Chapter 16 The Ivory Tower

Zhang Rong, the youngest daughter of Yu Mengying, wrote about her childhood life in her memoir:
“Under the big tree you enjoy the shade.”
“Although as a widow she had to endure loneliness, Mother was able to manage the affairs of the household comfortably, thanks to the wealth passed down from our ancestors including over one thousand mu of fertile agricultural land and other ample assets. We employed one accountant, one tingchai, one rickshaw man, several female helpers, and two maids. We kids simply eat and play without a worry.
“My eldest sister had a maid of her own, serving her at morning wash and dressing up. My brother had a nanny to look after him at morning and evening wash, at meals, at medicine taking, and to see to bed. He also had a tingchai (personal servant) whose job was to accompany him to weddings and funerals and other social and clan events.
“Mother was an enlightened mistress. She treated all servants nicely. She believed that all her children, male or female, must receive a proper education. She employed a tutor for the four of us. Every day we studied in the bookroom. I remember when my siblings were already onto the second English book, I still could not even tell the difference between A, B, and C. I did not want to study, only wanted to play.
“My eldest sister was the prettiest among us and the smartest. She did not like studying and only wanted to wear new clothes. Any pretty new clothe, she wanted to wear only once. She might be persuaded to wear it the second time, but never the third time. Mother had to crack her head over this problem as her eldest daughter quarreled with her over what to wear and what to eat. Mother waited until the girl was 16 (Note: 15 in actual counting), she accepted a marriage proposal from a rich family and married her daughter off. It was partly traditional match-making and partly free choice. My sister was really lucky. The gifts were ample and rich and her dowry was strictly bought from Shanghai: a complete silver dining set, a ship-shaped yuanbao of gold, a rosewood living room set with silk velvet fabric tops, many trunks of embroidered beddings, etc., which were paraded down the streets. Huge crowds surged forward for a glimpse as if it was a temple festival. Oh, it was such hot news in the county town of Changshu!
“She had neither father-in-law nor mother-in-law when my sister got married. The very next day she was the mistress in sole charge of the rich household. This fitted her character so well….”
Among the onlookers were a young girl and her kid brother who lived in a small rural market town called Tangshi near the county seat town. They were visiting their relatives , the Zhong family, who were the next door neighbors of the Zhangs in the ally of Nanjingtang. Nearly seventy years later, the sister and brother still remembered the great event.
“I heard the bride wore her pair of glass-silk hoses she bought in Shanghai for twenty-six silver dollars!”, the brother told me excitedly. His elder sister Zhang Huizheng was my mother-in- law.
Zhang Rong’s eldest sister, Zhang Zhen,got married at the age of 15. Her husband was Sang Jichang. I knew very little about this uncle-in-law and did not really plan to write about him in this book. He walked in by himself, it could be said. What happened?
My brother Derek sent by email all the old photos in his collection to me when he heard that I planned to write this book. There is one photo of an old lady by herself which he said was Suzhou Lao Taitai, mother of our grandma. I was not sure. I compared it to two other photos and the women did not seem to be the same person. Because it is a solo portrait , you do have any not have reference to help you – since the other person is so and so, this woman is therefore so and so. A few days ago, in order to check another photo, I asked Derek to look at the backside of the photos. He did. He saw some handwritings on the back of this one, in elegant calligraphy:
“In the autumn of the 20th year of the Republic, at Zhang residence, age 60. Photo taken by Manlin”
Manlin? Who was he? Sang Manlin was the husband of Zhang Zhen, my grandma’s number one daughter. He was THAT RICH YOUNG MAN! Jichang was his official name while Manlin was the name he chose for himself. My parents addressed him by this name. We as kids heard this name often, but never bothered to find out how the name was written. Alas! This is the name which is destined to appear in my book! And so is Sang Manlin’s beautiful calligraphy.
The 20th year of the Republic was 1931, a fateful year in Chinese history. It was only the second year in Zhang Zhen’s marriage , and the Fall weather was beautiful. Accompanied by her son, Suzhou Lao Taitai travelled by boat from Suzhou to Changshu and stayed at her daughter’s house. The young son-in-law, well to do and good at the new gadget, the camera, had the perfect opportunity to show off his skills as a photographer in front of his mother-in-law and the whole household. Even the teenaged Zhang Yaozhang was there to witness it. He had a bad cough and was back from the school in Wuxi to rest at home.
Manlin picked a chrysanthemum plant which was in full bloom and placed Lao Taitai next to the flowers. He himself was busy running up and down to get the right angle, exposure, and focused the image on the reflective fuzzy glass. Finally, he was ready. Kacha! Manlin was really good at it! The picture is clear and focused, the angle is right, and the exposure optimal. The most important thing is that his photo captured the self-confident strong-willed character of this woman.
The writings on the back of the photo are precious too. From them I calculated that Lao Taitai was born in the year of 1872 and she got married when she was 19 years of age.
The picture was taken not too long after the 18th of September, 1931. The Japanese army, after staging the Mukden Incident, had quickly occupied the whole of Manchuria. A puppet regime was put in place next year with Puyi as its head.
The fighting around Shanghai in early 1932 came to halt by May, but the Japanese did not stop there. Five years later, the all-out war broke out. The ivory tower, already teetering, collapsed when the bombs fell.


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