Maybe it was his determination, or divine intervention, or maybe mere money, plain and simple, but something worked in the end. His friends began to catch on. Soon, they were all subscribing to his medical and physical regimen, even his spiritual one, and soon, they were all a sober bunch. Look at the men of Feng Xian County, all the grannies would coo. Such a young, handsome crowd. All able to stand on their own two feet. For rich young men, the standards were always shit.
It wasn’t long before the government took notice. A district official approached
Chu Jing one day, saving him from an afternoon watching the plants grow and the
children play in the backyard. Open a clinic, the man said. Opium has struck the
countryside. We need people like you to fight the disease.
We need people like you. Chu Jing had never been needed for much of anything. He
liked the sound of that. He said yes.
And thus, my great grandfather, who had never worked a day in his life, who had
never attended public school, became the head of the county clinic. Opium is bad
stuff, he would say. His students all nodded sagely.
Looking back, I wonder if my great grandfather was the right man for the job. He
was a good talker, all big words and sweeping gestures, and he craved learning,
perhaps because he only ever saw it as entertainment. He never needed to work, to
go to school. It was just another way to spend the days. And why would he worry,
when his mother oversaw every aspect of his life? Perhaps, on reflection, this story
begins with Tsai Xun, my great-great grandmother, the matriarch of the household.
Tsai Xun was the fighter, the survivor, the one who ran the farm and managed the
estate. Her husband passed away at a young age, when her son was only a little boy,
and so she resolved to be parent enough for both of them. Her son Chu Jing would
lack for nothing, she promised. When Tsai Xun made a promise, she meant it.
She was afraid of very little, including the tall, pale foreigners from the West, the
ones who called themselves “missionaries” and decided it was their mission to
stomp about with their big-boat feet. When they passed through humble Feng Xian
county, of course Xun insisted the guests stay with them. She didn’t care much for
their laws of Yesu Jesus, but she did care for the laws of hospitality. Her estate was
the biggest in the village. It would be criminal to stay elsewhere.
Her son was excited at the chance to learn English. The vowels were a delight to
play with, slippery and soft on his tongue. His mother was more apprehensive. Tell
me again how this Yesu saves the day, she would ask, raising a skeptical brow. Men
say one thing, she knew, mean another. She’d thought her rich husband would save
her. She’d thought his bountiful fields would do the work. But in the end, it was
Xun carrying out the funeral prayers, Xun overseeing the tenant farmers. Hey! Just
because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I’m blind. You’re taking twice your rice share!
Her only child, of course, was a boy, and a handsome one at that. His hands were
soft and his eyes softer still. His brain was full of nice cushy things like math and
science. Xun didn’t have time for math or science. She’d lived in this world long
enough, and she knew the way it worked. She made her own laws, gravity be
But Yesu is no man, the missionary said. He is God, and he says one thing and means it.
In that case, my great-great grandmother decided, with the simple confidence that
governed all her decisions, I will follow this Yesu too.
The missionary rejoiced. Now that the head of the household believes, he thought to
himself, she will influence the others. The missionary imagined a slow, subtle persuasion–a pious prayer before dinner, a merciful hand governing the farm. Gradually, an
But the next morning, Xun rose bright and early. The entire household, she declared,
mincing no words, will be Christian. Every child from here on out will believe in
Sure, her son said, his mouth full of green onion pancakes.
Whatever you say, the maid said, used to whatever the wind blew in each morning.
Yes, Dear Mother, her daughter-in-law said, her head demurely bowed. Cao Jing De
had been a good fit for her son. A nice girl from a nice family down in Zhang Hang
village. Xun had handpicked the girl herself, traveling down to the neighboring town
to see if the girl’s renowned beauty and virtue could indeed be substantiated. Of
course, nothing ever looks as good up close. There were a few snags, but they weren’t
deal breakers. Jing De’s mother had been indecisive, binding her daughter’s feet every
morning, letting them out every night. As a result, Jing De’s feet were not the delicate
golden lilies of her mother-in-law, but in time, this would prove to be her greatest
blessing. In time, other girls would stumble, but Jing De would run sure-footed and
From then on, Jing De would read her Bible every morning with a devotion only
matched by her love for her children. Though she too had not picked up the math
or science scrolls, she knew with certainty that things were not as they seemed. And
so, she hoped that her family would find comfort in a higher being who would not
change his mind like the Japanese or the Nationalists or the Communists. For there
would come a time when their fortune ran dry, and their luck ran out. First, the Japanese came.
Their timing was unpredictable, their bloodshed incomprehensible. One servant boy
ran half a step faster to the haystack behind the house, the other lagged because of a
sore toe. One boy made it. The other died with a spear in his back, baby teeth still in
In those days, my great grandfather Chu Jing favored a traditional duan haircut,
modeled after the first president Sun Zhongshan. Ever vain, he only trusted Barber
Aidu with his cut, and he wasn’t the only one with this sentiment. Aidu was a popular barber for aristocrat and guerrilla warrior alike. Even the Chinese revolutionaries
favored Aidu’s. After a particularly vicious terrorist attack, they’d stopped by the
barbershop, bragging of their victories. But war is a fickle beast, and who can predict
the flow of the tides? The next week, the Japanese retaliated, butchering all in the
barbershop. They weren’t ones to discriminate.
Amidst all the bloodshed, my great grandmother and her children hid at home, panicking because Baba hadn’t yet returned, and the messengers had sent up the cry of the massacre at Barber Aidu’s.
