Emi Siao 萧三 and Eva Sandberg Siao (Emi and Eva Xiao)
Emi Siao 萧三 (Xiāo Sān, also called Emi Xiao,1896 - 1983) was born near Dongshan, Hunan Province in a town called Xiangxiang 湘乡. His given name was 萧子嶂 Xiāo Zǐzhàng but as a writer he adopted the names 埃弥·萧 Āimí Xiāo or(爱梅 Àiméi), both names convert to Emi. When he went abroad, he chose to use Siao rather than Hsiao as the Romanization of his name. Today, the pinyin would be Xiāo.
When Emi Siao attended Dongshan elementary school, he was befriended by an older boy, Mao Zedong. Although three years older than the 13 year old Emi, they were able to talk about books and dreams together. Mao had already read the classics by that time and Emi admired him. When Mao went off to Changsha to attend high school, Emi followed. At first they were in separate schools but Emi visited him. At the time of the Wuchang Uprising, Mao told Emi that he was going to be a soldier. He didn't. He remained in school. Mao took first place in his examinations. When Emi asked him how he did it, Mao told him it wasn't enough to read, but you had to think about it. While in Changsha, Emi joined Mao and others to create the "New Citizen Society" (新民学会 Xīnmín Xuéhuì) and published poems and essays in the "Xiang river Commentaries" (湘江评论). The purpose of the society was to research methods to improve the customs and mores (风俗) of the people.
In 1918 Yang Changji (杨昌济), their teacher, was invited to teach at Beijing University. He took Mao Zedong and Emi Siao with him. This was an important time for both of them. They were poor and they were "hicks" from Hunan. Emi related a story about going to Tianjin with Mao. Mao needed to find a bathroom and when he couldn't, he approached a policeman to ask the way. Rather than answering, the policeman challenged them and asked what they had in their rather large bag. Mao immediately backed up and guarded the bag, Emi caught on and did the same. The policeman seized the bag and opened it to find two toothbrushes and some clothes. Whereupon, they had a good laugh.
In 1920, both boys were offered the chance to go to France to study, but Mao decided to return to Changsha and open a bookstore and explore radical writings. Emi Siao went to France to study and learn the language. In 1922 he returned to China and joined the Communist Party. He may have returned to China because of the death of his first wife and daughter. He had been married in 1914 to 谭雪君 Tán Xuějūn; a marriage arranged by his family.
He became the secretary of the Communist Youth League Executive Committee in the North District. From 1923 to 1924, he attended Moscow University of the Toilers of the Far East to study communism and help organize Chinese students in Moscow. While there, he met many other young revolutionaries and poets. Notably, Nazim Hikmet, a Turkish revolutionary poet and writer who would portray him in a long poem entitled "Gioconda and Si-Ya-U." After Emi had left Moscow in 1924, word reached the students at the school that he had been killed in Shanghai during the revolution.
Nazim Hikmet memorialized him in the 300 line poem casting him as a dapper, fashionably dressed Chinese revolutionary in love with Gioconda (the Mona Lisa) who returns his love. When Si-Ya-U returns to China and the revolution, Gioconda is impassioned and breaks free from her frame in the Louvre to become a revolutionary herself. She goes to Shanghai and is just in time to see the execution of Si-Ya-U. She is arrested and returned to France where she is burned at the stake, coupling the Joan d'Arc image with the revolution. It was quite a surprise for Hikmet when, in 1951, he met Emi at the World Peace Conference in Vienna.
When Emi returned to China in 1924, he organized youth organizations and work groups. During his work he met Vasa (瓦萨 Wǎsa), a Russian girl and fell in love. She had come from Vladivostok in 1925 to teach Russian at Beijing University. By 1927 Emi Siao's health began to suffer and it was decided to send him to Russia for medical treatment. This was also the year of the purge of Communists by the Guomindang. Before he left, he married Vasa and they went to Vladivostok together. The marriage didn't last. As his health returned, he was anxious to return home to the revolution, but Vasa wanted a quiet home and family. They parted amicably. He returned home and got a divorce, or got a divorce and went home. In China he returned to work organizing and writing for various committees. He was sent to Moscow in 1930 and again in 1934 as the Chinese delegate to represent the Chinese Writer's Union, a leftist organization.
In 1934, he met Eva Sandberg, a German photographer. Eva Sandberg was born to a Jewish family in Breslau in 1911. Her family was well educated and both she and her brother studied fine arts. He studied music and she studied graphic design and photography. By 1930, it was clear that Germany was not safe for Jewish families. Eva had had trouble at school with a professor because of her Jewish background, and she left Germany to go to Stockholm where her brother was a conductor. She occupied various jobs until, in 1934, it was suggested that she travel to the Soviet Union.
