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 The Library of Legends, I used what I know of my grandfather Mao Ba's personality for the doctor in the novel. My mother always said he was the kindest and wisest person she ever knew, beloved by all. Enjoy.
M y maternal grandfather’s name was Mao Ba. He was born in 1888, a time when Chinese men still wore their hair in long pigtails down their backs, a symbol of subjugation to the Manchurian Qing dynasty. At seventeen he sat for the first level Imperial Examinations and passed with the highest of marks and attained the xiu cai ranking, which meant he was qualified to apply for a civil service position. This was earth-shaking news in his home town of Tongxiang, for he was the youngest of its citizens in living memory to have done so well. His grandmother, who had been famed in her youth for her perfect three-inch feet, was in ecstasy at the honor he had brought to the family, for by then there wasn’t much left to the Mao family except honor.
Many generations ago, the Maos had been in the silk business and numbered among the wealthiest families in Tongxiang. But Mao Ba’s father, my Great-grandfather, used some of that wealth to buy himself a government position. During those corrupt final decades of the Qing Dynasty, this was fairly common. My other Great-grandfather Zhang Paizhen did this also and actually carried out his duties with reasonable competence and earned an honourable living.
Mao Ba’s father, however, used the position to feed his vanity, giving banquets and gifts to impress men of greater prestige, and in so doing drained away the family fortunes.
But there was another, even greater, drain on the family for Mao Ba’s younger brother was an opium addict. Thus, the entire family had high hopes that Mao Ba’s achievement would herald a new era of prosperity for the family.
Had the Qing dynasty muddled on, doubtless Mao Ba would have followed his family’s wishes and gone into a civil service career. But the empire was collapsing which left him free to forge a different path. Mao Ba wanted to study Western medicine and become a doctor.
He was able to do so without much interference from his family. That is to say they didn't interfere, but neither could they help, for by then they were nearly destitute. Mao Ba put aside the classical studies in which he had been tutored all his life, and proceeded to educate himself in the sciences, subjects needed for entry to the new, Western-style universities. Self-taught, he passed the admissions requirements to the medical school of Nanjing University.
His years there were ones of great hardship. He owned one set of decent clothes and his meals usually consisted of rice seasoned with a little soy, since he could rarely afford to supplement it with the cheap dishes offered at the school kitchens. He might not have survived on such a meager diet, but his intelligence brought him to the attention of one of his American professors. This professor wanted a student to help him translate textbooks. He was told that Mao Ba possessed outstanding writing and composition skills from his time as a classical scholar. And so for a small fee Grandfather was hired to transcribe medical texts from English to modern Chinese. The professor would read each line of text, then explain their meaning in Chinese to Mao Ba, who then transcribed what had been explained to him in halting Mandarin into fluent and flowing Chinese. Mao Ba sometimes chuckled that with this job, he didn’t need to study, for not only was he several lessons ahead of the class, but he could query his professor in detail on anything he didn’t understand.
When Mao Ba graduated, this same professor spoke to him earnestly at length about practicing medicine for the sake of humanity and not for the sake of profit. He urged my grandfather to set up a clinic in a rural area where competent modern medicine was unavailable to the average villager. Yet the professor need not have bothered, for Mao Ba had already made up his mind to do just that once he had gained more experience.
His first position was at the Gospel Hospital of Jiaxing County in Zhejiang province. It was during this time that he met and married my grandmother, Sun Yi, who was a nurse and midwife at the same hospital.
As for how my maternal grandparents ended up in Pinghu, it was by chance. There lived in the town a merchant by the name of Wang, whose youngest son had fallen ill with an abdominal affliction. Pinghu had no hospital or doctor of its own, only the usual herbalists and acupuncturists, and none of them could help the boy, who was suffering horribly. Fearing for his son’s life and sparing no expense, Wang sent his private boat upriver to the Gospel Hospital to ask for a Western-style doctor. Mao Ba was the only physician available that day.
Merchant Wang’s anxious eyes narrowed with concern when his manservant stepped off the boat carrying a shabby doctor’s bag, followed by a tall man clad in a modest grey robe. He seemed far too young to be a seasoned surgeon. However, it was too late to ask for a more senior physician, so Wang stifled his misgivings and the three men piled into a waiting horse cart and hurried home to the young patient.
