The sky was grey most days, that approaching winter in November 1991 in Toronto. Not a charcoal grey, but a kind of joyless light grey. I was in my last term of teaching history in the Academy, before starting my early retirement. Meanwhile, my dear wife had accepted a professorial position in the California State University system, and she was nicely settled in a small town near the campus. I was waiting to join her, staying meanwhile in our empty townhouse with only a sofa bed. I had plenty of time on my own, and frequently ate out in a nearby Greek restaurant. My friend Charlie, a former policeman from Crete, who was an informal but high-status arbitrator in the Greek community, took me there. My status rose dramatically when I was with him, choosing my food from the delightful, open pans in the kitchen. We lunched there so often that we had our own bottle of wine. All the food was carefully prepared and delicious.
One evening I was eating dinner in the corner table on my own. The restaurant was crowded, and a man asked if he could join me. That’s when I met Mr. Gu. His face was refined and open, his hair was salt-and-pepper, cut short. His glasses had dark rims, and he was wearing a well-tailored tweed jacket with high side vents in an English cut. I noted a chequered shirt and hand-knit red tie, finished with a flowered silk square in his breast pocket. He had an elegant air.
We started a pleasant conversation, exchanging a bit of information about ourselves. Mr. Gu was a geography teacher at a prestigious high school in the centre of town. He had come to Toronto on a scholarship in the late 1950s, and worked his way through the University of Toronto and Ontario Teachers’ College, obtaining a Master’s degree. He had been teaching for years. He too was looking forward to retirement. That meeting was the beginning of a companionable relationship, conducted mostly over dinner in the Greek restaurant, followed by long conversations. Because of my status from Charlie at lunchtime, we could stay as long as we liked in the evenings.
I enjoyed hearing about his ancestors. He told me he was a fifth-generation descendant of a scholar-warrior who raised an army against the Tai Ping rebellion to save the Qin dynasty and who died in battle. The Emperor had given Gu’s great-great-grandfather a hereditary title, which he once told me corresponded vaguely to a British viscount. I wondered if that would be a Marchese in Italy generations ago. My family tree did not boast a Marchese. On another occasion, he told me about his mother’s ancestors. She grew up in a large compound of her grandfather’s that included five separate multiple-household families, housing four sons’ families and their concubines and their families—a village! Her grandfather was a tutor to the Emperor’s son, having previously become head of the Han Lin Academy, the centuries-old examination institution that produced all the mandarins who ran the country. I gathered these ancestors were distinguished.
I had learned that his father, a professor of economics, had worked for the Nationalist government as a director of a railroad and director of a bank for central China, based in Wuhan. His family lived in Hankow, one of the three cities that made up metropolitan Wuhan. “I went to an Anglican boarding school in Wuchang,” he had said, “across the river. It is another of the three cities. I came home on weekends. Then the wars came and interrupted our lives.”
Hankow Bank, Wuhan circa 1900
Although I was a historian, my Chinese history was weak. “What do you mean by wars? I know World War II…”
“Well, first was the war between Japan and China starting in 1937. In 1939 my family went to Hong Kong to escape bombing. We were there when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and Hong Kong and Singapore. That turned into World War II. My school in Wuhan moved to a safer western province, and so did my father’s bank. After the Japanese left China in 1945, we went back to Wuhan, as did my father’s work and my school, and my father bought back our former house, which had been occupied by a Japanese officer. But soon after, by 1946, China had a civil war between the Nationalists and Communists.”
Ah, yes, I thought. And the Communists won.
Gu continued, “When I was 17, the conflict was coming closer, and I had been summoned home from school. Every day, the Communists’ ranks were increased by Nationalist soldiers going over. We could hear the artillery outside the city.
“My family members at home at that time consisted of my parents, my aunt, my older sister and her baby--her husband was studying for a PhD in Chemistry at Yale in America—and my two younger sisters. My older brother was also away, at Hong Kong university. He hadn’t spent much of his life with us; since my father’s older brother and his wife, my aunt, were childless, they made my brother their heir. He lived on and off with them. But at that time, after the Japanese left and Communists were approaching, my aunt was with us. She had been widowed before the war. She and her husband and often my brother had lived in Shanghai, in a comfortable, decadent life. Unlike his older brother, my father worked hard.”
He fell silent, and I thought he was almost seeing his family again in that time of uneasy peace as they faced uncertainty. His next words proved I was correct.
“We lived in a comfortable, large house built in English style for a former director of Jardine Matheson, the trading company,” he said. “It was furnished with paintings and little antique remnants from the two sides of my family. Servants, led by my father’s valet-cum-private secretary, made up the household.”
I remarked that he came from a one-time wealthy family, and then I said, “Working your way through university would have been a challenge.”
