Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Hakka Culture, Great Family Network

The Hakka family tradition saved our family. The Guan family went through a very painful process. After 1928, the Guan family must have finally woken up and tried their best to clean up their act and their children stopped dying needlessly. It was too late, however, to save their business. No sons were old enough or strong enough to take on the business. Yan was right there, another Hakka, even though he was without our surname. My uncle said that we were all related somehow. First, the Yan family went down; the Guan family held onto it until Yan was up again. When Yan's offspring needed jobs, the Guan family took them in. Then, the Guan family went down. Yan came back again to help the Guan family. They truly tried their best to help each other in those destructive times.
My great-great uncle had to hire Yan as a Hakka obligation. The Yan family came along, returning after they had learned their lessons. By 1936, our family was at the lowest point of the crisis. My great-great uncle was over fifty years old with three young children after losing four from his first and second wives combined. The whole salt industry was at its lowest point; he just could not run it, as he would wish. They lost their wells and refineries and many Guans’ sons went to work instead for the Yan family. 
        My oldest uncle went to the private Yucai (育才小学) grammar school founded by salt merchants. In 1941, he went to the Neijiang boarding school (沱江中学, now 内江二中). My grandmother’s older brother, Xia Yue Jiang (夏月江), was in charge of the school. The school almost closed because of the Japanese bombing. His uncle moved the whole school away from the city to silkworm farm courtyards that he had rented from the Liu family (Tin Liao 官廷僚公, my great grandfather’s wife’s side 东兴镇七拱子刘家三重大院). The three courtyards had hundreds of rooms, and later became a place for grain storage after 1949. It no longer exists today. His grades were so good that the high school waived all its fees and he graduated with highest honors. He was accepted by the Department of Chemistry at Sichuan Technology.School. He did not go, however, because his uncle backed out from supporting him.
In 1944, my oldest uncle was seventeen years old and needed a job to support his family.  His uncle told him to go work for the Yan family. He was serving tea, lighting cigarettes, and cleaning up after all the guests who came into the office in order to get to know the Yan family’s inner circle and make connections. My grandmother had a very hard time accepting that her son had to go through the family’s servant period. For her, it was humiliating to her and her family, even through very soon he was in charge of the salt well food account and became their headmaster. He then went to the salt well. He started with a job making inventories and tracking salt shipments, eventually becoming an accountant until 1949. He worked for Yan Xin Yu’s (颜心畲) fourth son Yan Fu Chu (颜复初) and Yan Xian Yong’s (颜宪阳) son Yan Ji Yong (颜继阳). He even stayed overnight in Yan’s Mansion, Fu Tai Shan (富台山别墅), because it was too late for him to return home. The next day, a carriage was provided to take him back home. 
      The salt industry was falling apart slowly after Japan’s surrender. Eventually the Yan family could not even pay my uncle for the last few months; he received about 1000 lb of salt as payment. In 1958, he went back to studying chemistry, which was his wish, and joined the management of the largest chemical company in Zigong.
     My oldest uncle refused to marry even though a lot of matchmakers came to see my grandparents. He wanted to send his three sisters and his younger brother to college before he started his family. When he turned 30 years old, my mother and her sister had graduated from college already; my grandma felt really badly and went to a matchmaker for help. The matchmaker brought a girl name Zhou who was 28 years old. My grandma said, “she came with a few changes of clothes wrapped in her scarf, and sat at the front gate of the courtyard all by herself. When I married into the Guan (官) family, I was 15, youngest of ten children and the only girl in my family. My Xia (夏) family came along with loads and loads of goods marching into Guan’s house. She was not only poor but old too (she was almost 30 years old).   I took her in because I felt sorry for her.  My grandma always felt she was in debt to my oldest uncle. She was sorry that her son had to marry a poor, old girl. No matter how much the girl did, she would never match her son. Her most loving and handsome son could have done so much better if her husband was not sick in bed.  To my grandmother’s disapproval, Zhu’s lifelong devotion to Guan contributed the last true Guan descendant in my family, the only great grandson with the surname Guan. Wu Zetain (her family was Zhou) must have sent Zhou over to Guan for rescue when Guan was really in need. Zhou was such a wonderful mother; she could make anything out of nothing and took such good care of her family, my grandparents, and her nephews and nieces in the summer. I still remembered her meals, which we used to fight over. Zhou's older sister and her husband Hou () had died, as well as their only daughter. Hou ( and ) sound the same, but are spelled differently. I was surprised that their daughter married a husband with the surname Guan. And the Hou’s son from a previous marriage also married a Guan. The two Guans did not know each other and we were not related as far as they knew. All my life in China, I traveled to many places. I had never encountered another Guan who was not our family’s relative. Hou married them all, yet did not have a child to carry Hou’s name. Hou’s daughter gave her Guan husband a son, then died from heart failure. The Guan married to Hou’s son had a daughter. Hou’s son was helping to take care of my Uncle Guan and his wife. I found out that Shangguan Jie and Hou Go were actually buried together even though one killed the other in Moling (茂陵 霍光, 上官桀墓). They must have worked out their differences after lying there together for thousands of years.
