Interview With Yang Qinghai

Yang Qinghai discusses his experience of being dispatched to Laos for military service by the People’s Liberation Army, between April 1972 and April 1974.

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Yang Qinghai was born in 1950 in Tangshan, China. In 1970, Yang joined the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in December 1970, and was assigned to the 117th Regiment Construction Engineering Corps in the Kunming Military Region. He vividly recalls the details surrounding how he enlisted into the PLA and became an engineer soldier (combat engineer).

In April 1972, the PLA dispatched Yang to Laos in a secret military operation to assist the Laotian against bombings by the United States in the Indochinese region. In Laos, Yang’s unit was stationed in Muang Xay. It was involved in constructing the Old West Line that stretched from Muang Xay to Ban Tin Tok, as well as the New West Line that stretched from Muang Xay to Muan Houne. Yang recounted that the PLA’s anti-aircraft artillery force was responsible for defending those involved in the road construction operation. Those troops wore the same military uniforms as the Laotian People’s Liberation Army, while engineers like Yang wore grey uniforms.

Yang recollected that the Chinese soldiers that were sent to Laos got along well with the locals. The Laotians often visited the Chinese army camps and field hospitals. Many Chinese soldiers stationed in Laos were ethnic minorities from border regions like Yunnan and Guangxi, and could communicate with locals.

Interviewee: Yang Qinghai

Interviewer and writer: CUI FENG

Location: Tang Shan City, Heibei province, China

Date: September 25, 2021                 

Language: Chinese (Translated by CUI FENG)

Interview with Yang Qinghai

I was born in 1950. I joined the army in December 1970, and was sent to Laos in 1971. Our assistance to Laos in resisting the United States (援老抗美) was secret and confidential at that time. We were abroad, while our country claimed that there were no soldiers abroad. Before 2007, we were forbidden from revealing or discussing in public anything related to our mission in Laos. Since 2007 however, we have become one of the preferential treatment targets for war participation. The government provides preferential treatment to veterans. Therefore, we can discuss our mission to Laos openly now. At that time, most of the soldiers who went to [Laos] were rural soldiers with little cultured upbringing. Therefore, we didn't leave any information, not even a photo. We only have memories based on our impressions.

On December 28, 1970, the county (Luanxian, 滦县) Armed Forces Department issued military uniforms to me. We gathered in the county on the afternoon of the 29th and then drove to Luanxian (滦县) railway station at 6 a.m. Yan Shangxue (闫尚学), director of the Luanxian Revolutionary Committee (革命委员会), and Yue Wen (岳文), Luanxian Minister of the Armed Forces, took us to the railway station. We took a boxcar which was used to transport cattle. There were many oxtail hairs and dried cow dung in the boxcar. The boxcar drove very slowly. On January 1, 1971, we arrived in Zhuzhou (珠洲), Hunan Province, for New Year's Day. The Chinese food there was rich, including fish, meat, and delicious rice. On January 2, 1971, we arrived at Liuzhou (柳州) military station in Guangxi. On January 3, we arrived at Guisanshuicheng (贵卅水城) military station. At 10 p.m. on January 4, we arrived at Kunming railway station. We took an American Kimsey truck to the Kunming Infantry Military Academy of PLA (昆明步兵学校). We began our military training here before going abroad. During the 6-day and 5-night trip from Guangxi to Kunming, I instinctively felt shaking on the train when I slept at night. Fifty years have passed! That kind of feeling is still fresh in my memories!

Our troops entered Laos in April 1972. As an engineer soldier, I was mainly responsible for the construction of roads in Laos. I worked on the Old West Line (No.1 Road; 老西线, from Muang Xay to Ban Tin Tok) and the New West Line (No.2 Road, 新西线, from Muang Xay to Muan Houne). There was a road directly connected to the Mekong River on the other side of Thailand, from Muang Xay in Laos to the southwest of the Mekong River. In 1972, many Vietnamese military advisers were in the Lao People's Liberation Army. There were two factions in Laos at that time: we assisted the Northern Laos (上寮) regime that belonged to the Lao Communists, while the United States helped the Vientiane regime. The local troops in Laos were not effective at combat. 

At that time, the Chinese People's Liberation Army's anti-aircraft artillery force was responsible for defensive operations for the road construction. The anti-aircraft artillery troops wear the same military uniforms as the Lao People's Liberation Army, while we engineers wear gray uniforms. On May 14, 1970 (See note #1), there was an incident where the US Army bombed our base. The battalion commander on the ground was from my village. That bombing incident resulted in the most costly battle in Laos. As for the military organizational structure, the engineering corps in Laos– like other PLA units– also had regiments, battalions, and companies. However, the organizational system of the PLA troops in Laos was confidential and was not used externally. Under the organizational structure of China, I was a soldier of the 117th Regiment of the Construction Engineering Corps of Kunming Military Region.

Our troops' supplies unit comprised of two car regiments, all of which were Jiefang (解放牌汽车) (See note #2). It took five to six days to drive from Kunming to Laos, through many mountains, and was particularly dangerous. All our supplies were delivered to Laos through Mohan port (磨憨口岸). At that time, when we went abroad via Mohan port, there were no buildings, just virgin forests. There were two big trees at the boundaries between Mohan and Laos. When we passed the trees, we arrived in Laos. In Laos, we were stationed in Muang Xay. Muang Xay was more than 100 kilometers away from China. We took a military truck from the Yunnan border [Mohan port] to Muang Xay, and the journey took five days. The mountains were exceptionally high and challenging to drive on.

In Laos, we got along well with the local people. They often went to our army camp to watch movies. The People's Liberation Army also established field hospitals in Laos. Foreigners (Laos, Vietnamese, Thai) came to see doctors, and the hospital was open to them. At that time, the Laotians had poor physical constitution: their hemoglobin levels were particularly low at 4-5 grams, whereas ours were 12 grams.

We also learned a little Lao language, such as 'hello’, ‘eat’, ‘drink’, and so on. We relied on translators for more complex communications. The army had Lao interpreters, many of whom were ethnic minority soldiers from Yunnan and Guangxi. Their language, culture, and appearance were similar to those of the Laotians.


Note #1: The actual date of this battle occurred on May 4, 1971, contrary to the claim made by the interviewed veteran mentioning 1970, which is likely a slip of the tongue or a memory error. Additionally, when Yang refers to "our base," he is referring to the Chinese PLA base in Laos, not the base he was affiliated with.

Note #2: Here, he meant that all of their cars in the regiments were Jiefang (Liberation) brand cars, which were replicas of Soviet military trucks manufactured by the First Automobile Works in Changchun, China.

Interviewer: Cui Feng

Interviewee: Yang Qinghai

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Transcript Notes


  1. How did the experience of Chinese soldiers like Yang enable them to understand what the Cold War in China was? How did such experience compare with their counterparts across Asia, as well as those from America that were involved in the Vietnam conflict at the time?