25 WORDS - All About the Book

“The beacon fire has gone higher and higher. Words from household are worth their weight in gold”. These famous verses were written by an ancient Chinese poet DU Fu more than a thousand years ago, depicting the eagerness for affection from people who were separated from their relatives during the war.

The ordinary postal services during World War II were cut off in all the countries involved in the war. A Chinese family of parents and eight children were split among the United States, Germany, Japan, and China, enduring the agony of losing touch with their loved ones. The only means for them to communicate was through the messages delivered via the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Under the circumstances, each message was limited to only 25 words (or 25 Chinese characters) written in a special form provided by the ICRC.

HE Cheng, the father of the family, was one of the revolutionaries who had endeavored to overthrow the feudal empire in the early 1900s. Having witnessed the suffering of his nation and its people, he realized that the only hope to save the country lay in advanced science and technology. Therefore, he swore to send all of his eight children abroad, specifically to the eight countries of “Eight-Nation Alliance” that together conquered Beijing in 1900. He hoped that his children could acquire the knowledge necessary to serve their mother country in the future.

Bringing with them their father’s dream, four of HE’s eight children went overseas to study. The remaining four had to stay behind due to the outbreak of World War II, and managed to complete their university studies in China intermittently during the war. However, the ten family members were scattered in eight different places. The children living overseas missed terribly their motherland as well as their parents, brothers and sisters back home.

During the Japanese war of aggression against China, which started in 1937 prior to World War II, the ICRC appealed to the Japanese Red Cross Society to offer humanitarian aid to the Chinese, including mail correspondence between POWs (prisoners of war) and civilians. However, the ICRC’s request was turned down by the Japanese military and the Japanese Red Cross Society.

Still, the ICRC sent its own representatives to the Chinese combat zones, where they worked hard in the tough surroundings with very limited supplies, visiting hospitals and wounded soldiers. However, the means of correspondence remained a problem.

Thanks to the ICRC’s perseverance, the Japanese military finally gave in and approved the Red Cross message delivery operation beginning in 1943 in Shanghai, Chongqing, and Hong Kong. However, the service wasn’t open to the other regions of China until the end of the War.

Three Swiss men then started their work as the ICRC representatives in Chongqing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. One of them was a businessman named Edouard Egle, who had done business in Shanghai for years. Owing to his tremendous effort to accomplish the ICRC mission, he made possible a story like the HE’s, as told in this film.

HE Yizhen, the eldest daughter of the HE family, studied in the US in the 1930s and 40s at Ward-Belmont College and the University of Michigan, and graduated with a PhD degree. Specializing in the spectroscopy of transition metals, she had done research in the atomic spectrum of rare earth elements, being the first person to discover the spectral line of yttrium ranging from visible light to UV-light.

HE Zeming, the eldest son, graduated from Tokyo University in Japan in the 1930s, majoring in metallurgy.

HE Zehui, the second daughter, studied ordnance and ballistics in Germany in the 1940s, and graduated with a PhD degree. Her choice of specialty was motivated by her ambition to help China make weapons to defeat the Japanese invaders.

HE Zeyong, the second son, graduated from the Medical Department of Keio University in Japan in the 1940s, and later became a renowned cytologist.

The other four children of the HE family all graduated from universities in China in the 1940s during the War: the third daughter, HE Zeying, from Soochow University of Shanghai, the third son, HE Zeyuan, from Nantong Textile College, the fourth son, HE Zecheng, from Institute of Technology, North China University, and the fifth son, HE Zeqing, from Tsinghua University.

During World War II, with no postal service between most countries, all the ICRC letters had to be transferred via its headquarters in Geneva, which therefore prolonged delivery. In addition, the letters were closely checked by the governments of the enemy states. As a result, it could take 6-12 months for a letter to be delivered to its recipient. For the HE family, the wait could be as long as one year and seven months.

Although the ICRC had employed all types of vehicles - trains, ships and cars, it was hardly enough to handle all the letters, averaging 70,000 daily, which poured into the Geneva headquarters. Four thousand volunteers, divided into 96 groups, were working around the clock to process these letters. Throughout the War, the ICRC had successfully delivered over 100,000,000 letters between POWs and their families, over 20,000,000 letters to civilians residing in the belligerent states, and 3,600 Red Cross parcels.

In fact, as early as the time of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the ICRC had begun delivering messages for the governments and families between the belligerent states. Millions of letters were delivered by the ICRC during World War I. Helping families contact their loved ones during the war was one of the humanitarian initiatives that had inspired Sir Henri Dunant to create the ICRC. The humanitarian support offered by the Red Cross goes beyond healing a wounded body, and such humanity has done even more in comforting a soul.

