An Ancestral Shrine Watcher

Historical background: The lowest peasant class in the old ages

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Xu Shiyue, born in 1931, is from Xiashao, Beilun. He does not know where his ancestors come from; the only thing he knows is that the Xu family has been watching the ancestor shrine of the Shao family for five generations. They belonged to the lowest social class in the society, depending entirely on the family shrine of the Shaos.

Since the Ming Dynasty, they were banned from going to school, being government officials, or marrying other social classes. They were only allowed to held degrading jobs, like taking care of ancestral shrines or being barbers and butchers. Such discrimination was eliminated by Yongzheng Emperor and gradually faded since the Republic of China period.

Adoption

Wang is a 91 years old man living with his nephew. He is a little deaf and does not like to talk. When he was 31, his wife died when giving birth. Thereafter, he decided not to marry but adopted his nephew. The sad story has never been mentioned in front of Wang by the nephew and his wife. Besides helping with cooking, Wang spends most of the days sitting outside, ignoring other’s chat.  The shabby house was inherited from his great-grandfather a hundred years ago. The mottled address card on it was from the Republic of China era.

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Chiang Kai-shek’s Bearer

In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek* lived in Xikou for half a year, visiting Xuedou Temple and Miaogaotai often. The Siming Mountain is steep; a sedan chair was the best means going up the winding roads. It was this bearer who carried Chiang Kai-shek uphill. Obviously, he considers it an honor, and his family takes delight in talking about it. He is 96 years old now and still healthy besides deafness.

*Chiang Kai-shek: Leader of the KuomintangIMG_4784IMG_4785IMG_4786IMG_4787IMG_4788IMG_4789IMG_4790

Nostalgia: The Snake Catcher

At his sixties, He is a snake catcher. Besides farming, he often catches snakes in the remote mountains. These areas with few families living remain traditional and natural. Many villagers have the skill of catching snakes, which counts as their part-time job. The nephew lives with the He family. At the age of 7, the boy was left alone since his mother was diagnosed with cancer, while his father died from cerebral hemorrhage. The responsibility to take care of him went to the Hes. Since the nephew is only a teenager, and the family is not rich enough to make a living, the local government offers them 640 yuan every month. Some entrepreneurs in Ninghai help them as well.

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Nostalgia: The Daughter of a Translator

The old lady is from Shanghai. His father is a translator for a Japanese officer invading China. I was too shocked to link her with the gorgeous ladies from Shanghai. His father made a decent living in old Shanghai, and the family could be even classified as middle class. At the beginning of the 1950s, her mother disclosed everything that her father did during the time period ruled by Japanese invaders. His father was arrested, therefore. At the 1960s, he was released from the prison but lost the Hukou* from Shanghai. It was the age of food shortage, so the government tried to move people to the countryside to release the pressure of urban areas. The whole family moved responding to the call.

*Hukou: A household registration record officially identifies a person as a resident of an area

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Nostalgia: An Orphan Accountant

He is Li, 81 years old. At the age of seven, his parents died, and his uncle sent him to an orphanage in Fenghua. The orphanage, which actually was a school, was sponsored by Chiang Kai-shek* for raising orphans in Fenghua, Xiangshan, and Xinchang. At the age of 14, the orphanage was shut down when the Kuomintang lost control in mainland China. Li was sent to a peasant family, but he suffered from discrimination. For example, when eating salted vegetables, Li was only allowed to eat leaves. However, others were eating stems even with lard in order for more flavor. He rebelled a year later, and under the mediation, the peasant family allowed him to leave and even gave him a house according to the local tradition. He was the only intellectual in the village who had gained an education in the orphanage. For most of his life, he worked as the accountant of the village until his retirement. (Baifenbi Village, Fenghua)

*Chiang Kai-shek: Leader of the Kuomintang

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Nostalgia: The Snake Doctor

He is Mao, 80 years old. For decades, people from Ninghai, Xiangshan, Fenghua, and Xinchang who were snake bite victims tramped over hill and dale to find this snake doctor. Mao was not from a family of snake doctors; surprisingly, his grandfather was the leader of the beggar’s gang. His father begged for his entire life, while he also begged for 15 years with his father. At the age of 18, he went to City God Temple of Shanghai, learning how to treat patients bitten by snakes. Before, there could be as many as 50 patients. In order to collect herb-medicine for them, he had to look for herbs all over the mountain. In recent decades, patient number decreased as the local ecosystem deteriorated. Both the local Department of Health and his son, who hid his phone, prevented him from practicing, so he did not have any choice but to quit his career. (Feitianwugong Village, Xinchang)60×75.jpg

