As I write these lines, my mother is 99 years old.In fact, according to traditional Chinese reckoning, she’s already a centenarian.Although she’s hard of hearing and doesn’t see too well anymore either, and even though she can only move about very slowly and is constantly muttering things to herself, she’s yet able to go up and down the stairs many times a day, she is still sleeping well at night, and her appetite is truly amazing: she’ll often open the fridge to see what we’ve got left to eat.When she feels like it, she’ll sit down in front of the piano and play a number of old tunes that she’d learned as a young woman and remembers well: Su Wu Herding the Sheep, The River is Red, Song of the Fisherman or Beautiful Concubine Yu with lyrics by Emperor Li Houchu.Without pausing, she’ll play them all once from beginning to end (albeit not without getting out of tune in quite a few places, since she can hardly hear herself play anymore).
My mother’s name is Shen Jo-hsia, and she was born in Jilin in Northeast China in 1906 (or the thirty-second year of Qing Emperor Guang Xu’s reign).She went to elementary school in Jilin, and after graduating from the Jilin Provincial Girls’ Junior High School, she continued her education in Beijing.While studying at the Women’s NormalUniversity, she met my father, Chuang Yen (aka Chuang Mu-ling), who was seven years older than her.Chuang Yen had graduated from the Beijing University’s Department of Philosophy and then become a member of the “Committee Dealing with the Concerns of the Deposed Imperial House”, the predecessor of the Palace Museum.The latter was formally established in the following year (1925), and my father joined its staff. My parents married in Beijing in 1931 (Year Twenty of the Republic of China).
My mother came from a well-to-do family (some years ago, when her memory was still more reliable, she told me that her maternal grandfather’s name was Shen Boxun, who had been a government official under Jilin Province Military Governor Meng Enyuan).Her father’s salary had also been ample at dozens of silver dollars (in the words of the family’s friend, Prof. Tai Ching-nung, “they could afford to eat at a restaurant everyday”).Right after their marriage, my parents lived at the “Three Acacia Mansion” at the eastern end of a small alley off the “White Rice Slanted Road” on the south side of Shicha Hai, formerly the residence of Zhang Zhidong, then bought by Prof. Feng Youlan from Tsinghua University, and finally housing, in separate quarters, the families of my father, “Uncle” Chang Weijun and the historian Xu Bingchang.When I went to Beijing for the first time in 1988 to search for my roots, it was the eldest son of “Uncle” Chang, “Brother” Yunshi, who personally took me there and showed me around.The “ThreeAcaciaMansion” stood unchanged, but of the three acacia trees in the yard only two were left.The other one had probably fallen victim to the chaos of war or the Cultural Revolution.
I think it’s fair to say that the ten years from 1924 to 1934 in prewar Beijing saw the happiest days in the life of my mother.The Chuangs and the Changs were like one family in those days.Auntie Chang Ge Fuying and my mother got along extremely well, and they would often sing together and learn Beijing Opera.According to Brother Chang Yunshi, his family for many years kept in their possession a stage photo of our mothers showing them as Su San (my mother) and Peng Gongdao (Auntie Chang) in the opera The Female Convict (Nü Qijie).My oldest brother Chuang Shen, my second brother Chuang Yin, and my third brother Chuang Che were all born in Beijing, in the years 1932, 1933 and 1934, respectively.Brother Chang, at that time already an elementary pupil, told me that the family hired a wet nurse for each of my three elder brothers, which explains how my mother had the time and leisure to sing and learn Beijing Opera.
Although the incident at the MarcoPoloBridge was still years away in1934, Japan had already established Manchukuo, and its troops were threatening all of Northern China.In Dec 1934, the Executive Yuan, China’s cabinet, passed a bill to establish a Nanjing branch of the PalaceMuseum.The fact was that my father had already been sent to Nanjing by the museum’s administration in March that year.As the local representative, he was in charge of checking and accepting the more than 6,000 crates with relics and artifacts that were being transported south to Nanjing and Shanghai in five large batches that year, and of selecting and preparing those pieces which were to be conveyed to London for an exhibition in the following year.My mother was left behind in Beijing with my oldest and second brother, still carrying my third brother in her womb.In June 1935, my father, again the secretary in charge, and four of his colleagues at the museum, Fu Chen-lun, Na Chih-liang, Sung Chi-lung and Niu Te-ming, were dispatched to England, escorting the collection of artifacts that went on display there until May 1936, when at last they all returned to Shanghai.During that time, my mother had returned to Jilin with her three young sons to visit her parents for a while.In March 1937, my father was transferred to Nanjing to work permanently at the PalaceMuseum’s branch there.So began the days in which my mother and my father, taking with them my three elder brothers (I still wasn’t born yet), escorted the most important pieces of the museum’s collection, at the center of which were the 80 large iron crates that had made the trip to London, on their long arduous journey in a southwesterly direction, always carefully avoiding the Japanese invaders.They experienced all kinds of hardships and obstacles as they roamed through half of China, traveling on the river from Nanjing to Hankou, and then by train from Hankou to Changsha, and after that on the road in a roundabout route via . . . .