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About The Book

Four Sisters of Hofei is an intimate encounter with Chinese history, told through the collective memory and stories of four sisters born between 1908 and 1924, and with the benefit of the extraordinary knowledge of Yale historian Annping Chin.

Now in their late eighties and early nineties, the Chang sisters lived through a century of historic change in China. In this extraordinary work, assembled with the benefit of letter, diaries, family histories, poetry, journals, and interviews, Annping Chin shapes the story of this family into a riveting chronicle that provides uncanny insight into the old China and its transition to the new.

From their father, the Chang sister inherited reason and a belief in the virtues of modern education. From their mother they learned about the human spirit and the art of finding an appropriate path. Their nurse-nannies -- uneducated widows from the Hofei countryside -- contributed their own traditional beliefs and opinions on modern ways. As the sisters grew up, one broke with tradition to marry an actor, one survived the most violent political years of Communist rule, one married one of China's greatest novelists, and one, raised separately by her devout Buddhist great-aunt, was taught to be a rigorous practitioner of China's classical arts.

The Chang sisters' prolific correspondence provides a rare glimpse of private life in China during the twentieth century, as well as a chronicle of the country from prosperity to persecution, from foreign wars to Cultural Revolution. In Chin's expert prose, Four Sisters of Hofei is an intensely person story that illustrates the complex history of a complex land.


Chapter 1: The Wedding

When Lu Ying of Yang-chou married Chang Wu-ling of Hofei in 1906, her dowry procession stretched along ten streets, from Ssu-k'ai-lou to Lung-men-hsiang. It had taken Lu Ying's mother ten years to get things ready for this occasion, and when it was all over she died of exhaustion.

A grandmother in the family remembered Lu Ying on her wedding day, particularly the shock of meeting her eyes as her pearl-beaded veil came off. They were phoenix eyes with a phoenix glow, which foretold a life that would quickly be spent. Lu Ying died sixteen years later, after fourteen pregnancies and nine children.

In China's pre-republican society, a bride of Lu Ying's stature was something of a mystery. She spent a good part of her wedding day in a sedan chair, her face concealed. She appeared before her guests only toward the end of the ceremony, when she left the ancestral hall, in which she had paid obeisance to her husband's forebears, and was led to her nuptial chamber. Even then she remained demure and seemed reluctant to part with her maiden life and with her own family. Unlike modern brides who wave to their guests and smile for the camera, a bride in the old society seemed always on the verge of tears. She leaned on her escorts for support as she made her way deliberately into the nuptial room. Since it was not customary for the bride's side of the family to be present at the wedding, her escorts were relatives of the groom's family. They were married women deemed lucky because of the number of male children they had borne.

The bride had only one sure ally on her wedding day. This ally was not a relative or a best friend, but a bridesmaid her parents had hired to give her protection. The bridesmaid was, by training, a professional talker; she said clever things and was able to churn out propitious jingles. She was a foil for the bride, and her chatter was the shield she created for her young mistress at the time it was most needed. Before the wedding, the bride would have had a cloistered existence in the women's quarters, and so it was natural that she should be reticent. She was not used to being viewed, much less to being the object of everyone's curiosity. And she was nervous in her anticipation of the wedding night and of her life ahead, which she had to face on her own.

The women in the Chang household would talk about Lu Ying's wedding long after she was gone. They remembered the ditty the bridesmaid sang after Lu Ying and her husband were seated on their nuptial bed and the women guests had scattered coins and nuts all around the room to encourage fertility:

A little stick, red and glossy,

I shall use to lift the bride's veil.

If it lands on her bed,

She shall have a house full of children.

If it drops on the ground,

She shall be buying land and fields.

Lu Ying had come all the way from Yang-chou, a vibrant commercial city by the Grand Canal. Her dowry traveled more than a hundred miles down the Yangtze, across the Kiangsu border to Wuhu in Anhwei province, and another eighty miles along the tributaries and by land before it reached Hofei. We don't know how many men guarded the bride's entourage, or whether these men were sent from Hofei or hired by the Lu family in Yang-chou. We also don't know whether bandits along the way had given them trouble. The precious cargo that accompanied them was like spots on a leopard, the Chinese would say, making them an easy target for predators.

