Sea of Freedom: One Man's Struggle to Leave Mao's China traces Li Kong's journey from innocent child to educated man. Forced to flee the threat of persecution, he decided on the United States, but the journey was both physically and spiritually harrowing. This incredible true story of one man's escape from China during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, a story of miracles and persistence despite incredible odds, is a story that anyone who wants to see the world through the eyes of a political refugee should read.
Summer is the Season of Happiness
Every summer morning I went to the stream with the neighboring farm kids, mounted on our water buffaloes. While the animals grazed freely we explored the nearby woods, picking flowers, finding eggs in birds' nests, tasting wild fruits and shooting birds with sling shots. We also fished. The Daikong River, which begins at the center of Aji Mountain, cascaded down between the rocks like white silk and formed many pools of crystal clear water. All sorts of fish and shrimp would gather in it and weeds and wild flowers cluster along its banks. We never went home for lunch. Instead, we dined on the wild fruit, barbecued fish, shrimps or birds.
After lunch, under the baking noontime sun, we stripped naked and dipped into the stream, teasing and fighting each other in the cool water. We could reach down into the water with our hands, move a rock and catch a fish beneath it by hand. Even though I was seven years old, I still didn't know how to swim. One day, my playmates persuaded me to jump into a deep pool. Innocently, I leaped. I sank to the bottom of the pool. Around me, big rocks like monsters pressed toward me. Only one boy, our leader, came to my rescue, since the other boys had run away in fright. He grabbed my hand and pulled me out. I had swallowed a lot of water, which spilled from my mouth, forming a small puddle on the bank as I gasped for breath.
My uncles and aunts, who were teaching school in the neighboring county, and my elder brother, who studied in the city, were all back home for summer vacation. Nearly every other day they took me along to the Daikong. There, they dart fished with fish forks and dove under the clear water and shot fish with bow and arrows. There, they taught me how to swim. I finally got used to the water when I was eight years old. You can imagine my ecstasy as I floated in the cool, clear water. Ever since, I have truly loved water.
Now, the sun was slanting westward and the heat had subsided a bit. We carried our abundant catch homeward. When I handed the catch to my mother for dinner I was as proud and self-satisfied as a soldier reporting to his commander. Vegetables we grew ourselves, steamed fresh fish and newly harvested rice made our supper like food from heaven.
After supper, we always went to the well, which was at the entrance of the village and gathered around to cool ourselves. By that time, the sun had long since set and the dark sky was full of twinkling stars. With meteors passing in the starry sky and clusters of fire flies all around us, we listened to our elders telling all kinds of stories about the mountains, the tigers that lived there, fables of our ancestors and news from the city. The soft, cool breezes were hypnotizing, and made the voices seem very far away. The last thing I remember was the sound of the hand claps trying to drive away mosquitoes...
When I was growing up, there was no highway to Canton, the capital city of our province. To reach it, we took a three-hour ferry ride down the Ba River.
In China, small villages were weak and bullied by the bigger neighboring villages, which controlled the region. From these bigger towns occasionally came robbers. Yet our greatest problem was the lack of a school. Children who wanted to study had to go to a school in larger villages or to the neighboring towns.
Education was important to our community. A century before, a German missionary arrived at our village and began to spread Christianity among our people. I have forgotten his name, but we called him "Pastor Van." Pastor Van lived near the Aji Mountain in a small house, where he preached until his death. Inspired by this missionary, one-third of our villagers became Christians and began learning about Western culture from him. It was because of him that my grandfather and his whole family became Christians. Because of his conversion and the pastor's influence, my grandfather came to realize the importance of a good education. When he was still very young, my grandfather left the village and went to the Canton to study.
A very famous provincial doctor became his teacher, and thus my grandfather became the first person from the village to go abroad to study the new knowledge that was spreading through China. From Canton he went to Singapore and to Malaysia, and eventually all the Southeast Asian countries. While he studied there he also worked as a doctor, practicing medicine and operating an herbal medicine business. He was in the mining business, too, selling and buying mining ores.
