Capturing My Grandma’s Stories| Sophie Xi

Over this past weekend, I conducted my first interview with my grandmother. She was born three years before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and forced to leave her hometown, Shanghai, when the Cultural Revolution occurred. Her stories not only enrich my knowledge with regards to that period of time but also help me to collect resources for my fictional writing. This interview was mainly focused on exploring the change in visions of marriage over three generations. As I am currently reading the book Wild Swans, I found out that marriage, a huge component of people’s lives, can be morphed into different structures in the wake of history. Consequently, the Cultural Revolution under Communist Regime might have also changed the customs of marriage.


Screen-cap from the film “Raise the Red Lantern

With this thought in mind, I designed a series to questions to explore my grandmothers’ thoughts on marriage. Through the conversation, I learned that as a typical couple to millions of other Chinese of their time, my great-grandparents did not meet each other before they married. My great-grandfather was an owner of a small hardware store in Shanghai. At an age of twenty-one, his parents decided to find a matchmaker to arrange a marriage. The matchmaker asked for my great-grandfather’s “eight characters of birth time”, also known as the “four pillars of destiny”, because traditional Chinese community believe that in an ideal marriage, the spouse’s destiny should be matched in a harmonious manner. My great-grandmother, who lived in the village next to that of my great-grandfather, was then found and married to a man she had never seen before. At that time, marriage was seen as a duty, a liaison between two families.


Screen-cap from the film “Raise the Red Latern

The concept of a romantic marriage was significantly oppressed during the Cultural Revolution, at a time when my grandmother was married. After she graduated from college, the country was in a rhapsodic preparation to defend against the Soviet Union. Mao Zedong ordered to relocate beneficial factories and companies in rural areas so that the business could be protected from the Soviet Union’s invasion. Consequently, many urban college graduates were either willingly or forcibly moved to countryside to participate in this large-scale patriotic movement. Given the fact that my great-grandfather was categorized as the “evil capitalist” who ran a hardware manufacture in Shanghai, my grandmother was assigned to work at an electric power plant in Hunan, a province south of China where she met my grandfather. My grandmother seldom mentioned romance in her description of this relationship. On the contrary, to marry my grandfather seemed to be an imperative burden to undertake so that she could provide a better living condition for her youngest brother. In the year of 1967, a new policy was drafted and entailed that the sent-down youth could avoid being coercively displaced by the government if they chose to settle in a rural area in which one of their family members belonged to. In fear of being directed to distant provinces such as Inner Mongolia or Heilongjiang, my great-uncle, my grandmother’s youngest brother, begged her to marry my grandfather so that he could move to my grandfather’s village, a seemingly optimum choice of that time. When I asked my grandmother whether she loved my grandfather, she hesitated for a while and said, “I didn’t have any choice. ”

Although my grandmother did not personally experience the mode of marriage after the Cultural Revolution, she shared with me stories about her younger siblings’ marriages. She said there was a significant increase in material needs. Newlyweds of that time were expected to purchase “three machines and one wheel” (radio, sewing machine, television, and bicycle) and “forty six legs” (a phrase that indicates the total legs of furnitures such as bed, desk, closet, and etc.) for their new houses. Marriage involves many practical thinkings. My grandmother finds herself disagree the modern, luxuriant trend of marriage. She said, “Life is about ‘firewood, rice, oil, salt, sauce, vinegar and tea’, seven necessities for a living, not entirely on romance. ”

We talked through WeChat, a Chinese messaging and calling app, for about an hour-long, but I wish we can continue to this conversation consecutively throughout this semester. In the past, whenever she recalled the past agony and misery, I felt an inexplicable revulsion in my gut – I wondered why do we need to reflect upon bitterness even though our lives are much more improved nowadays. Recently, however, I experienced a change in mindsets due to my understanding on the power of storytelling, especially after the movie watch last weekend on Censored Voices and the reading on Wild Swans. It was interesting for me to explore this hidden side of her that I was previously not informed. On the other hand, I hope she can also regard this conversation as a rewarding experience in which she shares her heritage and past experiences with the new generation.

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4 thoughts on “Capturing My Grandma’s Stories| Sophie Xi

  1. Max D.

    Wow, this is some really powerful stuff. It seemed that socio-economic status was the big problem for marriages. Considering that it is still relevant today, as many young Chinese couples regard apartments and cars to be prerequisites of their marriages, how did Communism play the “oppressing romance” part, besides the weird dispatch policy?

  2. margaretjhaviland

    Another question for your grandmother would be to ask what the official stance was on using a matchmaker and the “Four Pillars” as a means of making a match during the Cultural Revolution. Wouldn’t these be considered old fashioned or traditional and therefore counter-revolutionary? In pre-revolutionary China marriage was traditionally a liason between families with the new wife leaving her birth family to join her husband’s family. But my understanding is that unlike here in the west, the new wife would have kept her birth family name rather than taking her husband’s family name.

    I am also aware in the late imperial period and during the republic that for a small minority of men and women, romance preceded marriage. Usually these couples met in university or in a few cases in factories or other opportunities where young people might meet.

    By the way, I think that Raise the Red Lantern is a visually beautiful and heartbreaking in so many ways film.

  3. megannuggihalliwesttownedu

    This is a very powerful story and something that I was thinking about throughout the story is that love is about shared experiences. Whether it was a choice or not, you can grow to love/respect someone through your experiences and hardships together. There’s not one way to have a relationship, whether that be your spouse or friend or family.

  4. Deborah Wood

    I used to live near the traditional home where they filmed “Raise the Red Lantern.” I took a field trip there with my Chinese students.


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