Selected Modern Chinese Essays: A Profile of Sa Zhenbing

◎ Bing Xin

I’ll always hold Mr. Sa Zhenbing in high esteem. When I was six or seven, I often heard my father say, “Of all personnel in the Chinese Navy, Sa Zhenbing is the only one deserving the title of model officer. ”Since then, whatever Mr. Sa says or does has held my respectful attention and added to my admiration for him. Many people whom I used to look up to in my childhood have turned out to be very disappointing. Now the thought of Mr. Sa, however, has enabled me to retain confidence in mankind and forge ahead with renewed courage.

Here I’m going to write about his fine words and deeds as I’ve mostly learned from my father. I’m unable to recall the exact dates. I intend some day to write a biography of him when I’ve collected sufficient material about his life. Now gratitude is due to my father, who has tried to inculcate only the best example into a young mind.

Admiral Sa Zhenbing, whose formal name is Ding Ming, was born in Minhou County, Fujian Province, in 1860(?). He enrolled at Fuzhou Mawei Naval Academy at the age of 12, among its second batch of cadets, and then entered Greenwich College in England at the age of 18. After he came back from abroad, he served as an instructor at the Academy of Marine Engineering in Tianjin. It happened that my father was then receiving training in navigation at Tianjin Naval Academy. That’s how they got acquainted.

While at the Academy of Marine Engineering, Mr. Sa slept on a specially made narrow, small plank bed like in a ship. He said, “We soldiers shouldn’t seek ease and comfort. Our life on sea or shore should be alike. ”He worked conscientiously as an instructor. He would often award to good cadets his personal belongings, such as his watch, or even his cane chair when he had nothing valuable to spare. Outside class, he would often teach cadets how to dig out gun emplacements on the drill ground with spades and shovels. The Marine Engineering Academy was situated on the south and the Navel Academy on the north, with the drill ground in-between. President of the Marine Engineering Academy Wu Zhongxiang, who happened to live in the Navel Academy, disapproved of cadets doing rough work, being himself a bookish type. So, when the cadets were in the middle of wielding their spades and shovels, Mr. Sa would stand at the side of the drill ground to keep watch lest President Wu should crop up making his rounds.

Father and Mr. Sa began to know each other better when they both served on the warship Hai Yin around 1900. Mr. Sa was then Deputy Navy Commander and concurrently captain of the ship while father was its second in command.

During the 1900 Boxer War, the warship Hai Rong directly under the personal command of Navy Commander Ye Zugui was pinned down at Dagu by the eight-power allied forces, and the torpedo boats the Hai Long, Hai Xi, Hai Qing and Hai Hua were captured by them. Meanwhile, Governor of Shandong Yuan Shikai sent out a letter suggesting that the Hai Yin, Hai Chen, Hai Chou and Hai Tian, ships of the Northern Fleet then anchored at Miao Island, Shandong Province, all move to the Yangtze River so as to steer clear of the formidable foe. Thereupon all the ships retreated southward except the Hai Yin. When Yihetuan threatened the lives of foreign residents in China, Mr. Sa let all foreign missionaries and nationals take shelter in his ship and be well taken care of until the uprising was over. When the US cruiser Oregonstruck a reef near Miao Island, the Hai Yin rushed to the scene for its rescue, for which American Congress immediately sent a message of thanks. And the captain of the US ship, while expressing gratitude to Mr. Sa, also advised him to move his ship to the south. Consequently the Hai Yin sailed into Jiangyin near the mouth of the Yangtze River.

The departure of the other ships had shaken the morale of the men on the lone vessel. Many deserted after going ashore under pretext of seeing a doctor. All were in a state of alarm and together petitioned for the ship to seek shelter in the south. There was a horrible hubbub of voices on the deck. Father was making every effort to pacify the men when suddenly Mr. Sa emerged from the cabin sword in hand, shouting sternly, “Stop the racket, or you die!”Shocked by the great anger on the otherwise benevolent face, the ship crew rapidly dispersed, and the Hai Yin remained moored at the same old place until the American captain offered his advice.

Discipline was exemplary on Mr. Sa’s ship. He often donated money from his personal purse for repairs of public property, saying jokingly to father, “Other captains make gold bracelets for their wives, I make them to deck out my ship. ”Once, during a shooting practice on the ship, a gun officer through carelessness damaged the bore of a light gun worth more than 20, 000 yuan. Mr. Sa gave away his monthly salaries to pay for the damaged gun by instalments. When the news later reached Navy Commander Ye Zugui and Yuan Shikai, then Governor-General of Hebei Province, the latter immediately remitted money to pay for the damaged gun. Hence, one of the light guns on the Hai Yin has since been known as Yuan’s gift.

Often on his ship, especially on a drill ship like the Wei Yuan, Kang Ji or Tong Ji, Mr. Sa would teach the cadets how to row a sampan, swim across the water or practise shooting—not only as daily military training, but also as recreational activities. In navigating, he would let the cadets do the piloting instead of hiring a boatman to do it. That made Navy Commander Ye complain with a frown, “Sa is too reckless, always trusting the young chaps!”Yet, for several decades no mishap has ever befallen the ship under Mr. Sa’s command.