Gu chuckled, and I was surprised and somewhat relieved he could laugh. “Yes. But I survived.” He paused. “In fact, just months before the revolution succeeded, my father had informed me that I was entitled to a small estate with orchards, a pond, and a group of small buildings along with the courtyard house, in Hunan province, our old ancestral home, in fact. I had enjoyed thinking about it, although I had never seen it. But it all evaporated like a shimmering mirage.”
Gu continued, “As an aside: you know, my relationship with my father was quite formal. I had been called into his study at an appointed time. My father was quite cheerful while informing me about one of the options in my future, the small inheritance. He was often quite serious, and sometimes pontificating. When he entered a room, we all stood up.
The Long March (Route(s) taken by Communist forces during the Long March)
“But I digress. I had listened silently as my father explained my legacy, but secretly I was very pleased about this news. Immediately, my mind leapt to a vision of a life like a scholar in classical Chinese paintings—in a peaceful rural countryside.” He smiled a bit ruefully. “That was not to be.”
I thought to myself, I’m an immigrant also. I always had wanted to learn more about when my grandfather left Italy. I asked Gu, “How and when did your family decide to leave China?”
“Ah.” Gu answered. He looked away as he lifted his glass. Eventually he began, “In early 1949, my father would meet with his group of friends—professors, intellectuals, journalists, White Russian aristocrats who had escaped through Siberia and down to China. They hotly debated and analysed the uncertain future ahead. My father felt with his background and his work that we would be listed as enemies, if the Communists won the war. That information came from our Russian refugee friends.
“At the same time, the Communist propaganda was most effective. They emphasised two points: one, that Chinese do not fight Chinese, which was welcome to hear in this war-weary time, and second, they would embark upon building a New China. Ah! Well! Being part of a new China had a great attraction for people of my generation.”
“You were tempted to stay then?” I asked.
“Well, that was a very big decision,” Gu replied. “I was influenced by voices in my school, and the fifth-columnists were active everywhere in the city, with their propaganda. But it would be a family decision, in the hands of my parents.
Then he went on, “I would like to describe the context. The city of Wuhan was very big and covered a huge area, but it seemed totally silent. No riots, no looting, just paralysis. People carried on their daily tasks in a half-hearted manner, like they were underwater. A lukewarm water. Days were grey. We were not isolated; although there was no news we could rely on, rumours abounded everywhere.” He picked up his glass and drank. Then he continued:
“Propaganda was the only vibrant thing. One thing talked about at that time was the nature of Chinese communism. It wasn’t based on the industrial workers’ revolution, because China at the time did not have a substantial industrial sector. Workers were primarily on the land, on farms. We speculated the revolution would involve land reform. That would affect us. My father was an economist whose views were not compatible with communist state planning. So he felt he would be excluded from the new proletariat and on the wrong side of the class struggle.”
As he paused, I said, “In my envisioning of what you describe, I’m reminded of the Polish film “Ashes and Diamonds.” Have you seen it? In a time of vacuum between the Germans’ retreat and the Communists’ arrival?” Gu was silent.
Mao Zedong's proclamation of the founding of the People's Republic in 1949
“So what about the decision to leave?” I asked after a sip.
Then Gu slowly replied, “It was an event that haunted me all my life. Was it real? Was it just my imagined recollection? As I’ve grown older, the memory has become more and more weighty. I’m still curious about what happened and revisit the details that could either be accurate or could be embellishments from my imagination to enhance it.” He shook his head. “Yet, I could say, it preserved my life.” He fell silent again.
“Tell me about this event that still haunts you so much,” I urged. I called across the restaurant and asked for another bottle.
Gu looked at his empty glass and gave a small smile. “Oh, well, maybe this would be a relief to me,” he said not looking up. Then he raised his eyes to mine and spoke again.
“Among all my father’s close friends,” he began, “actually, more than friends. They were what we call generational connections. One we called The Honourable Number Four, with great respect. He was the fourth son of a family we had been friends with for about a hundred years. The Honourable Number Four was an eccentric, a scholar of the old school. He never really held any positions, but he was well-regarded as a scholar. In addition to composing poetry, and painting, he dabbled in the occult. Some aspects of Daoist ritual. He suggested to my father that he could conduct a ritual for the purpose of communicating with our ancestors and asking their advice.”
I hadn’t expected this. I didn’t quite know how to respond. I had heard about ancestor worship, but I didn’t know the ancestors could be consulted freely. It was all a bit unbelievable, and I suppose it showed on my face.
“That’s what has been haunting me,” Gu said, noting my face. “It’s a bit embarrassing to reveal this archaic, cultish practice, so I haven’t told anyone about it. We Chinese think about ancestors as always with us. You Westerners may think we believe in ghosts, but that isn’t how we think of our ancestors. We think of them as spirits protecting us and overseeing our conduct. It’s a totally different concept from ghosts. It’s also different from a Western seance with a medium. We perceive we communicate directly with the ancestors. Or at least the Honourable Number Four thought that way. My rationalist father might not have believed in it. He was a typical pragmatist.”
