Four Sisters of Hofei
by Annping Chin
Scribner; 336 pp. $25
The 20th century was an "interesting time" in China, and almost any Chinese person who lived through much of it, especially the earlier part of it, has a story worth telling. I have sat with quite ordinary people, in pleasant apartments in Peking or Taipei, and heard them tell of the most astounding adventures — stories of famine and war, of desperate flight and hairbreadth escape, of humiliation and redemption. If you spend much time listening to the talk of older Chinese people, your own life starts to seem very tame.
Annping Chin's book illustrates this very well. In it, she tells the life stories of four Chinese sisters, born between 1907 and 1914, and all still alive at the time of writing. The sisters belonged to a small-gentry family in the Chinese heartland, and their biographies are prefaced with family history stretching back two generations before them, into the middle 19th century. There are also sketches of the lives of the womens' nurse-nannies, poor country widows engaged as family servants.
The most absorbing part of the book, for anyone already acquainted with 20th-century Chinese culture, is the account of the third sister's marriage to the writer Shen Ts'ung-wen. Shen is a major figure in the literature of the 1930s, a writer of short, impressionistic fictional and autobiographical pieces dealing with the lives of country people, soldiers, petty merchants and "national minority" folk. Shunning both the bottomless despair into which the previous generation of writers had sunk, and the facile revolutionary optimism of the rising "progressive" school, Shen distinguished himself as, in the words of critic C.T. Hsia, a "major example of artistic sanity and intellectual incorruptibility" in a harsh time. He stood up well under the communists, basically refusing to write the dreary socialist-realist boilerplate they demanded, and died a peaceful death, with his reputation and integrity intact, in 1988.
Shen's marriage to the third sister, Chao-ho, is revealed — for the first time in English, so far as I am aware — to have been one of those peculiar matches that, while fundamentally unhappy, still somehow manage to satisfy key emotional requirements of both parties. Chao-ho was of a practical, frugal and self-sufficient nature, yet Shen's adoration appealed to her at some level she was perhaps hardly conscious of. "What she wanted was her husband's yearning for her all his life. This was her only vanity." Shen found in this unsatisfactory relationship support for his view of himself as "a tragic character." He seems to have understood his wife — and, indeed, himself — very well indeed, with a born writer's cold eye; the first of those understandings was not reciprocated.
Chao-ho was the only one of the four sisters not to be involved in some way with kun opera, which is the older and less popular of the two great national styles of Chinese opera, and the style out of which the other, Peking opera, originally developed. First Sister, whose name was Yuan-ho, actually married a retired performer of this art. "The word "retired" there conceals tragedy of a different kind. This husband, Ku Ch'üan-chie, had been an outstanding singer; but the troupe he belonged to was wound up — kun opera was dying on its feet in the early 1930s — and the patron offered to send Ku to college so that he would be able to earn a respectable living. Ku therefore gave up singing professionally, and when his education was complete, he went into a number of lines of work and business, failing at all of them.
His wife, Yuan-ho, remained doggedly loyal to him. She herself loved this style of opera, and was an accomplished amateur singer of it. The keystone of her devotion was Ku's mastery of their quaint, unfashionable art, and this sustained her through all hardships. Of the four sisters, only she stayed in Japanese-occupied east China, fleeing to Taiwan in 1949. There her husband continued to fail in business, refusing to do the one thing he did supremely well, in spite of entreaties from Taiwan impresarios hoping to revive the art form.
The most bookish of the sisters was the fourth, Ch'ung-ho, who spent the war years working for the Chiang Kai-shek government in Chungking. She eventually married the American scholar Hans Frankel, came to the United States, and taught calligraphy at Yale for many years. It was through personal acquaintance with her that the author learned the history of this family.
The second sister, Yun-ho, was the only other one of the four, with Chao-ho, to stay in mainland China after 1949. As a "class enemy," she endured many indignities under the communists: her husband was sent to do "reform through labor" in a remote border area.
Along with their intrinsic interest, these true stories repeat themes that run through Chinese literature and social history: strong-willed women managing unworldly men, great families sinking into decline after two or three generations, the surprising smallness and intimacy of the ruling classes in a nation so populous, everyone seeming to be personally acquainted with everyone else. There is not much here about the horrors of the Maoist years, which I think are now sufficiently well known in the West. (They are better known in the West, I sometimes think, than among the rising generation in China.) The book's center of gravity is somewhere around 1930.
A curiosity of the book is the author's decision to use the older Wade-Giles system of transcription for Chinese words and names, instead of the pinyin system now standard. The name of Chao-ho's husband, for example, would be written as "Gu Quanjie" in pinyin. Temperamentally, I am sympathetic to that decision. I have never liked the pinyin system, and still vex editors by writing "Peking" instead of "Beijing." (Though on the latter point, a colleague at National Review, where more-conservative-than-thou is a point of honor, trumps me by saying "Pei-p'ing.") Let's face it, though, pinyin is what everybody knows now, and when writing for the general public, sticking to Wade-Giles just adds an extra layer of confusion.
That one small quibble aside, this is a charming book, full of quiet scholarship and illuminating insights. The publisher seems to be promoting it as another Wild Swans, the memoir by Jung Chang that was a best-seller in the mid-1990s. Four Sisters of Hofei is actually quite a different kind of book, more detached and wider-ranging; but like Wild Swans, it offers the Western reader a good introduction to the long tragedy of 20th-century China.