Mr. Sa is very fond of talent and shows deep sympathy and care for officers and men. When he went ashore on business by sampan, he would have the sails unfurled on a windy day so as to save labor on the part of the sailors. He had no orderly with him when making visits on land, but would, when necessary, borrow a servant from a land-based friend of his. He never tried to find a job for any of his relatives during the several decades when he was in a position of power as Naval Vice-Minister, Naval Minister or Governor of Fujian Province. When relatives came from distant places to seek his patronage, he would persuade them to return home after giving them traveling expenses or some money with which to go into business, saying, “To hold down a post in the navy without naval training, you would be a real dog in the manger. ”

Mr. Sa and his wife Chen were deeply in love with each other. Once, when Mr. Sa was bedridden in Yantai, his wife came hurriedly from Weihaiwei to visit him, but he immediately sent her away. People, however, looked on it disapprovingly. When he became widowed at the age of 36, he entrusted his children to the care of his in-laws. He has since been wifeless. When people asked him why he didn’t remarry, he said, “Not unless I can find a woman precisely like my late wife. ”

He lives a simple life. He never wears a Western suit, nor fur or cotton-padded clothes. Generally, he wears cloth shoes and socks, and a woolen mandarin jacket and long gown. He denies himself every luxury in life. He has never held a birthday party for himself, nor has he accepted any birthday present. He has no hobby except mah-jong which he plays for fun once in a long, long while—and that with copper coins only.

He lives in a very humble house. He did all the repairs for the landlord. He grew flowers and plants, paved the ground with bricks and renovated the gate and doors. His rooms with bare walls are simply furnished. When he was Naval Vice-Minister, he bought a house in the western part of Peiping, which was later given to a former classmate of his after he moved to the south. When he was Governor of Fujian, he worked in the huge compound which used to be the yamen of the former Qing-Dynasty governor-general. He had most of the yamen buildings, together with the surrounding walls, pulled down except a few rooms where he held office. The nearby street has to this day been generally referred to as“Su Wei Street”in honor of Mr. Sa , the“su wei”(meaning“awe-inspiring”) Admiral.

“Su wei”, however, is not an adequate epithet for him, for he is in fact a very witty and outgoing man. He is fond of giving a dinner for just a small number of friends. After attending a banquet collectively hosted by some people, he will give a return dinner for them in small batches. He said, “When there are too many guests, it’s hard to take very good care of everyone. On the contrary, at a small dinner everybody can thoroughly enjoy themselves. ”In preparing a dinner, he will personally check up every dish and see to it that everything is neat and clean. He also likes to entertain foreign friends at a dinner. He likes personally to rearrange from time to time the simple furnishings in his house. If any article of daily use or ornamental object happens to catch the fancy of a guest, he will immediately give it to him, usually by calling at the latter’s house in person instead of by sending a servant.

He writes letters in a beautiful hand, always paying attention to small details, such as dates and addresses. He also likes to write poems, and he and father often write poetry in response to each other. He disapproves of naval academies employing scholars to teach Chinese on the ground that decadent literati may taint young cadets with unhealthy habits. He said, “Though I entered the naval academy at an early age of 12, my Chinese is passable. Language can be mastered through self-study, not by learning to write empty stereotyped essays. ”

Though it is more than twenty years since I last saw Mr. Sa, several things have left an indelible impression on my memory. Once, when I was about six, he came to Yantai on an inspection tour and put up at the local naval training camp. One afternoon, at the invitation of father, he was to have dinner at our home at 7 pm. At 6:55 pm, father went with me to the gate to wait for him, saying, “The Admiral is punctual to the minute. He always comes to a host’s gate several minutes earlier and refuses to come in until exactly the appointed time. Now we shouldn’t let him wait too long. ”As soon as we stepped out, we saw him already standing at the gate as expected. Dressed in a black woollen gown, he was all smiles.

He was very courteous and considerate. Once, when he was in our home to discuss official business with father, he was treated to some pastries, which, as father told him inadvertently, had been prepared by mother. Then as he was about to leave us at the gate, he suddenly turned back to say to father thoughtfully, “Thanks a lot to your wife for the real delicious pastries. ”

Father’s drawing room has always been decorated with few pieces of calligraphy and paintings because he himself is not a connoisseur of art. The same with photos because he has not too many friends. But, although he has moved several times, from north to south or vice versa, his drawing room is always hung with Mr. Sa’s portrait and written couplet given to him as a gift, which reads as follows:

Rich or poor, all is vanity,

Ups and downs, old friends remain true.

I hear that he now lives in Fuzhou, selling the calligraphy he writes to subsidize public welfare undertakings and providing relief to people in disaster areas. In Xiadu, Fuzhou, a model village has been set up with donations he collected from the naval circles. The villagers love him deeply. They have erected a pavilion to pay tribute to him. They visit him on New Year’s Day and other festivals. On laba Festival, they call on him to present him with laba porridge—a kind of rice porridge they make, as a tradition, with nuts and dried fruit.

Numerous other things I’ve heard about him will make valuable material too. But pardon me for leaving off now, for it is deep night and I’m tired. Anyway, I might as well put the rest in the biography I’m going to write about him in the future. Now I would like to speak my mind about the present situation in our country. Some time ago, an order issued by the Executive Yuan to“stamp out corruption”shocked me to realize how the country is being plagued by countless corrupt officials and how they have even been joined by some otherwise honest officials in seizing public property at will.

Now, rather than enumerating the many cases of corruption I’ve seen or heard of, I hold aloft the noble image of an honest and upright man so that our friends now fighting corruption may look up at it and feel they are not isolated…

Let me from afar wish the venerable old man to enjoy good health and longevity.