The Yu Family of Suzhou

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The Yu Family of Suzhou

Mrs. Yu, as the lady from Zhujiajiao was now known, gave birth to seven children. Six  survived, three boys and three girls. The Yu family residence was  situated near the Lou Gate, at Gebaihu Ally, at the northeastern corner of the Old City.  A small  stream meanders alongside the ally.

The Yu family owned agricultural land and houses at Luxiang on the Lake Taihu, a place of great scenic beauty. My father had been there when he was very young. He saw a row of houses and was told they all belonged  to the Yu family. The family also ran a silkworm seeds farm, and owned shares in a silk fabric dealership.

The name of the ally “Gebaihu”says something about its origin. Baihu literally means one hundred households. In the Jin and Yuan dynasties, Baihu was a hereditary military officer rank. A commander of 120 soldiers was stationed in a town of some importance. Apparently a Baihu surnamed Ge lived here once upon  a time. We walked the length of the rundown alley and were told, “The Yu residence has been demolished. The Gu residence is still there.”

Yu Wenlan named his sons “Qi Ya”, “Qi Hua”, and “Qi Min”.  The names can be read to mean: Rise Up Asia, Rise Up China, Rise Up People. He was  ahead of most of his contemporaries  as early as the 1890s. Yu Wenlan was also a connoisseur of culture and the arts. My father remembers a party in the house. One day several dozens of pots of blooming chrysanthemum were placed inside and alongside the courtyards  of the house. Grandpa and his literati friends were  having a “Chrysanthemum Party” of drinking wine and composing poems.

Esquire Yu kept a well cultivated garden next to his house. He planted mainly chrysanthemums, but also orchids. He also had numerous penzai and penjing. A gardener was hired to take care of these exquisite plants. Whenever Yu Wenlan spotted a particularly  pretty penzai, the gardener would hold the pot high with two hands and followed the master into the inner quarters of the house. There Mrs. Yu  would then have a chance to enjoy that beautiful piece of art. My mother told me this. She was a regular visitor to the house when she was schooling in Suzhou.

I was too young to have met Suzhou Lao Taiye, but I once saw a photo of him posing  alone in his garden, surrounded by pots of penzai and orchid. He wore a silk gentleman’s long gown with a mandarin vest. He had a distinctively straight nose bridge and deep eye bags.

Among his children, we were most familiar with his eldest son Yu Qiya, whom we addressed as “Jihaogong”, which term roughly means the nominated grandpa . My grandmother was very close to this brother of hers. Her two sisters, we addressed as “Shou Popo” and “Liu Popo”. “Shou” is longevity. In our dialect, the numeral six sounds the same as the word for happiness. So Popo number six became Happiness Popo. My grandma’s  nickname is “Fu”. The three sisters thus have all the blessings, longevity, and happiness.

When my sister Dayu was very young, she visited the silkworm seeds farm at Gebaihu Ally with Grandma.

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“There is a river next to the farm. Over the river there is a log bridge. I remember I was very scared when crossing the bridge, but I managed. At that time Jihaogong lived there. I saw rows and rows of racks with big round shallow baskets. Sheets of paper are placed on the baskets where  the silk moths lay their seeds (Note: eggs). These are then sold to the silk farmers.”

“The Annals of Changshu” mentions, “In 1913,… Dongjin…began to have silkworm seed farms which sell silkworm seeds.”

Dongjin  town is right at the border between Suzhou and Changshu . In 1913, silkworm seeds farm was apparently a burgeoning new trade. What used to be a productive activity by the individual silk farmers was now done professionally on a commercial scale.

In the 1950s, my brothers and I also raised silkworms as a hobby. In our garden, we had a mulberry tree. We feed the leaves to the baby silkworms and watch them devour the leaves. The silkworms have insatiable appetite. They  grow day and night, go to “sleep” a few times, and then they become  fat and big, and shining white. Finally the worms raise their heads and begin to spit out the silk and weave their cocoons. It is reported that one silk filament can be as long as

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one thousand meters. An incredible feat for a small worm!  A brilliant civilization weaved by this simple filament from the humble worm  then spread far and wide, all the way to the shores of the Mediterranean.

