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Tales of Spring Festivals past and stories of Chinese history told from the dinner table

Brilliant post on Danwei yesterday in keeping with the theme of Spring Festival. It is an annotated translation of interviews about Spring Festivals of years past collected by oral historian Sang Ye. The stories tell not only of the great hardships (floods, starvation) but also of the little joys (roasting a pig in the communal dining hall.) It’s a must-read and another example of why oral history can be so powerful. Thanks to Geremie R. Barmé for his excellent translations and for his wonderful post. It also got me thinking about other oral histories, many of which are closer than we imagine.

This past week as we sat down to another of many dinners, I had the pleasure of talking with YJ’s grandmother. “Lao Lao” was born to a well-to-do family and had gone to missionary school in the 1930s and 1940s in Tianjin. (She scared the hell out of me when I first met her a few years ago by suddenly turning to me and requesting, in perfectly enunciated English, to “Please have a seat.”) She told us stories of when the Japanese invaded Tianjin and she and her classmates rushed to the roof of their school to see the troops coming down the road. She told of her mother who used to dress her daughters up in rags and blacken their faces. “Japanese are superstitious and wouldn’t interfere with us (a euphemism for “rape”) because they would be afraid we were ghosts or devils.” She talked of how the KMT soldiers, marching into Tianjin after the Japanese surrendered, were so addicted to opium that they were said to carry “Two guns: One in their arms and one in their mouths.” The worst, she said, were the Koreans in the employ of the Japanese army. She blamed them for all sorts of debauchery and evil behavior. I hadn’t read much about Koreans as part of the Japanese invasion and I really had no idea what to make of this.

Even though Lao Lao’s husband had been a KMT officer and had even attended the Whampoa Military Academy, Lao Lao had nothing but nice things to say about the Communist 8th Route Army. “They were not corrupt and they never stole. People gave them food and shelter. They were so much more polite.” I asked why she didn’t go to Taiwan like many of her family. She shrugged and said she was the youngest daughter and her Mom didn’t want her to go and, anyway, it didn’t work out.

She then launched into a litany of the movements and struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. Given her background, I am at first surprised: Lao Lao is probably the staunchest supporter of CCP policies in YJ’s families. I soon learn why as the conversation turns from the politics of the past to the economics of the present. She is quick to compare the problems of today (the word fubai–corruption–comes up a lot) with the social safety nets of earlier times. She thinks that the Cultural Revolution was fundamentally right, but “went too far.” YJ’s dad and mom are listening from across the room. They disagree with Lao Lao. YJ’s dad recalls being 11-years old and seeing bodies floating in the rivers of Tianjin. He remembered his older siblings divided amongst themselves, some supporting one faction, another supporting the opposition. YJ’s mom and siblings, because of the KMT connection in the family, were classified as belonging to all possible categories of bad elements: Landlord, Anti-Revolutionary, Rich, and Rightist. None of her family was allowed to enter university. YJ’s dad told us the story of his cousin who married a fun-loving paunchy fellow with a round face. At their wedding, the new groom jokingly put on a cap and asked “Do I look like Chairman Mao?” During the Cultural Revolution, this joke was ‘remembered’ and he was sent away and his wife forced to file for divorce. All just tales told while waiting for the jiaozi to boil.

During the dark years of the Cultural Revolution, YJ’s dad had his own troubles, something he doesn’t talk about all that often and which I won’t repeat here, but suffice to say he too was barred from attending university. He is a quiet man, given to calligraphy and books, who taught his daughter a new poem each day as he took her to school on the back of his bicycle. Those of you with Chinese in-laws might appreciate this: YJ’s dad neither smokes nor drinks. It is a legacy passed down from his grandfather, who belonged to a secret society among the rules of which was avoiding tobacco, alcohol, and opium. YJ’s father loves to tell stories of Tianjin history and to teach me new phrases in the local dialect. I practice by speaking standard Putonghua with orange seeds in my mouth–it’s a close approximation. In another life YJ’s dad probably should have been an engineer or a college professor, but instead he has quietly toiled six days a week for 30 years as a machine operator in a state-owned factory. By rights he should be pissed off at the world. In reality he is one of the calmest people you will ever meet.

