Serenity: The Lives my Mother and Grandmother Lived: Part II | Foods

Serenity: The Lives my Mother and Grandmother Lived Part II

By You-Sheng Li (From the book: The Ancient Chinese Super State of Primary societies: Taoist Philosophy for the 21st Century

(2) The Life My Grandmother Lived My Grandmother was born in 1884 and died in 1967. Grandmother and Mother lived together for more than 30 years since Mother married into the family in the 1930s. For some ten warring years, they were the only grownups in the family. Until the mid 1950s when modern commercialization spread to the Chinese countryside, Grandmother and Mother took charge of a broad array of so-called house chores: 1) keep and feed an ox, a pig, a dozen hens; 2) prepare the daily meals for the whole family, but they had to start with grinding the grains into flour; 3) prepare clothes for the whole family, but they had to start with spinning the cotton into thread. In addition, they had to keep the house tidy and clean. The above three categories of work were typical for all married women in the Chinese countryside. This was the traditional Chinese division between men and women: men's territory was outside the house, which, including the yard, was women's territory. Women had a lot of work to do but also had the power to make decisions. Men ate whatever women cooked for them and wore whatever women made for them. Only occasionally did women go into the farm field to feed the men when the urgent farm work did not allow them go back for lunch. Chinese

traditions also asked women to obey their mother-in-law, though my Grandmother was not a bossy lady. Neither Grandmother nor Mother was born broad-minded but their personalities were quite different. In the mid 1930s, the government waged a national campaign to stop women's foot-binding. Although both Grandmother and Mother had bound feet, they showed quite different attitudes towards this campaign. My Mother joined the majority of the population who were fiercely against this campaign. They said, “Sun Yat-sen, what a man. Why don't you take better care of your own wife, and stop bothering other men's wives and daughters?” Grandmother applauded it immediately when she first heard the news, “What a great idea it is! Women can then go anywhere as men do.” Grandmother was a gifted woman, though she never had any education. She was born with a clear mind, and as a result, shed many more tears than Mother. Since girls were not allowed to go to school, Grandmother stood outside the school watching through the window when she was a girl. In this way, she mastered a few hundred Chinese characters. She became a self-taught calligrapher and artist who was much better than the average of nowadays' Chinese university graduates, though her works were mainly folk arts and the regular Chinese calligraphy. She once recited her poem to me, but I was too young to understand it. I only remember that the poem sounded so great and so elegant as if it had been written by a highly educated professional poet. It did not sound at all like a folk song. One might have expected that Grandmother would not get along with Mother. In fact, they worked together in a perfect harmony. They never quarrelled, and never complained against each other in front of children. In fact, they discussed very little before a decision was reached

regarding what was the meal for today or who should do what. They went through extraordinary hardship together with the God-blessed serenity. During the warring years that ended in the late 1940s, my grandfather and father were often absent from home. My grandfather was in a big city hereby on business, and my father joined the anti-Japanese guerrilla force. In my father's case, Grandmother and Mother worried about his safety. Only two young men from our clan’s neighbourhood including my father joined the guerrilla. The other, my uncle, was shot countless times by a shower of bullets from an ambush when he came near home one night. During the warring years, Grandmother and Mother often took the children into hiding sometimes for days in the wilderness. They had to sleep in the open air and take care that the children would not reveal the hiding sites to the enemy. The so called Great Leap Forward in 1958 created many unendurable hardships for the peasants that would last for years. Every family had to share meals in a canteen, and it was regarded as an outdated tradition that every household cooked their own meals. Guided by this progressive ideology, cooking utensils were used to make steel. My father had a good reputation as the village physician, and he was able to bury a cauldron which evaded the local official inspection. Traditionally the Chinese cooked their family meals including steamed bread or corn pastry, steamed vegetables, and porridge altogether in this large cauldron. Well-to-do families could often prepare additional dishes by frying oil cooking. A headache in those years was that our cauldron had a hole. It was impossible to get a new one as too many had been melt to make steel. Grandmother and Mother had to seal it with pastry and the seal only lasted for one meal if they were lucky. It was often the case that the pastry seal was cracked by the fire, and porridge leaked out and put out the cooking fire. To make it worse, matches were hard to get, and the coal

was difficult to set up burning. I often noticed the whole house and yard were shrouded by heavy smoke during lunch or supper hours. In her late years, Grandmother suffered from senile dementia due to her chronic bronchitis. She also broke her hip and managed to make her way only by crawling. Even so, she was not regarded as suffering too much as she also lost her clear mind. I often wonder what made Grandmother and Mother so submissive yet so serene as they played their roles so well. Nowadays, we have counselling everywhere but problems everywhere. Our suicide rates remain high. I cannot help thinking of their bound feet and what were the psychological effects on them after they went through so painful and so humiliating an experience in their pre-school or even in their toddler years. Maybe our civilized life on earth is like the foot-binding of Chinese women after all. According to Shakespeare, the whole human world is a stage, and we cry at birth because we drop onto this stage of fools. The foot-binding might have served as a rehearsal for this tragic drama of life. It was not surprising that the footbinding custom was established during Song (960-1279), which was the most intelligent dynasty in Chinese history and was by far the most advanced country in the world but it was defeated repeatedly and eventually conquered by Mongolia. Historians cannot identify who started this custom or when. It was the people themselves who started this foot-binding from the grass root level. Neither intelligence nor rationality fits well into civilization in human history.

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