Meanwhile, my grandmother raised her six children and took care of our few acres of land in the village. During this time - away for more than 10 years - my grandfather made some money. He returned to our village to support his children and make certain they were able to go to the city to study and receive a modern education. He was 35 years old when he returned and built a big house. It had 15 rooms. In this house, he began to practice medicine. More than a house, it was a community center. There were orchards and stables for pigs, oxen, and big wells. He asked his brother to live with him, so we were a big family under one roof.
Unfortunately, when grandfather was about 40, he died in an accidental fall on one of his herb collecting trips on Ba Mountain. He had been very generous to his relatives and countrymen and the villagers, and didn't save much. So, the family's condition changed abruptly with his death. We had no savings, and my grandmother became the family's sole supporter, the only one to bring up the children. At that time, my grandmother was 40 years old.
My own father was his family's eldest son. At the time of grandfather's death, he was 20 years old. There were five other brothers and sisters ranging in age from an infant of one year to a 16-year-old. My father was only two years away from graduating from the German Christian medical school. The others were in school, except for the youngest who was still nursing. My grandmother insisted that all her children should be educated, a challenge she faced and met with great determination. She was an illiterate woman, yet she had great wisdom and great valor. She held onto the old Chinese villagers' tradition of working hard and getting up early. No matter how hard it was on her, she was determined to keep her children in school. Carrying her nursing baby on her back, she worked the fields to make this possible. Only in the summer and winter holidays would her children return from their schools to help her in the fields. Otherwise, she was on her own.
When she could, she would go to the mountain to gather firewood in bundles. She also raised poultry and pigs to sell in the market. After a busy day, late in the evening, under a very small wick light fed by vegetable oil, she mended her children's clothes. For her, there was no rest.
Among women, she could be counted as a good wine drinker, although she rarely drank a drop except at festive occasions. I remember when I was a kid, she brought me to a village wedding party. When the host presented her with a big bowl of very strong wine, she tossed it off in one gulp. But there were few respites from hard work. When she was 80, with her sons and daughters and grandchildren all grown up, she said she was happy all that work of raising us was behind her. "I am tired now. Had I felt like this in my younger years, I could never have raised this family," she said. She never stopped thinking of us. What makes me very sad is that when she died at more than 90 years old, none of us was with her - not my father, nor any of her grand children. But I will tell that story later.
In 1924, two years after the death of my grandfather, my father finally graduated from medical school. He didn't have the money to open a private practice, so he chose the only route open to him, the Army. It was a decision that would come back to haunt him many years later. As an army surgeon, he had a regular paycheck, and with it he was able to support his five brothers and sisters in school and to maintain the house and his family. But he was a freedom-loving man, and after three years in the Army, he spent all the money he earned on making sure his five brothers and sisters received a good education. He wanted to start his own clinic. One of his superiors loaned him the money.
My father had a strong sense of responsibility toward his patients, just as he had toward his family. He was a very good doctor and a good family man. I remember when my brother and I returned from college on vacation, he would tiptoe into our room at night to see whether we are well covered. He always said to me, "You know, I have made no great contribution to humanity, but during the Sino-Japanese War, I was able to give all your brothers and sisters a good education and support the family. So really, I think I achieved a lot with my life. I feel very satisfied."
My father was a very old-fashioned person, who instructed us that the most important element of manhood was to be very trustworthy. I remember a story he told me about keeping trust. On the eve of the Japanese invasion of Canton, before the fall of the city, when bombs and cannon shells rained on the city and all was in turmoil, he went to his creditor, a pharmacy, and paid his bill. The proprietor said, "Mr. Li, what are you doing? At a time like this, you still remember this small debt? Go! Run for your life." After VJ Day, the proprietor came to him and said, "Dr. Li,...