The Changs' home province, Anhwei, had never been a safe place to travel in. Frequent flooding of the Yellow and the Huai Rivers, alternating with drought and plagues of locusts, had created severe poverty and an unstable environment in the north, in an area called Huai-pei. The people of Huai-pei did very little to prepare themselves for disasters or to try to change their circumstances. They would move to cities south of the Yangtze when things were bad and return home when conditions eased a little. They continued this pattern of life throughout much of the Ch'ing dynasty. The local gazetteers described them as weak and violent, lazy and contentious: "too lazy even to weed after they've sown their seeds and to prepare for irrigation works in case of flood and drought," yet "quick to congregate and compete for small gains." The people of other parts of Anhwei and of the neighboring Chekiang and Kiangsu provinces referred to them as troublemakers. To them, the people of Huai-pei seemed to be everywhere, and wherever they went, they were either pillaging or in need -- bandits or beggars.

During the nineteenth century, parts of Shantung and Honan provinces and much of Anhwei were ravaged by the Nien bandits from Huai-pei. The Nien were at first involved in ordinary crimes: murder, plunder, extortion, kidnapping, and smuggling. In the 1850s, their activities escalated into a major insurrection against the state. In 1868, the Ch'ing government, with the help of the local Anhwei army, brought the Nien rebels under control, but banditry continued to be a way of life for some. As a result, most of the well-to-do families in rural Anhwei employed their own braves and protected their living quarters with walls and moats. Life was relatively safe within, but outside, brigands could descend, demanding money, goods, or a fee for safe passage; they could also seize victims and exact a ransom from their family. Even as recently as sixty years ago, when gentry women or their young daughters wanted to visit relatives ten or twenty miles away, they usually traveled on foot, not in sedan chairs, and they dressed simply, to look as if they were one family with the men hired to protect them.

The period from 1905 to 1910 was difficult for nearly all the people of Anhwei, not just those of Huai-pei, and 1906, the year of Wu-ling's marriage, was a particularly bad year. Flood, drought, windstorm, and locusts arrived in turn. As many as forty counties suffered some form of natural disaster, and flooding visited over two-thirds of the province. Hunger drove people to robbery and looting. In the city of Hui-chou, for instance, peasants, working in groups, raided local grain shops. The most serious incidents, however, were reported around Wuhu: in April, a band of desperadoes foraged a shipment of rice as it was coming across the border from the east; and in November, thousands of starving peasants stormed into the residential compounds of the local gentry, taking food and whatever else they could get their hands on.

Lu Ying and her family were traveling through Wuhu around the time of these incidents. The journey must have been very difficult and dangerous. What is puzzling is that the marriage should have taken place at all. Why did the Chang family want to go to the trouble of having Wu-ling marry a woman from Yang-chou when for over forty years they had been pairing their sons and daughters with the children of the Lius, T'angs, Chous, and Lis in their own county? Yang-chou was not only two hundred miles away and in a different province, but the people there spoke a different dialect. And why would the Lus agree to such an arrangement? They knew that to transport a dowry of a size appropriate for the match across such a long distance would be extremely risky.

We know that Chang Wu-ling's grandfather, Chang Shu-sheng, had also married a woman from a Lu family. And we know that Lu Ying's family was originally from Hofei; her family moved to Yang-chou sometime during the Ch'ing dynasty. It is possible that the two Lu families were related. There is, however, another explanation. According to the women of the Chang family, Lu Ying was not an ordinary woman. At the age of twenty-one, she was already known for her intelligence, her managerial skills, and her sense of appropriateness. Her older sister, less attractive and dull by comparison, was passed over as a possible marriage partner for Wu-ling.

In the old world, it was not only the bride's family that lost sleep thinking about their child's impending marriage; the groom's family, too, had their worries -- about handing over the household responsibilities to a near stranger and about "the question of progeny," that is, whether the new daughter-in-law could produce sons. In the case of the Changs, the elders had to give extra consideration to Wu-ling's marriage because he was the heir to the primary descent line. Wu-ling's grandfather, Chang Shu-sheng, had eight younger brothers. Together they formed the nine branches of the Chang clan. Wu-ling was the heir to Chang Shu-sheng's branch. Even though he was adopted from the fifth branch, within the lineage organization he was considered the grandson of Chang Shu-sheng, and a descendent of the senior branch, the day he entered their door. His adoptive father, the oldest of Chang Shu-sheng's three sons, had no children with his principal wife and only a daughter with his concubine. He died at forty-nine, when Wu-ling was only eight. Wu-ling's adoptive mother was naturally anxious for him to begin producing heirs early, which also meant that his wife would have to be able to look after him -- he was only seventeen at the time of his wedding -- and to help him manage his enormous landholdings. Moreover, in 1906, the families of Chang Shu-sheng's sons were still living together; the men had all died sometime before, but their wives and concubines -- five widows in all -- were alive. Chang Wu-ling's wife would have to look after them as well, plus a large staff of accountants, nursemaids, servants, cooks, gatekeepers, and gardeners.

