Letting go runs in the family.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, my great-grandfather, Han Chu Jing, was the wealthiest man in Feng Xian County, owning the miles of farmland surrounding the village. The rice grains, the cotton seeds, the canola flowers: they all belonged to him. All he had to do was come from the right bloodline.
Like most of the young and rich, he had a lot of time on his hands. And like all of the young and foolish, he tried his hand at opium. Soon, the sickly sweet aroma pervaded his zhongshan tunics, his rooms, even his blankets at night. The realization would come to him slowly: his life was ending before it had begun. He had slept for many years, and now he faced an inevitable crossroads. Dream on, sleep, or open your eyes.
Chu Jing chose to wake up. Step one involved buying a Western journal of medicine. This opium stuff, he decided, it was bad. He needed to find a way to wean himself off, slowly but surely. He would do this through a careful combination of . . . everything. After all, it pays to be rich.
From the shaman down the road, he purchased Eastern herbs. From an English mail-order catalogue, he ordered Western medicine. From his prayers at night, he asked a higher Lord to forgive his sins and give him peace.
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 subpar.
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 had thought her rich husband would save her. She had 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 had lived in this world long enough, and she knew the way it worked. She made her own laws, gravity be damned.
But Yesu is no man, the Catholic 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, a new portrait of the Virgin Mary erected over the altar. Gradually, an inspired family, at peace in their salvation.
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 Yesu.
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 steady.
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 peace 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 his mouth.
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 of peace 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 arrived.
Mao Zedong offered vows of liberation and glory. This man is no good, Jing De mused. For 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. In the end, she would realize that finding peace means letting 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 as good as 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 family behind.
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 all.
To live is to let go. Eventually my great grandfather closed his eyes, falling asleep in the peace 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 on to 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 would not make 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. “Peace,” she once told my mother, “is something you fight for.” She saved my mother’s life.
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 of 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 find our peace with the past. 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.