BEIJING — Wang Cheng-chen has only a few memories of his early childhood in the northern China village of Hudaocun.
"I remember that once my grandmother was holding me on a very snowy day," Wang said. "I also remember that once I went to visit my aunt's home, and there was a Russian girl who wanted to hold me. Her hair was blonde and her eyes were blue, and I was terrified.
"Those are the only things I remember from before I left the mainland," said Wang, 43, a television star in Taiwan who returned for a visit to China this month after an absence of 39 years.
"I have a very intense feeling for this land," said Wang, better known by his stage name, Ling Feng. "The emotion in my heart is very strong. This land seems both familiar and strange."
Wang is among the first wave of people from Taiwan returning to visit relatives in his homeland since the Nationalist government in Taipei legalized such visits on Oct. 31. His is a journey of rediscovery of roots he barely knew.
For older people, the return is to places and people of their youth that they once knew very well.
"At the time I left, I thought I would come back very soon," a 57-year-old Taipei businessman said as he sipped coffee in a lounge at the Beijing Hotel. "I never imagined it would be 40 years."
The youngest of seven children born to a wealthy scholar, this man--who asked to be called simply Chen, rather than be identified by his real name--grew up in Beijing but fled to Shanghai with schoolmates and teachers as the strength of Communist armies grew in northern China in the summer of 1948.
At the end of that year, he and his friends moved to Taiwan. They were among about 2 million people who fled to the island along with the Nationalist government as it lost control of the Chinese mainland.
After the Communist victory of 1949, all mail and other communications between mainland China and Taiwan were cut, and for 25 years Chen had no word of his family's fate, he said.
In 1974, with the help of friends in Japan, he managed to exchange letters with his brothers and sisters. He learned that his parents had died two years earlier.
"I didn't know when my parents passed away," he said, tears welling in his eyes.
But this month has been a time of immensely happy reunions, he added.
The first was in Shanghai, where he and his wife, who was born in Taiwan, arrived early this month to visit an elderly cousin.
"We talked about everything that happened over 40 years," Chen said. "Whatever came to mind, we spoke of it."
Then it was on to Beijing, where they were met at the airport by several nephews and nieces.
"They were just little children when I left," Chen said. "I didn't recognize them because they're already in their 50s. But they recognized me from a picture I sent them and also because I look a lot like their fathers."
Chen said his four surviving brothers and sisters are all in their 70s or 80s.
"I was very happy to be able to come back," he said. "They were even happier to be able to see their littlest brother, because they are very old."
Unwilling to Break Law
Although many Taiwan citizens began making surreptitious trips to China several years ago--when Beijing began welcoming such visits but Taipei still opposed them--Chen and his wife said they were unwilling to break the law to make such a journey.
"What's important is you can visit openly now," Chen said. "Everyone is very happy that you can visit with approval. I don't want to break the law, so if they hadn't changed the rules, I would only be able to exchange letters."
Taiwan's premier, Yu Kuo-hua, said last month that the new policy is based primarily on humanitarian considerations but is also aimed at influencing political developments in China by spreading knowledge of Taiwan's economic and political development.
Under the new rules, all citizens of Taiwan, with the exception of military personnel and civil servants, may visit relatives by birth or marriage on the Chinese mainland.
Beijing, for its part, has enthusiastically welcomed Taipei's new policy, in the belief that it will contribute to the ultimate reunification of Taiwan with China.
Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang said recently that Taipei's new policy is the result of Beijing's advocacy in recent years of a policy of reunifying China under the concept of "one country, two systems."
This concept has already been applied to a pact with Britain over the return of its colony of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Under the accord, Hong Kong is to retain its capitalist system for at least 50 years. Beijing has suggested that reunification with Taiwan be achieved on similar terms.
Taipei has rejected any official contact or negotiations, and it insists that relaxation of the travel ban does not constitute a change in this policy. But the new rules are widely viewed as an indication that Nationalist authorities are moving toward a more flexible attitude.