Without surgery and through the use of modern medications Doctor Mao cured the boy of a gastro-intestinal infection within a matter of days. He won the deepest gratitude of the Wang family and word spread throughout the town, for Wang’s praise was effusive and frequent. From then on, every time some prominent family in Pinghu needed a doctor the Wang’s private boat would be dispatched upriver to request Doctor Mao from the hospital, for Wang refused to have Doctor Mao travel on uncomfortable public roads.
In those days, there was no mayor or single administrative official for the town. Instead there was a council of men who by age, wealth or education, served as the elders of the community. Wang was a member of this council of elders. After some months, the council decided that it would be a great benefit to the town if Doctor Mao could establish a practice in Pinghu. And so a small delegation went to Jiaxing to make Mao Ba a most generous offer, and shortly afterwards, Doctor Mao, his wife Sun Yi, and their three children – my mother and her younger brothers - moved to Pinghu.
The village council loaned Mao Ba a large sum of cash, free of interest, to purchase a large residence spacious enough to serve as both home and clinic. The residence contained several houses and courtyards enclosed behind white-washed walls. A description of this home, written by the eldest son of the merchant Wang, who became a close friend of the Mao family, is enough to make one smile with pleasure:
“In one courtyard was a bamboo grove, and in another a small orchard with many peach and pear trees, and in another a rock garden planted with a five-hundred year old winter-flowering plum. This garden contained an artificial rock mountain, high enough for children to climb on and deep enough to have small caves to hide in. There were also several plots in a courtyard given over to kitchen gardens of cabbages, chives, and spinach.”
By coincidence, the former owner of the townhouse was a member of the Zhang family, forced into selling to pay off debts.
So my mother was raised in a home that once belonged to my father’s clan, but she was always very careful not to mention this fact in front of my father, for she knew it hurt his pride to be reminded that her family had prospered at a time when his own was in decline.
Mao Ba renovated one of the houses into a clinic of fifteen beds, with an examination room, pharmacy, a small surgery, and an office. The other houses on the estate he set up as family and servant quarters.
On the wall beside the front entrance where Old Ming the gatekeeper lounged all day, there was an oval sign with the words “Mao Ba Clinic”. It was so discreet that if you didn’t know what to look for, you would have walked right past. However, there was almost no need for such a sign because the Mao Ba Clinic was famous in Pinghu from the first day it was established, and became known as much for its charity as for the skill of its physician.
All knew that the poorest patient could go and be treated with as much consideration as the wealthiest, even if there was not the slightest chance of being able to pay for their treatment.
Mao Ba never charged any of the poorer patients for medication or care, yet they would always attempt to pay him back, sometimes with a minute amount of cash, sometimes with vegetables, sometimes with live poultry (which the children of the family would attempt to keep as pets before giving them up to the cook). In the late summer, they might pay with a basket of Pinghu’s famous “Three Whites Watermelon”, a honey-sweet variety of melon with pale skin, flesh and seeds.
The clinic prospered, for the citizens of Pinghu mostly belonged to the comfortable middle-class. They paid their bills promptly and completely for no one wished to be in debt to the person who might hold their life in his hands one day. Thus Mao Ba was able to support a large household in Pinghu in comfort, pay off the loan to the town elders, and send money to look after his parents back in Tongxiang.
All throughout their marriage, he treated his wife with respect and as an equal, something which often caused others to exclaim that Doctor Mao allowed his wife too many liberties.
My mother told me that my grandmother Sun Yi once purchased some expensive fabric for a winter gown; it was a beautiful deep green, with a shine and softness found only in pure silk velvet. Mao Ba’s father was visiting at the time, and criticized his son for allowing his wife such an extravagance. Mao Ba replied that his wife worked by his side in the clinic and was responsible for at least half the prosperity of the family, so she was free to spend their money as she pleased. From this you can tell that he possessed an intrinsic belief in equality of the sexes, an attribute that is hard to find even now in our modern era.
He never denied anyone his medical skills, for my uncles remember how even on the coldest of days, at any hour of the day or night, even if he himself was ill, Mao Ba would go down to the clinic to look after patients or make house calls if anyone sent for him.