It was the custom in Hofei for the bride to be older than the groom. Lu Ying was four years older than her husband. Their two families were compatible in money and status, and her dowry reflected the seriousness with which her parents had treated her marriage. The women in the Chang family recalled that nothing was amiss in this abundant load: gold, silver, pearl, and jade, all the luxurious goods and household items imaginable; even the dustpan had a silver chain dangling from it. The servants also received lavish amounts of gift money from the bride's family when Lu Ying's brothers came to call three days after the wedding ceremony. By all accounts, Lu Ying's parents outdid themselves from beginning to end. Their splendid display of generosity seems to have pleased everyone in the groom's family. One could say that Lu Ying's grand send-off was her parents' last attempt to look after her. It was their way of making sure that she would begin her new life under the most favorable circumstances.

In the Chang family history, Lu Ying remains an elusive figure. She was the anchor of the household, an example for all, yet no one could describe her precisely. Her children could recall the feel of the house when she was alive; they say that she was the sole maker of its climate -- harmonious and calm, without a trace of discontent. They remember the mood she created but not her person, not her words or her features, nothing exact. Lu Ying was what the eighteenth-century historian Chang Hsüeh-ch'eng would have called a "quiet woman." Her strength lay in her refraining, a holding back out of propriety and a reining in for balance and equilibrium. "[Quietness] is the finest appellation that can be given to a woman," Chang declared, "because it implies learning."

During Chang Hsüeh-ch'eng's time, it was fashionable for men of letters to encourage women to write poetry and to help them have their works published. Chang called these men "shameless hypocrites" and their protégées "women of activity," and he characterized their venture as a grand delusion, men deluding women and women deluding themselves. The men were hypocrites, he wrote, because they disguised lust as appreciation. "The intentions are unspeakable. Alas! They think that they are praising a woman for her talent when the rest of the world knows that it's sympathy born out of lust." The women they spur on are "busy scribbling away even though what they say has no range, no more than a woman's 'private sorrows in spring and fall' and the sentiments of 'flowers flourish and fade.'" The women Chang Hsüeh-ch'eng respected were the "quiet women," women who knew when to desist.

The earliest reference to the "quiet woman" is found in the Classic of Odes, an anthology of poetry from two and half millennia ago. The first stanza of Ode 42 in "Airs of the State" reads:

Lovely is the quiet woman.

She was to await me at a corner of the wall.

Loving and not seeing her,

Scratch my head, pace up and down.

For centuries, commentators could not even agree on the character of this woman, whether she was virtuous or not. The poem says that the woman waits by the city wall. One commentator explains that she waits and does not appear to her lover because she feels that she is not ready: "She must wait until she is cultivated before letting herself become his wife." Another insists that the poem "describes a tryst" and that the woman must be morally lax because no respectable woman would wait by the city wall for a man. Over time the first reading became orthodox, and by Chang Hsüeh-ch'eng's day, the idea of a quiet woman had lost all its ambiguity.

Chang believed that the tradition of the quiet woman began more than twenty-five hundred years ago, in the Chou dynasty, when women worked as court historians and ritualists. Such women were restrained in speech and writing because what they said had to be fit for diplomacy. Reticence was, therefore, a reflection of their learning and proof of their integrity. But as rulers ceased appointing women to offices and as women withdrew more and more into the domestic world, few people understood what the ancients meant by learning for women, and even fewer appreciated the power of reticence. Chang wrote that any woman of his own time who showed some refinement and quickness and had some knowledge of literature considered herself an expert. She flashed her abilities and wore them like makeup, unaware that women once had their own learning and that this learning was rooted in the practice of rites. In Chang's view, these women took their limited talents too seriously, not realizing that writing poetry was no substitute for the profession women once had.

