Rotten Leg Village
By Cindy Patten
Nanaimo, British Columbia
When Canada ALPHA offered me the chance to trace one of the twentieth century’s most horrific chapters of war history in a Study Tour designed for teachers, my inner historian was intrigued. For 14 days we traveled mainland China, learning about the Japanese invasion and occupation from 1936 to the end of World War II. We spoke to historians, scholars, lawyers, and survivors. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.
At first I managed not to become personally invested in the stories of suffering. Day 6 provided my wake up call. The itinerary read: “Travel to Xia Yi Village, one of the “Rotten Leg” villages and meet with survivors of anthrax warfare.” Fascinating! Armed with the “bare necessities” (bottled water, sunscreen, antibacterial wipes, toilet paper, journals, pens, digital cameras, and local translators) we boarded our luxury air conditioned coach after breakfast. We jostled along potholed roads, groaning as we hit deep, spine-jarring ruts. The driver honked mercilessly at waves of wheeled, pedestrian and hoofed traffic as we approached the village in a filthy billow of dust and fumes.
It felt like traveling into China’s past. Sunshine pummeled sturdy women bearing huge woven baskets overflowing with greens. Weathered men wrangling fantastical farming contraptions belching evil, viscous smoke chugged serenely through undulating rice paddies. In the distant haze stooped farmers dotted the crops, heads shaded by conical bamboo hats worn in this part of China since antiquity. We passed clusters of crumbling brick and mud homes lavished with intricately carved decaying wooden trim and black roof tiles. Clucking chickens scratched viciously at the red dirt while every variety of squash entwined delicate green tendrils along splintering gates, disintegrating dwellings, and vibrant heaps of unspeakable refuse that breathed with life of their own. Brilliant orange blossoms lit up the scabby roadscape like tiny fires.
The narrowing dirt roadway was designed for carts, not four star coaches. When it became impossible to wedge further up the lanes without nicking corners off Qing dynasty homes, we disembarked in the middle of a courtyard which also served as a vegetable patch and chicken run. Yellow cobs of corn were strung to dry in bundles from roof tops. I half expected to see popcorn exploding into the stratosphere.
I had anticipated the survivors being the main attraction and was momentarily surprised to realize that we were. Mangy dogs, old women and bedazzled children gazed upon us intently from peeling doorways as we wound through the uneven alley to the heart of the village. Amused, they pointed and laughed openly. We snapped photos quickly, wanting to remember their innocence.
The Yi family shrine was ancient, wooden, and open air. Narrow tables, bottles of water and small chairs awaited us. Electric fans and one Western toilet had been installed for our benefit. I slumped into the nearest seat, gasping slightly at the heat, humidity and humanity. Around me was packed to bursting with chattering villagers and media, intent on committing our experience to photographic memory by the gigabyte.
We fell expectantly silent as a handful of old Chinese, smiling and composed, slowly shuffled to the front. Our senior translator announced that they are the last of 255 infected by plague, typhus, glanders and skin anthrax some 60 years ago by the Japanese military.
One woman wears an impish smile and pigtails. Her legs are rotten, skin sliding from bone. She became infected by a tiny scratch while helping her parents in the fields. Rolled-up trousers revealed the hallmark of anthrax poisoning: flesh as black as charred wood. Filthy cloth strips could not conceal the green infection that oozed from her swelling shins. The primary medical treatment is green tea leaf dressing; she has limited access to expensive antibiotics. Pain keeps her bedridden yet she made the arduous trip today to tell us her story. When asked how she keeps her spirits up, she grinned gorgeously, responding, “I have a good son!”
The next survivor has glanders. Her face is rotting away, remaining lips curled into a permanent rictous around graying teeth. She pulled up the back of her shirt to show us the extreme hump of her spine and the ridge of vertebrae that poke razor sharp against parchment thin brown skin. During one of her frequent dizzy spells she tripped and fell, cracking her backbone. Over the years there has been no one to help her; she has considered suicide. “I just want someone to love me and take care of me before I die,” she beseeched Jing, our student translator.
The next two are husband and wife. Their eyes twinkled and they sport big grins and red Canada caps, gifts from last year’s Study Tour participants. Throughout the interview they hold hands. The wife’s soft palate and nose have rotted away from anthrax poisoning. Originally from a wealthy family, she married her peasant husband after she became deformed and no one from her class would have her. The husband, 16 when the Japanese invaded the village, contracted rotten leg from being forced to carry buckets of infected water for the Japanese soldiers.
After the testimonies I spent time with the irrepressible children, dressed up especially for our arrival. They were beside themselves with joy when I drew hearts on their hands. Then, back to our coach and civilization: an instant gourmet hotel lunch, cans of cold, carbonated beverages and mechanically cooled air. The morning already seemed surreal; what we had seen and heard hadn’t sunk in yet.
That evening Jing became very emotional. With tears streaming down her flushed cheeks she searched for words to help us understand. “You say that the children in the village have such beautiful smiles. Well, that’s all they have to give you! They have nothing else, nothing at all!” Usually gentle and soft-spoken, she addressed us with uncharacteristic vehement passion.
“My grandmother lived in this province when the Japanese soldiers came,” she continued, choking with emotion. “They never found her village so she did not experience what these people lived through. If she had, I would have been one of those smiling children today with nothing. I could have their life.”
I thought of her living in the tiny village that smelled of rancid sewage and garbage, dressed in a white cotton jumper without shoes. The image brought tightness to my chest. Something as simple as a group of soldiers turning left instead of right on a grassy path between villages 60 years ago provided beautiful, articulate Jing a life of privilege instead of poverty. There but by the grace of God…
Xia Yi is not the land that time forgot. It is the land that virtually no one knows. People in Rotten Leg Villages live throughout this region of China as they have for six decades: in sickness and seclusion. Governments at all levels in China, Japan, and the West ignore them. Xia Yi is where the living past and present can intersect and transcend time, at least until the last survivor dies. For me, it was a place to take a moment to think very seriously about the future that I want for my world, and how I can be part of it.