To make house calls, there were two sedan chairs, and two of the gardeners were also employed as chair bearers. One of the covered chairs was reserved exclusively for transporting the doctor on house calls, and this chair became a familiar sight on the paved stone streets and arched bridges of the town. As the sedan chair approached the neighborhood where the patient lived, the two bearers would begin calling out “Doctor Mao is here, Doctor Mao is here!” Patients declared that just the sound of that cheerful shouting restored them halfway to health, such was the faith they had in my grandfather’s skill.
This comfortable small town life came to a halt when the Japanese invaded China, and Mao Ba fled with his family to Shanghai to live in the International Concession. They arrived expecting to live on the third floor of a house owned by Sun Yi’s older brother, but a rude shock awaited them.
Sun Yi’s brother had married a rather avaricious woman who saw a way to make money from the many refugees pouring into Shanghai. She wanted to rent out the flat for some extra cash, and complained so much that in order to preserve family harmony Mao Ba moved his family into another building where he had rented two rooms, originally meant as office space. Since he couldn’t afford to pay for separate living quarters as well as an office, these two rooms became home to my mother’s family during the eight years they lived as refugees in Shanghai.
The two rooms were on the third floor of a building on Nan Ho Lu, or Street of Southern Harmony, the kind with shops at street level and apartments above. The household consisted at first of nine people: Mao Ba and Sun Yi, four children, the concubine Yi Niang, young Chen who was Mao Ba’s assistant, and a maidservant.
At night the family spread out over both rooms on beds and sleeping mats. My mother slept on one of the more comfortable spots, the examination table.
Each morning the front room was tidied away and set up for use as a doctor’s office. There was no kitchen, only a sink in the hallway outside, and a charcoal brazier by a small window close to the sink. On this single brazier the women of the household would have to cook meals and boil water for washing. There was no toilet either, just a chamber pot in a closet under the staircase.
It was a very hard time for the family; at first my grandfather didn’t have a reputation in Shanghai and his only patients were other refugees from Pinghu, who were also short of money. My mother and uncles said that during that time, each day seemed as long as a year. After the first few months, Mao Ba had to send their maidservant back to Pinghu because the rooms were too crowded and he really could not afford her anymore.
Eventually, his practice drew more regular patients, and if it had been a good month, Grandfather would allow himself the luxury of a Western-style lunch, taken at a small diner down the road. He would sometimes bring one of his children along, and this was when my mother tasted her first Western breakfast of ham and eggs. But he never brought his wives to dine there.
There was an event of particular note during those years in Shanghai that ended up being of great help to the family. While in Pinghu, Grandfather developed a very successful treatment for curing opium addiction. The reputation of his clinic was such that when the CEO of the Shanghai Railway Bank found out that Doctor Mao Ba was now living in Shanghai, he came to see Grandfather. Zhi Hanfen was a very wealthy man but he was also an opium addict.
Grandfather Mao’s treatment proved effective for Zhi, but just as importantly, during the lengthy treatment, Zhi became friends with my grandfather. He was impressed by Grandfather’s intellect and integrity, and gave him a Railway Bank passbook with an unlimited line of credit. Now Grandfather could withdraw money anytime and pay back the funds at his discretion. Such was the respect and trust Zhi felt for Grandfather
The passbook couldn’t have come at a better time, for during their final years in Shanghai, my mother and her brothers graduated from high school and Grandfather was determined that they should all attend university. The only thing he ever used the passbook for was to pay for their university tuition; he never took out any cash for his own use. During this time, he even managed to get his assistant, young Chen, into medical school, but that is another story.
He would tell his children that the only thing he owed them was a university education, because knowledge was the only thing he could give that could never be taken away.
My mother says that she still feels guilty for going to university; as the oldest, and as a girl, it was not as crucial for her to attend university. She felt she should have gone to work and contributed to the family income. Even more shamefully, she remembers wanting a new winter coat one year. She was a pretty, popular young woman and such things seem enormously important to her at the time. Unable to deny his daughter, or indeed any of his children, Mao Ba somehow found the money to buy my mother a wool coat. She owned this coat for twenty years but was never quite able to shake off a feeling of guilt each time she wore it.
