When I started this newsletter, one of my intentions was to share with you bits of historical lore that I find fascinating but that may be too arcane for general readers. I’d like to return to this original plan now with one of my favorite stories from my grandfather Liu Chengyu, a scholar revolutionary bent on overthrowing China’s Qing (aka Ch’ing) Dynasty in the early 1900s.
I discovered this story in one of two books by my grandfather that I found in the East Asian collection of UCLA. I had to hire a scholar of classical Chinese to translate them for me, but once I could finally read these stories and poems I understood the sense of kinship I’d long felt for this grandfather, who died in China the same year I was born in Connecticut.
Called Papa in our family, my dad’s father was the only other writer in our family. His poetry is gorgeous, filled with meandering paths and mountain spirits, bridges beyond bridges, and mysterious gates into a world that seems to me as remote and inaccessible as the Middle Ages. He writes of this realm of emperors and palanquins, viceroys and concubines, with immediacy because it was the world he knew best. His father, my great-grandfather, was an imperial magistrate. Yet Papa was determined to upend the world he knew to bring democracy to the Middle Kingdom.
The revolutionaries pull some strings
America must have seemed as alien to Papa as Imperial China seems to me, but he approached it as a fan. That’s what drew him to the man known as the Father of Modern China, Dr. Sun Yatsen. Papa writes, “We believed the time had come to bring down China's Ch'ing dynasty and replace it with a modern republic.” Like the United States.
Sun Yatsen appointed Papa to edit San Francisco Chinatown’s revolutionary newspaper, Ta Tung Daily. The paper’s agenda was to raise donations from overseas Chinese in North and South America for military action back home.
But The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was still in full effect, so the only way for Papa to enter the U.S. in 1903 was on a student visa. Dr. Sun arranged for his protégé to enroll at UC Berkeley. And Papa used his late father’s guanxi, or connections, to hoodwink the very regime he meant to overthrow into paying his tuition:
I had a scholarship from the provincial government of Hupei to study at the University of California at Berkeley, which permitted me to stay in the United States.
Just as Papa straddled the line between China and America, then, he also straddled the line between his magistrate father’s official legacy and his own revolutionary ambitions. He played the gap, in other words, navigating the distance between worlds and historical moments, counting on that distance for protection. The story he’s about to tell describes a moment in 1905 when that distance collapsed on him, when “five high-ranking officials from the Ch’ing court came to examine the West. One was Minister Tuan, who had been my teacher in Hupei.”
An Interesting Story About Tuan Fang's Overseas Visit
To my grandfather’s mortification, the chancellor at U.C. Berkeley invited this former teacher, Tuan, and his senior minister, Tai, to give a speech on campus. Of course, Papa was bound to attend. I picture the dank and creaky university hall, rows of gawking American students stuffed into starched shirts and woolen waistcoats, the mutton-chopped chancellor droning a polite introduction, as if these foreign “dignitaries” had nothing to do with the “Celestials” that the majority of racist San Franciscans were hell bent on exterminating.
At last the chancellor finished his remarks and his guests approached the lectern, resplendent in turquoise and magenta silk, their conical hats trailing bright red tassels and peacock feathers. “Like costumes in a Pingju opera,” according to my grandfather.
Then, for Papa, the fun began:
Tuan said to Tai: "As senior, you please speak."
Then Tai said to Tuan: "You have had experience with Westerners and know their etiquette, you please speak."
So Tuan spoke a line, but after it was translated, Tuan asked Tai: "Is that correct?" And Tai said: "Yes, yes."
Then Tuan spoke another line, and asked Tai again: "Is that correct?" And Tai again said: "Yes, yes."
In the entire speech there were several hundred lines. Tuan asked Tai the same question several hundred times, and Tai replied the same.
An American classmate said to me: "When we give a speech in Europe and America, only one person talks. When you Chinese give a speech, two people speak. Can you tell me the reason?"
I composed a reply: "This is China's ancient code of respect. In cases of important ceremonies, the junior speaks and the elder supervises. These two were showing the utmost reverence to the university, in accord with China's most ancient etiquette."
The classmate relayed my fabrication to the chancellor, and in a long letter afterward the chancellor thanked the two ministers.
