About James D C Chang

My Grandma Yu Mengying- the Book and the Blog My book is in Chinese. I have decided to re-write it in English because then more people, especially the younger generation who did not grow up in Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan can also read it. Even my daughter Stella, who is supposed to have received a bi-lingual education, has difficulty in reading it. She only knows the simplied Chinese. Yesterday Stella had a blog set up for me. I will put the English book on it, a few pages at a time, as and when I finished them. At the suggestion of several of my readers, I will also compile a tree of names that appear in the book and indicate how they are related. When it is done, you can find it on my blog too. After these are all done, I will then translate the explanatory notes to the photos. Until then, those who can read Chinese can chip in to help those who do not read Chinese. Modern technology is wonderful. Here not only I wish to thank everyone who has made the book a reality, but also those hundreds of thousands people who brought this technology which enriched our lives immeasurably.

The Starlit Sea

“Pa, I had a dream,” said she
over the morning cup of tea.
“I was holding your hand
As we walked along the starlit sea,
For I knew that at night
Your eyes could not see.
A big white surf rolled in; I shouted
‘Pa, hold on to me!’
when the sands collapsed under my feet.
I woke up, startled, just as
The hissing water beat a retreat
Back to the starlit sea.”


Frederic in the Rain

–  listening to Chopin’s Prelude c# Opus 45 in a tropical downpour

The rain  surges in a fierce drive

to drown  the music, only making

it  more intimate and alive.

The prelude  murmurs   with pleasure,

with chords that speak of  longing, and

leaps into the  brightest of  sunlight,

only to fall  into a deep dive.

Oh   Frederic, dear friend of mine,

what did the rains do in Majorca

that leaves  me high like a heady wine?

And why the eternal enigma

that is your  Opus Forty-five?

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.

Chapter 15 A Wicker Book Case under the Bed

Almost everyone in my generation, when talking about Grandma, has mentioned the books that she kept at her bedside. Where were these books when they were not at her bedside? The correct answer is :“In a finely woven wicker book case under her bed.”
Grandma used a pine fiber bed. There was a lot of space under the bed. The finely woven book case was kept there. The books were all the old style thread-bound ones. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Collection of the Classical Essays, and The Strange Stories of the Liaozhai were my favorite; there was a book titled Jing Hua Yuan which is a fantasy travelogue , and another story book about the notorious Wei Zhongxian, a eunuch in the Ming court. These and other books were the reading materials Grandma brought from Changshu and kept with her.
When pressed by her grandsons, Grandma would oblige and read from The Three Kingdoms word by word in the traditional literary Chinese. Her style of reading was more like singing, and we simply listened, “swallowing half-cooked rice”. Grandma could recite from memory the entire text of Zhuge Liang’s famous “Petition for Marching Order”—“chen liang yan…”. Of course, this one was too much when we were little kids, but soon I managed to read it somehow.
In an earlier chapter, I mentioned the letter Zhang Zhi wrote to his son Yuhe while the latter was studying in Japan. I found this letter in the same book case. My great grandfather wrote it in his very delicate hand with a thin brush.
I also discovered a hand-written little book. Now I realize it is a handbook for visiting gravesites. In it were listed all the burial sites of the ancestors spread over the two xiangs of Zhangqiao and Liantang, their locations and markings, specifics for the offerings at each gravesite, and quantity of paper silver, etc. Each ancestor was treated differently. At Qingming, my grandma would hire a boat and visit all the sites. Her son would follow her and perform the requisite rites. He would lit the candles and joysticks, kowtow, and burn the papers.
When we were living in Shanghai, we kids would sit down with Grandma and other adults in the household and we all folded the silver papers into the boat-shaped ding. Now when I visited the gravesites, vendors at the gate would be selling ready-folded silver and gold ding. I would buy them and burn them at the site, but felt that something was missing.
Everything mentioned here, the books, the letter, and the handbook, were all destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The wicker book case was also lost…

