiwan marks the centenary of the Republic of China (ROC) this year, 97-year-old Wei Hsien-wen can reflect on what was — and what might have been.
When he was born, the republic was in its infancy, poised to build a new China after toppling the last imperial dynasty in 1911. Today, having lost the battle for China to the communists in 1949, it governs only the island of Taiwan and its 23 million people.
Wei’s life spans nearly a century of often tumultuous history that set the stage for modern China’s rise. He fought the Japanese in World War II and the Chinese communists in the Chinese civil war.
If he has any regrets, he hides them well.
“Things are good now,” Wei says, gazing out on Taipei’s modern skyline from the high-rise apartment he shares with his daughter. “All and all, I am pleased.”
Wei was born on Jan. 12, 1914, just 27 months after an October 1911 uprising that led to the fall of the Qing dynasty and the founding of the ROC on Jan. 1, 1912.
His father was an officer for one of China’s leading warlords, and with rents from inherited lands, the family was well off.
Wei excelled in basketball and volleyball and passed provincial exams for university admission in Beijing.
“We had high hopes for the future,” Wei says, recalling a nation primed to turn the corner on a century of foreign domination after casting off four millennia of imperial rule.
By then, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) under strongman Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) had unified much of the country by force, starting with an attack in 1926 on his former communist allies in Shanghai in the first confrontation of the Chinese civil war.
However, Japan invaded the northeast in 1931, and as the Japanese expanded along the east coast, Wei felt he had no choice but to follow his father into the military.
In 1937 he and other cadets set off on foot from Nanjing for the air force academy in Yunnan Province in the remote southwest. Wei wore frail hemp shoes and a fraying cotton uniform, a gas mask dangling from his waist.
They traveled about 30km a day for weeks, often seeking cover from attacking Japanese aircraft.
The roads were rugged, Wei recalls, but the Yangtze River area seemed prosperous.
Its bountiful supplies of rice and meat contrasted sharply with the barren countryside just north of his hometown of Taiyuan, where many got by on rice porridge.
Wei was trained first by Chinese instructors and then by the US Flying Tigers under the command of the legendary General Claire Chennault.
He qualified as a navigator, and was quickly dispatched to take on the enemy.
“The Japanese flew the swifter Zeros, but we were able to counter them,” Wei says. “During missions over the sea, we flew extremely low and dropped bombs that hit the Japanese ships. Their machine guns hit the wings of our fighters but missed the engines.”
By the war’s end, only half of the 60 comrades originally in Wei’s unit were alive. Casualties were especially heavy the week before the Japanese surrender in 1945, when the then 31-year-old Wei was lucky enough to be away on his honeymoon.
The Chinese civil war, suspended to fight the Japanese, resumed in 1946. Wei initially flew support for Chiang’s troops in the north and then became a logistical support officer in the same area.