China: My Father’s Village
TODAY, Vol. 1
Tokyo – July 1980
An old black and white photograph of my grandmother, which was being eaten away by holes, hung prominently in a large, dark wood frame, on a white brick wall – as though she were the guardian of the household – in the house my father was born in. Those who live in the house now are not close relatives. I could feel her presence as I looked up at her face retouched with black lines that accentuated her features, and wondered aloud why my grandmother’s portrait was still hanging there. My guide translated the immediate response, words spoken without a moment of hesitation or doubt: “We always thought Yun Gee would return to China some day.” (They did not know that he had died in 1963.) “We kept it here for him.” China. Yes, China is eternally China, I thought.
I was traveling around China on a tour as one of 17 Americans in the arts, but on this 16th day of the trip – on my own, in the Gee Village in K’ai P’ing County – when I heard these words, I knew that I was really in China. China: the other side of the world for me. China: my father’s home.
“Why don’t you come to China with us in January, Li-lan?” It was Dorothy Lichtenstein on the phone, speaking quickly, her deep voice breathless and full of excitement.
“Oh, no, I can’t do that, Dorothy. I’ll be in Tokyo until January 10th.”
“January 10th? Why that’s the day we are flying from Japan to China. How can you not come? Perhaps it’s your destiny.” I rejected the idea offhand. But Dorothy’s enthusiasm was infectious. Was it indeed my destiny to go to China at that moment? I had been in Japan many times over the past 12 years, but had never been to China, or anywhere else in the East. I had always wanted to go, and for years knew that someday I would go, but somehow I never felt that the time was right. Was this then the right time? Also, I had always shied away from traveling with a group, but this tour was composed of people in the arts, and the focus was on art. I knew that I would be traveling not only with Dorothy Lichtenstein, but also the artist Sol Lewitt, the feminist art critic Lucy Lippard, and other interesting personalities.
I worked myself up into an intense state of agitation and confusion that was relieved by a return call to Dorothy half an hour later on that decisive night, November the 13th.
“Dorothy? I’ll go with you to China.”
In less than two months I would be in China. Images of China sketched themselves on my mind and I oscillated between experiencing great bursts of excitement and feeling moments of a numbing intimidation. China was in my blood, yet I knew almost nothing of that vast and awesome country.
My childhood relationship with China had been complex – I felt a great sense of pride in that great, distant culture; at the same time I suffered an acute embarrassment at being half Chinese in the white American society that I was brought up in. How many tears were shed when other children poked fun at dark, slanty eyes? Those tears stopped as I grew older and began to have a sense of self strong enough to take unjust racial slights. Those tears stopped forever as I became deeply attracted to, and gravitated towards, the East.
I could not imagine how I would feel on my first trip to China any more than I could imagine what it would be like to be in Beijing, to be in Shanghai. But those far, unknown cities would soon be a reality and no longer a dream. Just as a new life on my own was day by day becoming the reality it was. China, a part of myself, would be a discovery. Perhaps Dorothy was right and at that moment, China was my destiny.
It had never occurred to me that I would one day visit my father’s home in China. Yet, now that I was actually going, I wondered if it were indeed possible. But how would I ever find it? I wrote to my aunt – my father’s sister, whom I have never met – in Vancouver. She answered that there weren’t any close relatives left in China, but that my grandparents’ house was still there. She wrote, “Just look for the Gee Village in Kwangtung, China” and on a torn piece of yellow paper she sent me the name of the village in Chinese characters. It seemed impossible to me that I could find the tiny Gee Village, where the Gees have lived since antiquity, in a land as vast as China, with so little information. Or the house my father, Yun Gee, left in 1921 to go to America. In my aunt’s letter she had said that if I liked anything in the house belonging to our family, I could ask for it. How unlikely, how far-fetched, that seemed to me. I thought of all the changes China had been through in the past 60 years. But I imagined that, for her, China remained China.
The dust hung heavily, silently, in the air. I strained to see, but could not, as though layers of fine gauze veiled my eyes. Black silhouettes moved effortlessly through the air of dust, in the cool winter sun. Figures on bicycles, jangling their bells, were riding by – streams and streams of bicyclists – appearing and disappearing in the bitter cold, in the haze of dust. Waking up in Beijing that first morning was like waking up in a dream.
We were whisked out of the Chien Men Hotel early, in the morning haze, as if still in a dream. In that one day we were rushed through the Temple of Heaven, Antique Row, Tien An Men Square, the Forbidden City, the China Art Gallery, and the Friendship Store. In the evening we went to the Beijing Opera. Good food and companions helped dispel the dreamlike quality.
Each one of our three days in Beijing was like that: there was too much to do in too short a time, and too much to take in all at once. I was dizzy with the spaces that those great artifacts of an ancient civilization created within me.
I had fallen in love with China. I felt completely comfortable there. Walking down the streets among the Chinese for the first time seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
And from the first moment, I really liked the people. My first impression – and a lasting one – of the Chinese, was that they are deeply rooted within themselves and possess a healthy self-confidence, a sureness. Everywhere in China I found them to be good-natured and responsive. And extremely direct. They did not show any embarrassment or awkwardness in front of foreigners as Japanese often will. They were polite, but not overly polite or deferential – they were simply themselves. They laughed full hearty laughs. And we all enjoyed many a laugh together. The Chinese have a wonderful sense of humor that they are always ready to share.
