When Mei Xiaoao heard the news of his father’s death on April 23, 1973, it came via a long-distance phone call from Beijing. The government had sent Xiaoao down to the countryside as part of a Cultural Revolution campaign that saw millions of young urbanites travel to rural areas to work the land. He barely made it back from Inner Mongolia in northern China in time for the funeral five days later.
In the late 1940s, Xiaoao’s father, Mei Ju-ao, represented China as a judge at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, often referred to as the “Tokyo Trials.” As Xiaoao remembers it, his father’s small funeral ceremony at the cemetery was typical of those given to foreign affairs officers. The only thing that struck him as slightly unusual came in Ju-ao’s obituary, printed in a corner of party newspaper People’s Daily.
The simply worded obituary had real political import. The inclusion of his father’s title was a form of rehabilitation, confirming that he was no longer deemed a “class enemy” by the Communist Party. For the Mei family, it meant the end of Ju-ao’s persecution for serving in the pre-1949 Nationalist government, for receiving a so-called bourgeois foreign education, and for having traveled extensively in the West.
At the age of 12, Ju-ao was admitted into a good prep school on the site of what is now Tsinghua University, moving from Nanchang, in eastern China’s Jiangxi province, to Beijing in pursuit of a good education. After graduating, he received financial assistance to study literature at Stanford University in California, and later received a law degree from the University of Chicago. After spending a year traveling around Europe, Ju-ao returned to China in 1929. In 1946, after the conclusion of World War II, he was sent to Tokyo to pass judgment on Japanese war criminals.
The year his father died, Xiaoao was 21 years old. He knew little about what Ju-ao did for a living, only that he worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1969, as the winds of the Cultural Revolution swept across China, Xiaoao left Beijing for Inner Mongolia. Looking back now, he thinks he was too young to go then and was just following the crowd, calling it all a bit “confused.”
Ju-ao’s death brought Xiaoao back to Beijing, where he found work in a factory that produced screws. After the reinstatement of the gaokao, or college entrance examination, in 1977, Xiaoao was admitted to Beijing Normal University as a so-called senior undergraduate, a euphemistic way of referring to those whose formal education had been disrupted by the Cultural Revolution.
“Ours was called the ‘Class of ’77,’” Xiaoao says. “The youngest students were only 17 or 18 years old; the oldest were 32 or 33.” After graduating, Xiaoao returned to the screw factory. Then in July 1983, he transferred to the Social Sciences in China Press, where he organized resources and data for their library.
Only in the mid-’80s, long after Ju-ao had died, did Xiaoao start to get to know his father. The year 1985 was the 40th anniversary of China’s victory in the Second Sino-Japanese War, and a reporter from state news agency Xinhua interviewed the Mei family for an article on Ju-ao’s work during the Tokyo Trials. While organizing Ju-ao’s papers, his family found a stack of lined sheets wrapped in a bundle. Inside were several of Ju-ao’s journals, dating from the period after he was sent to Tokyo to act as China’s judge in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East.
In the journals, Xiaoao discovered a side to his father he had never known. As Xiaoao remembered them, his parents had lived a frugal and disciplined life, with no sign of any particular affection between them. However, Ju-ao the diarist was fervently passionate about his wife. On April 15, 1946, when Ju-ao was in Tokyo, he wrote: “Today is our first wedding anniversary, and I have no idea where she is. Communication in China is difficult, and I’m left thinking of her with infinite affection. I can’t stop reminiscing about our life as it was on this day last year.”
The Westernized Ju-ao of these pages was quite different from the staid, regimented man with the thick regional accent his son remembered. This man could charm people from all over the world, ate Western food, spoke English, and occasionally reminisced about his time in the U.S. during the 1920s.
On April 20, 1946, exactly one month after his arrival in Japan, Ju-ao wrote mischievously: “I gave up cold water, iced tea, and sweet snacks before meals in April 1939. But now I’m breaking all of these taboos. I drink cold water every day, I eat ice cream at all hours, and everything I consume is some combination of salty and sweet. I alternate between hot and cold, all without regret! I feel like I did in my early 20s, when I was living abroad.”
