Zhang Clan, Father and Son, Charity Estate

Until Stella told me today, I did not quite realize  that a blog should be like a diary .It is different from a book.  I do not read any blogs, so far anyway. Now that I know this, I will write a few lines more often, not just post the chapters in my book.

This chapter in <My Grandma> took me a longer time than the previous ones. I hope the quality of translation is also better. As I was doing it, it dawned on me that a humble man named Genghe saved my great grandfather’s  life more than a hundred years ago, and thus our family line. He deserves a few more lines in the book.

There is a need to explain the term “yizhuang”(义庄).  I call it “charity estate”. It is like a clan-based foundation whose assets were  mainly agricultural land and clan buildings donated by members of the clan over generations. Its objective is to provide for the needy members in the clan who are orphaned, widowed, or too poor to buy burial plots, etc. The Zhang Clan Xiaoyou Yizhuang was reputed to be the largest in Changshu. Its history and articles of association is clearly stated as an annex to the Clan Genealogy. In 1905, the Qing government  terminated the thousand-year old examination system. In response to this momentous event, the Zhang Clan Xiaoyou Yizhuang set up the first modern school in Changshu. At first it was a small primary school in the little village mentioned in this chapter, and then progressed to junior middle school and its beautiful campus within the walled city. “xiao” means filial, and ”you” is friend.  Together they form the name of the Zhang clan, which is naturally also the name for the school. This term has its origin in a Confucian classic.


                                                                                                                                          Zhang  Clan, Father and Son, Charity  Estate


During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards ransacked our home  in Shanghai . They  took away the“ Changshu Zhang Clan Genealogy”. We all thought it was lost forever. Then some time later, my brother collected it back intact after receiving a call from the authorities. The Red Guards  destroyed all  such records on the spot. It was a miracle that ours survived, and we will never know why.

In the year 1127 ce, the Northern Sung Dynasty’s  capital, at today’s Kaifeng in Henan province, fell to the Jin invaders from the north. A native of Changshu, Zhang Wanshi, who was an official in the capital city, returned home. He was the first generation recorded in the Genealogy.

Every Chinese clan wishes to have an illustrious  grand progenitor to head its genealogy. One of the greatest calligraphers in Chinese history , Zhang Xu, who lived early in the eighth century in Tang times, more than  400 years before Zhang Wanshi, was then somehow made to be related to us. We do not mind being connected to Zhang Xu who was acclaimed as “The Sage of the Mad-Grass-Style” in calligraphy and was said to be at his best when he got high on wine. He was an official in Changshu and he was known to be a generous man. His best friend was the famous Tang  poet He Zhizhang.

Another 400 years later, towards the tail end of the Ming Dynasty, a branch of the Zhang Clan, from  a tiny hamlet in Chanshu, grew prosperous. By the time Qianlong  Emperor reigned in the second half of the 18th century, this  branch had  produced a number of successful degree holders who went on to become senior officials  who brought honor and wealth to the clan. By the late 1800s, a scion of the family, Zhang Zhi, the 24th generation, and the future father-in-law of Yu Mengying mentioned earlier in this book, built a new six-courtyard home at Nanjingtang within the walled city. Zhang Zhi was a “Salt Commissioner”. His great-great-grandson Zhang Lexiang, a Harvard PhD in history, is sure that either Zhang Zhi or his direct  ancestors  purchased this hereditary office  with silver ingots. The family tradition has it that the Salt Commissioner was once chased by  the  fierce salt smugglers  in one encounter.  It was Genghe, his young tingchai (personal  servant), who escaped with his master  on his back.  I remember seeing Genghe when I was very young. He sat  upright on a wooden stool in the kitchen. A well-built man, very old and wrinkled, he wore a rural man’s  felt cap and winter clothing which was so tattered that there was not  one inch of clothing  which had not been  patched up. I never saw such clothing on anyone before or after. He must have had a really tough  time after his last employer, Zhang Zhi’s grandson  my father, left Changshu when the War broke out.

Zhang Zhi was a tragic figure. He built a six-courtyard home, and once had six sons, but only one of the six survived. He died one year before his first grandchild was born. The Family Genealogy gives details on his three marriages. His first wife, surnamed Lu, passed away when Zhi was 22. His second wife,  of the prominent Yang family, gave birth to six sons and one daughter in 14 years of marriage. When Zhi was 36, Yang died of illness, leaving behind her four sons. His third wife, of the Ji family, passed away after ten years of marriage when Zhi was 46. Ji had no children of her own.

Then  what  happened to the four sons from Yang? When Zhi was 41, he lost his eldest son. But an even heavier blow fell in the summer of 1905 when Zhi was  47. Within one month, he lost his third and fifth  sons, 17 and 15 years of age, most likely victims of some infectious  summer disease. Medicine was so backward in China. Such epidemics were common  and are  dutifully  recorded in The Annals. His other son did wed a woman, but he soon died of TB before  his wife could give him a child. In great fear and pain, Zhang Zhi had to find a wife for his fourth son, Yuhe, the only survivor among the six.

