When We Lived in Still Waters

January 4, 2020
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Welcome to my family stories. They were misplaced during a website migration years ago, and now I've found them. There are 22 in all and I will do my best to post one each week. If you've ever read the Author's Notes at the back of my novels, you will know that family memoirs and stories about my ancestors often make their way into the books - so if any incidents in these stories feel familiar, it's probably because they've been used in a novel. But which one? Enjoy.

Introduction to the Family Stories

I f I could read classical Chinese, the ten volumes on my desk would recite to me the names of my ancestors, starting with the Tang dynasty poet Zhang Jiuling, and ending thirty-six generations later with my great-grandfather Zhang Paizhen, who squandered a fortune meant to last three generations.

My father said there were no memoirs or stories to be found in those woodblock-printed pages of our genealogy. There were only names, some dates, and occasionally, the titles of ancestors who had achieved a measure of success.

The stories came instead from my father, who told me what he recalled of family history and of his youth in the small rural town of Pinghu, Still Waters. Some stories were from a time so distant they seemed like fairy tales, and yet it was evident that entire generations of our family once believed them to be fact. He also told me about his mother’s sad and wasted life, and of his own adventures as a refugee student during the Second World War.

 
 

Stories are bequeathed to us only if we ask and pay attention. It is a question of continuity, so much more difficult in this century of change and migration. Our family no longer lives in the little Chinese town of Still Waters, in the same houses inhabited by our ancestors for hundreds of years, surrounded by the traces of their lives.

We can no longer pull out a drawer or open a book and discover in them the small details that give life and warmth to the stern ancestral portraits looking down from the wall. We no longer have the duty, as my father and his brothers did, to scurry to the family altar every morning, shivering in the cold gray light to burn incense, bow to the carved tablets, and do honour to our ancestors, reciting the names of the five most recent patriarchs so that we can never forget our lineage.

There is no way for me to know if my many-times-great-grandfather was really offered the chance to become an immortal, or discover the actual name of the many-times-great-aunt who faded away into quiet and well-behaved insanity. The sources for these stories are long gone, and by the time I heard the tales, they had been rendered into brief narratives. I can no longer hear those tales as they must have been told generations ago, rich with details and asides. They remain incomplete and alluring, tantalizing in all the ways that spoken histories can thwart validation.

My parents left China with every intention of returning to Still Waters within a few years. Instead, it would be nearly four decades before they could stand on the streets of their home town again to gaze at the walls that once enclosed their childhood. In this new country, it is all too easy to forget about the lives of those long-ago families, along with their language, the names of our five most recent ancestors, and the genealogy that links us to sepia-toned photographs of people with features that mirror our own.

Too many years and too many miles of ocean separate us from Still Waters and the houses where the tales took place. Spoken history must be kindled by interest, it thrives on repetition, and our families are now too remote in geography and time from the sources of our own history to sustain the embers of oral tradition.

My father did not have the opportunity to recount these stories to his grandchildren. And although he related to me all that he could remember, they were doubtless only a fraction of the treasure trove of tales accumulated over the centuries beneath the aged roof beams of our ancestral home in Still Waters. But it is enough that we possess these few stories, because so many families have none; what matters is that we should never lose them again.

I write as a storyteller and not a historian, with a haphazard grasp of names, places and dates in the stories. But I like to think that I have been true to their essence and continued their preservation. The stories are authentic, even the most fantastic ones involving dragons and beings not of this world. It remains for us to believe whether the events they describe were true. We have nothing to lose by knowing more about the lives of our ancestors and so much to gain by believing.


A bout this Introduction

"When we lived in Still Waters ...." That's how my father always began a story about our ancestors, who settled in the Chinese town of Pinghu, which translates roughly as Calm Lake, and which I turned into Still Waters. 

Until we came to Canada, I didn't realize that most families no longer  possessed a tradition of oral history. Is it because those who come to the New World are trying to escape their past? Or did  the rigours of settling a new land strip away all but the  essentials needed to survive, including their stories?

One of the best things I ever did was ask my father to record all the stories he could remember about our ancestors. After he died, I listened and wrote, because my niece and nephews won't have the opportunity to hear their grandfather  recount those tales. I self-published these stories as Christmas gifts for my family a few years ago. Now my cousin in China is researching family history, making trips to Pinghu and looking up old relatives. He says he's embarrassed that his youngest cousin (me) who is illiterate in Chinese (alas) should have been the one to make the effort to document our family history. I can't wait for the results of his research. 

Are you researching your own family history? I urge you to do something about it now. Those who know the most grow old, their memories uncertain. You may be able to look up genealogy, but names and dates are dry as bones when unaccompanied by personal observations, half-remembered tales, or the look on someone's face as they tell you the story. And let me know how you're doing.   

If you like this blog, please do me the honor of sharing on your social media. Leaving a comment is great, too!  -- Janie

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