W elcome 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?
Actually, I haven't used anything yet from this story about heirlooms. Perhaps in a peripheral way in THREE SOULS when I mention how the new wife has clothes made from fabric that the family had stored away for years because they were "too good" for ordinary use. That was no doubt in response to my mother's lifelong instinct of hoarding quality items. I never got anywhere explaining to her that it was a false economy if they were never put to use.
I n the days when our family lived in the same houses in the same town for hundreds of years, every room and corner held relics accumulated from the daily lives of past generations. Drawers were stuffed with scrolls of paintings and calligraphy of varying age and quality, some by famous artists, some by friends and relatives. The dusty upper shelves of wardrobes hid porcelain, carvings, and books that had been put away when their owners grew tired of them.
Then there was that inevitable and most Chinese of categories: objects so fine that their owners couldn’t bear to use them. These were stored away carefully for the right occasion, but after a time their very existence would be forgotten and they fell to decay: expensive silks, writing brushes of extraordinary quality, expired bottles of European perfume.
Even our gardens accumulated unusual rocks, collected by various ancestors from scenic locations of China. During a prosperous time in our family’s past, one of our many-times-great-grandfathers went on a landscaping spree and built an artificial mountain surrounded by gardens. The unused stones from this project ended up tucked around various courtyard gardens.
Growing up in homes where old mementoes were as neglected as leftovers, my parents were astonished to see the homely objects of their childhood turn up in the New World priced as antiques. My mother was highly amused once to see a wooden basin in an antique shop with a three-figure price tag. She whispered to me that her mother had used just such a basin for washing her feet and that it was just a utility item, nothing special.
My father once decided to collect Chinese silver coins. There was a period in Chinese history after the fall of the Qing dynasty when we changed leaders as often as other countries changed newspaper headlines. We even had some warlords concurrently ruling the same region. This resulted in a succession of coins, each featuring a likeness of the current despot. My father came back from coin-hunting in Vancouver’s Chinatown one day, extremely put out.
“When I was a boy these were coins we could find in the bottom of every drawer”, he said. “They weren’t useful as currency, so we children would pretend to gamble with them. Do you know what they cost now?”
Nonetheless, he sought and bought coins until he had a complete set of post-Imperial silver coins; he gave them to me for my sixteenth birthday. The coins are now in some forgotten drawer, awaiting discovery.
I think he collected the coins because he had no heirlooms to hand down to us from this other, vanished era. He had left China intending to return, and the few valuable family heirlooms to which he was entitled disappeared during the chaotic times that followed. It's a common enough story.
All he had from our home in Pinghu was a bit of porcelain. My father told me that when he finally went home after the war, it had been more than ten years since he’d last seen his family. He had left Pinghu as a teenager bound for boarding school. Now he returned, an educated young man with a degree from an American university. One day he treated his younger sister to lunch at a small neighborhood restaurant; there he was startled to find the food and tea served to them on familiar-looking porcelain.
His sister confirmed that the family cook, when they still had one, had been ordered to sell an entire banquet table’s worth of dishes to the restaurant.
When my father was young, there had been a pantry beside the kitchen, its shelves filled to the ceiling with a supply of crockery. These were just everyday bowls and plates; the fine porcelain for special occasions was stored elsewhere. The everyday china was all the same design, a wucai, multi-coloured, set glazed with a motif of lotus blossoms, a pattern created especially for our family. The set had been commissioned by a matriarch of the house a hundred years ago, manufactured in kilns from a factory near Pinghu. Each time a cup or plate broke, the servants would just bring out a replacement from the pantry. This had been going on for decades and the seemingly endless supply of lotus-motif dishes had been taken for granted.
After this revelation, my father hurried home after lunch and helped himself to a few keepsakes from the porcelain pantry. All that remains now from what he took is a small covered jar that once stored dried fruit snacks. The flat lid, painted with a lotus leaf, is chipped but the knob on the lid is still gloriously cheeky, the bent leg of a frog sticking up out of the water, as though the artist had captured the frog in the moment just before it submerged in a sideways dive.