I understood why my grandmother said she was in debt with her son so much that she could not ever pay it back in this life or the next. My grandmother never taught her daughters or me how to do anything in the house; she had people doing chores for her when she was young. She wanted her daughters and granddaughters to enjoy the life she had and keep the same social status. Even though this status was long gone, she hoped it would return someday. She combed and braided my hair every morning, because someone else combed and braided hers. She told my teacher on the first day of school that I was not to do any cleaning, because I had not learned how up to that point and I should not learn now. She wanted to keep her family’s traditions alive.
It did not matter what my uncle had to do for Yan. The fact was that his earnings at age seventeen could support two of his younger sisters to go to the most expensive private primary and secondary schools, then college. He could also pay the medical expenses of his two younger siblings, his parents. That was a miracle through the Yan’s mercy and my greatest Great Uncle Tai Ba’s help considering how much trouble my grandparents had. Without their help, none of us would be here today. Their investments in our family did pay off. My oldest uncle, the 10th son, became the next headmaster of the Guan family. Both my mother and her sister went to college to study geology; their brother studied electrical engineering. My oldest uncle went back to school for chemistry. My youngest aunt became a teacher. The grand comeback plan was on the way.
The Yans and Guans finally just happened to end up meeting in a hospital around 1978, a small hospital (now Children's Hospital) in the capital city Chengdu. There were dozens of hospitals in Chengdu and many rooms in the same hospital. Yan's mother waited there for months, held her last breath, and waited for my grandmother to show up in her room in the next bed to her in critical condition. This way, all their children could come. Although my mother and aunt did not know the family, my oldest uncle, who came by overnight train, was surprised to see her sons there in the same room. It must have been our ancestors’ spirits’ last try. They wanted our two families’ children together again, since we had not had any contact since 1951. Only my uncle talked to the Yan children briefly; he did not introduce us to them. Their mother died the next day. My grandmother walked out, but ended up back in the hospital again a few months later. She was not even listed as being in critical condition, so none of her children or grandchildren were around when she died. She went quietly, just like her husband, without anyone noticing.
I remembered that my mother and my aunts, maybe my grandmother too, talked about what a coincidence it was that we could meet again. My mother told me that the Yan family was in trouble after the Communists took over, the Communists had asked our family to testify against the Yan family for exploiting us. Our family refused. The Yan family was grateful, but unfortunately, this meeting was not designed for reconnecting. It was a final goodbye. We never saw them again.  I was able to connect with a Guan who married Yan's daughter recently.
When I called my uncle, considering he is 83 now, he did not remember that he met the Yan family in the hospital thirty-two years ago. He did remember that my grandmother walked out the first time when he came and died the second time, so he ended up returning. He had already said goodbye to them. My mother was even worse. She only remembered that all my uncles came once after my grandmother died. My younger aunt and I remembered because I thought about the family; my grandmother had complained a lot back then. I did not have a clue about salt history. I did not have a clue that the Yan family was one of the Four Giant Salt merchants. I was on my grandmother’s side; the family had taken advantage of our family.