After the war, the family moved back as quickly as they could to the residence in Pinghu, a place that had grown ever more spacious and comfortable in their longing memories. They returned to find the furnishings gone and the house vandalized. It turned out that their gardener, entrusted with looking after the vacant property, had spent those eight years removing the contents of the house.
Despite this setback, Grandfather re-opened the clinic, but on a more modest scale. After the war, he could no longer afford to keep two men to carry his sedan chair; in any case, the chairs had been stolen. So Grandfather did his rounds on foot, or sometimes hired a pedicab.
Accompanied by the faithful gatekeeper Old Ming, who followed behind carrying Grandfather’s bag, they made fewer house calls. But whenever they approached the patient’s home, Old Ming would still call out “Doctor Mao is here, Doctor Mao is here!”
It wasn’t long before the waiting room at the clinic was full once more, and the family prospered again, although not as much as before the war. This was true of many enterprises, for after the war, China was still in turmoil and very poor.
The last ten years of Mao Ba’s life were deservedly quiet. He retired from full-time practice and only saw patients in the morning. He spent afternoons practicing the scholarly disciplines of his youth, writing poetry and painting. He specialized in lotus flowers, and in writing a free-form style of calligraphy. He was famous locally for his calligraphy, and was in great demand for inscribing banners and fans. His favorite amusement was writing characters in reverse script, a skill needed for carving name seals or wood blocks for printing.
Grandfather never saw his first grandchild because my mother and father were living in Taiwan at the time. When my eldest brother was born in 1948, it was a big event for the family, for the baby was the first child of the next generation. My grandmother Sun Yi traveled from Pinghu to Taipei to help with the birth and to look after my mother and the baby; she stayed for two months.
At the time, everyone believed that my parents would return to China the following year, and that the entire family would be united. But that was not to be, for a year later the Nationalist government lost China to the Communists and fled to Taiwan, closing off all contact with the mainland. My mother never saw her parents again.
When Grandfather Mao Ba died in 1958 at the age of 70, it turned out that he had donated his body to the Shanghai Medical College, something considered very unusual in those days.
A bout this story
We know relatively little about family history on my mother’s side of the family, partly because she hardly ever spoke of it, and partly because her family, unlike the Changs, preferred to deal with the present rather than moon over the past. Thus, they didn’t place much value on preserving family histories or dwelling on the merits of ancestors. They were too busy being useful and productive.
The stories we do have come from my mother and uncles, and they are mostly about Grandfather Mao Ba, who positively astounded the citizens of Pinghu with his compassion and charity for the poor folk of the town, of which there was an endless supply.
There is a small incident to add to Grandfather Mao Ba’s story. When I visited Pinghu with my mother in 2003, there was a brand new museum that housed artifacts from the region. Part of that collection included paintings and calligraphy from prominent citizens of the town, mostly stored in archives. My uncles phoned ahead to the museum's curator, saying that a former resident of Pinghu had returned from abroad and wanted to see the museum.
The curator was a young man, passionate about the history of the town. I asked the curator whether they had any samples of work by my grandfather Mao Ba. He knew the name immediately.
“Mao Ba, the doctor,” he said, realizing who we were. “Yes, he was famous in our town.”
The curator returned from the storage rooms with a few scrolls. He put on white cotton gloves and unrolled one scroll after another on a large table covered in green felt. My mother was extremely moved to see her father’s calligraphy. Grandfather had inscribed them as gifts to various friends and obviously those people had valued his gifts and kept them.
She said to me, “It’s because he was such an artist. When he was young, he was trained as a classical scholar. His calligraphy was considered very fine.”
I like to think his friends and the town’s citizens preserved his work through all these decades because my grandfather Mao Ba had been so well-loved.
I can imagine people thinking that there was no one extraordinary incident in my grandfather’s life that makes for an interesting story. True, there are no ghost stories or strange adventures. Rather, his was a tale of lifelong compassion and an ongoing struggle to deliver medical care under challenging conditions. But I think it is precisely because his code of ethics was so similar to ours today that we neglect to give him credit for conducting his life with great humanity in an age of ignorance and intolerance, besieged by poverty and war. Is that in itself not extraordinary enough?
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