Click here to return to the author's website:

Serenity: The Lives my Mother and Grandmother Lived


Serenity: The Lives my Mother and Grandmother Lived

By You-Sheng Li
(From the book:
The Ancient Chinese Super State of Primary societies: Taoist Philosophy for the 21st Century)



(1) The Life My Mother Lived

            At the supper table, my Mother suddenly collapsed in her seat and lost consciousness. She died three days later her ninety third birthday, September 26, 2007. Autumn drought occasionally hits this rural area of China which hinders sowing winter wheat. Peasants had been worried that this year seemed to be one of those rare years. Miraculously heavy rain poured down almost the same time my Mother passed away, and it made farm work in the field impossible. The rain lasted several days but again miraculously stopped the day of my Mother's funeral. Sodden farm fields still prevented any entrance by peasants but the interment and its ceremony proved no problem at all as the graveyard was grassland. There was not a single drop of rain though it was gloomy all day. The local custom demands that no matter how urgent the farm work is, peasants have to stop for a funeral and no matter how horrible the weather is, a funeral has to be carried out on time. Chinese peasants are no longer superstitious, but they couldn't help uttering superstitious remarks on my Mother's funeral. They all said: what a nice lady! Even at the time going to heaven, she did not forget bringing the much wanted rain to her villagers and was reluctant to interrupt anybody's any farm work even for an hour.

            Those remarks describe well the lives my Mother and grandmother had lived. The popular serenity prayer says: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” I guess, it was the Chinese traditional culture that gave my mother and grandmother the wisdom to accept whatever came in her life with serenity. Neither of them was born a broad minded person, but they never cried. I only occasionally saw them shedding tears silently. They never had any quarrel with anybody, and always yielded happily to other people's needs. But in the end, they lived a life better than the average materialistically and spiritually.

            When I took English classes many years ago, our American teacher explained the word “sophisticated” to us, saying, “In comparison to the peasants who lived in the same villages one generation after another, you are all sophisticated.” It makes more sense if we replace the word “sophisticated” with “complex”. We all live a more and more complex life. The life has become so complex that our minds have to work continuously. To rest is either buried into a fifty page newspaper or emerged into the images and information of TV or Internet. Only after retirement, we realized that thoughtless awareness or serenity is almost impossible to achieve.

            In the last twenty years or so, the life of Chinese peasants improved significantly. Every time I went home, my Mother expressed her satisfaction with life nonstop. But the words were more or less the same: how lucky I am to have such nice later years and not have to worry about how to fill up my stomach and how to clothe my body. In fact, my family never ran out of food or clothes. Even in the famine years, it was easy to get substitute such as tree leaves and grass roots in the countryside. We never threw away any cloth material even after many decades, and it thus was equally easy to keep us warm. What my Mother referred to as worries concerning food and clothes were probably related more to the rough social environment during her first seventy years. The family was quiet and safe with enough supplies, but it was surrounded by an unsafe society in turmoil. There were many wars before the late 1940s but there were many so-called political movements afterwards. The dramatic steps taken by the Chinese leaders shortly after Mao's death in 1976 were critical for the prosperity of the later years, but it was not peaceful for those who went through them. Chinese society was relatively peaceful only for the last twenty years or so.

            The house I lived in as a child in the 1950s was all gone but remains in my memory.  We had a twelve room bungalow, three rooms situated on each side of a rectangular courtyard. There were several secretive places built in for hiding and many features of the house were designed to prevent invaders from getting in. My grandfather joined a local network to co-ordinate efforts to protect the community against bandits and robbers, who were numerous and powerful in those warring years. Grandmother often complained: it was those years building this complex house that tired her into chronic bronchitis for life. Chinese peasants use the same word for tiredness and chronic lung disorder, since they both make one short of breath.

            Both my Mother's and father's families were relatively better off than the average but their prosperity was really nothing in comparison to today's rich people. In 1993, I met one of my cousins on the way home. He said, “Wow, nowadays rich people are much larger and richer than the landlords and the capitalists we have confiscated and suppressed.” That's only a few years after the new policy was in place. The rich people my cousin referred to had only twenty or thirty thousand Chinese dollars, equal to some three or four thousands in Canadian dollars. But they are richer than the landlords who might have been executed for their possessions.

            My village has a fair every five days for peasants to sell and buy their farm produce. When I was in the elementary school, my Mother once suggested to me that I should go to the fair and look for dropped watermelon and sunflower seeds. She said, the children of her parents' home often did so and brought home handfuls of seeds to share with the whole family. I never tried as my Mother suggested. Those poor peasants might be reluctant to pick up one or two seeds, but they will certainly bend over to pick them up if they drop a few. I might have had to fix my eyes on others' heels for days to get a handful of seeds.

