I was four years old when I first met my Chinese grandmother, my Nai Nai. At first, we couldn’t even talk to each other, because up until then, I only spoke Italian and French and she only spoke Chinese. I had been born in Berlin, my German mom’s home (see story here), and within months of my birth, my Chinese father had been appointed acting ambassador to Rome, so we had been living in Rome for almost all of my life. What led to my meeting with my Chinese grandmother was a 1941 recall order from Chiang Kai Shek for my father to return to China, specifically to the war capital in Chongqing, to help out. Chiang Kai Shek was the leader of the Republic of China.
I remember Nai Nai as old, although she was only around 56 years old when we met. She wore her long grey hair (that had never been cut!) pulled back in a bun, and had tiny bound feet, which particularly intrigued me. She also had really long fingernails, which signified an upper class person who did not need to do any work. At this point, she had been widowed for sixteen years, and prior to that, had lived apart from her husband for some time. For entertainment, she liked to have guests come to her home, which was next to ours in a large compound, and where they played mahjong for hours. At least once, during one of these marathon games, I smelled what I think must have been opium, being smoked by a thin old man lying on his side with a long pipe.
Some days my Nai Nai would make thread by holding a bundle of cotton in her left hand, and with her right hand, she pulled a wad of the cotton, twisted it into a long thin string, and then wound the string onto a spindle whorl. With this thread, she’d sew little cotton shoes for my sister Hsiao Hu and me. Sometimes, she would sneak candies to us as a treat.
Nai Nai turned to Buddhism sometime late in life and occasionally I’d see her sitting very still, meditating. Before my older sister was born, Nai Nai’s much loved pet cat died, and for a while after my sister’s birth, Nai Nai was convinced that my sister was the reincarnation of her beloved cat. The fact that my sister was named Little Tiger (Hsiao Hu) probably aided in her belief!
She wore a green jade bracelet which she never removed, promising me that I would inherit it when she died. Little did we know then that she would die in poverty. When she died in 1955, my sister, brother, mother and I were in the U.S., having fled the Communist regime in China, and my father had fled to Taiwan.
Let me back up now, and tell you how my grandmother ended up in an impoverished state. She was born in 1878 into the wealthy Hsia family in Xu Zhou City. Her parents adored her and she possessed the traits of integrity, intelligence, a lovely disposition and beauty. Her parents turned down many prospective suitors. None were deemed good enough until the arrival of my grandfather, Hsu Shu-Cheng, who was a poor farmer scholar, but of great renown and who had passed a rigorous exam. Their wedding was postponed time after time, because of the deep love my grandmother’s parents had for their beloved daughter. They were reluctant to be parted from her, but finally, my grandfather Hsu’s parents begged Hsia’s family to consent to the wedding as a way to settle their “wayward” son. Against their wishes, he had appropriated some of their hard earned money to join the army of Tuan Chi-jui.
After the wedding, my Nai Nai used her money to support her husband, my Yeh Yeh, at a war college in Japan. Although this was an arranged marriage, their love blossomed and deepened. These were the happiest times of their lives. They lived frugally, only having fancy meals when important guests came to their home. They had six children, only three of whom survived infancy. My father, Dau-lin, was their third son.
Once my Yeh Yeh returned to China with his degree, he rose quickly up in rank to play a major role in the military and politics and his career blossomed. He became a five star general and participated in a major diplomatic mission to Mongolia in 1919. As his fame and prestige grew, he was presented with a gift of two beautiful young girls as brides. Unlike in the U S, where the rich and powerful accumulate mansions and cars as status symbols, in the China of my Yeh Yeh’s time, wealth and status earned a man an accumulation of concubines. These girls were trained in a special ancient type of opera, k’un chu (kunqu), which my Yeh Yeh loved. However, he thanked his friends and refused the 12 and 14 year old gifts, saying that he dearly loved his one wife and had no wish to have more. The gift bearers reminded him that the girls had already been purchased and if he refused them, they would be tossed out on the streets and become prostitutes. At that point, Hsu accepted, but waited until they were 18 before consummating the relationships.
My Nai Nai was devastated. She understood the tradition, but it hurt her to the core and she moved with her third son (my father) and her daughter back to her hometown. The later years of my beautiful beloved Nai Nai, were very sad. She began life as a pampered adored child and then enjoyed adult life as a pampered adored wife. After that, for more than half of her life, she lived in poverty with only one faithful servant who remained with her until her death.
Her final years, after my family had fled the Communists in China, were cruel. The Communists punished those who had status and wealth by taking everything from them. At this point, she was in her seventies, bent and infirm, and was forced to cook food and sell it on the streets to make enough money to survive. She now rests with my Yeh Yeh in a large elegant tomb bedecked by huge marble horses, honored in her hometown by all.
I often think of how much love she had received and given and how much she lost. I think how hard her parents worked to choose the best partner to bring their daughter great happiness in life. Did they succeed or fail?
Katherine Haas taught at Key School in Annapolis for 42 years. She now spends her time enjoying the arts with her husband, learning Spanish while her Arabic teacher is in China, teaching Chinese, working part-time at Key as Scientist in Residence and engaging in progressive activism.
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