Gao Binghan brings back the ashes of Cheng Zhaocai and Zhang Xinlong from Taiwan to Jinan, Shandong province on Monday. [Photo by Zhao Ruixue/chinadaily.com.cn]
Eyes blurred by tears, hands trembling, the 80-year-old man slowly raised a box of ashes and put it into the case at an altar, murmuring: "My elder brother, finally you may rest in peace".
"Although trees grow tall, their falling leaves have to return to the roots," Gao Binghan said while settling the ashes of Chen Zhaocai at the altar at Changqing district of Jinan, capital of China's Shandong province, on Monday.
Born in Heze, Shandong province, Gao was among those who left the mainland for Taiwan in 1949 with the Kuomintang army. It was only in 1987 that people could finally begin to travel from Taiwan to the mainland.
On Monday, he brought back the ashes of Chen and Zhang Xinlong from Taiwan to Jinan. Both went to Taiwan in 1949 and had never been able to return.
"Chen and I were born in the same city. He (Chen) told me to try my best to bring his ashes back to his hometown after he died," said Gao.
Gao said Chen's relatives will visit Jinan to take Chen's ashes back to Heze.
"It's a great relief for me to fulfill my promise to bring their ashes back to the mainland, especially on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression," said Gao.
The ashes of Chen and Zhang are only two of more than 100 brought back by Gao during the past two decades.
"I am the head of the Heze association in Taiwan which has around 100 members born in Heze who went to Taiwan in 1949. Most of them are much older than me, so they said I might live to welcome the chance of returning to the mainland and hope I would bring their ashes back if they can't return to our hometown," said Gao.
He said nostalgia is the reason he kept bringing ashes back to the mainland to fulfill their last wish.
"We share the same nostalgia for our hometown. I know what they long for," said Gao.
In 1981, a friend who moved from Taiwan to Argentina and became an Argentinean citizen was able to return to the mainland after more than three decades.
The friend brought three kilograms of soil from Heze to Taipei. Gao divided the soil among more than 100 people who were born in Heze but lived in Taipei. Gao got two spoonfuls of soil and put one half in his safe, and drank the other with tea.
"When I left home, my mother told me to keep the soil from my shoes and make a drink with it when I felt unaccustomed to the new environment," said Gao.
He managed to send his mother a letter via a friend in America in 1979 when there was no postal service between Taiwan and the mainland.
But when he received a reply from his sister a year later, he learned that his mother had died in 1978.
"You won't know how much I missed my mum and my hometown," Gao said.
"We (people who left the mainland for Taiwan in 1949) share the same nostalgia, so when they come to me and asked me to bring their ashes back to the mainland, I just can't refuse".
The ashes of Zhang had stayed at Gao's home for five years as he couldn't find Zhang's relatives.
"To date, I have fulfilled their wishes to return to the mainland. I hope I could be buried in my hometown after I die," he said.