Generations of our family ate and drank off this crockery set, barely noticing the lotus pattern or the frog. My father had never imagined that a time would come when the family would be so poor that they sometimes lacked food to fill those plates.
Home for the first time in more than a decade, my father could see that nearly all of the antiques and paintings in the house were gone, sold off during the war to fund living expenses. Even his grandmother’s finely carved rosewood furniture, brought to Pinghu as part of her dowry, had been sold. They wouldn't have known it then, but her rosewood furniture would become even more valuable in the years to come. One of China's most famous artists, Qi Baishi, had carved them before he became a painter, while still apprenticed to the furnitue-maker who supplied the tables and chairs.
My father was fond of talking about three heirlooms of real significance from the Chang family. These were given to him and then taken back.
It was on the day he arrived home from abroad that my father received these heirlooms. My grandfather Chang Yangze presented them to my father with great solemnity before the entire household. In a home where valuables were being sold every day to fund household expenses, these three items had remained sacrosanct.
The first was a jade belt ornament dating from the Han dynasty, some two thousand years old. It's likely that one of our ancestors acquired the carved disk three or four hundred years ago when it was already a valuable antique. For generations, the oldest male of the family had worn this jade dangling from a silk cord looped through his belt. It was believed to have magical properties that prevented injury to its wearer.
The second treasure was a watercolor of chrysanthemums, painted by an artist of the early Qing dynasty famed for the delicate quality of his chrysanthemum petals. His paintings were so highly prized that the artist charged according to the number of blossoms in a painting, a silver tael for each. This watercolor contained twenty-one flowers, an extravagant commission. My seven-times-great-grandfather Chang Yaopu, a man of refined tastes and immense wealth, had purchased it directly from the artist. The two men knew each other professionally but were not personal friends. Evidence of this was in the inscription on the painting, an elegant couplet of formal rather than warm sentiments.
The third item was a pair of wire-rimmed sunglasses, the lenses ground from a dark, smoky quartz. These were not as ancient, but were of more interest to me for my father knew a bit more about the ancestor who originally owned them. My five-times-great grandfather Chang Liqi was a district magistrate of rather pedestrian competence. He was happier plodding through ancient texts than listening to courtroom cases. He was horrified to discover that one of his responsibilities was to oversee executions. In those days criminals were executed by decapitation, their sentence meted out in the market square, a venue that lent a morbid festivity to the proceedings. Depending on the skill of the swordsman, the executions could be mercifully swift or appallingly bloody.
An easy-going, gentle person, Chang Liqi abhorred these events but he was also very dutiful and attended executions without fail. It wasn’t uncommon for judges to wear dark glasses to mask their emotions. So my ancestor had dark glasses made and wore them during executions, so that no one could see that he closed his eyes as the sword swung down. Chang Liqi retired from this job as soon as it was honorably possible to do so.
Some weeks after giving these family treasures to my father, it seems that my grandfather Chang Yangze regretted his burst of generosity. Shortly afterwards, he asked my father whether he could borrow back the painting of chrysanthemums to hang in his study for a while longer, since he missed having the beautiful flowers on his wall.
Then he felt that his eyes were becoming sensitive to light, and that the dark glasses might help.
Finally, Grandfather Zhang explained that since he was growing old and unsteady, it might be prudent to wear the Han jade to prevent injuries should he fall. What could a dutiful son do but agree?
When my parents married and went to Taiwan, my father left these heirlooms behind with my grandfather because everyone believed the young couple would be back in China within two years.
No one knows how or when these three heirlooms vanished, but they did. However, family members who lived with my grandfather agree that even during the Cultural Revolution, Grandfather Chang managed to hold on to a small hoard of family treasures and these he pawned away slowly. From time to time they would see him hurry away furtively from the house, carrying a mysterious package. Sometime later, he would be seen returning just as furtively, carrying a jar of wine and salted peanuts or some other small treats for his private consumption.
Nonetheless, my grandfather Chang Yangze did not pawn away all our heirlooms to buy wine. Through all the intimidation and contradictory politics of the Cultural Revolution, Grandfather managed to hold on to a most important legacy for us.
