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?
Hands down, for me this is the most important family story because The Difficult Daughter became my debut novel THREE SOULS. Enjoy.
W hen my grandmother Qu Maozuo was promised in marriage to my grandfather Chang Yangze, it was an event that took place under such unusual circumstances that the story of her betrothal became part of family legend.
My grandmother came from the Qu family of Changzhou, whose wealth came from textiles and banking. Her father held a minor office in local government merely out of a sense of duty, for he did not need the income. At the time of this story, Qu was looking forward to a new posting in Jiujiang fu. He had already arranged to meet his predecessor, a man named Chang, to get an overview of the situation before formally taking over the job.
Although he had heard good things about the way Chang administered the district, he had some misgivings because it was rumored that the Chang had purchased, rather than earned, the post. Such manipulations were common during the last centuries of the Qing dynasty and carried through to the corrupt early years of the Republic. Positions with the government were no better than sinecures; many civil servants abused their titles, demanding personal fees to process permits and using any excuse to give banquets or buy lavish gifts at government expense. Thus it was with some apprehension that Qu set off on his private riverboat for a first meeting with Chang Paizhen.
But as things turned out, it was then as it is now in China. Unless one had guanxi, connections, there was little chance of being appointed to the position of one’s choice. Hence when Chang acquired the government post via backdoors and bribery, he had merely been taking the shortest path. Apart from this one indiscretion, hardly worth mentioning in some circles, Qu felt that Chang was a thoroughly honest and competent individual. He was even more impressed when he found out that this Chang was the grandson of the famed Chang Wenxing, the legendary administrator of Changsha prefecture.
After a day of working together and reviewing the most important issues facing the districts within Jiujiang fu, Qu took over the official documents and seals of office from Chang. By now, Qu quite liked Chang, so he invited him to dine aboard his private riverboat that night.
In those days, a riverboat was the most pleasant and also the safest way to travel, for roads were poorly paved and bandits preyed upon unprotected travelers. Zhejiang province was known for its water towns which were built along the canals that connect Zhejiang’s natural waterways, every mile bustling with river traffic. With a boat, Great-grandfather Qu could travel to almost every town of significance in great comfort, for his riverboat was spacious and well-equipped. It even had small charcoal burners at the stern that allowed his manservant to boil water for tea and prepare simple meals.
The two men sat on the deck enjoying the comings and goings of life on the waterway. Under the influence of good wine, a bright moon and the soft lapping of waves, their talk turned away from official business to matters more personal. It was then that Qu confided in Chang.
“My youngest daughter is proving difficult to match, perhaps I have indulged her too much and she is now over-educated. If you know of any suitable young men, would you consider acting as liaison?”
Chang agreed immediately, for he was gan-die, a sort of godparent, to the son of a friend from a family in Hangzhou, a distinguished family comparably close in status to the Qu clan. He promised to make an introduction to the young man's parents and to act as go-between.
Then he asked a favor in return.
"I have a similar problem," Chang said, "for I need to find a wife for my son. My mother and my wife have evaluated all the suitable young women of Pinghu, and have not been satisfied with any. They wish to start looking elsewhere, so if you know of a good family with an unmarried daughter, I would appreciate your help in this matter."
To Chang's utter astonishment, Qu dropped to his knees and banged his forehead three times on the teak deck.
"You have a son, I have a daughter,” Qu cried. “What more is there to discuss? Let us embrace and call each other kin!"
When the story is told, these lines are always uttered with great relish by the narrator, for Qu had just made an extremely forward proposition.
Tradition dictated that one family should send a go-between to put the question of marriage to the other. If the suggestion was favorably received, there would follow a period of discreet enquiries from both sides involving interviews with relatives, friends, and professional colleagues, not to mention the casting of horoscopes. During the early days of the Chinese republic, when Western ideas were making an impression in more enlightened families, the intended couple could have some participation in the process - but not the actual decision. There might be an exchange of letters, or the young man might contrive to be at the temple when the girl accompanied her mother to offer incense to the gods. These delicate maneuvers could take months before reaching settlement.
Put in such an unusual situation, Chang could hardly refuse, for Qu was clearly prepared to remain bent over, forehead pressed to deck, until he got an affirmative answer. What’s more, Qu was his senior in age and rank as well as social status, so this was as good as an order to comply. Chang considered that it was not altogether a bad state of affairs, for it was a match beyond his family’s dreams. Thus, the next morning, telegrams were sent in both directions, and in the small rural town of Pinghu, Chang's wife and his mother could hardly contain their joy at being allied to one of the leading families in the province. So this is the story of the unusual manner in which my grandparents became affianced.