I suppose the Westerner marrying into a Chinese family is a bit of cliché. Certainly in my field, it’s a common enough occupational hazard. But I really think that my understanding of modern Chinese history, admittedly not my specialty, has become richer and far more nuanced for the conversations had while waiting for supper or listening for the tea water to boil. Certainly, one cannot make generalizations about all of China on the basis of one family’s experiences, but I definitely have a better feeling for how some of the great changes in China in the past century–truly one of the most dynamic periods for any people over any similar time frame–affected the lives of those who lived through it. I’d write more, but the dumplings are almost ready.

6 Comments on Tales of Spring Festivals past and stories of Chinese history told from the dinner table

  1. When I first visited China over a dozen years ago, people used to tell me lots of stories like these, particularly about the Cultural Revolution period. Today, in Beijing, it doesn’t seem to happen.

    I think the phenomenon was so marked back then because most of the people I was meeting were University teachers and low-to-middle-ranking government people: they were almost all in their 40s or early 50s, had come of age in the 1960s. Most of them had been Red Guards at some point: all had been either victims or victimizers, sometimes both. And all of them seem to feel a compulsion to talk about it – but not in public, of course, only when they could get me on my own. It was as if the sudden appearance of a foreigner (still a rarity in those days, especially in the central provinces) provided a welcome conduit to catharsis.

    Nowadays, China is much changed, foreign visitors are ten-a-penny, and that Red Guard generation are finally closing in on retirement. It’s much less common to hear those sorts of story, even from people you know well (and on my first trip here, it was usually complete strangers who were giving me the ‘Ancient Mariner’ treatment).

    I hope oral histories of these events are being recorded, before it’s too late.

  2. 花崗齋之愚公 // February 23, 2007 at 10:54 pm //


    Thanks for stopping by. I couldn’t agree more about oral histories–once the opportunity is gone, it’s gone. I applaud those who are working hard to preserve these precious records for future generations of scholars.

    BTW: We’re in Tianjin right now but will be back in Beijing starting next March. Drop me an email and I’ll give you my contact info.

  3. One of the strange things I find about being in China is that the circle of Chinese people that I associate with (i.e. co-workers and friends) don’t often include old people.

    But when you do get a chance to sit down and chat with them, it’s pretty special. They’ve seen more change in the the last 30 years alone than the west has seen in a century.

    It’s nice to get first hand accounts of this stuff, as opposed to just reading it.

    Enjoying your site. Keep it up!

  4. Enjoyed the post. I am also over time trying to assemble a personal history through my soon to be in-laws and immediate family here in Tianjin. The depth and openness of the storytelling really took me off guard, as I was expecting much more reservation and reluctance to sharing personal details than what in reality is happening. It’s funny how we all have our stereotypes firmly in place, and how easily they can be shattered once we are in close vicinity of each other. In fact, I feel sometimes that it is the fact that I am a foreigner that brings out the willingness to talk, similar to froog’s comment and your post. My s.o.’s comments are always about how much she learned from visits when I am there as compared to just her and her family. She can’t believe either how much they love to talk to me.
    Interesting to hear about your grandfather-in-law’s belief in that special club- I read about that in that “famous book” by a certain Ms. Zhang and have yet to find anybody who knew much about it other than oblique comments. My future father in law certainly doesn’t abstain from smoking and drinking, and he was thrilled with this year’s chun jie gift from me of a bottle Black Label- he had never tried foreign devil liquor and was surprised that it was palatable. Call me Mr. Cultural Emissary. Went well with the jiaozi and gunpowder, anyway.
    Great blog- thanks.

  5. I realize I’m adding a comment a little belatedly, but just wanted to note that in the following assertion, “I suppose the Westerner marrying into a Chinese family is a bit of cliché,” the word “Westerner” should probably be modified by “male.” It’s not a cliche the other way around.

    Loved reading all the stories from the family!

  6. 花崗齋之愚公 // March 3, 2007 at 2:41 am //

    Fair point. Though I know not a few American female historians of China who are married to a Chinese man.

    By the way Kate, I love your blog.

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