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Xu Yankun

My mother-in-law, Xu Yankun, passed away last month. It was a peaceful death. Through her 100th birthday she remained almost unchanged, still painting, making dumplings with the family, and meeting historians who came to ask her about her youth. Shortly afterwards she began a slow decline, which sped up in the last few weeks. There was no particular illness, her body just finally wore out. In the end she died peacefully at home surrounded by her five daughters, 20 years to the day after the passing of her husband.

On first glance she might have passed for any sweet elderly lady, but on knowing her she revealed herself to be much more. Her quiet serenity and stability were the gravity which held close the family she valued so much. She may be the most generous person I have ever known. Even when they had little (and at times she really did have little) she would freely give anything she had to someone she thought could appreciate it. As someone who experienced both wealth and poverty she knew the relative value between things and people.

When I married into her family she welcomed me and from the beginning was like my own mother, a role which became more important after my own mother died 20 years ago. Not that she didn’t have standards and could be strong when the situation demanded it, but even after all she went through she maintained an optimism that would believe the best of people until shown otherwise. I saw her as embodying the serenity prayer:

grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

She died approaching her 102 birthday, 20 years to the day after the death of her husband. Her birth also was a special day. She was born into a very accomplished and wealthy family the day after her great uncle stepped down as President of China. He had tested to the highest level in the Chinese civil service exam (a test of culture, philosophy, and science), and was a poet, painter, and calligrapher whose works are still highly collected. Besides his term as president of China he served the country in a variety of roles, including directing the Emperor’s education, agricultural reform and famine relief, modernizing the post office, forming China’s first national police force, and constructing the first domestically built railway line in China.

The Xu family believed strongly in education. Madame Xu studied painting, and when she showed talent had some of the finest artists in China as her teachers. By her own admission (which I would not have believed had it not been confirmed by her sister) when young she was a spoiled child who would make her maid repeatedly do her hair until she was perfectly satisfied.

If she chose a good family to be born into, she chose a really bad time. After the start of the Japanese invasion of China the family left their home and started moving around the country. The Japanese were hoping to get her father, also a noted intellectual, to serve as puppet mayor of Beijing. He was unwilling to cooperate, and so made himself hard to find. In 1947 she married a colonel in the Kuomintang army who was a leader in the defense of Beijing against the Communists. Beijing was surrounded by huge city walls which the opposition did not have the weapons to break through. They would have had to reduce the city to rubble through a prolonged bombardment. Knowing that a loss was inevitable and the siege would destroy a millennium of cultural treasure the defending Nationalist army decided to surrender first rather than wait for the city to be flattened.

As part of the surrender agreement the Kuomintang officers were allowed to flee to Taiwan with their families, but Madame Xu refused to go. She was born in China, she said, and would continue to live there.

Over the next few years things got harder. After the Communist victory, of course the family wealth was mostly taken away. Her husband was offered a post in the Communist army but decided they had enough officers already and left to become an accountant. This was safer than the army, but the salary was not high. Madame Xu took on the role of housewife, staying at home and raising her increasing number of children. Her patience and willingness to help led to many of her children’s classmates also coming to spend time at her home, where she helped them with their homework and taught art to those who were interested.

Things took another step backwards in the mid ‘60s with the start of the Cultural Revolution. Between her rich background and her husband’s Kuomintang connections they were obvious targets for the leftist mobs. At one point she was ordered out to sweep the streets. When her husband came home and found out he went to the district leaders and told them if they had a problem with him they should deal with him, not his family. He was a powerful man with the discipline of an officer, and even with his current status the leaders backed down and released Madame Xu from her duties. Later he would be thrown in jail for a year, a term that may have saved his life by getting him away from the revolutionary mobs, but even after his release he was only able to return home once a week.

When the Red Guards came to search the house and struggle against the “class enemies” Madame Xu again escaped. Among the Red Guards were some of the local children she had tutored as classmates of her children, and they vouched for her “good attitude”.

The family later was moved along with their work unit to a small city in Sichuan. It wasn’t until the ‘80s that they were officially exonerated by the government and returned to Beijing.

For her, as for the rest of China, things started improving. Some of the family property was returned. She was certainly not wealthy like before, but was able to live comfortably.

Her last decades were peaceful and rewarding, as all her children and their families were able to return to Beijing and lived within easy reach of her. The family enjoyed going out to parks and restaurants, and while she was always willing to accompany everyone on these expeditions she was happiest staying at home having her family come to her. One of my most touching memories is the time my wife and I were both sick with some sort of flu. There was an unexpected knock on our door and my mother-in-law came in, carrying pots of soup, porridge, and other easily digestible goodies. She said it had taken 6000 steps to get from her house to ours. That was when I really knew I was part of the family.

It is natural when contemplating the passing of someone close to you to think about philosophy and mortality, but besides the two coincidences of dates above, there is a third one which gives added depth to my reflections. When I first met her in fall of 1988 she was a few months past 66, the exact age I am now. That makes me put myself in her position, a challenge that will be difficult to live up to. In writing this I went back to review what I wrote of my father-in-law’s life, and the last line once again seems to fit: Madame Xu lived a much tougher life than I will, and lived it well. We’ll all miss her.

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