But as for my grandmother, the young bride-to-be Qu Maozuo, she felt only dread as she traveled downriver towards her wedding day, accompanied by an entourage of family members and a heap of dowry trunks. She felt as though she had been sentenced to live burial. On the surface, it appeared an enviable situation. She would be the first wife of the only son of an only son; there would be no scheming competition from jealous siblings, no veiled criticisms from maiden aunts. These are important considerations when a woman goes to take her place in the inner courtyard of her husband's home. These however, were not of concern to Maozuo.
The Qu family was sophisticated, well-educated, and extremely progressive for the times. My great-grandfather Qu had been an accomplished classical scholar under the Imperial system. The Qing dynasty and Imperial China fell in 1911, but several years before then the family had already decided the next generation had to be educated in the modern Western style. All their sons went to Western-style boarding schools in Shanghai, and two were sent on to university in Japan.
There is a story in the family of a package arriving from Japan, sent by the brothers to their wives. Excitedly opening up the brown paper wrappings, the women found in the package two long pigtails, each neatly tied at the ends. Immediately upon setting foot in Japan, the brothers had cut off their queues to signify their commitment to becoming westernized. Their wives however, saw this as a rejection of family and manhood, and sobbed inconsolably for days. The family considered this a very amusing tale.
Maozuo, along with her two sisters, been sent to a girl's school that taught a modern curriculum. This was quite a drastic notion for a family whose daughters had always been educated at home by private tutors; the family prided itself on scholarly traditions, so that even the women could read, paint, and inscribe lines of poetry in a fine, artistic hand. At the “outside” school, the sisters learned mathematics, geography, world history, and even some English. Maozuo was intelligent and showed great promise, so much so that the principal suggested she continue on to teacher's college in Shanghai.
This idea amused, and then worried her father, who had been indulgent until now about her education. To him, a daughter who worked announced to the world that he could not afford to support his own children. He feared his favorite daughter had become so highly-educated she would end up a spinster.
Great-grandfather Qu could see that educated young men from China’s most prominent families would have progressive ideas and prefer wives who could provide learned conversation as well as heirs. In sending his daughters to school, he was merely grooming them for marriage into families similar to their own. It never occurred to him that his youngest daughter might rebel against his wishes.
With help from her grandmother, Maozuo concocted a plan: she would take the train in secret to Shanghai and enroll at the college there. Her hope was that once she was at college, her father would let her stay on at least for a semester rather than lose face by admitting he could not control his daughter. She could not hope to become a teacher, this she realized. But she wished to experience something more of life, even if it was just one year of college.
But how could such a plan remain concealed in a Chinese household of so many servants and curious relatives? The plot was uncovered before her rickshaw even arrived at the train station. Her eldest brother was dispatched to collect his mutinous sister, and brought Maozuo back to the house, stony-faced and silent in her disgrace. Her father, his voice strained with anger, promised to deal with her upon his return.
Thus, the very next day, when Qu embarked upon his journey, he was still furious with his daughter. So when Chang mentioned an unmarried son, Qu saw a quick marriage as both punishment and the means for ending any further nonsense from his daughter.
Had he not been so angry, he never would have acted on impulse, consigning her to life in a backwater little town, married to the underachieving scion of a family in decline, for he knew well the quality of her intellect. He may have regretted his haste upon returning home, but by then the agreements had been settled.
Thus it can be said that my grandmother Qu Maozuo was imprisoned into a life that constrained what small ambitions she had. She was forced into marriage with a man who was her intellectual inferior. Worse yet, she could not even respect him for any simple, honest achievements because my grandfather Chang Yangze proved unable to persist long enough in any course of action to accomplish anything.
She could not leave her marriage, because although China was changing, a woman’s life was still controlled by her family. The supremacy of family is the strongest foundation of Chinese civilization and in those days a woman with no family support had few options for survival, none of them pleasant.
We have only two photographs of Maozuo. One is a portrait of her alone, as if for an identity document; the other is of her leaning on a chair beside her older sister. She was elegant, of small build, with a thin face and delicate features. She does not smile in either of the pictures. We are told that she was considered very lovely, one of three Qu sisters famed in Changzhou for their beauty; but in both of the photographs her face looks a little pinched, as though worried and sad. She certainly had reason to be sad, for her life in Pinghu was one of disappointments and loss.