As he read his father’s journals, Xiaoao realized how fascinating his father actually was. “He wrote in a very detailed, almost literary manner,” he says. “There aren’t many people who write in their journals like he did.”
One passage shows how Ju-ao imbued his work with rich descriptions of places and people: “It’s strange: As soon as morning came, the rain not only stopped, but the water also disappeared from every corner of the earth. I opened my window and saw the sun rising in the east over an azure sky. It felt just like the middle of spring, nothing like the overcast skies of yesterday. These things happen occasionally, and leave me feeling both overjoyed and excited.”
Slowly but surely, Xiaoao realized that the man who wrote these journals was very different from the bland, unambitious father he remembered from his childhood. “You’ll find that he was always considering things, that he had a lot of opinions, and that his heart was in a constant state of excitation,” he says.
Xiaoao later learned from his mother that his father had always kept a journal, though only a few fragments from the Tokyo Trials survive. At the end of his entry for May 13, 1946, Ju-ao wrote: “From the 14th, please see another volume.” Unfortunately this other volume was probably lost, along with the majority of his journals, at some point as the family moved across the country, from Chongqing in central China, to Hong Kong, and then on to Beijing. Or perhaps they disappeared during the house searches of the Cultural Revolution.
Xiaoao thinks the loss of his father’s records is a great shame. An intact set of Ju-ao’s journals would not only help the public to better understand the Tokyo Trials; it would also help a son to better understand his father.
From 1985 onward, organizing his father’s manuscripts became a central part of Xiaoao’s life. He used his free time at work to read his father’s writings more closely. Almost by osmosis, he went from knowing nothing about international law to having a basic understanding of the subject. In 1997, at the age of 45, Xiaoao transferred to the China Youth Daily. Once there, he developed a rapport with a number of publishing houses, which eventually allowed him to publish his father’s manuscripts.
Yet the two men were destined to keep missing each other. When Xiaoao was young, the age gap between father and son meant that they rarely communicated. But by the time Xiaoao was old enough to understand his father, Ju-ao was already gone.
After the publication of Ju-ao’s papers, more and more people sought his son out, hoping to turn his father’s life into a TV show, movie, or biopic. Some writers came to Xiaoao with screenplays that had embellished or fabricated scenes added in.
Xiaoao and his sister rejected all of these offers. To begin with, they did not feel that their father was all that influential; after all, his only politically momentous accomplishment was to participate in the Tokyo Trials. Second, their mother taught them both that if they wanted to view their father as a serious historical figure, they needed to remain faithful to the man he was and refrain from distorting the details of his life, however trivial.
Instead, Xiaoao has continued to organize and publish his father’s writings. In July of this year, he went to Baotou, in Inner Mongolia, to announce the publication of his father’s memoirs in a book entitled “My Personal Experience at the Tokyo Trial.”
Xiaoao thinks that his and his father’s different paths in life are largely due to the different times in which they lived. While his father grew up in fragmented interwar China, Xiaoao came of age during the political turbulence of the Cultural Revolution. When he was 14 years old, his school closed. At 17, he went to the countryside, far from any educational opportunities. It was his first experience as a farmworker, and the first time he tasted poverty. Ju-ao’s class background meant that the family was treated harshly by society.
Xiaoao’s continuous revision and publication of Ju-ao’s journals has proved cathartic for him, and has restored to Ju-ao some of the public recognition he deserves. Perhaps strangely, he seems not to begrudge the forces that alienated him from Ju-ao for so many years. “My father’s generation was shaped by the times in which he lived, and it was the same for our generation,” he says. “For us, especially with regard to academic knowledge, what we know is permanently warped, uneven. Every era leaves its marks; this is inescapable.”
A Chinese version of this article first appeared on the website of The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication.
(Header image: Japanese defendants accused of war crimes stand in the dock at the International War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo, Japan, May 14, 1946. VCG)