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. I haven't written a novel that uses this family story yet.
I n every family there are sad or shameful secrets we are all reluctant to speak out loud. You would not find these tales in genealogies or commemorative essays. Yet the tales survive, passed on in whispers, in the privacy of closed rooms, and usually when the storyteller is closing in on the twilight years of life. We know in our hearts that without disclosure of these sorrowful secrets, our family history is incomplete.
This story is about my aunt Mao Wei, my mother’s half-sister. She was my grandfather’s eldest daughter by his first wife. She never forgave her father for taking a second wife – my grandmother. Her pride didn’t allow her to acknowledge his goodness and loving nature, she didn’t manage to learn compassion for others or for herself, and it was this lack of compassion that destroyed her life.
My grandfather Mao Ba had married the daughter of a family friend but it was in obedience to his parents, a contract arranged between two families before the bride and groom were even born. His first wife gave him three daughters, but no sons. Mao Qing, the youngest of the three, was disabled and lived her entire life with her mother. The middle sister, Mao Qi, grew up to become a schoolteacher. The eldest sister, Mao Wei, trained as a midwife. But more about that later.
In those days, there was no such thing as divorce. Taking second wives or concubines was the centuries-old solution to infidelity, infertility, or an unharmonious marriage. The new Republic had modernized marriage laws, but there was a period of transition when custom prevailed over law and the law turned a blind eye, for so many people in positions of authority had concubines or were themselves the children of concubines.
So when Grandfather fell in love with my grandmother Sun Yi, he could only offer her the legal status of second wife, but he gave her all the respect and status to which a first wife was entitled, for she truly was the first wife of his heart.
He bought a country residence for his first wife not far from her own family. Although we would consider this a cruel form of abandonment, it was a better solution than forcing an unloved first wife to live in in a house where she’d be reminded at every turn of her loss of status. In her country home, she was sole mistress of her own household and received all the courtesies due the first wife of a respected doctor.
And who can say for sure if this first wife felt anything for my grandfather beyond acceptance and duty? She’d been brought up traditionally and expected very little from him. She hadn’t given him any sons, something she would’ve considered a significant failure. So it’s unlikely she begrudged her husband a second wife or a concubine who could bear sons.
When they were children, my mother’s half-sisters Wei and Qi lived for part of the year with their mother in the country, and during the school year lived at their father’s home in Pinghu, attending classes alongside my mother and her two brothers. The Mao residence was a small paradise for children, especially the courtyard of bamboo groves and rock gardens where hide-and-seek could be played for hours in the grottoes and shrubbery. The small orchard could be raided for green fruit to use as ammunition in mock battles, although sometimes rotting fruit had its uses as well. Grandfather believed in exercise and put up a basketball hoop and badminton nets. Discipline was relaxed, the children were forbidden only from playing too close to the clinic or chasing the hens that scratched for bugs in the kitchen gardens.
My mother’s half-sister Qi got along happily with my mother and her brothers. She was affectionate and her affection towards my grandmother was returned. But Wei nursed a bitterness that made her sharp-tongued and quick-tempered. She didn’t try to get along with my grandmother at all, and stayed distant from her half-siblings. But unfortunate though it was, it was peripheral to the central tragedy of her life.
Wei blamed her father for neglecting her mother. She thought it hypocritical of him to encourage his children to marry for love, when he himself had fathered children by three women. (see Grandfather’s Concubine). She judged the deeds of the previous generation against the values of the new and her judgment was harsh.
There were few careers open to women in those days, and nursing was one of them. When Wei announced her intention of becoming a nurse, Grandfather didn’t hesitate and sent her to the nursing school of her choice in Nanjing. At nursing school, Wei decided to become a midwife, for in lacking the ability to create happiness for herself, she was attracted by the joy surrounding the birth of a new life.
My mother mentioned an incident that happened when she was fourteen, when she was sent to boarding school in Nanjing. When my mother arrived in Nanjing, her school year had not yet started, so she stayed for a few days with Wei at the nursing school. She spent her days following Wei around, going out on small errands, and meeting friends.
My mother was a sociable young girl and quite happy to meet all of Wei’s dormitory mates. It never occurred to her that her own sister might not be pleased at having her there. After my mother started boarding school, Wei never bothered visiting her or taking her out on weekends even though they were sisters living in the same city.
Back in Pinghu, my grandparents were close friends with a family named Chen. The children of both families grew up together, and were so close that the two Chen boys were addressed by my mother and her brothers as ‘Elder Brother Chen’ and ‘Younger Brother Chen’. The Chens were not very well off and Grandfather loaned them some money so that the two brothers could attend university. Out of gratitude, and with the enthusiastic blessings of both sets of parents, Elder Brother Chen began paying court to Wei. He made his first short-lived attempt at courtship when Wei came home from Nanjing just before her final year at nursing school. She rebuffed him, guessing correctly that he was only doing this out of obedience to his parents.
She was in fact scornful of Elder Brother Chen for being so dutiful. The way she saw it, he was a university graduate and entitled to independence. He could’ve married anyone in Pinghu, a town where the number of young men with college degrees could be counted on two hands. She didn’t consider that his strong sense of duty would have made him a good husband. She only saw that he had the means to rebel against the old ways, but didn’t.
She returned to her final year at university in Nanjing still hopeful of meeting a suitable husband. In those days, relatively few women attended university, so friendships between female classmates were very strong. Wei should have been able to count on her friends for introductions to brothers or cousins. But although her friends liked her well enough as a schoolmate, her difficult nature made them hesitate when it came to closer ties.