In 1935, they were married. Eva had to become a Soviet citizen in order to stay in Russia with Emi. Her citizenship would limit her travel options in the future. At the time, there was no question of wanting to return to Germany. The Nazis and Hitler had come to power in 1933 and set off the first wave of violence and persecution against the Jews. In Moscow, they settled into a life within the arts and literature community. Within a year, they had their first son.
In 1938, the Long March was over, and the center of the Communists was in the northwest mountain region in a city called Yan'an. That was where Emi wanted to be. In 1939 he still had to travel secretly, so he left Eva and his son behind in Russia.
On his return he was given tasks to organize the arts and do translation work. Emi was fluent in several languages, including French and Russian. By 1940, he had gotten permission from Mao Zedong to send for his family and Eva and the boy were able to join him in Yan'an.
It wasn't a comfortable life. The army was still bivouacked in caves and temporary housing. But they were together. Soon a second son was born. Emi was in charge of promoting cultural events. Mao supported the arts as well as educational institutions during the sojourn in Yan'an. He was building a new culture.
One day Emi received a visit from a young woman who had a letter of introduction from his younger sister. The young woman, 甘露 Gān Lù, wished to study at Yan'an University. She also had an enormous crush on the famous poet. Emi helped her to apply and settle in. She had studied Beijing Opera in Zhejiang before going to Yan'an and continued to practice and perform in Yan'an. One evening in 1943, she and classmates put on a production of the opera "Mulan", with Gan Lu taking the part of Mulan. She was superb. In fact, so effective, that Emi fell head over heels in love. She was 21 and he was 47.
Eva was not pleased. She packed up the children and went to Moscow, even before the divorce was formalized. In Moscow, she found that the climate had changed and her friends advised her to go elsewhere. Russia was at war with Germany and had endured 2 of the most horrendous years of slaughter. Eva might be a Soviet citizen and a Jew, but she was German. She ended up in Kazakhstan, scraping by with her photography.
In the meantime, Emi continued to write both essays and poetry and to serve on committees. He and his young wife had two sons and moved to Beijing with the rest of the government as the Guomindang forces were pushed further south. He was working on a biography of Mao Zedong and the revolution and was still involved with international cultural exchanges.
It was in this last capacity that he returned to Moscow in 1949. He traveled to Kazakhstan to see Eva and the boys. As far as Eva was concerned, they were still married. Emi rediscovered his love for her and they moved in together.
When Emi brought her and the children back with him, they went to see Zhou Enlai. Zhou Enlai was shocked to see her and asked "Aren't you divorced?" Eva replied that the piece of paper was from the Guomindang and she hadn't signed it. Zhou Enlai extended all of his considerable power to straighten the mess out. He convinced Gan Lu to accept a divorce and helped her to move to Shanghai where she continued a career in opera. He then had Emi and Eva remarry, just to keep things neat. Zhou Enlai let Emi know that he had better clean up his act and settle down to a calm domestic life.
Emi turned his attention to another biography of Mao's early days which would be published in 1953 Mao Zedong: His childhood and youth. He published collections of poems in 1952, 1953, 1959, and 1963.
Eva worked for TASS, the Soviet news agency and then for the China News Agency. She traveled all over China and even went to Tibet and made a documentary about the Dalai Lama. In 1956, The Peking Opera by Chen Lin-jui with photographs by Eva was published. Along the way, she and Emi had a third child, another son.
Emi continued to work in international cultural exchange and in the early 1960's continued to have a series of friends from Russia visit them in Beijing. The relationship between Russia and China had fallen apart publicly by 1960. The relationship that Emi had had with Russia was now suspect, his continued relationship with authors and poets from Russia led to whispers about his loyalty. In 1964, Eva became a Chinese citizen.
In June 1967, Emi and Eva were arrested by the Red Guard and placed in Qincheng Prison. Emi would spend the Cultural Revolution in solitary confinement. They were not released until 1974 and were subject to supervision and house arrest after that. The seven years in solitary had broken Emi's health. In 1979, restrictions were lifted as Hu Baoyang attempted to "rehabilitate" those who had suffered from the Cultural Revolution. Eva was able to get more work and travel for her photography. Emi died in 1983.
During the 1980's Eva traveled to West Germany (the Berlin Wall didn't come down until 1989), and made contacts with publishers and with the German television industry. She published a book of her photographs of China (China and its faces. Photographs of two decades, Nishen-Verlag, Berlin 1989) and contributed to German newspapers. In 1990, the documentary "China my love, my life, Eva Siao - A Portrait" appeared on German television. It accompanied the release of her book China: Mein Traum, mein Leben. Berlin: Gustav Lübbe Verlag, 1990. The two events changed her life once again.
Her last decade was one of awards, invitations from museums, honorary degrees, and accolades. She donated many photographs to museums such as the Joris Ivens Museum in the Netherlands. The body of her work was purchased by the Cologne Ludwig Museum and the Moderna Museet, in Stockholm. Eva Siao died in 2001 at the age of 90.
Last update: July 2009
© Marilyn Shea, 2009