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?
In THREE SOULS, Leiyin's mother-in-law was based on my great-grandmother, the wealthy bride whose dowry saved a family -- until her husband squandered it all.
W hen my great-grandmother Chen Suefen arrived in our ancestral town of Pinghu as a bride of seventeen, it was said that her dowry contained enough wealth to last three generations. What made this wealth even more astonishing was that she was one of five daughters. This meant that her father, patriarch of the Chen family of Hunan province, had provided at least as lavish a dowry four times already for each of her older sisters. So immense was this influx of riches and so profound its impact on our family that the story of her life is inevitably set alongside the fate of that dowry.
On a bright autumn day, the Chen’s private riverboat and a number of hired barges tied up to the quay and sent a long procession of people, animals and goods winding through the streets of Pinghu, which quickly filled with gawking crowds.
The bride could not be seen of course; she sat hidden behind the curtains of the bridal sedan chair, carried by four sturdy servants dressed in new tunics and trousers of red and black. The chair was painted red, decorated with banners and tinkling brass bells. A procession of servants, mules, and ox-carts loaded with furniture, china and chests full of fine silken brocades trailed behind the sedan chair. This procession represented only a small portion of the total sum of the dowry and was strictly for show. The several tens of thousands of silver taels that formed the bulk of the dowry had already been deposited with a bank in Shanghai. Running alongside the convoy were servants with red sashes tied around their waists, beating on drums and gongs to frighten away evil spirits. The procession ended at the front gates of the Zhang ancestral home, where the bride was helped down from the sedan chair to bow three times before her new parents.
It is hard to imagine a family as prestigious as the Chens agreeing to send their daughter off to the Zhangs, who by this time was a clan of dwindling means. At the end of the 19th century, the fortune amassed by my three-times-great-grandfather Zhang Wenxing had been the family’s sole source of funds for more than two generations and was draining away to nothing.
Since Wenxing’s time, there had been many in the family who shared his taste for fine art and rare books, but sadly no one had inherited his skill at making a fortune. The Zhang houses were no longer whitewashed every spring, New Years gifts were less elaborate, and only the longest-serving household retainers still lived within the estate. The laundresses, junior maidservants and gardeners came to work early each morning and left each evening, no longer housed and fed as before.
But it was because of Zhang Wenxing that the family was still well-respected. A scholar of the juren rank, he had been chief administrator of Anhua Prefecture in Hunan and later of Changsha prefecture. When he retired, the people of Changsha built a shrine in his honor. This shrine, set up in the secondary courtyard of the Temple of the City God, was a simple granite tablet carved with a list of Wenxing’s many contributions civil harmony. The citizens of Changsha liked to joke that this was a shrine to the rarest divinity of all, an honest government official. Therefore the Chens of Hunan considered it a fair bargain to marry a younger daughter to the grandson of such an honored man.
From the day she stepped down from the red sedan chair, Suefen was always accorded more than her share of respect by the Zhangs. This was not only because she was from a great family and had bestowed an incredible dowry to boost the Zhang’s ebbing fortunes, but also because she was marrying Zhang Paizhen, the eldest and only son of the family.
This made her the first lady of the household and once her mother-in-law died, the undisputed matriarch of the family. Her position was an enviable one, for it put her far above the troublesome politics of household prestige, which could be devastating in the small world of the inner courtyard.
But on the day of her arrival, Suefen was not thinking of her elevated position in the household. She was terrified anticipating her wedding night. The only men she had known with up to this time had been her father, brothers, and a few elderly family servants.
Decades later, when she had become a mother and then a grandmother, she was finally able to joke about that night, saying that she went to her bedroom after the festivities and lay in her marriage bed waiting for her bridegroom to part open the bed curtains, trembling with fear and sweating as though with fever. Whenever she told the tale she would giggle and hide her face behind her fan, for she considered this a personal and rather risqué story.
As things turned out, the newlyweds found themselves compatible in all the ways that mattered to them. They both liked a tidy home, and if the maids were late arriving to work, it was not unusual to see one or the other of the pair sweeping the verandah in front of their rooms. Her sisters, with whom she corresponded in slow, laboriously written letters, envied her because Paizhen was a man of few vices and treated her with a great deal of respect.
Neither Suefen nor Paizhen had expectations of romantic love, a phenomenon found in Chinese fairy tales but rarely in the regulated marriages of their social class. The best she could hope for was to be treated in a considerate manner by her husband and his family. Since Paizhen did not smoke opium, gamble, or go out to drink and listen to opera singers at the local teahouse, Suefen considered herself fortunate.
Outsiders thought her stern and strict, but that was really because she was very shy. She was not well-educated, and being self-conscious about this, she kept her words brief, giving the impression of being brusque. Yet it was evident to her family, especially her daughter-in-law and grandchildren, that their well-being was paramount to Suefen.
Whenever any of her grandchildren fell sick, Suefen would show more concern than anyone else in the family. As soon as she woke up, before she had even combed her hair, she would visit the invalid’s room to feel the child’s forehead for fever, and to rub his hands between hers until they were warm again. She would then spend most of the day in the sick room chatting to the invalid, feeding the child from a tray of tempting foods, and telling stories, leaving only briefly to take her own meals.
She invariably asked if there was anything special the sick child would like to eat that day. Once my father told her that he loved pears more than any other food, and added that he thought pears were better than roast duck. From then on, every time Suefen ate pears, she would hand one to the little boy, saying “Here, have a duck, have a duck!” and they would both laugh until they cried. This was a private joke that grandmother and grandson shared for years, even on the last occasion my father saw her, when he was nearly thirty years old.
