Yangshuo’s World War II Refugee Cave
Interview with Simon, old Gotoco partner and lessor of the Yangshuo war cave!
Gotoco’s summer base in China, Yangshuo, is an area of otherworldly beauty. It lies sat on the road between Hong Kong and the Vietnam frontier. The Li river softly wends through it, bamboo groves line and pepper the landscape and everywhere you look volcanic-looking bonsai-mountains (Karsts) jut out of a rice terrace filled landscape.
The sensory melange of stunning natural landscapes, alcohol-fuelled nightlife and cacophonic laser-lit mass commercialised tourism might make you overlook the fact that Yangshuo is a real place – as much a part of China’s tumultuous 20th century as anywhere else.
I travelled down from Beijing to see an old friend – Simon. He was Gotoco’s original project, back when we were setup in 2011. Each year he runs several outdoor education and EFL language camps for children and families seeking summer escapes from nearby megacities, while over the rest of the year he undertakes various projects in cultural, agricultural and educational spheres – including the Mountain Library and Bee restoration project.
I interviewed him about his latest venture; he has rented a cave that was formerly used as a hideout for villagers during World War II, he hopes to use it to demonstrate the locality’s experience of the war years to groups of tourists and ofcourse the young learners on his summer programmes.
Simon arranged for me to interview some octogenarian farmers; former refugees that had sojourned in that cave during the bitter final months of World War II. Below are some questions and notes from that meet up (this took place back in 2016)
So, please tell me whats going on, why have you rented a cave?
Many people come to Yangshuo and love the beautiful landscapes, but they don’t know what it was like before the tourism.
Understanding where we come from can give us more love for where we have got to.
All over the province there are stories of these caves being used for war purposes. I wanted to let them see more about the heroic history of our rural people that lived here during the anti-Japanese war.
Many caves in Yangshuo have been opened up. This usually means that anything of note has been framed for tourism, perhaps notable stalactites will have been given odd nick names (like nipple, dragon, or carrot). In some caves, walls have been painted in glitter or lit up with lasers. Others have been given appealing names, ‘Silver Cave’, ‘Reed Flute Cave’, ‘Elephant Cave,’ ‘Butterfly Cave’. One particular cave is even home to a ‘god’ (an enormous turtle that lives in a box – spending most of its life confined in a pitch black space.) Very few of the publicly accessible caves are untouched by the tourism wave.
*Butterfly Cave pictured above has the full package; including calligraphy graffiti’d on the rock face,a door decorated with a giant butterfly, and the Chinese tourist market’s representation of “ethnic minorities” that perform dances scheduled regularly throughout the day.
So, please tell me about what you are doing with this cave?
Chinese tourists only see as Yangshuo as an escape from the stress of urban, modern, rich life in China. I wanted to show some of our history to them. Late in the war, during the Ichigo Offensive ’44 thousands of Japanese troops came here. The rural communities had to flee, and my father was among them. The Karsts that are now so important to tourism, played an important role in shielding our communities.
Knowing this inspired me to learn more about the importance of caves in our area during world war II. You should always speak to the elderly, they have seen everything, so I spoke with some in Yangshuo and discovered that there was a really important refugee cave in Yangshuo’s Courage Village (Yongcun) – there the entire village survived by hiding and so lives on today.
*Note: Nearby Guilin was a strategically vital city and an important KMT (Guomindang Nationalist Party) base, it was also a home for the Flying Tigers! During the war it was so badly damaged that all six of its churches were burned down.
Hello Grandpa, thanks for meeting with me today. Please tell me more, how did you come to live in this cave?
It was 1944, we had been living a fairly normal life and hardly knew there was a war on. Then suddenly a detachment of Japanese troops turned up and occupied the areas surrounding our village. We were scared, so we took refuge in this cave. There were perhaps 1000 of us, all from this area. We stayed there for 3-4 months – it was a very tough time.
Did you have any encounters with the Japanese troops, or did they leave you in peace?
Actually, yes. Now and then we had run ins with them, once we even had a small battle. They had stolen from us, so we ambushed them with our old muskets – the confrontation took place not far from the cave mouth. Ten of them were wounded, nine escaped. We took one prisoner and cut his head off, I remember everyone was stunned when it weighed in at 9jin (5kg)!
Surely this would have angered the Japanese troops? Didn’t they come looking for you after you killed one of their number?
The cave is very hard to find. The Japanese would have had to make a serious effort to find it. Of course, they must have known we were nearby. They were probably scared to come find us and we weren’t a strategic target for them, they were overstretched and worn out from the occupation anyway.
A mighty dragon cannot beat a local snake, they should have been scared of us, after all we were a band 1000 desperate farmers armed with muskets and hoes and living in a cave network!
It sounds like a really difficult time, did you receive any support from the KMT or CCP (Chinese Communist Party) ?
Ofcourse the CCP became very important later on in the village, and we first heard of them in around 1947 – however we never even saw anything of them until about two years after Liberation! They had no presence at all here until. The KMT were more of a presence, but they were based down in the town -they never came here. We were completely alone, defending our village against a powerful foe – and so we hid in the cave!
You were children at the time, did you continue your schooling? How was it as a child living through this?
No, we certainty did not go to a school! Back then there was no school for us to go to! Life carried on as normal, we went out to the fields most days and just did our best to carry on. We still had our water buffalo which helped us to carry on farming, life was poor then – we mainly just farmed and ate rice.
What about your homes in the village, were you worried about them or your possessions?
The Japanese didn’t burn the village down, and in those days none of us really had any important possessions – everything we had we took to the caves. The Japanese wanted our cattle, so we took them to the cave with us, it was quite cramped!
So, when did you stop living in the cave?
The Japanese only stayed nearby for 3-4months, once they retreated we came out of the caves and life went back to normal.
Living in the cave nowadays