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A Final Goodby for Great-Uncle in China : Culture: Xu Jie was born in 1901, the 27th year of the rule of Emperor Guangxu. He died Sept. 25, 1993, six days before the 44th anniversary of Communist rule. His American niece reminisces about his life and death.

January 02, 1994|CHARLENE L. FU | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SHANGHAI — Great-Uncle was born in 1901, the 27th year of the rule of Emperor Guangxu, China's second-to-last emperor. He died Sept. 25, 1993, six days before the 44th anniversary of Communist rule.

In his lifetime, the Qing dynasty fell, the Japanese invaded, the Communists defeated the Nationalists in a bloody civil war, Chairman Mao Tse-tung dragged the nation through brutal political campaigns and senior leader Deng Xiaoping's reforms brought stock markets, McDonald's and rock 'n' roll to China.

Great-Uncle Xu Jie is my paternal grandmother's older brother. In Chinese, that relationship is clear in the honorific that I use: Jiugong. I first met him in 1988 when I made a hurried visit to his home while on my first reporting trip to Shanghai.

To my surprise, he talked at length about how he was persecuted during the violent, ultra-leftist 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. A well-known writer and scholar, he was branded an enemy of the working class and was attacked for having "overseas connections"--relatives like me in Nationalist-ruled Taiwan and the United States.

His wife and children tried repeatedly to stop him from bringing up those bad memories with me. But Great-Uncle was known for his stubbornness, and they eventually gave up and left his study while he told me how he had been stripped of all possessions and forced to labor on a farm.

I saw him for the last time at his funeral. More than 400 people attended, including government officials from Beijing.

Great-Uncle was part of a generation of writers who shaped modern Chinese literature early in this century by daring to write in the language of everyday conversation, instead of in classical Chinese that only scholars understood.

His novels and short stories about rural life drew on his experiences growing up in the Tiantai Mountains of coastal Zhejiang province. Later, he made his mark as a scholar by writing the first treatise on the works of Lu Xun, China's most famous 20th-Century author.

Nearly 50 relatives crammed into his apartment to mourn his death. There were graduates of China's top universities, a cancer specialist and three playwrights as well as factory workers and clerks. The best-represented profession, though, was education.

Having grown up in the United States with no extended family nearby, I relished being part of a big family gathering--hearing stories about my father as a child and having visitors comment on how much I look like one of my cousins.

But I was overwhelmed by all the new faces, and provoked laughter from my cousins when I asked them to draw me a family tree. In Chinese, a complicated system of honorifics precisely describes each family member's relationship to another, and I feared being disrespectful by addressing someone improperly.

In Great-Uncle's living room, a small shrine was set up. Beneath a black-and-white portrait draped in black cloth, offerings of fruit and cakes were set out, flanked by two large porcelain vases stuffed with fresh chrysanthemums and gladioli. Two red candles were kept burning night and day, and the drippings were 5 inches high.

When my grandmother arrived after a 12-hour journey from Taiwan, she collapsed in tears in front of the portrait and wanted to spend the night on a sofa in the room. She must have been thinking about the tradition called "peiling," or accompanying the spirit of the deceased through the night.

My 82-year-old grandmother kept saying to anyone listening, "All my life, I was the baby sister. I always had a big brother who would take care of me. Now he's gone, and I've had to suddenly grow up. I'm not the baby sister anymore. I'm a white-haired old woman."

Grandmother is 11 years younger than Great-Uncle, but the two were close from the day she was born. He used to study and do his chores with his infant sister strapped to his back.

The task of rearing my grandmother fell to Great-Uncle when their mother died five years after her birth and their father, a small-time merchant, retreated to a Buddhist temple in a mountain cave where he lived out his years as a hermit monk.

Grandmother left Great-Uncle in 1947 for Taiwan--a separation that was to last more than four decades because the Communists and Nationalists barred contacts.

Gut-wrenching weeping and wailing is expected at Chinese funerals, and I had worried that I wouldn't cry, thereby unmasking myself as less than a true Chinese.

But when Grandmother arrived, I knew I wouldn't disgrace myself by being dry-eyed.

The first person to greet her was one of Great-Uncle's sons-in-law. With a choked cry of "I failed," he hugged my grandmother. I felt a lump in my throat.

The son-in-law and his daughter were the only ones at Great-Uncle's side when he died hours after suffering a stroke. When doctors asked if they should operate to try to save his life, the son-in-law remembered Great-Uncle saying he wanted to die peacefully.

"No, let him go," he said. He must have regretted those words when he saw my grandmother.

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