While the Red Cross had enabled the HE’s to reconnect with each other, the family encountered some new challenges. The elder sister, HE Yizheng, had to give up contact with her family for confidentiality because her husband, GE Tingsui, was involved in ’Project Manhattan’ and other military projects at the Radiation Lab of MIT. In the meantime, the younger sister, HE Zehui, living in Germany, had lost touch with her family for over two years and had not heard from her elder sister either.
In 1943, correspondence via the Red Cross was restored between Germany and France, and HE Zehui was able to reconnect with her university classmate, QIAN Sanqiang, who was then working in the Curie Lab in France. Their budding romance was communicated through a 25-word message. It was the power of love and hope that they came to depend on to survive those rough times. But sadly 25 words were all they could have in the message - it was the shortest yet most romantic love letter in the world.

As the War went on, even more letters poured into the ICRC from people around the world seeking help in search of their loved ones. The ICRC had to recruit more people to handle the increasing workload. Letters came in many different languages, and so they had to be translated by staff who were well versed in those languages. Some letters were so long that they had to be summarized and copied onto small cards, which further strained resources.

The anxiety to hear from loved ones grew stronger as the War kept raging on. People were so anxious to receive messages from the Red Cross. Although each message was short with only 25 words, it meant a whole world to them knowing that their loved ones were safe and sound.

The HE family had to endure the pain and anxiety until the end of the War when HE Yizhen was finally able to explain why she had not had any contact with the family for a while. In the first spring after the War, HE Zehui went to Paris and married QIAN Sanqiang - a happy ending to their romance witnessed by the 25 words. She later went to work in the Curie Lab as well. They became well known for discovering the tri-partition and quad-partition of uranium fission, and were dubbed ‘the Curies of China.’

When the War and all its associated hardships were finally over, the HE family unfortunately lost their father in the following spring. And their mother passed away two years later. The opportunity was forever gone for the family to be together again.

At the time that the eldest sister, HE Yizhen, left home to study abroad, her brothers and sisters were still very young. While those siblings were grown up now, the parents were gone. Among all the pictures taken within those ten years, there had not been a single one with the eight siblings together. The four siblings who had studied overseas eventually returned to China and became renowned experts in their specialties as physicists or professors. They had eventually fulfilled their father’s long cherished dream.

Having accomplished its mission in World War II, the 25-word correspondence program was discontinued. But the ICRC didn’t stop working on the numerous letters received during the War, whose recipients were yet to be located. This work went on for 11 years.

The ICRC had never given up the effort because those who had sent in the letters for help might still be searching for their loved ones. After the War ended, Mr. Egle was appointed by the Japanese Red Cross to assist with the humanitarian aid to the Japanese POWs in Shanghai. Mr. Egle gave up his career as a businessman due to the War and devoted himself to the mission of the Red Cross until he lost his life on duty in Senegal in the 1960s.

The 25 words were the beacon of hope and reassurance for thousands of people at a time of the brutal war. Shining through all those messages and those who had tirelessly delivered them was the ultimate humanity.

Unfortunately, the journey that the eight HE siblings had embarked on to serve their country was not without obstacles. As the ultra-left political movement was rampant in China throughout the 1950s to 70s, many scholars and intellectuals were deprived of their work and even freedom. During the ‘cultural revolution’, HE Yizhen and her husband, who was an expert in the study of internal friction of metals, were both publicly criticized and detained. QIAN Sanqiang, known as China’s ‘Father of the Atomic-bomb’, and his wife, HE Zehui, were forced to do labor in the field.

The other siblings had experienced the same misery and persecution. In those dark days, the intellectuals in China suffered inconceivable deprivations. They were denied the freedom of scientific research, or worse, were relentlessly persecuted and jailed; many therefore took their own life. Consequently, scientific advances were devastatingly set back and the entire country fell into an unprecedented, catastrophic chaos.

The HE siblings once again lost touch with their friends and relatives overseas, without any means of correspondence to the outside world, not even the possibility of 25 words, as the Chinese Red Cross had to cease operations. But even if there had been an opportunity, no one at the time would have dared contact someone in the countries that were deemed China’s political enemies.

By the end of the 1970s, all the miseries finally came to an end. Today four out of the eight siblings are still alive, all in their 90s. Their eldest sister, HE Yizhen, passed away in July 2008 at the age of 98. Her children found her collection of Red Cross letters - among them were the correspondence from family in World War II and those from her old classmates and friends in the US who were trying to get in touch with her in that ultra-left era.

Compared to the deceased in the War and in the ultra-left era, the HE siblings were considered lucky to have been able to find comfort in the 25 words. Bygones be bygones, what they would never forget were the 25 words filled with memories from the War, as well as the beautiful times they had spent with their loved ones…

This film is co-produced by Red Cross Society of China and Red Cross Society of China Universal Love Fund and Soba International Group , with assistance from the ICRC. A book of the same title will also be released, with a foreword by Mr. François Bugnion who is a member of the ICRC. Mr. Bugnion is an expert in the Red Cross history and acts as the consultant of the film.