My grandmother is seventy-six and still full of vitality. To my childhood self, she was the most forceful personality in our family, directing my mom and aunts and uncles, laughing and debating in equal measure, and cooking feasts in her tiny apartment kitchen.
I had no idea how much she’d suffered until I was much older.
I called her over WeChat a few months ago to ask her about her childhood. WeChat is the only way I have to reach my grandmother. The thought of losing this thread of connection purely due to petty politics terrifies me.
She talked for over two hours. I’ve translated and transcribed parts of the interview below, but I can’t quite capture the way in which she told her story. Her life was tough, but she managed to be tougher. I hope to preserve her story and her incredible strength here. She’s the strongest person I know.
“Hao, so you want me to talk about my childhood? Then I have to start with my yeye, my grandfather. If I didn’t start with him, then you wouldn’t know how I ended up as an orphan. You wouldn’t know.
“I’m going to be speaking in Chinese– is it okay if your recording is in Chinese?” (Yes, I definitely want it in Chinese.)
She laughs. “Then I’ll tell you.”
“My yeye returned home dead a few months before the Liberation. During the Qing Dynasty– do you know Chinese history? Before the Guomingdang, before the Chinese Communist Party, before the Liberation, and before the Republic, was the very last dynasty of China, the Qing Dynasty. Sometime in the 1880s, my yeye became a civil servant for the Qing Dynasty because he was a very studious man. He was sent all over China to serve as a government official for the Qing Dynasty. Henan, Zhejiang, Hangzhou, Beiping. All over China.
“Back at home lived his four sons and their families, all under one roof. Homes back then were bigger. Not as pretty as houses are today; no concrete or steel, just dirt and wood. But not bad. Why don’t we have that home anymore? Because after the Liberation, our home was raided and confiscated. Nothing was left. They chased us out of our home. That was the Communist Party’s Land Reform. That was Liberation.
“But a little before Liberation, around ‘47, my father went to Beijing to bring my yeye back home. My yeye was seventy-something at that point. The journey home wasn’t easy back then: you had to take a train from Beijing to Wuhan, then a boat from Wuhan to Yichang, and then a different boat from Yichang to Badong, and finally a car to take you from Badong all the way to our village in the mountains.
“My father and my yeye almost made it to Yichang. On the boat, my yeye died. So my father had to stop in Yichang to get a coffin. He got a double-layered coffin– the average person only gets a single layer, but my yeye had two. From Yichang, he had a procession follow the coffin to Badong. In Badong, the procession took cars to our family home– the old home, not the little house in the bend where your great aunt lives; where she lives now is the result of land reform. The old family home is where my yeye came home to. My yeye came home and he was dead. I was about five.
“My yeye stayed in the middle of the tang room, the parlor room, for three months, surrounded by burning incense. From the moment his coffin arrived, our house was never without visitors. Tailors had to come live in our house to help the women finish sewing enough white mourning clothes for the family. Chefs cooked around the clock to accommodate the number of visitors who came to pay respects.
“Not long after my yeye returned, my mother fell ill too. We called it fenbing back then. Women would bleed to death overnight. Ovarian cancer. Before my father could find the right place for yeye’s grave, before they could carry my yeye up to the ancestral graveyard, my mother passed away. And so we had two coffins in the parlor room. Just my father, my sister, and I were left.
“My father had hired a fengshui expert to help find the right spot for my yeye’s grave. But he must not have been very good: I found out later that my yeye’s grave was robbed. The robbers broke the fengshui. And now the Huang family is now like this…
“Afterwards, around 1949, came the Liberation. Because my yeye had been a respected civil servant in the Qing Dynasty, our family owned land, and we had farmhands, dianhu, to help plant it. Isn’t that the way it still is today? Aren’t there still people working on others’ lands? So why was it a crime back then? We had contracts to share our harvests with the farmhands, but the Liberation nullified these. That’s how my father was branded a criminal. That’s why he was executed by the Communist Party. They didn’t give him a trial. His crime was being a landowner. At least today, there’s a process that one must go through before being executed. But not back then. All of them were branded criminals– my father and all my uncles. Our family home was confiscated, our stuff looted. We were chased out. And I too was branded as the daughter of a criminal. I was about eight.
“Our family was broken. The three brothers’ surviving families were all placed in separate homes far away from each other. The family with whom we used to all go through one front door together. Jia po ren wan le.
“The Communists put me, eight, and my sister, eleven, in a house that was falling apart. It leaked when it was raining. We didn’t have socks and we didn’t have shoes. We almost froze to death in the winter. Everyday we did everything we could to keep ourselves from starving. I can’t think about that time right now. Maybe I could write about it. But I can’t talk about it too much.”
“Anyway. The years passed just like that.
“In 1954, one of my cousins, 2 years younger than I, started going to school.. I was so envious. I was fourteen by then, and had never gone to school. I’d been too young to go when things were good, and then, in all the turmoil, with our family falling apart, I never had the time to go. I didn’t have parents who cared whether or not I went to school. When I asked my mother’s cousin, who had been like a stepmother to me, if I could go to school, she replied, “You don’t even have food to eat, and you want to study? Wait until you can afford it, then study.” But then my sister gave me 30 cents. And with that money I ran to school.
“I’d never been to school before, so when I went to speak with a teacher, he wanted me to start with the first grade. I burst into tears. I told him, my younger cousin is already in the 2nd grade, I can’t do 1st grade, that would be too embarrassing! I told him I wanted to enter the 3rd grade. He said, “What? You want to start in 3rd grade?” And I said yes, I wouldn’t go to school at all if I had to do 1st or 2nd grade. So he said, very well. I’ll show you a few words; if you can recognize them, you can enter 3rd grade. He showed me some words and I knew them all! After all, my father’s household was full of scholars. That’s how I tested into the third grade. But not too long after I entered, that school discontinued the third grade, and I had to attend another school.
“I worked so hard to stay in school… When I wasn’t studying, I was picking grasses and sewing shoes to afford the tuition and food. But that was a hard time. That’s enough for tonight. Okay?”
“Okay, Lao Lao.”