The House by the River

My grandfather and his generation – nonfiction by Karoline Kan


My grandfather was already an old man when I came into the world, in a small county town near Tianjin. He was bald; he had to hold the radio very close to his ears when he listened to Peking Opera; he wore a pair of glasses when he read the newspaper and often stopped after reading a few lines, complaining that “the simplified characters lose both the meaning and the beauty of the language.”

The only property my grandpa owned was a countryside house near a river. In the summer, soft wind blew into the house and the ladybugs lay on the brown wooden windowsill. Through the window you could see trees with blossoming flowers, dragon flies resting on wide grass leaves, and across a river the rice field was a waving green sea. Grandpa would narrow his eyes, point his fingers to the field and say to me, “look, that land used to be ours. A long time ago, before your mother was born, even before the PLA liberated this place.”

“You’re lying,” I told him, standing on a chair to catch the ladybugs so I could put them on grandpa’s white beard. “Then why aren’t you rich anymore?”

Grandpa laughed. “Sometimes being poor is luckier than being rich. You’re too young to understand.”

He liked saying weird things like that. Things that, in my grandmother’s words, “are not practical.” He sang Peking Opera when he farmed, hung up ink paintings on the wall, and loved to sit in his bamboo chair listening to the radio. He wrote calligraphy couplets for our neighbors before each Spring Festival, and even helped the swallows to build their nests under his roof. People said those were the eccentric flaws of my grandfather, a young master from a landlord family in the old society.

Before the communists marched in, my great-grandfather had already lost everything to gambling debts, except for a few houses left to his sons in his will, including grandpa’s. “Not too bad,” grandpa recalled. “The people in the neighboring village who won our land were later beaten to death during the Land Reforms.”

Every year, grandpa would paint the windows and door, check the roof, and plant vegetables and fruit in the yard. His life was tied to that house. He was born there; as a child he was given two silver coins each day to chase street peddlers for candy; later he got married there, and his children were born there too. He left briefly in the 1930s to learn business in another province, and he left his wife and children to join the army in the civil war in the 1940s. But the house was like a magnet, and no matter how far away he was, he would always come back.

Grandpa and his best friend Wang Yuchao sometimes sat in the house for tea and chatted about the old times. They told grandma how they met the famous Chinese Opera star Bai Yushuang in the 1930s. It was this story that reminded me how grandpa had his blossom days too, chasing pop stars. But in the times when finding enough food and clothes were the most important questions, grandpa’s understanding of Peking Opera and traditional Chinese characters weren’t of any help.

One day, four young men came into the house when only my grandma and two of her young kids were in. They told grandma, “Give us the pans and everything made of iron. Good news, from now on, you don’t have to cook at home, we will work together, eat together, the children will study together and play together. We will take the iron to make steel.” My grandma secretly hid a pan in the haystack, and cried to her husband when he came back. She said, “I heard the children will also be shared in the People’s Commune.”

It turned out the children weren’t confiscated, but soon the People’s Commune collapsed. Half of grandpa’s possessions had already been confiscated and redistributed, and even the bark of the trees in the yard were boiled and eaten by hungry villagers Grandpa had to take down the ink painting on his wall, and put up Chairman Mao’s portrait in its place. But that was fine by him. He loved Chairman Mao.

In the spring, the swallows returned to their nests under the roof, the radio was broadcasting China’s diplomatic triumphs, and my grandparents pasted the walls with newspapers for fresh insulation. Deng Xiaoping’s titles changed quicker than the time it took for the old newspapers to wear out.

“The one I put up a month before said Deng was People’s Enemy,” grandpa said. “But then he became ‘the true leader’. I had to cover the old one, or it could be taken as mind crime, but by the time I finished he was the ‘people’s enemy’ again, and I had to do it all over.”

I laughed, but grandpa didn’t.

During the 1976 earthquake, our county in Tianjin suffered as huge a tragedy as in Tangshan. Half of the people in the village died. But grandpa’s old house wasn’t damaged and nobody in my family got hurt. People said the old house was blessed, but grandpa thought there was a more material explanation. “Our ancestors didn’t hesitate to pay more money to get better quality things,” he said.

After Mao died, new things came. Outside the window, a national road was built between the river and the rice field. Grandpa’s children got married and moved out of the house, and twelve grandchildren were born in the following two decades. Relatives from Taiwan started to visit the mainland. But Grandpa got quieter and quieter, especially when someone his age passed away. Whenever there was a funeral, I wished the sound of the ceremony would be less loud. Each time the funeral music started, it was like an alarm. After one such alarm, illness took away Wang Yuchao, my grandpa’s best and last friend.

Our family grew big, like a tree. Grandpa was like the root of the tree that went deep underneath his waterside house. He refused his children’s suggestion that he move into the city. He couldn’t bear to go longer than a month without listening to Peking Opera. He started to practice Falungong, every morning and every night. He read the teachings carefully, but he never attended meetings, especially after 1999 when it was declared illegal. He was probably concerned about his role as one of the few Communist Party members in the village.

Inside the house, arguments began. Grandpa had seven children, with seven different political attitudes. My lawyer uncle argued that the importance of relationships in China hurt transparency; my teacher uncle complained it was unfair he had no chance of promotion without CCP membership; my farmer uncle kept asking what was wrong with socialism; and my PLA officer uncle tried protect the honor of the army and the Party.

After a few cups of baijiu, the fights got loud and fierce. I remember during the Spring Festival of 2001, after one such argument, my cousin who was studying in a PLA school said, “I think grandpa should quit Falungong. Didn’t you see how those people burnt themselves on Tiananmen Square?”

“I know what I'm doing,” grandpa replied.

I understood my cousin – in those years political investigations on university campuses were strict. He was afraid. But I sympathized with grandpa too. He believed in both sides, but one side wanted to end the other. It must have been hard.

The women of the family calmed everyone down. “Drink and eat,” they said, “no more politics. It’s a family gathering, don’t talk to each other like enemies.” A family group photo in front of the house would always be the best thing to cheer us up.

I knew grandpa couldn’t have too many days left. It feels so helpless when you know someone is leaving but you can’t stop it. Before the Spring Festival of 2009, I bought a pocket watch for him, with Chairman Mao’s portrait inside the watchcase. I was planning to argue with him about Mao’s mistakes before I handed it over, but as soon as I saw his face, I couldn’t be so cruel as to tear apart an old man’s illusions. Instead I just said, “Grandpa, this watch has the Great Leader’s portrait inside.” And Grandpa was happy.

That January, grandpa passed away. He was buried in the field outside his waterside house, the field his father had lost gambling, not far from the graves of his old friends. We burned his Falungong books and his Communist membership card along with him. Grandpa and his generation’s story is over. The story of the house is over as well. Although his bamboo chair is still there, nobody listens to Peking Opera on the old radio anymore.

Karoline Kan was born near Tianjin in 1989, and is a journalist at Radio France Internationale in Beijing

This story was read out at Scotch & Stories night at the Beijing Bookworm on May 27th 2015, accompanied by a delicious Bunnahabhain Islay

Read Karoline's previous story about her father and China's first exams after the Cultural Revolution, which also appears in our anthology While We're Here