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MUSINGS OF A FIRST CHINESE DAUGHTER
By Jennifer Lee Robertson
Partridge PublishingCopyright © 2014 Jennifer Lee Robertson
All rights reserved.
That Was Then, This Is Now
A dream! A dream! I had a dream! An extraordinary dream where I seemed to be with my father gazing out of a window at the bustling life below us. We seemed to be in some kind of virtual city—Brisbane, and yet unlike Brisbane. The silent bustling city below was a familiar city scene, could be anywhere in Australia except for its weird silence. Father seemed to be prancing around in great excitement and astonishment. He was fascinated by the many wired young people. The scene was a busy place of wired young people with ipads and laptops wrapped up in their own private worlds. What excited father most was the sight of skyscrapers and fast cars; and of course, his exclamation of "Bridge to Heaven! Look! Look!" was meant for the sky train and the traffic on the overhead pass. He simply could not take his eyes off the caterpillar sinuous movement of the road train.
This surreal silent world allowed me no response to father's cascade of rhetorical questions and comments which frothed and frizzled about me, swamping me in an eddy of breathlessness as well. The occasion transported me to that moment in 1955 when the entire family had rushed to the front door drawn by father's excited shouts and gesticulation to what was on the street—"A shoe! A shoe! A mobile shoe!" It was a Volkswagen which was cruising to a stop in front of our house. (It did look like a popular brand of sports shoes on sale then.) It was no surprise to me, then, to witness father's excited wonder at what he saw in the dream.
We have certainly come a long way in just under a decade from that day! My father passed away in 1960. CHANGE, that magic weapon is invincible—nothing can ever remain static—life has changed, attitudes and values have changed, my strict traditional Chinese upbringing has change—it has been adulterated ... cultures have become multi-faceted ...
Father, with his traditional upbringing, fresh from the humiliation of the Opium Wars of the 1840s (responsible for the nadir of Chinese history) would never recognize the China of today. My father's traditional Chinese world with its rich cultural heritage is gone—my meandering through the fog of my parents' life and my upbringing is an attempt to recapture that past and to take a peek into what constituted the Chinese Mind of the traditional past—my father's world would be a fairly safe place to start. Father had enriched our lives with tales and myths of a colorful past that perhaps, no young technological nerd of today would care to explore. His outlook and attitude towards life was shaped by China's history of glory and shame.
The cultural heritage of my father's world will soon fade into a forgotten limbo. I am grateful to him for helping me to enjoy the twilight glow of China's visionary golden age in my childhood. The current of changes today is too rapid and breath-taking. My world of today is fast evolving into another 'Brave New World'; and as I journey along, the snapshots of my childhood embodied in the rich brocade of father's China will be interlaced with today's pulsating changes of a very diverse scenario.
Today's China is an entirely different universe—China, the wounded dragon of my parents' day has recovered to snarl for the title of world power. In the mad chase after the almighty dollar, my parents' China of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Dreams of the Red Chamber has given way to crass greed and ruthlessness. China seems to be in a great hurry; there is no time for a backward glance. Those left in the remote areas, caught in a time warp are confused. It is fascinating to note that today's digital China with a population of over 1.4 billion (one and a half times that of Europe, Russia and Turkey combined) has yet to come into her own with regard to scientific and technical terms. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] huoche, the word for 'train' literally mean 'fire car'— reminiscent of trains of yesteryear, fuelled by wood fire. Yet, China is responsible for showcasing the fastest high-speed train in the planet with the speed of about 400 kilometre per hour, (a project in 2013.) Aeroplane [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]— feiji is still known as 'flying machine'. The characters for road, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ma che lu retain the ancient terminology of 'horse-cart track'. To say "on horseback I come" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ma shang lai, means "I'm coming immediately."
Father's traditional Chinese mind values one's unique ethnicity. He upheld the view that one's cultural heritage is the intellectual mine of the valuable, the elegant, the brilliant, the beautiful and the rigorous harvest of generations. China's history, bathed in blood and intrigues, has also brought to the surface Man's resilience and supreme capacity for love and sacrifice. Father's world expected decorum in behavior and modesty in attire. The moral compass was regulated by the concept of Responsibility and Respect—self-respect and respect for others at all times. Yes, the dream was a very alien world to father.
Father seemed to be particularly amazed by the sloppy appearance of many people and he was most astonished by the amount of flesh exposed by women of all ages, shapes and sizes. This was to be expected because women in traditional China were expected to be well covered, especially in public. He seemed to be genuinely perplexed that some people could be so careless as not to plan well enough in cutting their materials to size. Father helpfully conceded that exposing one's belly was indeed a good way to cool oneself, but then, surely not for a lady? He seemed particularly concerned that some of the ladies' pants were in danger of slipping off. Part of the buttock was clearly having a peek at the world and he did wonder if it was in need of cooling as well. It was all too strange to him. In short, father seemed not only transfixed with avid curiosity and wonderment; at times, he seemed positively aghast.
