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A Century of Memories

The memoirs of a 100-year-old woman reflects the vicissitudes of love, loss and family through rarely seen portraits during China’s upheaval and transformation

By NewsChina Updated Aug.1

At her 100th birthday party in March, Gao Caiyun recited lines from “The Ode to Mulan” as her grandchildren shot video on their smartphones.  

“Father has no grown-up son, Mulan has no elder brother. / I want to buy a saddle and horse, and serve in the army in Father’s place.”  

Something in the spirit of the sixth century poem about the legendary female warrior Hua Mulan resonates with Gao’s life.  

Born in 1920 in Jiangsu Province, Gao was a daughter of an influential landowning family. She attended a missionary school and wed a landlord’s son in an arranged marriage. After 1949, she went on to become a respected elementary school teacher who raised four children on her own. 

Now she is the family matriarch with four children, nine grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and a great-great grandson.  

Soon after her party, her book which is titled This Life: A Memoir of a Grandmother 1920-2020 was published on April 1. Written with Gao’s daughter Zhao Lijun and edited by her granddaughter Yang Yang, the memoirs intertwine the lives of ordinary people with historic events in the tumult of the 20th century.  
Her Story
Gao begins her story with her great-grandfather, a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) official and wealthy landowner who had a wife and two concubines.  

“My grandfather had no claim to the family property because he was a son of a concubine,” Gao said. “It was his younger brother, Master Eight, my great-grandfather’s eighth child and his only legitimate son, that eventually took charge of the family.”  

The Gao family was a large one. “I had 15 uncles, 10 aunts and lots of cousins. We all lived together once before,” she said. But when Master Eight died, the family succumbed to disputes over the estate. Relatives scrambled for pieces of property, furniture and anything else they could stake a claim to. Gao’s father ended up with a drugstore, an oil mill and the largest mansion.  

Gao was six years old. “I was so little and lost, looking up and watching them greedily snatching things up left and right. In the chaos, I saw a beautiful flower-patterned basket. It was so lovely but nobody wanted it. So I took it home. My father later told me it was a ‘promotion basket’ that belonged to my great-grandfather. My great-grandfather would never have imagined that his descendants would destroy the property he worked so hard to accumulate during his life in a single day,” Gao said. 

As the eldest daughter, Gao was deeply loved by her parents who had no preference for sons, a rarity in that era. She was first educated in the Chinese classics at a traditional private school. Her teacher wore his hair in a traditional Manchu queue, the official hairstyle of the Qing Dynasty. 

At 10, she was sent to a Christian school founded by American missionaries.  

“I still remembered the education there all revolved around the word ‘love.’ Teachers taught us to love people, be humble, patient and kind, and that we should overcome evil with goodness and never pay back evil with evil,” Gao said.  

Gao later studied in a private school for girls in Xuzhou for four years, but her education was cut short by the Lugou Bridge Incident in July 1937, which marked the start of the Japanese invasion. Gao, then 17, was married off to the son of a landowning family surnamed Zhao.  

In her book she describes how parents would arrange marriages, starting with a “preliminary test.” “But that didn’t involve meeting each other,” Gao said. “First, the parents would go to see whether the person was a suitable match for their child.”  

Gao’s mother was the first to meet the young Zhao. The meeting was planned for the afternoon. Gao’s future husband, accompanied by the matchmaker, walked slowly down the street and passed the store where her mother was standing.  

“My mom was so concerned about my marriage that she was extremely focused on what was happening. When my prospective husband appeared, my mom fixed her eyes on him and didn’t blink. She even wished time would stand still so she could drag him over and scrutinize him from head to toe. When the meeting was over, my mother described him to me in vivid detail, from his face and figure to the color of his outfit,” Gao said.  

By the time the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, Gao was a mother of four. An educated woman, she became an elementary school teacher. It would be her lifetime career. 
In 1955, when Gao was 35, her husband made a careless mistake while planting potatoes in their village commune. He fled from home.  

“The reason he ran was simple - he was afraid of being punished,” Gao said. “He did not tell me any details of his plans to escape. When I returned home from school, the house was empty and blanketed with a thin layer of dust. After two weeks, I received a letter without a return address. The content was simple: ‘I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about my leaving in advance. Take care of yourself and the children and forget about me. I’ll be leaving for Xinjiang [Uygur Autonomous Region] a few days from now.’” 

Alone, Gao struggled to feed and raise her children on a meager income. Her husband would return 16 years later, though he had started a new family in Xinjiang.  