But for all the care she took with her family, Great-grandmother Suefen made serious mistakes when it came to children.
The first was the way she treated her son, my grandfather Yangze. Of course since he was an only son, he was terribly spoiled. But Suefen swung between doting and strict discipline, punishing Yangze for trivial infractions while ignoring more important shortcomings, such as his laziness when it came to school work. As a result, he grew up wary of his mother and her erratic authority, and treated her with respect but aloofness.
Then she ruined her eldest granddaughter. The family was slightly disappointed when the first grandchild turned out to be a girl, since all had hoped for an heir. Suefen however, was delighted, for she had always wanted a daughter of her own. She whisked away the baby to her quarters, and proceeded to raise the child herself, with no regard for her daughter-in-law’s feelings.
Thus my father’s eldest sister, Zhang Yiejing, grew into an exceptionally demanding and bad-tempered young woman, thoroughly spoiled by her grandmother. She had little to do with her siblings and ate her meals with the adults. Her reputation for petulance was widely known to the town and for this reason, amongst others, she was unable to make a good marriage, and when she married, her husband was of necessity a patient sort.
The greatest disappointment of Suefen’s life, however, was the failure of her marriage. It did not fail in the way that we now define failure, for in those days divorce was hardly known in China and certainly not between couples of my great-grandparents’ generation.
After he retired from government, Zhang Paizhen found a banking job, this time far away in Anhui province. It meant living there for two years. Suefen did not want to go to Anhui, for it meant leaving behind her comfortable home. Guilty about not joining her husband and concerned at the same time for his well-being, she asked Paizhen to take a concubine, so he would have someone to look after him while in Anhui. Out of respect for Suefen, Paizhen had never taken a concubine during all their years of marriage. But he did so now at her behest.
In most families, if there was some willingness fo give and take, a wife and concubine could have quite a good relationship. Of course there would always be some friction, but it was a common situation and there were time-honored protocols of behavior that kept the peace. Thus, unless one went out of the way to create unpleasantness, all but the most hostile of families could maintain a semblance of harmony. Suefen had been raised in an old-fashioned family where her mother had presided over numerous concubines and their children, so she should have understood these protocols.
After two years in Anhui, Paizhen returned home and the concubine came with him. Suefen found to her dismay that the daily reality of a second wife was quite different from a remote one.
The concubine was younger of course, just a little bit taller and just a little bit prettier. For the first time in their marriage, Suefen became difficult with her husband. She complained loudly about the concubine’s lack of good manners. Each time the concubine left the house, if only to pray at the temple, Suefen was convinced the woman was out behaving in a way that dishonored the family.
The more she badgered her husband to send the concubine back to Anhui, the more irate Paizhen became. The rest of the family pleaded with her to show some reason, but reminding Suefen that the concubine had been her idea in the first place only sent her into a bigger rage. So loud and frequent were her temper tantrums that Paizhen decamped, taking his concubine with him to live in a cottage at the foot of Infant Mountain, a property the Zhangs owned outside the town. In doing so he made Suefen even angrier, for in a small place like Pinghu, one took care to keep family conflicts within the gated walls of the home. With their separation publically on display, the couple’s personal differences became fodder for common gossip and Suefen came out of it rather badly.
As for Paizhen, on festival days, he would return to town to join in the celebrations, each time treating his wife with hopeful courtesy. But despite her family’s pleadings for reconciliation, she could not keep her bitterness under control. Thus my great-grandfather lived out another decade in the cottage at Infant Mountain. When he died the two were still unreconciled.
Suefen’s father had sent her to Pinghu with a fortune that should've ensured a comfortable life to the end of her days. But this wealth flowed away like water and after a childhood of luxury and an adult life of considerable comfort, Suefen spent her old age in poverty.
When the family became too poor to support more than a couple of servants, one was always assigned to walk beside her, supporting her as she hobbled on bound feet and arthritic knees through the long, empty corridors of the great house. When they could no longer afford any servants at all, each member of the family took turns keeping her company. Uncomplaining, she ate simple meals of rice and vegetables. She said nothing when her beautiful dowry furniture and the artwork her husband had collected were surrendered at a fraction of their original price to pay for food and fuel.
Suefen often suffered from terrible stomach pains, which some in the family attributed to anger lodged in the bowels. Even after Paizhen’s death, she would only have to think of the concubine, and she would be taken with cramps. One night she mentioned slight pains, nothing particularly serious, and went to bed early. She never woke up from that sleep. She was seventy three years old. The family considered the quiet manner of her going to have been her greatest fortune.
A bout this story
In the summer of 1884, during the reign of the Guanxu Emperor, the most humiliating battle of the Franco-Chinese war had just been fought in Fuzhou by the Chinese navy, destroyed in a matter of minutes by the French. But in my ancestral town of Pinghu, only its most worldly citizens took any time to contemplate this blow to China’s self-esteem, for the entire town had turned out to watch my great-grandmother’s wedding entourage.
According to my father, my great-grandmother was very traditional. So even while her husband frittered away her enormous dowry, she did and said nothing – although my father was convinced that my great-grandfather would have listened to his wife and curbed his spending had she said anything.
Later on, Great-grandmother inherited some money when her father died and this time it was hers to keep. She used these funds to pay for household expenses and to send my father and my Uncle Ning away to school, giving them a better start in life than she gave her own son.
According to my father, Suefen did not consider herself oppressed. She had been raised in a family where women lived cloistered lives within the confines of the inner courtyard, in a household where her father expected unquestioning obedience. In her husband's home, she was the first and only wife of an only son and wielded great authority – far more than she possessed when merely the fifth daughter of a large family.
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