Zhang Zhi had two younger half brothers.  Zhang Hong (1867-1941), 9 years junior, went to Beijing to work in the government after passing the provincial examination. In 1904, he passed the national examination and received the degree of Jinshi. Later he entered the foreign service and was appointed  the consul in Kobe, Nagasaki, and Inchon (Note: Korea had become a Japanese colony). His nephew Yuhe, then 18, followed him to Japan to study.

In my grandma’s room in Shanghai, a photo of Zhang Yuhe hung on the wall. It shows a young man dressed in kimono, his pigtail apparently cut, his hair parted in the middle, probably the in-style in Japan then. He wore spectacles and looked fashionable. I once chanced upon a letter from Zhang Zhi to his son Yuhe, which he wrote in fine calligraphy. The letter said that he was fine, Changshu was peaceful except for a fire near the South Gate, and that “I heard there is not much good food in Japan so I have asked a friend to bring a leg of ham to you”. Before very long, Zhang Zhi called his son back home to get married.

By my estimate, Yuhe did not stay in Japan very long, not even a year. His father felt his advancing age – he had turned 50, and had to see his son wed the girl from the Pang family he had arranged. According to my grandma, Yuhe wore a false pigtail at the wedding. The Pang girl, however, died a few months later. She was only 25. How did she die? We have no way to find out. In small town Changshu, western medicine had just been introduced. It would be a few decades before diseases, mostly infectious, could be brought under control. Women and children were particularly vulnerable. Child birth was high-risk. Women were truly born into eating bitterness. Just to continue the family line was often hard and unpredictable.

If not for the many tragedies in the family, and if his brothers survived to adulthood and raised families of their own, Yuhe might have been able to complete his studies in Japan and had a different life path. Many of his contemporaries  were gathering in Japan. Many of these young people became pioneers in China’s modernizing movement.

Yuhe  brought a fashion accessory back home. In Japan at the turn of the century, everyone was busy “ Leaving  Asia and Joining  Europe”. Gentlemen had to carry a walking stick. My grandma used the stick when she was advanced in age. Their son is now using it. It looks like the stick will be passed on for many generations.

We were told that Zhang Yuhe was a “glass” mahjong player, capable of seeing though the opponents’ tiles. He had a sense of humor too. Once he was walking in the street when it started to rain. His personal servant  shouted, “Siye, it’s raining! Please walk faster!”

“What ‘s the hurry? Is it  also raining up  front?” Siye  kept his slow pace as a gentleman should.

Zhang Xun(1877-1928),  the youngest of the three  brothers, was the principal of  Xiaoyou School  from 1912 to 1919. He was a community leader. According to the Genealogy,  he was commended by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Finance. He was an advisor to the provincial government and was the chief of Changshu’s  chamber of commerce.

This was the branch that had more say in the affairs of the Zhang Clan Xiaoyou Charity Estate because the earlier generation of this branch donated more land to the Xiaoyou Charity Estate.  My father had to join the Clan elders in the ceremonies at every Qingming festival. He remembers bringing  home the pig’s ear, which was the most precious part  from the sacrificial pig.

These people are all on the honor roll of Xiaoyou Secondary School in Changshu. For Zhang Hong, as a former principal (1919-1935) who made  special contributions to the school , the school has a bronze sculpture of him  in its new campus. Xiaoyou is the oldest school in Changshu. It had a fine reputation before the War. In its beautiful campus at the foothill of Yushan,  it had modern buildings and facilities. It also had high-caliber teaching staff and forward-looking leaders. The school has produced many talented students.

The school celebrated its 100th birthday in 2005. Zhang Yaozhang, son of Zhang Yuhe and Yu Mengying, was among the honored guests seated on the rostrum. At his turn to speak, he said, “my grandfather and father and others founded this school …”, and choked with emotion. Ancestors! Your souls are comforted! Since the Reform and Opening, my father and elder brother have continued to support Xiaoyou School with scholarships and teaching awards.

What about the memorial gateway built under the edict of  the Tongzhi Emperor? It has vanished a long time ago. The hamlet where the Zhangs came from  now carries  the name of Zhangqiao Xiang. The old clan hall is said to have been demolished and the building materials used to build pavilions in a public park. Two grandsons of Zhang Yuhe, Zhang Dajian, PhD in chemistry from Harvard, and Zhang Dakai, PhD in electronic engineering from Stanford, delivered talks to students of Xiaoyou. They cited their own experience in America to encourage the youngsters to study hard. The youngsters asked many questions. Let us wish all  Xiaoyou students do  well in their studies!


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