Was he in fantasyland, he wondered. Buddhism teaches that the world itself is in a state of flux and life is an illusion. Illusion! Illusion! All is illusion! Father's tremulous voice of wonderment steadily dissolved with him into the dark void ...
Changes? Of course our world today has changed beyond father's comprehension. Humanity has always been tossed about in the current of fantastic changes and metamorphoses which seem to be accelerating at an alarming speed and I myself find it hard to comprehend. At the ebbing of the tidal wave I, too, will soon be a blinking dinosaur. My parents would find it difficult to foresee that within their life span, high-speed travel would become a reality and that the Kitty Hawk of the Wright brothers in 1903 would magically morph into an air-bus.
This writing is a humble attempt to salute the older generations whose resilience in the face of challenges has equipped them to keep up with the pace of Change It seems to me that it has always been the lot of preceding generations to take the back seat in the inevitability of change which wears the label of "modernization" and "progress". Each wave of change would rock the social framework of the day because new values and attitudes would undermine traditional mores and beliefs. The older generations have not only to contend with the generation gap between themselves and their offspring, but those who have chosen to migrate have to face the additional dilemma of culture clash and the need to assimilate. I consider myself very lucky to be living in Australia. Australia with its smorgasbord of multicultural delights can be exciting, challenging and painful, depending on which side of the fence one is on. There are different tempos to the drumbeat—just as the cavalier attitude to sex is the IN thing to some, we have others who still cling fastidiously to "Honour-killing" if an unfortunate female in the family chooses to marry someone of her choice.
In my childhood days, our concept of a burglar was coloured by the tongue-in-cheek cartoon of a masked man with a ladder about to break into a building for a mere pittance by our current standard. Today, we have the cool sleuth who can cream off millions of dollars from the comfort of his computer swivel chair. Our smart burglar (no mask needed) can, with a tap on the computer keys hold the world to ransom. Fascinating!
We have much to be grateful for in our technological advancement and progress especially in the field of medical science. Life has been made so much easier and enjoyable; but somehow, spiritually and intellectually, there seems to be an uncomfortable vacuum. When I thought that the signposts to a more caring and responsible society with decent expectations and values seemed to be rather obscure, when lo and behold! in our fair land, in marched the thousands of volunteers when tragedy struck—natural disasters like floods and bush fires bring out the best in people. The SES, the State Emergency Service people and volunteers deserve special honour—what higher selfless sacrifice can one give than these people do as they give their best to others at all times! Father would be proud of this and he would happily remind me that Mencius, (372–289 BC), one of Confucius' most brilliant students, believed that mankind is inherently good.
Maybe, people like my naïve and trusting parents of the last century seemed less lost; their world-view had been moulded by a starkly different culture—the traditional Chinese culture had stringent rules and boundaries regarding what were expected of a responsible, moral individual. There are some valuable tenets in the teachings which cannot become out-of-date; they should contribute to a more orderly and "moral" world. This by no means suggests that I advocate a return to the past. Our democratic world view has brought about wonderful changes—China has galloped ahead—for a start, women in urban China can celebrate their new status of equality with their menfolk.
Poor treatment of women seems to be ingrained in many cultures. Father was pleased that China had progressively banned the practice of what was unfair and caused unnecessary suffering to society. This includes the practice of foot-binding, "the guilty until proved innocent" principle in law, honour killing, and inequality of the sexes. Changes will be slow in some cases, especially mutilation of the sexual organs or body, which stemmed from cultural expectations of the past. In some rural provinces of developing countries, child brides are common and the practice of "sati", the sacrificial burning of widows, though very rare, is still known to be in practice even though the British had attempted to ban it when it colonized India. Why a widow who had faced the tragedy of the loss of her husband, the main breadwinner of the family, should have to face a horrible death just to prove her chastity is a question that never seemed to be asked. The widower, on the other hand, was free to look forward to getting a sweet, young thing for his nuptial bed.
It is accepted that a man is free to "sow his wild oats" but this privilege is not interchangeable—society still frowns on a woman who hops from bed to bed. Marriage endows a woman with some respectability; the term "spinster" lacks the charming resonance of a "bachelor".
What a confusing world! In my next reincarnation, I think I'd vote to come to this earth as a prized stud bull to service hundreds of cows! I don't have to work for a living—my service would be every cow's desire before they end up as steak on your table. I'd be admired and desired and die a natural death of old age. No steak from this macho stud!
Status in the traditional Chinese family was codified in the famous "three bonds", as emphasized by Confucius and the learned scholars: the bond of loyalty on the part of subject to ruler—the crime of treachery to one's emperor or country would merit the worst of punishment—death by hanging was not sufficient, he had to be quartered; bond of filial obedience on the part of son to father; and, of chastity on the part of wives, but not of husbands. The lord and master of the family would get off scot-free of course; he could marry as many women as he could afford to keep them.