            Both my Mother's and father's families had, however, their property confiscated during the political movement of the Land Reform. The slogan to guide this campaign was: “sweep them out of their houses like rubbish.” One day our courtyard was full of people carrying everything away. As Children had no toys in those years, I remember colourful objects that appealed to a child's eyes being taken away by young peasants. For days, we had nothing left except the clothes on our bodies. I followed my sister who was a few years older than me to beg for food door by door. We stood under the window, and begging, “Granny, Granny, be kind enough to share with the hunger people a mouthful of solid food.” The solid food we got was nothing but steamed corn pastry, a mouthful a door if we were lucky. My father was in prison. My family, headed by the only two adult women, my Mother and Grandmother, gathered together to share a meal, each picking up a mouthful of solid food we had begged. We all stood in the dark room, since we had no light and no chairs. Grandmother and Mother suddenly had a great idea. They have dragged away everything except a huge jar of pickling turnips that they couldn't move so they sealed it. We stole some out to everybody. The next day Grandmother and Mother asked one of my grown-up cousins, who happened to be poor, to come and have a look at the jar and told him: I accidentally broke the seal while playing around there. So much salt was put in that it tasted exactly like salt itself. Such awful food was out the table of Chinese people some twenty years ago.

            One characteristic of those political movements led by the Chinese Communist Party was that they always overdid it first and corrected the overdone parts later. The confiscation of my family's property was deemed to be a mistake. They returned most of the seized properties back to us. Years later, I read Mao's article, titled How to Classify Different Classes. It was the guidelines for the Land Reform. According to Mao's criteria, which was based on how much land and how many helping hands one family had, the confiscation of my family's property was indeed a mistake.

            A few days ago, former president Jimmy Carter said, “Obama should not take Hillary Clinton as his running partner to the presidency, and vice versa.” Thus the social division into two parts fighting against each other for whatever reason it may be, generates hatred that cannot be conciliated easily. Those Chinese Communist political movements all left such long lasting effects. The many villagers who classified my family as a class enemy returned us the property they took away but kept saying that we were the class enemy. They kept writing such letters to the schools I went to. It caused me serious trouble when I was in junior and senior high school. I had to keep my head low in front of other students. After I went to the University of Beijing, the teachers there had a much clearer mind. They treated such letters as pure nonsense.  The mentor of our medical school class, a dashing young man, was so open-minded that he shared some of those letters with me. I am sure that those villagers, if still alive today, hold the same view: our family was indeed part of the enemy class to the country and to the people because of our scanty possessions.


 (2) The Life My Grandmother Lived

            My Grandmother was born in 1884 and died in 1967. Grandmother and Mother lived together for more than 30 years since Mother married into the family in the 1930s. For some ten warring years, they were the only grownups in the family. Until the mid 1950s when modern commercialization spread to the Chinese countryside, Grandmother and Mother took charge of a broad array of so-called house chores: 1) keep and feed an ox, a pig, a dozen hens; 2) prepare the daily meals for the whole family, but they had to start with grinding the grains into flour; 3) prepare clothes for the whole family, but they had to start with spinning the cotton into thread. In addition, they had to keep the house tidy and clean. The above three categories of work were typical for all married women in the Chinese countryside.

            This was the traditional Chinese division between men and women: men's territory was outside the house, which, including the yard, was women's territory. Women had a lot of work to do but also had the power to make decisions. Men ate whatever women cooked for them and wore whatever women made for them. Only occasionally did women go into the farm field to feed the men when the urgent farm work did not allow them go back for lunch. Chinese traditions also asked women to obey their mother-in-law, though my Grandmother was not a bossy lady.

            Neither Grandmother nor Mother was born broad-minded but their personalities were quite different. In the mid 1930s, the government waged a national campaign to stop women's foot-binding. Although both Grandmother and Mother had bound feet, they showed quite different attitudes towards this campaign. My Mother joined the majority of the population who were fiercely against this campaign. They said, “Sun Yat-sen, what a man. Why don't you take better care of your own wife, and stop bothering other men's wives and daughters?” Grandmother applauded it immediately when she first heard the news, “What a great idea it is! Women can then go anywhere as men do.”

            Grandmother was a gifted woman, though she never had any education. She was born with a clear mind, and as a result, shed many more tears than Mother. Since girls were not allowed to go to school, Grandmother stood outside the school watching through the window when she was a girl. In this way, she mastered a few hundred Chinese characters. She became a self-taught calligrapher and artist who was much better than the average of nowadays' Chinese university graduates, though her works were mainly folk arts and the regular Chinese calligraphy. She once recited her poem to me, but I was too young to understand it. I only remember that the poem sounded so great and so elegant as if it had been written by a highly educated professional poet. It did not sound at all like a folk song.