Gao also talks about the people who made lasting impressions on her life: the priests who gave local kids candy and toys and ran free field clinics to treat illnesses; the Japanese soldiers who occupied Gao’s old mansion; a distant cousin who was executed by the Kuomintang government for his Communist beliefs; the poor who used to treat scabies with gunpowder; and her younger brother, a Kuomintang officer who fled to Taiwan and waited 40 years to reunite with the family on the mainland. 
Storytelling Sessions
In 2015, Zhao Lijun, Gao Caiyun’s eldest daughter, decided to write her mother’s memoirs. “My siblings live in other provinces or regions of China, or abroad. I’m the only one who lives with her and had plenty of time to talk with her. I wanted to record her memories as a gift to the whole family,” Zhao told NewsChina. “Considering my mother’s age, it had to be done as soon as possible.” 

Yang Yang thought of her grandmother as a talkative woman who “could recite lots of poems, was of firm body and mind and could still travel alone at the age of 80.” Yang, now living in Ireland, had worked as a reporter for the Anhui Daily and as a translator for the Lonely Planet travelbook series.  

The mother and daughter worked together on the project. Yang coached Zhao on interviewing and writing. “I told my mother that the writing should include lots of precise details, be moderately descriptive, and have less subjective and emotional commentary. Rural life in South China, life in a landowning family, the traditional school, the way local people thought, their customs and language - all these details are of interest to contemporary readers and should be given more ink,” Yang told our reporter.  

Zhao described the interview process with her mother: “My mom has an excellent memory but is hard of hearing. I had to talk to her in a loud voice. Our conversations would sound like we were arguing. So as not to disturb others, I would take her to the riverbank in her wheelchair to talk in a quiet place.”  

Many of Gao’s stories happened before 1949. Zhao, born in 1951, said they felt distant and unfamiliar. “My mom is quick with her speech and temper. She often spoke so fast that I wouldn’t catch it. If I asked her to repeat a detail, she would complain, ‘I’ve told you a thousand times! You’ve got the memory of a goldfish!’” Zhao said.  

Zhao was 65 when she started the memoirs, and did not know how to use a computer or the internet. But she taught herself slowly, pecking at the keyboard with one finger on each hand. She would only get through 300 words in an afternoon.  

It took Zhao one year to finish her first draft. Now 69, Zhao plans to use her newly acquired skills to write her own memoirs. She is eager to share her time as a “sent-down youth” in the late 1960s. Between 1968 and 1978, China’s Down to the Countryside Movement saw an estimated 17 million people between 15 and 23 years old sent from their city homes to remote villages and border regions across China to work, often laboring in harsh conditions.  

A photo of Gao Caiyun (middle), her daughter Zhao Lijun (left) and her granddaughter Yang Yang (right) taken in 2009

Living History
Previously the subject of academic study, oral histories began drawing wider audiences in China in the 1980s. One of the most famous accounts is My Husband Puyi: The Last Emperor of China, edited by historian Wang Qingxiang based on the oral account of Li Shuxian, the fifth and the last wife of Puyi, the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Li and Puyi had a happy but short-lived marriage as Puyi died five years after being diagnosed with cancer in 1967. The book, published in 1984, was adapted into the film The Last Emperor by Hong Kong director Li Han-hsiang in 1986. A significant oral document, the book inspired movies and documentaries concerning the late life of China’s last emperor.  

Since 2000, oral historical accounts sprang up in the mass media. One of the most noted projects is a series of oral history documentaries produced by TV talk show host Cui Yongyuan such as Stories of Movies, My Long March, My War Against Aggression and My Motherland.  

In the 2010 documentary My War Against Aggression, Cui’s team interviewed more than 3,000 people who participated in or witnessed the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-1945). In 2012, Cui founded the Oral History Research Center at the Communication University of China, later becoming the country’s largest oral history research institution.  

However, documented oral histories about regular people’s lives are rare in China.  

“Most won’t get published. Even if they are, sales would be a big problem,” Sun Huifang, the planning editor for This Life, told NewsChina.  

Chen Huiyan, the book’s chief editor, read Yang Yang’s series of her grandmother’s stories on Douban, China’s leading media review website, three years ago and found it gripping. “The story struck a chord with me,” Chen told NewsChina. “I was born in the 1970s and had experiences similar to what Gao’s family had been through. When I was a kid, I saw my family ripped away from the extended family after we got our share of the estate and also experienced the gradual dissolving of the patriarchal family.”  

The book was a commercial success and was met with critical acclaim. “History is never an abstract concept about time, changes and objective laws. It’s actually happening to everyone at every minute, everywhere. Like this book, a 100-year-old woman puts her memories into words, revealing real details of history from the ordinary but great lives of everyday people,” writer Yan Hong said of the book.  

“The book gives a strong sense of reality. It doesn’t use over-descriptive language, and instead uses simple and real words. It neither means to focus on the dark sides of history nor sing its praises, but rather documents what a regular person saw and felt during these tumultuous changes. One hundred years of her life’s ups and downs are compacted into this little book,” Douban user Fu Lin commented. 

Many readers post to Yang on Douban saying that the book inspired them to write their own family histories. “If people find the seniors in their families have stories to tell, write them down as quickly as possible. It’s a race against time. These stories will disappear someday,” Yang said.