Confucius' teaching emphasized the importance of filial piety which is very much tied to the matter of ancestor worship. I had heard many stories on this subject when bouncing on my father's knees at the age of 4 or 5, but was too young to absorb all of them. One which seemed to be carved in my young mind was the story of an important official of the court who had to return home each night to his aged father. Unfortunately, there had been a colossal flood which swept away everything in its path. It was a dark night and though it was a losing death-defying swim across to his abode, the official did struggle through to carry his aged father on his shoulders, only to be drowned. In the context of today, such a feat would be seen as foolish—but then, so important was the code of filial piety that perishing in the attempt would be more preferable to a life of shame.
Women of today have not only made inroads into male domain, some have become very efficient and respected heads of states. It is interesting to note that though downtrodden throughout the ages, yet women throughout history have rocked the world—Helen of Troy whose beauty "launched a thousand ships"; the "virgin" Queen of England, Elizabeth the First, was able to maintain control against great odds in one of England's golden eras; and let us not forget Cleopatra, whose beauty transformed empires. One of the most powerful women in Chinese history was the notorious Empress Dowager of the late Qing Dynasty. She was instrumental in the loss of millions of lives and was responsible for the carving up of China by the rapacious power-hungry colonists in the nineteenth century. Even little Japan had a big chunk of the pie.
Apart from the rapacious Empress Dowager, there had been many other women in China who made a fair contribution towards traditional Chinese history. Many a poem and operas were based on their silent suffering and their brush with fame which changed the course of history. One of the famous episodes in history, which contributed to the collapse of an empire, was that of Yang Guifei of the famous Tang Dynasty (618–906AD)
The poem quoted below is based on Bai Juyi's poem "The Song of Everlasting Sorrow."
The infinitely sad theme is the ill-fated romance between the ageing Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty and his favourite concubine Yang Guifei. The Emperor was over 60 years old when they met. He already had 30 sons and 29 daughters. She was in her late teens.
What I remember from my father's story and from history that I gathered later on, was that Yang Guifei had been sent by her family to seduce the Tang Emperor with the aim of weakening the empire to facilitate a take-over by An Lu Shan's rebel groups. This she did very, very well indeed, because the emperor became so infatuated with her that he let the affairs of state go to ruin. The rebel groups were soon overrunning the country. Wrote Bai Juyi:
"... And thence, the emperor ceased to hold morning court For sunrise was untimely, the night was too short."
What made this an epic opera was that the poor emperor was genuinely in love with her—she was his life and they had a very happy love-life for twelve years before he lost her. He was totally besotted by her:
"She turned her head, a single smile,
A hundred charms were born—
The beauties of Six Palaces
Of all their looks were shorn."
She flashed him a fleeting coy smile, hid her face behind her fan and he was lost forever!
The mandarins at court decided that the only way to save the empire was to have her killed at the earliest opportunity. So on this day, while the royal couple were fleeing from the capital ahead of the tidal wave of rebels, the mandarins decided that no time must be lost—the emperor had to face the ultimatum—the empire or the femme fatale.
They stopped the royal chariot and performed the grisly task.
The soldiers of the army stopped,
They would no further ride,
Till sinking at their horses' hooves,
The moth-eyed beauty died.
Kingfisher plumes and golden pins
And jade-carved diadem,
Her combs inlaid with flowers lay strewn
And no man gathered them.
The Emperor could not spare her life;
He turned his head around.
When he turned back, his tears of grief
Spattered the blood-soaked ground.
A shrill and bitter wind sprang up
The yellow dust swirled round.
Her tragic death had so galvanised everybody that not even the half-starved soldiers cared to pick up any of her fallen treasures.
The emperor could not save her life—
Excerpted from MUSINGS OF A FIRST CHINESE DAUGHTER by Jennifer Lee Robertson. Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Lee Robertson. Excerpted by permission of Partridge Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsDedication Page, vii,
Preface: Musings of a First Chinese Daughter, xiii,
Chapter 1 That Was Then, This Is Now, 1,
Chapter 2 "Anointed With Fragrance, She Takes Lotus Steps.", 13,
Chapter 3 My Mother And Her Aunty Peony, 26,
Chapter 4 In Walked Father, 43,
Chapter 5 "There Comes A Time In Our Lives When The Innocence Of Spring Is A Memory", 55,
Chapter 6 The Scholar Mandarins, 80,
Chapter 7 No More "Ah Qs", 97,
Chapter 8 "O My Luve's Like A Red, Red Rose.", 129,
Chapter 9 The Dishonourable "Thousand Gold", 150,
Chapter 10 Does A Rose By Any Name Still Smell As Sweet?, 183,
Chapter 11 Education And The Ideal Man, 210,
Chapter 12 Death's Antechamber, 227,
Chapter 13 Confucian Decorum Versus Daoist Abandon, 242,
Chapter 14 As Lonely As An Autumn Leaf Upon A Lonely Ocean, 258,
Note On Romanisation And Chinese Characters, 287,
Bibliography and Reference, 289,