My father always said that his mother’s greatest disappointment was the quality of her husband’s character, for he possessed very little ambition and a great deal of laziness. She was resigned to the futility of her own life, but determined not to let her children follow their father’s example. She encouraged my father and his siblings to make education their most important goal. She urged them to study and to get into university, because she recognized this would be their only path to independence. She never criticized her husband directly, her upbringing did not allow that, but she let her children know that if they did not earn their own living and took even a penny of income from the Chang family estate, she would disown them.
But in truth, by the time my father and his brother Ning graduated from university, there was no danger that they would fall to this temptation, for the family estates were non-existent. The farms and rice fields had long since been sold, as had the remaining townhouses. The family was reduced to selling off furniture, antiquities and works of art that once would have been handed down to the younger generation without a second thought.
Maozuo bore five children. The oldest daughter, Yiejing, was irredeemably spoiled by her grandmother. The oldest brother was named Wenjing, my father was Shoujing, and then there was his younger brother Zuenjing, called Ning by the family, and finally Jiejing, their baby sister, who my brothers and I called Niang-niang.
By all accounts Wenjing was the best of all the children, a fine student of serious nature, mature beyond his years. He was his mother's confidante. She valued his common sense and shared her concerns with him as though he were an adult. Wenjing died from tuberculosis when he was only fourteen.
This was the greatest sorrow of Maozuo’s life. In the hierarchy of family, the eldest son was considered the most precious of all and Maozuo could not stop grieving. When she awoke each morning, before she could even remember who she was or why she was sad, she would feel her chest throb with the dull pain of unbearable loss. As time went on she wept less, but my father said that on festive days she would remember anew how her oldest boy used to love sweet lotus seed buns, or join in harmless gambling games, and she would shut herself in her room all day to grieve.
She never recovered from this loss, becoming quieter and more withdrawn from those around her. A few years after the death of her oldest son, Maozuo herself succumbed to tuberculosis, which she had caught while nursing him. My father often said that when the Japanese invasion of China began, he was actually glad that his mother had already died, because both he and his younger brother were away at school and unable to contact the family for months at a time. The worry alone would have killed her, he said, if illness and malnutrition had not.
I think that tuberculosis was merely the physical manifestation of the disappointment and grief that had been wearing down my grandmother for all those years. After the sophistication of her life in Changzhou, Pinghu must have seemed utterly provincial and disconnected from the outside world. Like many others of the time, she was a victim caught at the confluence of old and new. How trapped she must have felt and how much more she could have achieved if she had lived in a later era. How different her life could have been, if not for that one moment of decision, the angry whim of an all-powerful parent.
A bout this story
My grandmother's story is the reason I wrote my first novel, THREE SOULS. It was altogether fitting that my first novel should be about the ghost of a young woman who tried and failed to claim her destiny, because the story of my grandmother’s life has haunted me since the very first time I heard it.
Like Leiyin, the main character in THREE SOULS, my grandmother was raised in a wealthy family that cherished education. Like my character, she tried to take control of her own destiny by running away to university and was punished by being married off. There the similarities end, but her sad and unfulfilled life has haunted me since the first time my father recounted her story.
There are other ancestors who play a role in this story: my grandmother’s two lovely sisters; my great-grandmother whose magnificent dowry arrived just in time to save our family from sliding into penury; her husband, who managed to squander this fortune in record time. Leiyin’s lover shares a very slight resemblance to my grandmother’s cousin Qu Qiubai, who was the first chairman of the Chinese Politburo before Mao. Like Hanchin, Qu Qiubai was executed by the Nationalists.
My father’s stories about our ancestors and his childhood in the small town of Pinghu remain so vivid that I can walk through the pages of the novel and see the town as it was back then, from the wooden gates of our ancestral home to the thirteen-storied pagoda by the lake.
For a long time my grandmother’s life has stood for me as a metonym for generations of Chinese women whose lives were dictated by fathers, husbands, brothers, and in-laws. Women had to work carefully behind the scenes to guide events and influence decisions. This is why Leiyin’s incarnation as a ghost felt so apt, a metaphor for the lives of Chinese women. In life, my grandmother had no champions. I never met her, but with this novel I would like to give her a measure of recognition for the modest ambitions she was forced to set aside for the sake of family and obedience.
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