Then the door opened. Baba Chu Jing crossed the threshold with a shiny new
cut and a smile. Why the long faces? he asked. Sorry I’m late. I decided to try out
Barber Shu’s today. Bit of a walk, but he did a nice job, don’t you think? He hadn’t
heard the news.
True to his promises, Yesu blessed my great grandmother’s devotion. And yet, his
blessings were hard to fathom, and few and far between, like drops of rain amidst
sweltering drought. For only seconds after the Japanese departed, the Communists
Mao Zedong offered vows of liberation and glory. This man is no good, Jing
De mused. Though Mother Xun had passed away, Jing De still remembered her
words. Man says one thing, means another. Mao said liberation, meant death. Lots
of it. Forty-five million dead by his Great Leap Forward and three million more in
his Cultural Revolution. His Revolution targets? The bourgeois. The educated, the
rich, the ones with the big estates and bigger farms.
By this time, Jing De had given birth to three children. A darling eldest son, who
would grow to be the spitting image of his handsome father; a middle daughter,
who would choose to shed her aristocrat roots like a dirty cloth; and a soft-spoken
youngest daughter, who would learn from her mother a relentless faith in Yesu. In
hard times, she would be the one to provide for her brother, to reach out to her
sister, to take care of her family and hold them tight against the crashing waves.
And in the end, when it was over, she would be the one to let go.
This youngest daughter, Ming Zhang, had bright doll eyes and plump moon
cheeks. Her marriage was a match made in heaven: an ambitious young businessman, a true Shanghainese scholar of the arts. Her elder brother couldn’t have made
a more different choice. He found a salt-of-the-earth, proletarian teacher, a wife
who all but came with a stamp of Communist approval.
So when the Red Guards arrived, eldest brother Zheng, for all his charisma, for all
his striking good looks, had nothing to offer his parents. My great grandparents
were bourgeois of course, the worst of the black elements. Your time is past, he
told them, tears in his eyes. I cannot take you in.
Chu Jing and Jing De were in their sixties now, with the wrinkles to show for it.
With understanding, they turned to their second daughter, but she was far away
in Fujian and a Communist official now, deep in the thick of it. Daughter Ming
Zhang tried next, but she would fall asleep at her desk one day, botching a Communist notice. As punishment, she would go north to a labor camp, leaving her
So my great grandparents were shuttled back to the outskirts of Feng Xian county.
Here, they lived in a squat straw hut, sandwiched between a pig’s pen and a county
convenience shop. One cold night, just when the turmoil seemed to be dying down,
a rogue fire caught on the low-hanging eaves, and soon the whole block was up
in flames. It was close to midnight, and the elders were fast asleep. A few li away,
the nearest neighbors heard the news and rushed to investigate, mourning the poor
grandparents who had died alone. Yet their prayers died on their lips as they beheld the sight before them. Ash and soot everywhere, an entire block burned down, and yet, one straw hut remained, singed but still standing.
My great grandparents woke the next morning, bleary eyed yet unscathed. Yesu is
not man, Jing De whispered solemnly. Chu Jing only nodded, taking a mere moment
to collect himself before helping with the cleanup. It had been many years since his
soft-handed childhood days, and now his gnarled yet sure hands had written enough
suffering to rival his collection of western plays. Ripeness, he thought to himself, is
To live is to let go. Eventually my great grandfather closed his eyes, falling asleep in
the comforts of his Shanghai apartment, belly full and bed surrounded by children.
His mother too had passed in a similar manner, only a year before the Cultural
Revolution struck. She would miss the dictatorship of Mao, but she had seen enough
in the Japanese invasion and the Kuomintang’s war. Their time would come one by
one. Some would move on, others would stay behind. Is it random chance, is it fate?
For how do we hold onto these memories without lines to divide the good from evil?
How do we make sense of it all?
There are so many of us who did not make it. There is Jing De’s younger sister, the
ambitious one, engaged to a Qing Dynasty scholar attending Cornell University. She
craved learning like no other, fighting to become a teacher and the most educated
woman in her family. And yet, when the Japanese invaded, she would not stand the
agony of hiding each day, living in constant fear and anxiety. She would commit suicide at nineteen. At twenty, I have seen more than she ever would.
There were so many chances we could have not made it. At the start of the Revolution, my mother was a newborn baby, only a few months old. Her mother was sent
to a northern labor camp, her father to the interrogation cells. Even her older brother,
at sixteen, would leave for the youth reeducation programs, a glorified name for child
labor. As she cried in the empty flat, her neighbor came to investigate, a proletarian
woman with Communist standing. She fed my mother, rocked her to sleep at night.
Had she been left alone in that cold apartment, my mother would have died before
There were so many moments we did not realize what we had. My grandmother,
walking in a daze towards the railroad tracks, wondering if this was the time to end
it all. Staring at the incoming train, wondering, wondering. She cried out to Yesu. She
asked him: is this all there is?
There are so many moments still to come. As I sit in church service, thousands of li
across the ocean, many, many years later, I get the dreaded call during worship and
hear my grandmother in the hospital. I don’t make it back in time. For the funeral,
we buy lilies.
We return to Shanghai and my mother takes me to the old home in the French Concession, the one with the rose bushes and lattice windows. The house is gone now,
demolished. A row of shiny glass boutique stores line the street in its place. Shanghai
is a city in metamorphosis, always changing.
As are we. In the end, making sense of the missing pieces is trying to count the stars
in the sky. In the end, we will never understand. We will never be able to say, with all
the confidence of a magician, let me tell you–this is what happened. All we can do
is pick up the broken words, forge them together with the cracks still exposed, hope
and pray that something makes sense. Generations continue. Generations let go. The
only way forward is on. This moment is enough.