Perhaps Chang Hsüeh-ch'eng exaggerated the power of early Chinese women, but what he said about their learning is compelling. He believed that learning for women was once sacred and demanding because it was the learning of ritualists and historians. Over the centuries, this quiet and rigorous learning had fallen into obscurity with the multiplication of loud women and their loud display of small talents. When women abandoned their learning, Chang wrote, they lost the art of life. That art, which is both moral and aesthetic, could perhaps be described as some strange resistance in "the cataract of death" and in the flood of life -- a "throwing backward on itself." The idea is as old as the Classic of Changes, yet it remains difficult to define and defend. Chang Hsüeh-ch'eng suggested an approach: "One must use women of the past such as T'ai-jen and T'ai-ssu to render the fullness of its hidden virtues." T'ai-jen was the mother, and T'ai-ssu the wife, of King Wen, founder of the ancient Chou state and the most illustrious of all kings. The two women were the subject of several poems in the Classic of Odes. T'ai-jen "had great dignity," one poem says, and was loving to her own mother-in-law. T'ai-ssu, her daughter-in-law, "carried on her fine tone, / Bearing a multitude of sons." T'ai-ssu was also "retiring and virtuous," and when she was young, her reticence made the prince anxious: "Day and night the prince sought her. / Sought her and could not get her." She cultivates herself in quietness, we are told, and "will not show herself."

Confucians have always known how to relate the stories of T'ai-jen and T'ai-ssu to the life of King Wen. It was under their influence, it seemed, that King Wen "did what was right without instruction" and "walked on the path of benevolence without admonition." Perhaps Lu Ying had a similar effect on her husband and children. She loved her mother-in-law, and her four daughters inherited her "fine tone." She also had five good sons and her husband's character was immaculate. But these were obvious measures of her worth. There had to be more.

The year after Lu Ying was married, a woman named Ch'iu Chin was executed in the neighboring Chekiang province in connection with the assassination of the Manchu governor of Anhwei. Ch'iu Chin had been a model of reckless behavior. She left her husband and two children in 1904 to go to Japan, to get away from China -- "to scrub off the old mud," she wrote. In Japan, she learned to make bombs, had herself photographed in Western male attire, and drew crowds of Chinese students to her lectures. Ch'iu Chin was a woman of fire and charisma. By 1906, she was back in China, helping her cousin Hsü Hsi-lin stockpile ammunition and recruit young men to fight their revolution. When Hsü shot and killed the governor, Ch'iu Chin was implicated. Authorities claimed that she was simultaneously planning an uprising in Shao-hsing. After a mock trial, she was beheaded. One could argue, as some did, that she got what was coming to her. But many Chinese were moved by her violent death, and they made her a martyr. Her collected poems were published a few months after her execution, and a second edition soon followed.

Lu Ying must have read about Ch'iu Chin. She could have even read her writings. What did she think of this woman and her unsparing indictment of the Chinese family, of her own family and her husband's family, and of the awful business of getting married to a stranger who might turn out to be "an animal"? Ch'iu Chin once wrote: "When it's time to get married and move to the new house, they hire the bride a sedan chair all decked out with multicolored embroidery, but sitting shut up inside it one can barely breathe. And once you get there, whatever your husband is like, as long as he's a family man they will tell you you were blessed in a previous existence and are being rewarded in this one. If he turns out no good, they will tell you it's 'retribution for that earlier existence' or 'the aura was all wrong.'"

The wedding Ch'iu Chin had described could have been Lu Ying's. Lu Ying left no hint that hers was at all like it. And what of the argument that whether a woman gets a good husband or a bad one she should accept it as her karmic destiny? Ch'iu Chin regarded it with contempt. Did Lu Ying make much of it? After all the Chinese applied the gist of this argument to many situations, and to men as well as women. Did Lu Ying share in Ch'iu Chin's anguish? Was she at all touched by her and by her death?

Copyright © 2002 by Annping Chin

About The Author

Annping Chin studied mathematics at Michigan State University and received her PhD in Chinese thought from Columbia University. She was on the faculty at Wesleyan University and currently teaches in the history department at Yale University, where her fields of study include Confucianism, Taoism, and the Chinese intellectual tradition. She is the author of three previous books: Children of China: Voices from Recent Years, Tai Chen on Mencius, and Four Sisters of Hofei. She has also coauthored, with Jonathan Spence, The Chinese Century: A Photographic History of the Last Hundred Years.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (February 26, 2013)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439125878

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Raves and Reviews

Carolyn See The Washington Post Extraordinary...The four sisters live, sustained by family, music, love of amazing story.

The New York Times Book Review Chin's style is fluent without verbosity, poetic without ostentation....This is, above all, a story of private lives, sometimes quite alien, sometimes disturbingly familiar. Chin be commended a world that would otherwise have been lost to us.

The Washington Times This is a charming book, full of quiet scholarship and illuminating insights, and offers the Western reader a good introduction to the long tragedy of 20th-century China.

The Sunday Telegraph (London) Remarkable....It is not often that you read something so powerfully understated. One hesitates to throw the word `uplifting' around, yet it is appropriate here.

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