My Uncle Read Lee The Artist




The entry in Google describes my uncle Read Lee (Lee De 李德) as an important artist of the older generation in Taiwan. He passed away last year at the age of 89. From July this year until 25th September, Taipei Municipal Art Museum staged a large and very important exhibition of over 180 of his works which took up three large halls. My wife and I flew to Taipei just in time to see it.
It is hard to describe Read Lee’s art. I stood in front of his paintings for a long time and I felt that I wanted to get back to the world and into the sunshine. I am sure there will be debates and many interpretations about the works of his different creative periods. The works seem to be steeped in philosophy and perhaps even religion. I wrote a poem in Chinese, in classical “qiyan lvshi” style. The first four lines are my impressions of his oils of the 1970s and 1980s and I used Chinese legends. Then in the next four lines, I grabbed “Yangming” , a mountain just outside Taipei city, and “Maogong”, an ancient bronze vessel being displayed in the Palace Museum, to describe the pivotal moment in a person’s life. Read Lee likewise experienced such a moment sometime in 1989 and he started to paint differently. Coincidently, both the mountain and the bronze vessel are named after real persons.
The Museum is huge, spacious, modern, and very impressive. The exhibition is unforgettable.
Picture-taking was not allowed. So I only managed to take a photo at the entrance showing San Jiujiu (that’s how we address him) working in his studio.

Chapter 14 The Death of Zhang Yuhe

For three weeks or more, Zhang Yuhe had been running a high fever. Now in the early hours on the 28th day of the sixth moon in 1923, his body could not take it any longer. He died , age of 34, leaving behind his wife and four children. Among the six brothers, Yuhe lived the longest and he was the only one who had children who continued the line.
What did he die of? The family tradition blamed “shanghan”. Now we know it as typhoid fever. It is an infectious disease that attacks the digestive system. The victim runs high fever for3,4 weeks until he bleeds internally. Before the advent of antibiotics, typhoid fever mortality rate was over 50%. Changshu in 1923 was still very backward in medical care although the Anglican Church had started a hospital nine months earlier and another small local western-style clinic had been in existence for some years. There were good hospitals in Shanghai, but apparently no one thought of sending the patient there. Ever since chlorine was added to urban water supply, the disease had been eradicated in the Western world, and with antibiotics, the mortality rate is down to 1%.
Yu Mengying took the blow in stride. One winter day five months after her husband’s death, she instructed the servants to dress up the children. She herself had her hair combed by her maid with the sticky Tong wood peel water. She put on her newly tailored ao, with a design of bold stripes which was in fashion. For earrings, she picked a pair of pearls. The family, accompanied by maids, then rode rickshaws to the studio on the main street.
In the photo, Menghing’s eyes seem to be saying “I am here to hold it up even if the sky falls”. She was carrying her baby daughter on her knees. She would pose like this many times with her grandchildren in the coming years. When she was 80, she posed holding her great-grand daughter and smiled.
No one in the picture smiled. No one said “cheese” in those days. Even westerners did not smile in photos. Being photographed was a serious thing. For Mengyin, she smiled a bit only after she turned 60.
Her son, Yaozhang, seven and half in the picture, knew clearly that he was now the only male in the family, with heavy responsibilities on his shoulders. From now on, he would represent the Zhang family of the Nanjingtang branch at all social functions. For such formal occasions he would put on his long silk gentleman’s gown with a black brocade magua . He would wear a “melon peel” cap and follow his personal servant to attend weddings and funerals. The servant Genghe would hold up his name card, a large piece of paper with his name written on it, and walked in front of his master into those venerable old courtyard residences. The boy would try his best to catch up and step over the high wooden “menkan” at the gates and doors. He would raise both arms and bowed long and deep to the hosts and other guests, and they would do likewise as if he was an adult.
Yaozhang would also attend the clan’s ancestral worship rites. At Qinming, his mother would hire a boat and Yaozhang would follow her to visit all the ancestral gravesites where he would burn paper silvers and perform the kowtow. He was a good student under the private tutor and then at Xiaoyou School. He had the children of Zong Xiusong as his playmates and many cousins in Suzhou. His mother’s brother became his “jidie” who helped his widowed sister raise the boy to adulthood.

俞孟英与四个孩子1923 年12月

Helen Yin, a Grand Daughter of Zong Xiusong

I have talked about Ms Zong Xiusong, the pioneer educator in Changshu in the early Republic years(1910s and 1920s). Her youngest daughter Yu Deming has two daughters, Helen and Margret. Helen, a university professor in Dallas, Texas, visited Changshu, her mother’s hometown, for the first time on September 3, 2011. She brought along David Lu, a Stanford engineering grad and an MBA student on a summer job in Beijing. It was an eye opener and an experience they will never forget.
I will sort out some photos of the trip and have them posted on this website. Here I will simply say “Welcome home, Helen and David!”

Helen and David and a relative