One day, he took the train from Pinghu to Shanghai to see his youngest son, my Uncle Ning. He insisted that Ning take charge of the bundle he had carried all the way from Pinghu, and instructed him to give it my father at the earliest opportunity, for my father was the oldest son of his generation and entitled to this last remaining inheritance.
Uncle Ning opened the bundle and was horrified to find amongst other small items of negligible value, an edition of our jia pu, family genealogy. This was a forbidden bourgeois conceit if ever there was one. Our jia pu was a book printed by the family, updated every couple of generations. In our family artisans would be hired to carve wooden printing blocks listing the names and family relationships of the latest generations. These new blocks of text would be used, along with the older ones, to print the latest edition of the family genealogy. The eldest male of the family was responsible for seeing to it that new entries were accurate, and that copies were distributed to all branches of the family.
During the insanity of the Cultural Revolution, people were being persecuted to their deaths for holding on to less offensive items. Uncle Ning was a member of the Communist party and chief administrator in charge of electric utilities for the entire city of Shanghai. His fall from grace was guaranteed to be a notable event should knowledge of the jia pu come to light. But his need to safeguard family legacy was stronger than his fear, for as my father often said to me in those days, “What are a few decades of Communism? It is but the blink of an eye against four thousand years of Chinese history.”
Somehow Uncle Ning managed to hide the bundle for another twenty years, until the day he was able to come overseas to visit us. Then for the first time, we were able to see for ourselves the volumes naming our ancestors for thirty-six generations. My father and uncle would have been the thirty-eighth generation but poverty and turbulent times did not allow any more new editions to be printed.
As a child I had heard about the jia pu and believed it contained all the stories that my father had told me and more. But to my disappointment, when the volumes materialized, they contained only long lists of names and titles, with a few sparse lines here and there on the career achievements of especially noteworthy ancestors. Written in classical Chinese, even my father could not always decipher the characters. The books were completely devoid of magical tales or personal accounts. Despite this, the fact of their existence is fascinating to me; they are testimonies of a society that makes ours seem rootless and transient.
It’s hard to say what practical use our family history or the knowledge of these heirlooms can hold for us; perhaps the best we can do is experience a sense of continuity when considering the stories of those who preceded us. Knowing something of their lives gives insight into our own.
I like to think that my love of travel comes from our ancestor who saw a dragon in that autumn valley, or that my nephew’s compassion comes from his great-grandfather the village doctor. Perhaps my niece’s love of art comes from that distant ancestor who was willing to spend twenty-one silver taels for a painting of chrysanthemums. Perhaps we are very much like them, and live our lives differently only because we were born to different opportunities and a different era.
A bout this story
My father mourned the three heirlooms given to him, then left behind. All he had of his mother was a folding paper fan painted with a scene of flowers and rocks. The painting on the semi-circle of paper was a joint effort by his mother and grandmother. His grandmother had painted the main elements and his mother, whose hands were younger and steadier, had filled in details such as stamens and leaf veins. He had the paper removed from the fan and framed. This painting means more to me than any other.
But to me, the stories he handed down about our ancestors are by far the best legacy he could have given me. By knowing more about them, I understand more about myself. Or at least I like to think so. And now, the stories have found their way into my novels, adding details and authenticity I could not otherwise provide.
On my mother’s side, there were no treasures to inherit. Her siblings suffered terribly during the Cultural Revolution and all their valuables were confiscated, including paintings and family jewelry. My mother often mourned the loss of a silver filigree box that contained jewelry from her family, including a ruby necklace and earrings. These had been given to her when she married.
Then my grandmother, who was a nurse and midwife, went to Taiwan to help my mother through her first pregnancy. At the time, my parents lived in a large but shabby house allotted to them by the university where my father taught. Grandmother was appalled at how easily they could be burgled, so when she left, Grandmother took the silver box back to China with her, saying she would safeguard it until my parents returned to China. My parents didn’t manage to go back for another 40 years and by then all items of value had been confiscated by the Red Guards. Everything was gone.
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