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?
This story is about my grandfather's concubine, who hasn't made it into any of my novels. Yet.
T his is the story of the woman my mother and uncles called Yi Niang, which translates as ‘father’s concubine’. She was concubine to my grandfather Mao Ba, a vexation to his wife, my grandmother, and beloved playmate to my mother.
My grandmother’s family was unusual for that era in that they were second-generation Anglicans. Her father was one of the early Chinese converts to Christianity and her father and brother were Anglican ministers. Thus when Grandmother Sun Yi married Mao Ba, it was truly a love match, for she married him despite the fact that he already had a wife from an arranged marriage. Yet my grandmother Sun Yi was willing to be a second wife – under certain conditions. So Mao Ba sent his first wife and their three daughters to a residence in the next county, where his first wife could be close to her own family. Sun Yi wanted no reminders that she was not his legal first wife although she was obviously the first wife of her husband’s heart and household.
As for how Yi Niang came into their lives, it was because Grandfather Ma was a doctor. He had a patient with a digestive problem and after a long and costly course of treatment which completely cured his illness, the patient confessed to Grandfather that his tea business wasn’t doing so well; therefore, he couldn’t afford to pay cash but he would send along some goods as compensation. Grandfather thought nothing of it and nodded his consent, believing that he would receive a supply of fine tea, something that even Grandmother would be happy to accept.
A day later, Old Ming the gatekeeper unlatched the front door of the clinic to find a slender young woman with downcast eyes waiting outside, clutching a cloth bag filled with her meager belongings. He took her in to see Grandfather and she handed over a note from the tea merchant. Her parents had sold her as a bond servant to the tea merchant’s household when she was only six years old and now that he could no longer afford so many servants, the merchant had passed her along to Grandfather, saying in his note that she was a diligent worker and especially good with children.
Grandmother was furious, because not only had the merchant evaded payment, but given them an extra mouth to feed. But neither could Grandmother bring herself to leave a teenage girl out on the streets and so the young servant was put to work minding the children of the household.
In those days, an illiterate female peasant had little to look forward to except years of backbreaking labor and uncertain harvests. But as a servant working for a family of means, at least she could expect to eat regularly. Thus went the justification for poor families selling off their little girls, with no assurance of how the child would be treated. In some households these children were literally worked to death. In the Mao family, there was not the remotest possibility that any servant would be mistreated.
Only seventeen, not that much older than her charges, the newest member of the household proved hard-working, lively, and cheerful. Her lack of sophistication made her seem even younger than she was and she was more of a playmate to my mother and uncles than a servant. She had a pert little face with sparkling eyes, and she loved to laugh. Since the Mao household was a happy place, presided over by a generous master, there were many opportunities to laugh. Her gratitude bubbled up with every small kindness shown to her.
How then, could she refuse other kind attentions?
It wasn’t long before Grandmother was furious again, this time because of the maidservant’s rounded belly. With everything out in the open, Grandfater Mao declared the girl his concubine and asked the other children to address her as Yi Niang.
This state of affairs vexed Grandmother no end, for how could she object to Grandfather taking a concubine when she was herself only a second wife? My mother and uncles recall that many of their parents’ arguments were over Yi Niang and her mother’s jealousy of the young woman. Their parent’s marriage was never quite the same afterwards.
To Grandmother’s dismay, Yi Niang wasn’t sent away to live at a country residence after giving birth to a boy. Instead Grandfather kept both concubine and baby as part of the household, where the boy grew up with my mother and uncles. Yi Niang continued to live a merry life while staying as much as possible out of Grandmother’s line of sight.
More than a servant yet less than a family member, she never seemed to resent the way she was treated by my grandmother. Yi Niang was a humble soul; she had never anticipated her life taking such a happy turn. In her eyes, to be part of the Mao family was already such great fortune that Grandmother’s bitterness was only a small difficulty she could more than endure.
My mother often said she could never express enough gratitude for the way Yi Niang looked after them while they lived out the years of war in Shanghai as refugees. The family, all nine members, including Grandfather’s assistant, lived in the two-room apartment which was also my Grandfather’s tiny doctor’s office.
The two rooms were ready to burst from the tension of so many people squeezed in such a small space. Yi Niang took on all the chores of cleaning, cooking, washing, and mending. She cooked for the entire family on a single charcoal burner, all they were allowed by the landlord, each meal a challenge in logistics and timing. There was one chamber pot in a closet alcove under the staircase, which she emptied.