Gu looked at me to see if I understood. “He was a pragmatist,” he repeated.
“One late afternoon, my father asked servants to bring a long, low table into his study. I was asked to come along with all the family to sit or stand around the table. We didn’t know what was up; we just did as he asked. The light became dusky in the study, with its small windows. I don’t remember any lights on in the room.
“At one end of the table was an ink-grinding stone, a bowl of water, and an ink stick. A servant made the thick black ink. At the other end was a stack of white rice paper sheets. My aunt was in charge of the paper. In between stood an antique bronze vessel filled with sand. It was about a foot tall, had handles, and stood on three legs. A simple device held a long thin bamboo stick, about four feet long. In the middle a Chinese writing brush was tied securely and hung perpendicularly from the bamboo.
“The Honourable Number Four lit two sticks of incense, placed them in the urn, and mumbled an inaudible incantation. Then he produced a piece of paper with vermillion ink on it. He burnt the paper with the paper tube lighter and put the fragments into the urn. The room was absolutely silent. Smoke from the incense began to rise.
“Then I was asked to approach the table. The Honourable Number Four instructed me to use my first two fingers of my right hand, palm up, and allow the bamboo pole to lie lightly on them. At the other end, my cousin similarly used his left hand’s first two fingers to allow the pole to lie lightly on his fingers.
“My cousin and I moved to dip the brush into the inkstone, and then we moved back to the middle of the table. My aunt had put a piece of paper there. He and I stood so the tip of the brush barely touched the surface of the top of the rice paper. After a while, I felt a slight pull from the stick on my two fingers, which began moving without my agency. My cousin and I both watched as the brush made circles on the paper. It was an auspicious moment, and everyone was attentive in silence. My aunt removed the paper and put another sheet on the table.
Then the brush began to write, from the top down to the bottom. It was in the grass-writing style. Sometimes the brush wrote simplified characters or linked characters together with one stroke. The writing seemed to be in a classical form of poetry, five characters followed by a space and another five characters. It was rather elegant writing, but not easy to decipher. Another sheet of paper replaced that, and we continued. Then after the second sheet, the brush went back to writing circles. Honourable Number Four declared the ancestors had departed. We put the brush down.”
“What did you think of this?” I couldn’t restrain myself from asking.
“I was so relieved to be finished with my bamboo holding task!” We drank again, and I waited for him to go on.
“Then my father and Honourable Number Four looked quietly at the two pages with words and consulted each other in low voices. My father announced, ‘We must leave Wuhan.’ The Honourable Number Four rolled up the two pages with the writing and burned them. That was to indicate to the ancestors, he said, that we received the message.”
“So the decision was made!” I stated.
“Not quite,” said Gu. “It was reinforcement for the argument to leave. But. Yes. Two weeks later, we were on the Wuhan-Canton railroad and then proceeding to Hong Kong. I made my way to Canada a few years later with a scholarship.”
We sat quietly for a while. I couldn’t think of anything to say and didn’t want to prevent his saying what this meant. Then Gu said, “Years later the event of that afternoon haunts me. However it was made, whatever the deciding factors, the decision enabled me to live a long life. If I had stayed, I would have been in peril in at least ten “Movements” by the Party. Likely, I’d have died in one of them.”
I said, “I didn’t know about ten movements! I thought perhaps you’d have been at risk in the Cultural Revolution.”
Gu answered, “Well, starting in 1949 the first Movement was Anti-Landlords and Land Reform. Then in 1950 came The Drive to Suppress Counter-Revolutionaries. Later that year was an Anti-Religion Anti-Bourgeois campaign. In 1953 there was another Campaign to Eliminate Counter-Revolutionaries, and 1958-1961 The Great Leap Forward dominated. It caused a great famine in which 40 million people died.
“The Cultural Revolution was the longest, 1967 to 1978. Oh, I forgot to mention the 1951 movement called Let 100 Flowers Bloom, in which dissidents were encouraged to express themselves, before they were silenced. There were other smaller movements also.”
Our bottle was nearly finished. I didn’t know what to say. Gu mumbled something in Chinese. “Pardon?”
“It’s a poem by Li Yu: ‘Spring flowers, autumn moon; When is it going to end? How many past events must be recalled?’”
I looked at him quizzically, wondering why he quoted those words.
“It’s wearying to think of so many past incidents and what they mean,” he said.
I nodded, and we both got up and made our way out of the now-empty restaurant onto the street. We never revisited that episode, although we did have other dinners together. But I still remember his story of how a critical decision was made, and perhaps it haunts me a bit, too.