Four Sisters of Hofei - reviewed by Susan L. Yung
"Four Sisters of Hofei" By Annping Chin
Publisher: Scribner-New York, 2002
Review by Susan L. Yung
Steve Cannon, the "blind director" of A Gathering of the Tribes had assigned me to read and review this book 'cause he said "It's funny".
Well I tried reading the first 100 pages and the book becomes slow reading ... This book, "Four Sisters of Hofei" by Annping Chin relates the author's elite research of the 4 Chang sisters (?) who had lived the so-called "sheltered" Chinese lives in China as oppose to the "notorious" Soong sisters who had married well-known warlords. These warlords were Sun Yet Sen, the first president of China and Chiang Kai Shek, the KMT leader. Their attempts were to make China a republic; a regime, or a dictatorship to reflect a form of western Asian democracy before the Communist takeover. Supposedly, the Chang family's history has some historic significance while growing up in China before the Communist's takeover and for this book to be published at the end of the 20th century. The author has gathered extensive materials (30 pages of notes with a bibliography and an index). The author, Annping writes to the minuscule detail of the gentile accomplishments of the 4 sister's great grandfathers and grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, widowed-nurse nannies, and their extended families as referenced from letters, records, oral histories, ancient texts, and so on. Each chapter is dedicated for each female member of the Chang family. This can be confusing of who's who with such a large brood of extended characters. The sisters were part of 9 living children divided as 4 sisters and 5 brothers. The author started her research in 1996 where she interviewed the 7 living survivors by collecting and perusing their archives, diary entries, historical philosophies of Confusianism, and other influences of living an intellectual affluent life.
The siblings' mother, Lu Ying, bore a child each year since her marriage to Wu-Ling (the father) until she died of blood poisoning from a tooth extraction after giving birth to another live baby girl that got thrown out as trash (a superstitious moment). This is in the Mother's chapter where she is described as "work and duty must have given pleasure to women like Lu Ying, who had made them into an art." (a sample of author's serene floral descriptions). Annping, the author, makes the reader conscience of one's lineage and her highly educational historic connectedness. The book eventually describes the 4 sister's educational process by their father who set up a girl's school in addition to their private tutors in an insular, traditional Buddhist and Confucius Chinese family. They did not have to leave their family compound to go to public schools or shop for items where each child is assigned a nanny who must be accountable to their mother, Lu Ying. These maids are 9 loyal, widowed nurse-nannies who were hand selected by their mother and came from the poorer side of the family.
By chapter 10, Yuan Ho is the first sister to be described after reading the family's history. The chapter describes her interest in Chinese Opera where she even married an Opera performer which was considered beneath her family's station. However, her father had a liberal attitude and allowed the marriage to occur. The author goes into great lengths describing the development of Chinese Operas with its many stylistic forms such as hsiao-sheng, kuan-sheng, k'un-shan of Hofei, Shanghai or Beijing. The opera's history and its various roles are briefly explained where the k'un-chu'u has become popular in Shanghai in the 1850s and is favored by the family. The author describes the training of young performers and its separation from the scholar class as well as surviving the various Chinese wars until its demise by the Communist takeover. She describes this opera as part of Yuan-ho's life, her marriage to a well known performer, Ku ch'uan-chieh and raising a family. Eventually, she settled in Taiwan and rarely did they perform their operas. How wars can end ancient cultures.
The next chapter profiled Yun-ho, a very outspoken "revolutionary" woman who had an independent mind and selflessness in helping friends in dire need. She seemed the most progressive and idealistic. She also studied k'un-chu'u opera. Yun-ho studied in Shanghai in the 1930s where she describes the decadence of the rich in China: "They partied very Saturday night. Often the male and female students would pair up and spend a night in a hotel. Most of them had attended missionary schools before coming to Kuang-hua, St. Mary and McTyeire, for instance. They were used to wealth and comfprt and speaking English. The women wore loud-color dresses and spiky heels. Every day, they looked like they were going to a banquet or a wedding. So how could they be interested in their schoolwork?" (pp.163-4). She also married beneath her station, a poor scholar who taught literature at various universities. She had the most hardships during the wars ... "the first stage of her hell, ... began in August 1937 on the eve of the Japanese occupation of China. From that month until the end of the year, she made at least "ten major moves and twenty small moves." She started her journey with twenty pieces of luggage and seven people-two children, two nannies, her husband, her mother-in-law, and herself-came home with five pieces of luggage and four people. She had lost a daughter and a nanny to illness ... " (pp.168-9). She even survived the cultural revolution and visited her two married sisters in California in the 1980s. There, they put on their own performance of "A Stroll in the Garden" together after 60 years.