The kid silk famers most  likely got the seeds from Yu Qiya’s  farm. Now we are on our silkworms, my thoughts wonder back to the mulberry tree in our garden, and to the berries we picked from the tree branches every summer. Ripen mulberries turn purplish in color. One bite, mmm…  it is so very sour, with only a tint of sweetness…. Ah,  mulberries!

About Mengying’s  childhood, we do not know much. We know she went to middle school, learned the mandatory embroidery , tended flowers, helped her mother make pastries. She could play the organ, and even studied English.

One autumn day,   a team from the leading photography studio in the City lugged their bulky equipment into the Yu residence. They took a solo photo of Mengying at the main courtyard. She posed next to a chrysanthemum plant  in full bloom, a young girl of 17 or 18, looking lovely in a very bright brocade gown with floral patterns. She was dressed up to look her best and the solo photo was painstakingly taken. Photography was expensive then. It could not be just another daily life shot. What was it meant to be? My conclusion: this is the photo for the proposed marriage. Once her parents were satisfied, the go-between took the photo to Changshu and passed it on to Mr.Zhang Zhi, her prospective father-in- law.

Mengying knew why she had to put on her best new gown and pose, and she was a bit nervous in front of the camera. Most likely ,Zhang Zhi and even his son had seen this photo before the marriage proposal was confirmed.

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When was this photo taken? Most likely the second year of the new infant emperor Xuantong, 1910. The following spring, Mengying was married into the Zhang Family of Changshu. One day, her husband handed this photo back to her for safekeeping. She kept it for 55 years before passing it on to Dakai, her grandson. He then kept it for another 45 years. Yes, this photograph is 100 years old. All the stories told in this book and all the Zhangh family members came down from this photograph.

Mengying, being the eldest in the family, was her mother’s companion.  As her father was enlightened, she often accompanied her mother to the city. In her room upstairs, she would touch up her make-up after hearing her mother downstairs, and then rode the family rickshaw with her mother to Guanqian Jie. There they would patronize tea houses, eating Suzhou-style dimsum while enjoying the performance of pingtan, the traditional story-telling and ballad-singing in the soft Suzhou dialect. Listening to pingtan thus became her life-time passion.

After Mengying got married, she often travelled back to Suzhou with her children. Her mother was caught up in the new craze  of being photographed in the many studios which sprang up in Suzhou. Mengying would follow her mother and her sisters and cousins for photo-taking.  The picture on the next page, taken in the early 1920s, shows Mengying with her mother. Her youngest sister was playing the organ, a “must” for fashion-conscious  young ladies. The studio’s prop man sprinkled rice straws all over the place. The “Farm House Look” was in. Studios in Changshu, a smaller town 40 km north of Suzhou, did not wish to be left behind. Rice straws were strewn randomly  the studio floor. No attention whatsoever was paid to relate the studio “village” scene to the contents  being  photographed (See Chapter <The Death of Zhang Yuhe>).

In the early  decades of the 20th century, marked by the tail end of the Qin dynasty  and the advent of the Republic, life for the Suzhou residents was still very comfortable. There was none of the restlessness, brashness, and noises of Shanghai. After the civil war of the Long-Hairs (Note: the Taiping rebellion of 1851-1864) fifty years ago, Suzhou, the Paradise on Earth, had been slowly fading. Young men of talent and ambition had flocked to Shanghai. Others who left for overseas studies had also returned to Shanghai to advance their careers. They would occasionally come back to the old houses in narrow allies  behind the high walls on short visits.

I wrote in my other book on Suzhou: “In the mind of most people, Suzhou has become a quiet, ancient administrative seat, peaceful, yet a bit decadent, like an old lady dreaming of her past glories.”














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