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A Story of World War II Heroism Comes Home to China

Belgium has honored her as a hero. But until recently, most Chinese did not know the story of Qian Xiuling, who left her home in Jiangsu Province to study in Europe in 1929. Having settled in Belgium -- where she still lives at age 90 -- Qian became caught up in events of World War II that led to her saving the lives of 98 Belgians. Now CCTV is airing a 16-episode TV play based on her World War II experience.

Born into a big family in southeast China, she would later be called the "Chinese mother of Belgium" and awarded with "Hero of the State" medal for her gallantry in saving 98 Belgian people from German massacre during World War II. Citizens of Ecaussinnes City, a city in southern Belgium, named a street after her: "Ms. Qian Street."

Qian Xiuling was born into a powerful family of some social standing in Yixing City (the known for developing the boccaro teapot), Jiangsu Province in 1912. Her older cousin, Lieutenant General Qian Zhuolun, had been the chief of the First General Office of Defense Ministry of the Kuomintang (KMT) Administration and director of Chief of the Staff Office.

Though born into a family of privilege, Qian was not one to act with arrogance or extravagance. She was fond of basketball and showed a great interest in chemistry. She set a goal of serving her country by learning and applying advanced science and technology. Her dream was to study in Pierre Curie's Atomic Energy Laboratory in France and later to become a Chinese Curie if she could.

In 1929, 17-year-old Qian left for Belgium to study chemistry at the most distinguished university of the country, Catholic University of Louvain. There she met the man who became her lifelong partner in a marriage that lasted more than 60 years.

After their wedding, Qian and her husband settled down in the quiet town of Herbeumont. In 1939 Qian traveled to Paris with the hope of joining the Curie's laboratory. However, the laboratory had moved to the United States to escape German occupation, and Qian had to return to Belgium deeply disappointed.

The peace of Herbeumont itself was soon broken by German invasion. In May 1940, a young Belgian buried a mine under a railway that destroyed a German military train. Unfortunately, this young man soon was caught by the Germans who sentenced him to death by hanging within a few days.

An inborn sense of justice drove Qian to work side-by-side with other residents to try to save the hero. But it never occurred to her that she could actually do anything until she read a familiar name in the newspaper article that introduced the newly-arrived governor of German-occupied Belgium and the northern France theatre -- General Alexander von Falkenhausen.

Von Falkenhausen had been the military adviser of the KMT Administration from 1934 to 1938 and he had become a good friend of Qian Zhuolun, Qian's elder cousin. When the War started, von Falkenhausen had returned to Germany, and Qian Xiuling's cousin told her that she could contact von Falkenhausen for help at any time.

Qian wrote a letter to von Falkenhausen, begging him to release the Belgian youth for humanitarian reasons. And she decided to deliver the letter to the general herself, undertaking the 160 kilometers (99.4 miles) journey to his office in Brussels. When she was led into his office, she gave him the letter and stated her request. Von Falkenhausen, hesitated for a while, then said, "I will think about it. Let me try."

A miracle happened several days later -- the young Belgian was freed. From then on Qian was regarded by local residents as something more than a lovely Chinese lady -- she was a hero.

Four years later, Belgian resistant military groups killed three Gestapo officers in the nearby city of Ecaussinnes on June 7, 1944. The next day German military took revenge on civilians by arresting 97 young men and threatening the people of the city by giving them a deadline to hand over "suspects" or the 97 innocents would be executed. Once again people who had no other way put their last hope in the Chinese woman.

At that time, Qian was about to give birth to her first daughter. Nevertheless -- despite being warned that it was dangerous for a pregnant woman to drive at night -- with 97 lives on the line, she went that very night to Brussels. Von Falkenhausen was not surprised when Qian entered into his office the next morning. He understood her goal, but he also understood the difficulties involved.

Three days later, all the 97 people were released, but soon von Falkenhausen was summoned to Berlin to explain his behavior. And that was the last meeting between von Falkenhausen and Qian during the War.

Von Falkenhausen was arrested for insubordination after he returned to Berlin. But before he could receive a military trial, Germany surrendered to the Allies. But this turned out not to make much difference to von Falkenhausen because the Allied armies detained him as a war criminal. In 1948 he was extradited to Belgium, and in 1950 his trial was set.

Now Qian stood up for von Falkenhausen. She sought out those people who had escaped death with von Falkenhausen's help. She organized them into a group, and she made public appeals on his behalf.

"I was honored for what I did for Belgium," she told Belgian reporters at a press conference "But nothing I did could have been accomplished without General von Falkenhausen's help. Even though he might not deserve an award, neither should he be put on trial, definitely not."

When von Falkenhausen's case began, Qian and those beneficiaries of von Falkenhausen took the stand to testify about his humane deeds during the brutal war. In the end, as the governor in an occupied area, von Falkenhausen was held responsible for that history and sentenced to prison for 12 years.

Von Falkenhausen spent three years in prison before being released. He settled down in Bonn, Germany and passed away in 1966 at the age of 88.

Qian moved to Brussels after the war where she now lives with her son and daughter. Her husband passed away in 1966. The Belgian government awarded Qian the "Hero of the State" medal and the King and Queen of Belgium also presented her with signed photographs. The citizens of Ecaussinnes named a downtown street in her honor "Ms. Qian Street" to express their thanks to the Chinese lady.

At the end of 1999, Xinhua News Agency (one of China's leading news agencies) printed a feature story about Qian Xiuling. Though not a long piece, it was reprinted by People's Daily (the most authoritative news paper of the country) and a story hidden for half a century was revealed to Chinese people. Chinese Woman Facing Gestapo's Gun, a 16-episode TV series based on Qian's experience was shot by Xiaoxiang Film Studio with the cooperation of China Central Television (CCTV) and All-China Women's Federation and made the debut at the beginning of 2002 through CCTV. Qian Xiuling, the so-called Chinese mother of Belgium, made a kind of return to her beloved motherland -- to which she had never returned since her departure in 1929 -- through television at the age of 90.

In order to reveal the true woman in a foreign country in the TV episodes, playwright Zhao Dongling interviewed Qian in April 2001. Through her interview with Qian, she discovered something interesting in the failing memory of the elderly woman:

"Can you remember when Ecaussinnes City named the street for you?" asked Zhao.

"I couldn't remember, I forgot," answered Qian.

"Do you remember the medal, where did you put it?" Zhao said.

Qian shook her head at a loss, "I really forgot about it."

"So what is von Falkenhausen in your eyes?" asked Zhao.

"A man with morals," Qian answered without thinking.

Though Zhao didn't establish the exact time elements for the TV play, she was not disappointed. She knew that what Qian forgot was empty reputation, and what she remembers are the most valuable things in the world -- morality and justice.

CCTV-1 currently is broadcasting the 16-episode true-life story, Chinese Woman Faces the Gestapo's Gun, at 8:05p.m. every Monday to Friday night.

(北京青年报 [Beijing Youth Daily] December 11, 2001 translated by James Liu for china.org.cn)

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