            One might have expected that Grandmother would not get along with Mother. In fact, they worked together in a perfect harmony. They never quarrelled, and never complained against each other in front of children. In fact, they discussed very little before a decision was reached regarding what was the meal for today or who should do what. They went through extraordinary hardship together with the God-blessed serenity.

            During the warring years that ended in the late 1940s, my grandfather and father were often absent from home. My grandfather was in a big city hereby on business, and my father joined the anti-Japanese guerrilla force. In my father's case, Grandmother and Mother worried about his safety. Only two young men from our clan’s neighbourhood including my father joined the guerrilla. The other, my uncle, was shot countless times by a shower of bullets from an ambush when he came near home one night. During the warring years, Grandmother and Mother often took the children into hiding sometimes for days in the wilderness. They had to sleep in the open air and take care that the children would not reveal the hiding sites to the enemy.

            The so called Great Leap Forward in 1958 created many unendurable hardships for the peasants that would last for years. Every family had to share meals in a canteen, and it was regarded as an outdated tradition that every household cooked their own meals. Guided by this progressive ideology, cooking utensils were used to make steel. My father had a good reputation as the village physician, and he was able to bury a cauldron which evaded the local official inspection. Traditionally the Chinese cooked their family meals including steamed bread or corn pastry, steamed vegetables, and porridge altogether in this large cauldron. Well-to-do families could often prepare additional dishes by frying oil cooking. A headache in those years was that our cauldron had a hole. It was impossible to get a new one as too many had been melt to make steel. Grandmother and Mother had to seal it with pastry and the seal only lasted for one meal if they were lucky. It was often the case that the pastry seal was cracked by the fire, and porridge leaked out and put out the cooking fire. To make it worse, matches were hard to get, and the coal was difficult to set up burning. I often noticed the whole house and yard were shrouded by heavy smoke during lunch or supper hours.

            In her late years, Grandmother suffered from senile dementia due to her chronic bronchitis. She also broke her hip and managed to make her way only by crawling. Even so, she was not regarded as suffering too much as she also lost her clear mind.

            I often wonder what made Grandmother and Mother so submissive yet so serene as they played their roles so well. Nowadays, we have counselling everywhere but problems everywhere. Our suicide rates remain high. I cannot help thinking of their bound feet and what were the psychological effects on them after they went through so painful and so humiliating an experience in their pre-school or even in their toddler years. Maybe our civilized life on earth is like the foot-binding of Chinese women after all. According to Shakespeare, the whole human world is a stage, and we cry at birth because we drop onto this stage of fools. The foot-binding might have served as a rehearsal for this tragic drama of life. It was not surprising that the foot-binding custom was established during Song (960-1279), which was the most intelligent dynasty in Chinese history and was by far the most advanced country in the world but it was defeated repeatedly and eventually conquered by Mongolia. Historians cannot identify who started this custom or when. It was the people themselves who started this foot-binding from the grass root level. Neither intelligence nor rationality fits well into civilization in human history.


(3) Afterword: Traditional vs. Modern Lifestyle


Western culture had assimilated numerous traditional cultures before it assumed the dominant position in the world. When Western influence penetrated into China, it affected the cities first and affected the men first. Western culture entered into my family by transforming my grandfather from an ordinary young peasant into a city employee, and then a business man who lived entirely in a highly commercialized large port city, Tianjin. He returned home only after the Japanese invaded China as he thought it was safer to live in the countryside. My father moved into the city as a child to have his Western education. I consider the 1950s as the transition period when Chinese rural areas said goodbye to the traditional way of life that Chinese peasants had lived for thousands of years. Under communist rule, the education my generation had in the 1950s and 1960s was essentially Western except for the communist ideology which was only an hour or so per week. In conclusion, my mother and grandmother remained as the last two people in my family who lived their lives in the traditional way. My mother and grandmother were in their forties and seventies respectively when Chinese peasants started to live the modern life. They had no need to adapt to the new life, since my family buffered a safe haven for them. My mother and grandmother lived in a typical Chinese traditional lifestyle almost entirely in the primary society setting of family and relatives, and were seldom in contact with friends from outside the family circle. Modern life is almost entirely based in the secondary society, and family life exists as part of the panorama of social life on a vast horizon.           

In comparing their lives to ours, we wonder which is better, and which is more worth living? I would say modern life is more attractive to young people who are about to start their own life. For those who have lived the major part of their lives, the Chinese traditional life is more rewarding.