My Grandmother hated Shanghai’s markets, pushing and shoving through crowds while watching out for pickpockets, so it was Yi Niang who went out shopping for their food, bargaining fiercely over slices of pork and insulting the freshness of the farmer’s eggs until he sold them to her for a penny less, just to make her move on.
Yi Niang remained cheerful and uncomplaining throughout, doing her share of the work and more, winning even Grandmother’s grudging appreciation. She patched her clothes and sewed for the family, refusing to buy cloth for herself so they could afford finer-quality fabrics for my mother, for in Yi Niang’s eyes, Doctor Mao’s daughter had to be well-dressed.
After the war, Grandfather returned to Pinghu where he rebuilt his practice. And when he retired, he moved to Shanghai to live with his eldest son, my uncle Zhong. Again, to Grandmother’s chagrin, he did not leave Yi Niang behind in Pinghu, but brought her along to Shanghai. He lived for only a few more years after moving to Shanghai, for he had a heart condition. Both Yi Niang and Grandmother nursed him day and night during his final illness, their rivalry forgotten.
After Grandfather died, Grandmother was finally able to rid herself of the younger woman. Yi Niang’s son was now married with a family of his own and lived in the city of Hankow; so Yi Niang was sent to live there. She left without a murmur of protest, for now that Grandmother ruled the household, she had no role in the family anymore. It is just as well that she wasn’t living in Shanghai in the years that followed, because Grandmother, Uncle Zhong, and his family met with horrible persecution during the Cultural Revolution. Yi Niang was safer in Hankow. According to my cousins, she chattered heedlessly about her life in the (extremely bourgeois) Mao household; had she lived in a place with more ruthless surveillance, she would've brought disaster upon her head.
Many years later, after Grandmother died, Uncle Zhong wrote asking Yi Niang to move back to Shanghai and live with his family. Now in her seventies, Yi Niang was overjoyed, for Shanghai was more to her fancy than Hankow, and Uncle Zhong’s family had recently moved to a large, comfortable new apartment. Despite all the intervening years, their relationship remained the same. She was more than a servant, yet still not truly a member of the family. But she hadn’t minded then and she didn’t mind now; she had no aspirations except to be part of the family, in whatever capacity. She cooked and cleaned for them in return for room and board.
A few years later she was once again sent to live Hankow, this time by Uncle Zhong and his wife. Yi Niang had fallen and broken her hip, and could no longer do housework. My uncle and his wife weren’t able to care for her as attentively as she had cared for them through all those years, and she had grown stubborn and garrulous in her old age, quarreling constantly with Uncle Zhong.
She died just a few months after leaving the urban bustle of Shanghai she loved so well.
A bout this story
As far as she could tell, Yi Niang was born in 1910. She died in 1992. When she joined my grandfather’s household after a decade of near-slavery, she thought she had entered Paradise. As a result of her upbringing she remained humbly grateful all her life to the Mao family. I’ve met older Chinese -- chauffeurs and manservants – who exhibited near filial loyalty to their employers, for it was hard for them to erase a tradition of servants as family retainers.
When I met Yi Niang in 1986, she was the sole remaining member of that generation of the Mao family. Her face was small and wrinkled but her eyes still sparkled and she still loved to tease and laugh. The bureau behind her held a photograph of her as a young mother, her baby son on her lap. She’s trying to look solemn and formal for the portrait but not quite able to repress the giddiness of being photographed for the first time. The resemblance of the old woman to the spirited girl was still quite strong, for in many ways I don’t believe she ever really grew up.
She was very chatty and animated, and she loved joking with my cousins. Because she spoke the native Pinghu dialect, I couldn’t understand much of what she said so my cousins translated her words into Mandarin for me. I asked her what she would like as a gift. After a long and considered pause, she replied she would like a needle threader. She meant one of those cheap little wire threaders you could find in every sewing kit. As we continued talking, she took out a small knife and peeled an apple so that the skin fell in unbroken loops onto the plate. Then she cut the apple in quarters, very carefully, and gave a section to each of us.
When we heard how Yin Niang died, I felt ashamed of my family. My grandmother barely tolerated Yi Niang. After my grandmother died and my uncle's family asked Yi Niang to live with them in Shanghai, I believed it was because they were fond of her. Now I think perhaps it was because they wanted someone to cook and clean for them. She had spent most of her life being an unpaid servant to our family. In return, my uncle's family discarded her as soon as she was no longer useful. After a civil war, the Japanese invasion of China, a revolution, famine, and the purges of the Cultural Revolution, they still regarded her as no more than a servant.
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