Friendship between people of China and US always unchanging and inspirational: chronicler of a century-old friendship
Published: Jul 25, 2023 11:02 PM

An aerial view of Kuliang in Fuzhou, East China's Fujian Province. Photo: VCG

An aerial view of Kuliang in Fuzhou, East China's Fujian Province. Photo: VCG

Editor's Note:

"The Chinese people value friendship. We never forget our old friends, nor your historic contributions to promoting the growth of China-US relations and enhancing friendship between the two peoples," Chinese President Xi Jinping said during the meeting with former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger in Beijing, on July 20, 2023, the Xinhua News Agency reported. 

In the last few years, when China-US relations were at a low ebb, people-to-people exchanges between the two countries have never been interrupted. 

How should the two civilizations of China and the US coexist to bring prosperity and stability to their people? 

From serving at the grassroots to being the Chinese President, Xi has been a consistent builder of friendship with the American people. 

This story is a part of the "Witness to history" series by the Global Times, comprising of comprehensive interviews with people who have witnessed Xi's high regard for and personal efforts in promoting people-to-people friendship between China and the US. They have also actively demonstrated to the world that the will of the Chinese and American people is to cooperate, and how such cooperation is beneficial to the people of the two countries and the world.
Liu Zhonghan, 76, never imagined that the emotion he expresses in "Ah! Kuliang," a 1,800-word essay he wrote 31 years ago, would spread the story of the Gardner couple far and wide, and created a profound connection between himself and this small hillside area in Fuzhou, East China's Fujian Province. 

"Just like the legendary story of the Gardner couple and Kuliang becoming more well-known, the development of the China-US people-to-people friendship is like a snowball rolling. Now, this snowball has grown big and fast," Liu told the Global Times.

Liu Zhonghan  Photo: Courtesy of Fuzhou Kuliang administrative committee

Liu Zhonghan Photo: Courtesy of Fuzhou Kuliang administrative committee

At the end of June, when Liu came to Fuzhou for the third time to attend the "Bond with Kuliang: 2023 China-US People-to-People Friendship Forum," at which he met several good friends - the descendants of American families who once lived in Kuliang as early as a century ago, he felt surprised and gratified.

He was surprised by the tremendous changes in the cityscape of Fuzhou, and was gratified to witness the most genuine, enduring, and pure friendship between the people of China and the US, which is also part of the spiritual essence hidden in Kuliang's story.

A century of love for China

"When I met Elizabeth Gardner, her husband Milton Gardner, a university physics professor, had been deceased for two years, leaving behind a collection of Chinese memorabilia and the regret of never having been able to return to his second homeland," Liu recounted.

This is a story from 1985, just a few years after China's reform and opening-up began. Liu, an intellectual youth at that time from the countryside of Wuhan, Central China's Hubei Province, boarded a plane bound for San Francisco. He chose to pursue a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Davis.

Upon arriving in the US, in order to learn English and make new friends, Liu joined the local grassroots organization "International House," a nonprofit organization that matches new foreign arrivals with local elderly people. It was there that Liu met Elizabeth Gardner, who shared the story of her "Chinese" husband.

Milton Gardner traveled with his parents as an infant to China in 1901 and spent nearly a decade of his childhood in suburban Fuzhou's Kuliang. After returning to the US with his family in 1911, Gardner's greatest wish was to return to his childhood home in China.   

Unfortunately, he was never able to fulfill his wish.

"Kuliang, Kuliang..." Milton Gardner kept uttering the word in the final hours of his life. Elizabeth Gardner knew it was a place in China where her husband had spent his childhood, but she was unsure of the exact location. In order to fulfill her husband's last wish, Elizabeth Gardner visited China six times, but was unable to find her husband's hometown.

It wasn't until January 1992 that Liu found a clue in a stamp in Milton Gardner's China collection and confirmed that Kuliang was located in Fuzhou, based on the postmark. 

Subsequently, Liu wrote about this story in the People's Daily Overseas Chronicle, which attracted the attention of Xi Jinping, then secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Fuzhou Committee. Xi immediately instructed relevant authorities to invite Mrs. Gardner to visit Kuliang.

As Elizabeth Gardner's companion on her visit to Fuzhou, Liu still vividly remembers the warm reception they received in August 1992, when Elizabeth Gardner stayed at the Western-style stone villa in Kuliang and met local villagers, including her husband's childhood Chinese friends, with whom she shared joyful, tear-filled conversations.

Liu said the trip enabled more people to know about Kuliang and Fuzhou, enhancing and shining a light on the friendship between China and the US.

At that time, Milton Gardener's unfulfilled wish was finally realized. Elizabeth Gardner noted with sincerity that the beautiful, unique, kind, and great love of Kuliang let her understand why her husband was so deeply attached to this place, Liu told the Global Times.

At the end of the trip, Xi presented Elizabeth Gardner and Liu with beautiful Fuzhou lacquer craftworks and photo albums of their visit to Fuzhou. "The trip and photo albums became the most precious treasure for Elizabeth Gardner and me in our lives," he said.

Guests plant a tree of friendship in Kuliang, East China's Fujian Province. Photo: Courtesy of Fuzhou Kuliang administrative committee

Guests plant a tree of friendship in Kuliang, East China's Fujian Province. Photo: Courtesy of Fuzhou Kuliang administrative committee

Unending stories

Kuliang's story does not end there.

After graduation, Liu traveled frequently between China and the US for work, and he corresponded with Elizabeth Gardner until her death in 2002.

In 2012, when visiting the US as China's vice president, Xi shared the Kuliang story with the audience at a welcome luncheon held by US friendship groups, to a warm reception in both countries.

At the forum, Liu met Lee Gardner, Milton Gardner's grandnephew, who is in his 70s.

On June 26, 2023, a grand donation ceremony was held in Kuliang. Lee Gardner donated a complete family chronicle and related documents from several visits paid by him to Fuzhou, saying that his whole family is grateful to Xi for realizing the dream of a senior US citizen, and expressed his belief in the universality of words of love even in different languages.

Liu believed that while facing profound changes unseen in a century and increasing confrontations between countries, it is of great significance to explore and promote the story of Kuliang. 

"From the mid-19th century onward, a large number of foreigners came to Fuzhou to work and live. At its peak, Kuliang had over 300 Western-style villas. How could such a small hillside village attract people from different countries to live harmoniously? It is because the people living here have a welcoming mindset. The home of humanity should be like this: A peaceful and loving living environment that allows everyone to live with dignity and in harmony," Liu said.

From Elizabeth Gardner's description of her husband, as well as through extensive research, Liu learned that Milton Gardner wasn't just a brilliant academic who joined the MIT Radiation Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts during World War II, where he helped in the gargantuan task of developing and improving radar systems to overcome German and Japanese aggressors, but was also a staunch peace-loving anti-war campaigner.

It was through such virtues that, after returning to the US, Milton Gardener continued writing letters to his childhood friends in China, and collected the stamps on the letters he received, and preserved them through nearly a century of war and displacement.

"It shows that friendship between people transcends language, race, and ideology. However, some hegemonic countries ignore the most basic needs of their own people for small profits," Liu said.

Liu hopes that selfish politicians can listen to their conscience, and view opinion from the perspective of ordinary people, and especially in the context of interactions between the people of China and the US.

To Liu's relief, currently, Kuliang is no longer a mysterious place to peace-loving people in China and the US, and even around the world. There are still many beautiful and lovely stories like this to be told.