Grandma Pang and the Pang Family
Earlier I mentioned Zhang Yuhe’s first wife Pang. She died after less than a year of married life. In our household, however, she was not forgotten.
In the traditional family of old China, the first wife enjoys an exalted position. When I was a little boy, at the eve of every Lunar New Year, our family would hold a ceremony to honor our ancestors before the reunion dinner. On the big dining table would be placed rice bowls, chopsticks, and wine cups. The cooked food, a pork dish, a fish, a ham soup with a lots of goodies inside, would then be placed on the table. Grandma would then hand over two scrolls of portraits to my mother, and she would instruct the servants to hang the scrolls on the wall. One life-size portrait shows a man in official attire of the Qing, and the other is a lady wearing a phoenix crown. I did not know whether they are indeed Grandfather and Grandmother Pang.
Now rice bowls were filled, and rice wine was poured into each and every porcelain wine cup. The red candles and incense at the head of the table were lit. The ceremony was underway. The adults admonished the kids, “Don’t touch the chairs! The ancestors are now having their meal.” But the chairs were empty.
Everyone was now quiet. No one uttered a sound. Smoke from the incense sticks rose in curls as candle lights flicked. The atmosphere was mysterious. My father walked up to the table and bowed three times to the portraits on the wall. He was followed by grandma, mother, and the children. We were told that in the olden days, everyone must kowtow. When it was my turn, I did my best to bow deeply. My heart was full of respect for Grandpa and Granma Pang , not knowing that Granma Pang was a 25-year old young woman. And to me, Grandpa was the young man dressed like a Japanese in the photo on the wall in Granma’s room.
According to my father, although Grandma Pang died early, the Zhang family and the Pang family continued their cordial relationship and the correct exchanges. The Pang family were Changshu’s aristocrats, producing successful talents generation after generation. As early as in the 1850s and 1860s, a Pang family member had an illustrious and long career. In 1876, Pang Hongwen successfully passed the national exam for the Jinshi degree. In Changshu Annals, he was described as a scholar at the national level and was the editor-in-chief of the Official History of Changshu after he retired from office.
In 2004, my writer friend Lynn Pan was doing research for her book “The Shanghai Style between the Wars”. I took her to Changshu to see the “Pang Xunqin Memorial Gallery”. This is how I learned about this artist and his works.
Pang Xunqin (1906-1985), a grandson of Pang Hongwen, left Changshu at the age of 15 to attend the French Jesuit Aurora University in Shanghai. He studied medicine but soon changed course and studied arts instead. In 1925, he went to Paris. After he returned to Shanghai, he and his friends formed an avant-garde art society and held highly acclaimed exhibitions. After 1949, he participated in the founding of the national decorative art academy. In 1957, he was branded a “rightist” and had to destroy his early works by his own hands . He was reinstated after 22 years, and held his solo exhibition in 1983. He and his grandfather had totally different life paths, reflecting the enormous changes that happened in China in just two generations.
The four leading families of Changshu, of which Pang was ranked Number Two, had their foundations in successes in the examination system and in the officialdom, social status and reputation, as well as their contribution to Changshu. Wealth was not the most important criterion.
There was another one, the Sun family, who were the richest. The first generation of the Sun family started life as a shiye(clerk-advisor to officials)from Shaoxing. He made his fortune as the customs chief in Tianjin and then retired to Changshu. His wealth was mainly in Shanghai, including properties, a hotel, and the passenger shipping service between Shanghai and Changshu. A Sun descendent wrote that the first generation chose Changshu to retire at the suggestion of Ronglu, the Manchu nobleman. He was instructed to keep an eye on Weng Tonghe after the latter was expelled by the Empress Dowager!
My father told me that the Zhang family had zero contact with the Sun family. In Chapter 6 on “The Chronicles”, it is recorded that in 1900 the official Shen Peng, a native of Changshu, petitioned to the Empress Dowager against “The Three Evils”. Ronglu was one of the three. Shen was arrested and put in jail. Zhang Hong and all other Changshu elite all joined in the efforts to free Shen. This explains why the Zhang family refused to have anything to do with the Sun’s!
The Sun family residence in Changshu is now the site of a hotel. I often stayed there. Across the street is the passageway to Master Yan’s tomb. A short walk away is the Xiaoyou School. No one in Changshu today still remembers the Sun family.