She wasn’t as pretty as my mother, yet she was handsome enough in her own way, with high cheekbones above a strong, square jaw. But habitual discontent had left its mark in the contours of her face, and people felt uneasy in her company. Although they couldn’t say what it was, they could sense the discontent that filled her soul.
After graduation, my grandfather offered Wei her a position at his clinic, but she was contemptuous of his modest small-town practice. She preferred to work in Shanghai, where hospitals had the latest facilities modern medicine could offer. But in less than a year, she returned to Pinghu. She hadn’t enjoyed working as a midwife. It was tiring, with erratic hours, and it carried enormous responsibilities. She realized that in fact she didn’t enjoy working for a living. For the first time she began to doubt her own abilities and to appreciate how comfortable her life had been in a home where she had always gotten her own way.
She now saw that my grandmother not only put in long hours at the clinic but also ran a busy household with calm efficiency. The older woman had successfully started her career a generation ago, when it was even more difficult for women, whereas Wei had given up after less than a year of effort.
Wei began to realize also that her father didn’t indulge his second wife shamelessly, but treated her with respect because the two were truly equal partners. Her father, who made his house calls in a sedan chair, and who still wore cloth shoes and long tunic gowns, had fostered the kind of marriage that young Chinese intellectuals talked about a great deal but so far hadn’t managed for themselves.
Another revelation came when her younger sister Qi finished her teaching degree and became engaged to a fellow graduate. The couple found positions with a school in faraway Xian, in the western part of China. My grandmother generously gave Qi and her fiancé money out of her own savings to help them set up house in Xian. This made Wei realize that the woman she had reviled so often actually treated them all with kindness; it disturbed her to think that she might have been wrong.
Living at home again, Wei led an aimless life, her pride not letting her help out at the clinic. Her goal now was to marry and establish a household of her own. But her difficult nature was common knowledge in the town, and the only suitor at her door was Elder Brother Chen, who had resumed his plodding courtship. Resigned to her fate, she accepted his attentions and let it be known she was willing to marry into the Chen family, if the Chens could meet her conditions.
She wanted a diamond engagement ring.
The entire town shook their heads at this demand. There wasn’t even a store in Pinghu that carried such jewelry. Diamonds were the stuff of high society, engagement rings a modern notion. The Chens were aghast, for this requirement was at best unreasonable, and at worst, insulting. Elder Brother Chen withdrew his offer of marriage and soon became engaged to another young woman whose family considered his university degree a fine asset.
Wei realized too late that her father’s status as an eminent doctor would not compensate for the damage to her reputation. She received no other offers, nor even enquiries, and fell into a deep depression, believing that she had lost face in front of the entire town.
If Wei had confided in her mother, she would have been advised to worry less about losing face and to accept the next marriage proposal offered, for with her father’s connections it was inconceivable that there would be no more offers. That much her mother understood, and understood correctly. But Wei’s lack of compassion wasn’t just towards others, she condemned herself just as harshly.
She was only twenty-one when she ended her life with an overdose of sleeping pills.
To the dismay of the townspeople, who had taken it for granted that his services could be had at any time of the day or night, Mao Ba closed his clinic while the family mourned. A suicide was considered a shameful and unlucky event, to be kept secret at all costs, so outsiders were only told that Wei had died suddenly in her sleep. But of course the news got out.
Soon afterwards, the town became preoccupied with other news, for the Japanese had begun their invasion of China. Amidst the reports of war and its ensuing atrocities, Wei’s death was quickly forgotten by all but her immediate family.
As for Elder Brother Chen, even after he married and had a family of his own, he was treated by our family as a son-in-law, one who had been widowed. It was as though the families posthumously conferred upon Wei the status of having been married, out of kindness to her memory.
A bout this story
When my mother first told me about her half-sister, she began the story in a hesitant, faltering manner. I sensed the shame she felt, not just because suicides are considered unlucky but also because her family hadn’t been able to prevent the tragic death. She would not speak ill of the dead, but between the lines, there lay another tale.
There is one more tidbit she added to the original story, a few years later. Mao Wei had been in love when she killed herself.
When Younger Brother Chen returned from university, he paid his respects to the Mao family. With his long scholar’s gown worn over Western-style trousers and shiny leather shoes, his open face full of laughter, the youngest Chen wasn’t anything like the scruffy brat Wei remembered. Perhaps it was his happy nature that drew her, some hope that proximity to all that joy would leach some happiness into her own discontented soul. But Younger Brother Chen still remembered Wei from their childhood, when she had been difficult and sharp, and he felt no inclination towards her.
With Older Brother Chen having being rebuffed twice, the Chens no longer felt it their duty to rescue Wei from spinsterhood, for in turning down Elder Brother, she also had turned down the family. Furthermore, they were inundated with requests from Pinghu’s good families. Many were eager to marry their daughters to university graduates and the word had gotten out that both brothers were available. Younger Brother soon met with a selection of young women and cheerfully agreed to marry one who seemed as easily moved to laughter as he was.
If only Wei had been able to realize that others didn’t judge her as harshly as she judged herself. She saw only that she had failed in her career, wasted her education, and would never marry the man she loved. In an odd intermingling of ego and shame, she believed her failures were the central topic of town gossip. Although she was willing in the end to enter into an arranged marriage, she couldn’t bring herself to ask for help, having been so openly scornful in the past of arranged marriages. She saw only her shame and made no allowances for the foolish arrogance of youth, so easily forgiven by those who loved her.
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