The haze of dust did lift in Beijing and the city became more vividly etched in front of my eyes, and in my mind. As the desolate nature around Beijing is vast and overwhelming, so the architecture and city itself were built on a monumental, grand scale that is awesome. Huge old palaces and temples, with splendid roofs that curve with elegance and grace, stand solidly in broad open spaces in that majestic city of wide open boulevards.
On Monday morning, January 14th, we ate an early breakfast at the new Beijing International airport, especially so that we could see the recent murals there. In a large colorful wall painting, “Water Sprinkling Festival: In Praise of Life,” there is a bathing scene with several nude figures. Not quite what one would expect to find in an austere public building in Beijing.
And we flew on to Shanghai.
Shanghai was warmer and sunnier. And more colorful – gay patterns and dusty pinks were worn alongside the darker, sober colors of standard dress in China. Our group seemed to like the liveliness and bustle of Shanghai, as they did our anachronistic, elegant hotel, the Jing Jiang, formerly a French mansion. (“It has the feel of fading imperialism,” said Dorothy.)
In Shanghai, as each of us wandered around alone, or in small groups, we could get a sense of the people and a feel for the city. We all found the Old Chinese City, with its labyrinthine maze of cobblestone streets and colorful, active stores, particularly wonderful. But our two young Chinese guides could not understand our American fascination with that old quarter, (as one guide said to me, “You Americans are always interested in our water buffalo and pigs in baskets, but we are interested in highways, and in the new, the modern”.)
We were also able to get a glimpse of the way in which China functions today as a society – in the way of life for the average citizen: we visited a truly impressive commune, factories (all the Americans especially loved the toy factory), residential workers’ housing, a kindergarten, and the Worker’s Cultural Palace (where workers go in the leisure time for entertainment, study, and to pursue cultural activities: music, art.)
Everywhere we went in China people were eager to share their experiences with us: young and old, artists, workers, retired people. It was a world apart from the strife of individualistic America. I was gaining a new sense of communality, cooperativeness, and social cohesiveness. Many times, in many ways, the Chinese kept saying that their country is still poor, but I came to feel it is rich in human dignity and high public morale.
Each one of our organized visits in China began with a briefing session (introduction, questions and answers) and tea. Universally, we were quoted Mao’s “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools contend.” In a lively discussion at the Beijing Art Institute one of the teachers laughingly declared that not only should a hundred bloom, but a thousand, and ten thousand, and tens of thousands of flowers should bloom. And added, “In China we are quite ready to learn from culture from anywhere and everywhere.”
Everywhere too, the Chinese we spoke with – artists, University faculty, guides – eagerly expressed a strong desire for exposure to, and interaction with, other cultures. Some spoke of arranging exhibitions of Contemporary American art for China. Our tour guide, Gu, intently read the books and magazines we had brought along to give to our hosts. Almost everyone we met criticized, sometimes bitterly, the Cultural Revolution and told individual tales of hardship and difficulties during those years. They said that during that time they dared not speak out, except to close friends.
One woman, a composer of popular music and a conductor of a classical symphonic orchestra in Beijing, told me that she was sent to a commune to work as a cook and could not write her music for ten years. Now, at 35, she has a passionate desire to devote herself entirely to the study of music to make up for lost time and skill. One guide complained to me that he was a foreign language student, but could not learn English on the commune where he was sent to harvest rice. Another guide wanted to study medicine, but was assigned to study English and work for the travel service. So the stories of repression and liberation went on . . .
On a visit to Tsinghua University in Beijing, we were told that the libraries, now so full, were practically empty during the Cultural Revolution. No one dared to use them. They suggested we read William Hinton’s Hundred Day War: The Cultural Revolution at Tsinghua Universityfor a better understanding of those bleak days.
The ins and outs of Chinese politics were and still are confusing for us. Members of our group asked people we met if there could be another period like the Cultural Revolution in China. No, they felt; there couldn’t. One guide said, “It can never happen again. The Chinese people won’t allow it.”
We took an evening train from Shanghai to Hangchow. The next morning, waking up in the hotel on Hsu hu (the West Lake) was like being transposed into a Chinese painting: clusters of hills softly framed the tranquil lake, mist hung in patches on still water, boats and canoes – dark silhouettes in haze – lazily drifted by; bridges and pavilions landscaped with trees and rocks typically arranged to offer perspectives for viewing the scenery. And I loved the names of the sites we visited: Lotus in the Breeze at the Crooked Courtyard . . . Viewing Fish at Flower Harbor . . . Three Pools that Mirror the Moon . . . Monastery of the Soul’s Retreat. . . .
In the next city, Guilin, we saw those spectacular mountains with their oddly shaped, jutting peaks that have long been memorialized in Chinese painting and poetry. We climbed to the top of several steep hills, and took an enchanting boat trip down the winding Li river – so shallow at that time of year that we did not know if there would be a trip or not – past strange and beautiful rock formations.
