Spanish professor recalls his survival of WWII, bombings and poverty

Sixteen years ago, Zhiyuan Chen, a Spanish professor, came to Boone, N.C. after leaving his teaching position from the University of Kansas.

But prior to that, Chen lived in China until 1986 where he lived through the end of World War II, bombings and poverty.

Chen was born in the town of Kunming in Southwest China, during World War Two in 1942. A year Chen referred to as “one of the most difficult times in the world.”

“The Japanese army bombed the city from time to time and my father carried me whenever there was an alarm,” Chen said. “We had to escape to the caves to avoid the bombing of the Japanese Air Force.”

Chen said he also remembers living in humble conditions as a result of the horrible economic situation.

But he said he can recall being happy especially around Tshinghua University students, in Beijing, China.

After WWII was over, Chen’s family moved to Beijing, which was part of Nationalist China led by Chiang Kai-shek.

The corrupt government caused horrific inflation and left the people in extreme poverty, Chen said.

“In 1948, if you wanted 100 kilos of rice you needed 300 kilos of money,” Chen said. “My father had a high salary compared to the common people but we lived a humble life. The common people were very poor.”

Even as a member of a more privileged family, Chen said he suffered from hunger.

In 1949, the Communist Army occupied Beijing as part of its mission to take over all of China. It was a peaceful occupation, Chen said he even recalls playing with some of the communist soldiers as a 5-year-old boy.

The peace was interrupted when Chiang Kai-shek, in an effort to maintain power, started bombing the university just outside the city.

“That I remember because we had a beautiful house on the campus near a lake and I remember a big bomb dropped in the lake,” Chen said.

The bomb didn’t explode, Chen said, but it gave everybody a scare.

Life improved a lot after 1949, Chen said, which he credits the communists for.

Chen was a part of the first group of students selected to study abroad from China after the country started to reform, establishing the Open Door Policy in 1980. This allowed him to leave the country of China for the first time, he said.

He studied at the National University of Mexico where he earned his first masters degree in two and a half years. He then returned to China to teach as a professor as well as work as a translator and interpreter.

Now, beyond teaching his class, Chen runs a program with the Mexican Ministry of Public Education. He takes students from Appalachian and brings them to Mexico where they teach English as a second language.

“It is great to have a Spanish linguist coming from a diverse international background,” Benito del Pleigo, a fellow Spanish professor, said.

Spanish professor Ben Souza, said he remembers Chen giving him a walking visit of Appalachian when he first came.

“It was interesting,” Souza said. “He was very nice and actually, has quite a sense of humor.”


Story: STEPHANIE SANSOUCY, Intern News Reporter