Nostalgia: The Peasant Secretary

This 94-year-old man named Hu used to be a tenant farmer, an occupation passed down within his family. Their low social status made them oppressed for the most of the time. At one night in 1949, three People’s Liberation Army soldiers came to visit his house. He was so scared that he tried to escape. The soldiers stopped him, telling him amiably that Ningbo was liberated and that they would like to invite poor peasants like him to join the local Peasant Association in Banpu Village. Soon, attending its first meeting, Hu began to work as an honorable grass-roots cadre. The house that he lived in belonged to a landlord previously, and it was given to him and another peasant after confiscation by the government. Hu later became the secretary of Banpu Village. Now, with his wife, he spends the rest of his life in Banpu enjoying a serene lifestyle and an abundant pension. (Banpu Village, Ci City)

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Again, the story of Hu shows the theme of how people’s life would be dramatically affected by history. While some people moved downward along with the liberation, Hu moved up. History consists of tons of people’s life moving either upward and downward; Hu is just a small portion of it. He is the lucky one among them. It is fascinating comparing the stories of different individuals living in the same time period.

Nostalgia: The Past Gone with Wind

Gezhu Village used to be part of Shengzhou. Considering Fenghua complex as part of Chiang Kai-shek*, the Kuomintang government classified Gezhu as part of Fenghua. The mottled gate still has a plaque nailed on it from the Republican Period, which seems to bring people’s memories back to those times. Before leaving for Taiwan in 1949, Chiang went to Former Residence of Wang Caiyu* to bid goodbye to his uncles. Several octogenarians who still live here witnessed this sentimental moment in history as teenagers. One of them pointed at the courtyard, where the folks were drying bamboo shoots in the sun, saying that Chiang took a photo with his uncles right there. He, a thirteen-year-old boy, could only watch the event as a bystander. In his eighties now, the scene is still fresh in his mind. Even though this house looks grandiose, prosperity of the family had gone by the generation of Chiang Kai-shek’s mother. Almost all the family members were peasants. (Gezhu Village, Fenghua)

  • Chiang Kai-shek: Leader of the Kuomintang
  • Wang Caiyu: Chiang Kai-shek’s mother60×6060×75

To me, the stories of Chiang Kai-shek only exist in history textbooks. Textbooks spend a number of pages talking about Chiang Kai-shek politically, but they seldom mention him as a living person. I could not imagine that Chiang Kai-shek lived so close to my hometown a century ago, and so many things happened to him in this place. Only these old people could tell the historical figures in real life today.

Nostalgia: Resigning to Fate

Hu is 88 years old this year. Before the establishment of the PRC in 1949, he bought 13.3 mu of field. At that time, some profiteers were informed that the Communist Party was about to gain complete control in China, so they started to sell their lands at cheap prices. Hu is from a peasant family, which relied on 5 mu of field for life and saved some money planting soft rush. Informed that the surrounding lands were being offered at cheap prices, the family bought 13.3 mu of field. Soon, Xixia Village was liberated. Hu had 18.3 mu field, even 0.3 mu more than the local landlord. Fortunately, the large family divided the land up, and according to the average occupancy of land in the family, they were classified as middle peasants* who did not have to turn in their land but were disqualified of getting more. According to him, if he had not bought the land, not only would he have gotten more land from the party, but also he would have gotten a better position at the class identification. (Xixia Village, Yinzhou)

  • 1 mu ≈ 0.1647 acre
  • Middle peasants: Chinese peasants were divided by the government into rich peasants, middle peasants, and poor peasants. In order to establish a communist society, rich peasants were oppressed. Middle peasants, like Hu, did not have to give any land to the government but could not get more land. Poor peasants were given lands by the government.

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The experience of Hu represents countless people’s lives which were flipped by the changes in history. While some people, especially the poor, got a better life because of the establishment of new China, others, like Hu, had to resign to fate because they predicted the flow of history in a wrong way. He is one of the victim whose life was destroyed in that revolution.