It's the humor that impresses me. Papa’s timing reminds me of Abbott and Costello. But as he well knew, the ministers’ paralyzing insecurity reflected the paralysis gripping the dynasty they represented. And that my grandfather would help topple.
Several days after this performance, Papa’s account continues, he was back at work in his newspaper office when an emissary from the Chinese consulate appeared.
This fat man appeared panting and sweaty from the climb up four flights of stairs. He told Papa:
"Mr. Tuan said that you are his student. All his other students from Hupei came to see him. He sent me to bring you over."
I said: "I am busy with the newspaper, please allow me to come in a few days."
He said: "There is a carriage waiting at the door. I cannot return empty-handed."
I still needed to arrange the copy for the next edition. So the consular official sat. Two hours later I finished and we rode together.
At the consulate Tuan introduced me to Tai, saying: "This is my student Liu Chengyu."
Tai asked, "On what ancient text was your explanation to the chancellor based?"
I answered with utmost seriousness: “This is what is called diplomatic rhetoric.”
This would be relayed around Chinatown as most marvelous words. Both ministers smiled.
Then Minister Tuan came to the point: "Before I came to San Francisco, I read your articles in the TaTung Daily. Let me say to you, after today don't say those things anymore."
I replied: "I don't know what things you mean."
He said: "Those things you say."
I said: "I didn't say anything."
He said: "I mean the things that you say every day."
I said: "I don't say anything every day."
Tuan said: "You don't know yourself? Those things that come out of your own mouth. You know. I know. After today, don't say them. We are all Chinese, and should deal with foreigners in concert.”
I did not reply. It was plain to see that I had chosen foreign dress over imperial robes. Minister Tuan was my teacher, but he served my enemy.
He said, “When we return from this trip, there will be a big advantage for you. Brother, don't say those things."
I stood to leave. Then Tuan begged: "I am your teacher. You are my student. Give me some face. Don't say those things anymore."
The way Papa dances verbal circles around these two, no wonder imperial China was in decline! And yet, my grandfather doesn't gloat. His wit is threaded taut with compassion.
My family’s inadvertent godfather
Papa still had a toe in the old world, whether he liked it or not, and he was decent enough to acknowledge that connection in his tale of Minister Tuan. My grandfather honored his teacher. He owed him. But he was dedicating his life to the revolution. How could he promise not to champion his cause? He declined, but that was not the end of the story:
Tuan and Tai left for Europe, and a few months later the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire destroyed the Ta Tung newspaper offices along with the rest of Chinatown.
Tuan, who was still traveling in Europe, sent me five hundred dollars of his own money along with a telegram that he had received from Hupei. The telegram said: "As for Liu's scholarship fund, it has been cut off because he belongs to the rebel party."
Poor Tuan. His travels ultimately converted him. When he returned to Peking from his inspections in Europe and America, he spoke out: "The constitutional system of Europe and America really makes ruler and people one body without any separation. Whether ruler or president, when reporters interview them, they can take photographs any time they want. This is the spirit of rule by law. China should learn from it."
Tuan's constitutional spirit brought him a charge of "gross disrespect" and impeachment from the court. I might have suggested some more diplomatic rhetoric to save his face. Alas, he did not consult me.
My whole family owes Minister Tuan a debt of gratitude. Without the $500 that he sent Papa before being excommunicated, we might not be here. For the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire destroyed not only my grandfather‘s office but his home and, for several months, his livelihood. Stripped of his scholarship funds, he’d have been penniless but for Tuan’s charity. And he’d have been useless to his English tutor, my grandmother. Thanks to Tuan, though, Papa was able to marry my grandmother and remain in America serving Dr. Sun's revolution for another five years.
Unfortunately, there's no direct mention of their marriage in Papa’s memoir, but the calendar tells its own story. The earthquake occurred on April 18, 1906. My Chinese grandfather married my American grandmother just six weeks later, on May 29: less than a month after Tuan sent his telegram with $500. It seems pretty clear to me that the minister’s intended earthquake relief and consolation gift instead financed my grandparents’ wedding journey.
That trip, a whole other saga, formed the basis of my novel Cloud Mountain. You can read some some more recently discovered tidbits about my grandparents’ wedding odyssey here:
This is so wonderful Aimee! Loved reading it.