The longest and maybe most interesting chapter is Chao-ho who married a well-known Chinese writer, Shen Ts'ung-wen after a two-year courtship of his writing letters to her. This chapter describes Shen's inspiration of longing for his wife as he travels to the countryside collecting anecdotes and writing contemporary novels where he speculates "Perhaps a person needs to endure extreme straits in order to write well" (p.234). Traces of his loyalty to Chao-ho are referenced as "his dark housewife" in some of his novels. His extensive travels to America and Europe are vague but it popularizes his literary acumen in China where his circle of friends include Ding Ling. Her revolutionary stories became popular to westerners during the cold war of the 60s. Meanwhile, Chao-ho stayed in one place raising their two boys and collecting as well as itemizing Shen Ts'ung-wen's letters. She also encouraged him to write whenever he lost inspiration. Thus, we get a sense of stagnation of China's culture during the communist government where the writer became stale and uninspired due to lack of freedoms and the propagandizing of a nation's communal worth.
Finally, the last chapter is short and focuses on Ch'ung-ho, the youngest who was raised by a grand-aunt at an early age and was a very astute student. She became the poetess and calligraphist of the family. She was able to work culturally in the Ministry of Education during the Communist government. In 1947, she was teaching calligraphy and opera at Peking University where she met and married Hans Frankel, a lo fan, from the USA. This enabled her to leave China and live in Berkeley, California until Hans got an appointment at Yale as a professor of Chinese poetry. There, Ch'ung-ho taught calligraphy in Yale's School of Art and continue her poetry writings and calligraphy in her garden ...
The author depicts a world of privilege in Old China's cultural standards and describes the Chinese opera's slow turmoiled demise during Communism. She makes this family's life end with a state of sublime, sedate "zaniness" as expected from all Asians once settled on American soil.
This book is hard to relate for somebody whose family is of peasant stock; whose family had to escape China's hardships by coming to America. So reading the privileges of this highly educated family waning in their private courtyards, sustaining their in-laws, brothers, sisters, 9 nurse nannies, aunts and uncles living while living in Hofei, and moving between Soochow and Shanghai during the 1930s-40s. The author describes the Chang family's importance of once serving the emperor and gaining unlimited properties (privately maintained by the women) which had had supported the Chang clan for three generations. In the meantime, China had many warlords who tyrannically preyed on peasants' sufferings. There was the invasion of foreign imperialism causing Boxer's Rebellion, the Taiping Wars, Opium Wars, Sino-Japanese War, and what not. However, this gentile family became scholars insulated with private tutors and rarely venturing outside their insulated walled courtyards.
The author's scholarly research is amplified with ancient poetries from Tang, Ching or Confucius Dynasties comparing and using the family's diaries (often written as poems) that authenticates their existences and verify a social class similar to Asian cultural refinements. Even, Annping Chin, the author, is married to a sinologist, Jonathan Spencer, an American scholar infatuated in "Orientalism" at Columbia University. The book is an antithesis of what Asian Americanism is all about. I recall when Johnathn Spencer after the Tiananemen Square Massacre of students demanding democratic rights in China claimed that the women participating at the demonstrations were only searching for future husbands when I'm sure the Chinese women had issues about equal representation in the political arena. Spencer seemed to dismiss this tragedy as trivial, when what the demonstrating students were concerned about were exercising their human rights according to Western thought.
Annping teaches Chinese history at Yale (another elite school in America). This social class has no empathy for the poverty and racism inherent in America's society where supposedly opportunity is practiced ... Here in America, before our eyes, everything is slowly deteriorating for the working people on the eve of this new century. We are undergoing budget cuts in cultural institutions, education, civil services, with rising property and cigarette taxes as well as corruption in stock investments, higher mortgage rates, big businesses ... .and what not.
This book gives the reader insights that there is a big broad band between academics in ivory towers and the real working world. It is a socio-economic classification of cultural differences. The highly educated make a point to preserve the ancient past cultures of ruling empires-glorifying their historic accomplishments of power when it is the mass population that had to endure the hardships of building such empires with a developing subculture.