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Now in her 80s, the subject of a communist soldier rescue prays for peace

ERIC DEGGANS, HOST:

Our next story is about one woman's work to keep a moment in Chinese history alive. Think back to the late 1940s and the civil war between China's communists and nationalists. In the final days of that conflict, a young girl found herself on a beach with nowhere to hide as a battle erupted around her. Communist soldiers saved her, sacrificing their lives in the process. Now, more than 70 years later, NPR's John Ruwitch caught up with her.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Zeng Axing lives in a temple right on the beach in Fujian province, where she nearly died. She's in her upper 80s now with hollowed cheeks and weathered skin.

ZENG AXING: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: She's hard of hearing, too. And when NPR showed up, she thought we were tourists who just wanted a picture with her as she finished placing incense sticks in urns. A lot of tourists do come here to see Zeng and the temple which she built.

ZENG: (Through interpreter) It was from old woman's heart. Nothing special.

RUWITCH: But this temple is special. From the outside, it looks like other temples in China - an ornate wood and marble building with carved pillars. It has an orange tile roof adorned with a pair of dragons. However...

ZENG: (Through interpreter) 24 soldiers sacrificed themselves on the beach. Three others died nearby. I built this temple to honor the 27 soldiers all together.

RUWITCH: It not only honors them. It defies them. Inside the main hall at the front altar sit 24 statuettes of the soldiers. Their serene faces and long ears resemble Buddhist and Daoist sculptures. Each is about two feet tall. They're dressed in the powder-blue uniforms of the People's Liberation Army. Some hold pistols, others medical kits. One has a bugle. All wear hats with a red star.

ZENG: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: Ah.

Zeng says in the past, there were temples built to honor other mortals, like Koxinga, a Ming Dynasty general, or the ninth century shaman who became Mazu, the goddess of seafarers.

ZENG: (Through interpreter) The PLA Soldiers also saved a lot of people back then, so I want to build a temple for them.

RUWITCH: The irony, of course, is that those soldiers were fighting for a staunchly atheist political party, one that, 74 years later, still rules China today and still has a complicated relationship with religion.

ZENG: (Through interpreter) It was so hard to build a temple for the soldiers. I spent a lot of money. Everything was difficult.

RUWITCH: When local officials were supportive, things went smoothly. When they weren't, the project was delayed. The temple was completed in 1996. It was a boom time for China's economy. Politics was pushed to the background. Religion flourished. The army temple gained a following, and it was rebuilt more elaborately with more money in 2005. Inside, a woman tosses jiaobei, or moon blocks. They're curved pieces of wood for a kind of fortune telling. Zeng explains.

ZENG: (Through interpreter) People need to have a good idea what they want to pray for in front of the PLA soldiers. The soldiers are clean, and if you come clean, they will protect you. If you play dirty, they will ignore your request.

RUWITCH: The temple has had visits over the years by generals and local officials. Zeng says soldiers come on the anniversary of the founding of the army and on tomb sweeping day in the spring. Under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, though, the government has clamped down on religion, most notably Islam in the far west, where the authorities have run a relentless campaign of assimilation and detention of Muslims.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: At one point, Zeng's grandson rushes over and tells us we need permission from local officials to do interviews here. The government's rules state otherwise, though, and Zeng herself was undeterred. A month after the battle on the beach all those years ago, communist forces declared victory and established the People's Republic of China. The nationalists had fled to Taiwan and nearby islands, where they set up a government that exists to this day.

ZENG: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: With tensions on the rise again and increasing talk of war, Zeng says she prays each day to the spirits of those soldiers who saved her life.

ZENG: I have lived a painful life, and now I'm telling you that I pray for peace. I don't want anything else. I don't want the money. Just peace so that we can eat, live a happy life and be safe.

RUWITCH: That, she says, would be enough. John Ruwitch, NPR News, Chongwu, China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.

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