            As to one’s life achievement, both my mother and grandmother brought up several children, and supported their husbands and children as they moved smoothly into the new lifestyle. If we see this transition as the rocket that sent the first man to the moon, my mother and grandmother were the ground workers who made it possible. Historians like to talk about historical marks. If a Roman emperor expanded the empire’s territory by invading its neighbours, historians would say this emperor left a historical mark. If a Roman emperor did nothing particular except for the routines, the emperor was said to have left no marks. With such criteria, both my mother and grandmother left historical marks. They contributed to some extraordinary historical marks as one of the millions of people who made those marks possible. Their names would not be mentioned in Chinese history or world history, but their contribution was a major part of our family history.  To a historian, there is only one super tree exists in an entire mountain, and that is the one on the top even though thousands of trees cover the mountain forming the dense vegetation. In such a view, my mother’s and grandmother’s achievements are only meaningful to their family.

            The dimensions of life experience may be quite different for those who live in primary society and those who live in secondary society. My mother and grandmother, who lived in the primary society, regarded the world outside the family circle as foreign lands to them. If anything happened in those foreign lands that affected them, they simply adapted to those changes the same way as they adapted to climate changes. They never bothered to fully understand what happened to China during their lifetime. My grandmother had an artistic mind, and she saw the musing and aesthetic side of her life experience. During the Boxer rebellion in 1900, my grandfather bought a sifter for half price when the possessions of the local Catholic churches were put on sale. My grandfather had to pay a small fine soon after when foreign troops invaded Beijing to protect their interests in China. My grandmother always chuckled a little when she told the story to me, as she sensed a musing quality of those dramatic events, but she knew nothing about the Boxer rebellion and foreign invasion. Those Boxers showed altered states of mind, trance. My grandmother told me several times about those Boxers in trance. It was apparently peculiar to her. To my observation, both my mother’s and grandmother’s spiritual pursuit remained in the realm of serenity, and they never relied on mysticism or the experience of an altered state of mind. I think they lived their lives almost entirely in serenity, and they did not have much experience of uncertainty. The mystic pursuit or even altered state of mind is, in my opinion, related somewhat to life experience of uncertainty.

When my grandfather was dying, my mother and grandmother knelt down in front of the kitchen god, begging Heaven to allow them to donate some of their destined life years to my grandfather in order to help him to heal. Whether my grandfather would die or not was an uncertainty to them, but they called upon the emotional and psychological social bond with my grandfather itself to deal with this experience of uncertainty. When people stick together emotionally and psychologically, nothing including uncertainty will matter much to them. Considering the time they lived was one of the most tumultuous and uncertain periods in Chinese history with one war after another and one revolution after another, it was nothing short of a miracle that they lived their lives so serenely and so productively in their own world. With the knowledge and mind we have been brought up, we would have certainly fallen into deep depression or even committed suicide if we had been in their position. We live a life of our own choice while they lived the life they were born into. They made much fewer choices than we do today.

As to one's spiritual experience, they lived no doubt a much happier life than our modern men on average, though they might have laughed less and experienced fewer emotional ups and downs. My grandmother showed remarkable artistic talents that allowed her to spend some of her spare time more aesthetically. Although my grandmother often painted flowers and birds from life, she never painted anything to reflect her life, specifically like we would do if we were in her position. Both my mother and grandmother enjoyed watching Chinese traditional opera. Those operas, as were once criticized by the Communist government as being all about emperors, ministers, scholars, and ladies, did not relate to their life specifically. Chinese women often sat together and chatted for hours while each was doing her needlework to make clothes or shoes. As a child, I listened to their chat a lot. Their chat was always about family life in their neighbourhood, and they laughed a lot but much less than we do in similar situations. To be precise, they only smiled and chuckled. They never talked nonsense or said anything obviously untrue or against the moral standards. Again, their chat was like the opera they watched and the paintings my grandmother created. They were related to their life only in a highly spiritual and abstract way. In other words, they were parts of their serenity. If they had talked nonsense or anything to denounce the moral requirement put on them as a woman by the Chinese patriarchal society, we think it would have served them as a much desired spiritual experience of liberty. But they never did, and it was beyond any doubt that they did not have such a spiritual need in their serene minds.

In the book, A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy, I divide our life experience, physical and spiritual, into six levels, namely the biological, social, cultural, intellectual, spiritual, and cosmic levels. We are almost identical at the biological and cosmic levels whether we live in a primary or a secondary society. The remaining four levels harbour the difference, and the middle two levels, the cultural and intellectual levels, the most. I guess my mother and grandmother lived their lives physically close to the biological level and spiritually close to the cosmic level. They were born that way, and only with great efforts, we may be able to achieve their serenity today.

To look back at my life, I moved away from serenity to a business mind. When I was a child, we had only occasionally a dim lamp light for the whole family in the long winter evening when I just started to work as a physician in the 1970s. I used to sit along with other roommates on the balcony for hours in the early summer evening. We talked very little on those occasions. But today, I have to listen to radio or watch TV to go to sleep. It is no easy job to go back to serenity.  Apparently, we have lost the ability to stay quietly within ourselves by doing and thinking nothing.