Erhai has three islands, and Jinsuo is the biggest of the three. It measures about 2 km from north to south, and has a width of 300 meters from east to west. The total area is about 770,000 square meters, practically all solid rock. "We are surrounded by water, the air is fresh, and the scenery is beautiful," said Zhang. "We love this island very much; our ancestors have lived here for over 300 years. We love the natural beauty, the scenery, and all the places we fish: fish fields, fish caves."
Zhang Bixiu was born in 1934 at Jinsuo Island on his family's boat. At that time the family was quite poor, making a living by fishing and transporting goods and people in their boat. He is one of seven children, with three brothers and three sisters. Of all the children he was the only one to go to school; he started in elementary school at the age of 10 but then had to drop out just three years later, at age 13, to help his parents fish and to work at part-time jobs with other fishermen. "Sometimes I helped them pull the long line to fish, sometimes I helped people catch snails. I remember in the winter, when I was 15 years old, wearing very thin clothes and barefoot, carrying bamboo fish traps into the boat. The water was deep and my feet were blistered with the cold. That work may have been the toughest in my life. I cast nets for fishermen at night, staying up all night, and then the next day I still had to clean out the fishing area before I could go to sleep."
Ages 14-17, Zhang worked on his own as a fisherman and also as hired help to other fishermen. Then he went with his father to work for half a year building the Yunnan-Tibet highway. Then he made a decision that changed his life. "In 1950," he said, "our village was liberated and the new government called on young people to join the army. At first we were scared to join because we knew that life in the army was very hard and that officers in the army under the old government (Chiang Kaishek's Kuomintang) often beat or cursed at soldiers. But then the PLA (People's Liberation Army) officers talked about the policy of fostering unity among officers and men, and said that regimental leaders, platoon leaders and squad leaders of the PLA, under the leadership of Chairman Mao, do not beat soldiers. The army fights for poor people. At that point we young people enthusiastically joined the army. I joined the PLA in 1951 and trained for half a year. Then the war between North and South Korea broke out, the Chinese army was sent to North Korea to protect it, and I stayed there for one and a half years. To be frank, China's weapons at that time were very backward compared with American weapons; America controlled the airspace. We Chinese soldiers usually attacked at night; we didn't care about hardship or even death."
At last the two sides signed an armistice and Zhang went back to China. He had distinguished himself in the war, and was awarded an opportunity to study in military school. "If you passed the final exam you would be sent on to military college; if not you would be demobilized and sent home. I was a sensible man and studied very hard. Whenever I didn't understand I asked our teachers. So I passed the final exam and was sent to a military college to study for three years."
After that Zhang was promoted to Platoon Commander. He stayed in the PLA until 1964, then, because of health problems, was transferred to work in a government office in Dali Prefecture. The office was in charge of industry. "I had to learn about all aspects of industry, including metallurgy, medicine, mines, and machinery. Even though I worked in a government office, I made a point of going out to visit the factories. I often stayed in the factories for six months at a time, working there and living with the workers, learning skills from them. I went into the mines to see how lead and coal were dug out, went to factories to see how chemical fertilizers were produced. At the famous Bai Yao pharmaceutical factory, I learned the formulas for medicines and how they were produced. With these techniques and knowledge, I could instruct the workers professionally. I worked in that government office until 1988 when I retired and came back to this island where I have lived up to the present time. So that is my life: I lived and worked on this island up to the age of 17, then I left, and now I am back."