The day before we were to leave Guilin it began to rain. We went sightseeing in the rain, and into caves in the rain, but we could not fly out of Guilin: planes were rained in, or rained out. Those extraordinary mountain peaks of Guilin became like jail bars – we felt trapped, nervous, and time that sped by too quickly began to drag slowly. For how long would we be delayed? It depended on the rain. We were scheduled for only one day in Kwangchow (Canton) before leaving China. I was especially upset as I knew if we had no time in Canton I would not be able to make that very meaningful pilgrimage: the trip to that little village in Southern China, somewhere in Kwangtung – the Gee Village, my father’s birthplace.
When we got off the plane in Canton, we threw our arms up in the air with joy, and pulled off the last of our bulky winter garments. The layers of clothes we wore in winter in China became fewer as we made our way South. The rain was behind . . . Canton was warm, bright and sunny.
A young man, Ma Nen-ching, rushed over to meet me at the airport, “Are you the one who wants to visit your father’s village?” The China Travel Service had not been able to locate the Gee Village, but Ma told me that it was in K’ai Pin County and that I could go there and search for it. Ma would be my guide – he came from the neighboring Taishan County and could speak the local K’ai P’ing dialect that not even the Cantonese could understand.
“But we have no time. We are late because of the delay in Guilin. You cannot go to the hotel. We have to start right now. This moment.” Dorothy, Judy and I grabbed a few things from our suitcases, and ran after Ma. (Dorothy was going to come along, in part to photograph me for this article. Judy Tannenbaum wanted to come as she was writing an article on my father’s paintings for Arts magazine.)
A Chinese car, the Shanghai, picked us up to take us on our journey. First we were taken to a small bureaucratic office in Canton where Ma said we had to get visas to travel to K’ai P’ing County. It was still an unopened part of China.
We filled out forms. The officials kept peering over suspiciously at Dorothy, Judy, and me, while they questioned Ma. The haggling turned into heated discussion accompanied with noisy outbursts as the officials and Ma yelled at one another. I grew apprehensive. Would I be allowed to go?
The local officials absolutely refused to give visas to Dorothy and Judy, as they had no relatives in K’ai P’ing. They would need permission from Beijing. I – as an overseas Chinese with relatives to visit (whose names, if they asked, I couldn’t tell) – was given a visa.
Dorothy and Judy were disappointed. Ma, who had tried his best for us, was apologetic. I felt sorry that my friends could not come with me, but I was relieved that I could go. And I was anxious to set out. I realized later that it was important for me to have gone on this journey alone.
We sped away into the night. I felt absolutely safe with Lin, the driver, and Ma. I was going on a wonderful adventure.
We drove four hours on a dark country road, crossing two rivers on ferries. (The ferries are free and run all night. Truck drivers watched me with curiosity.) Ma and I talked for the entire four hours. No longer one inquisitive tourist, and one guide representing his nation, we were simply two people on a long ride having a conversation. Ma had an innate sweetness and sensitivity, and I came to understand his world through his eyes. He asked me a lot about mine.
We arrived in K’ai P’ing County Center, 135 kilometers to the Southwest of Canton, at 11 PM. Ma said that we would spend the night there and set out early in the morning to look for the Gee Village. There were no hotels for tourists. We stayed in a hotel that accommodated both Overseas and local Chinese. I slept in a small, dingy, dimly lit room that was absolutely sparse. As was the rule in all hotels I stayed in, there were no locks on the doors or keys. There was a bathroom, but no hot water. I had one double bed in my room covered with a mosquito net, but noticed that other rooms were jammed full of cots for workers and drivers.
We left K’ai P’ing at 8 in the morning. Now there was one more person in the car, Ho, a local guide for Overseas Chinese. Ma had made friends with him over breakfast and he offered to show us the way to the Gee Village. Such good luck left me a bit unnerved.
We drove on narrow dirt roads through rice fields and farmlands of soft yellow and gentle browns. The main crops are rice and sugar cane. Bananas, peanuts, bok choy, Chinese beans are also grown, and fishponds are farmed by production teams.
“Yes, his house is over there . . .” the man said pointing the way for us. Lin had stopped the car and Ho asked a young man standing by the fields if he knew of an artist born near here who left China in 1921. Yes, he said, he did. I didn’t believe him.
It was absurd, I thought, to expect the first person we asked to know who my father was. Especially a young man, who wasn’t even alive in the twenties.
We drove past water buffalo standing calmly by an irrigation stream and stopped in front of a large, gray brick house on the outer edge of the tiny village. An ancient woman sat motionless. Ho, Lin and Ma all tried asking her, in their loudest voices, for Guong On Gee’s (my grandfather’s) home. But she could not hear.
“Quong On Gee?” Someone had appeared and escorted us into that gray brick house we were standing in front of. I was more skeptical than ever. We could not have found the house this quickly or this easily . . . It had been less than an hour.
It was my grandfather’s home! This was my father’s birthplace. The house was suddenly full of people. I didn’t know who they were, or where they came from. They pointed to a photograph in a large, dark wood frame, on a white brick wall and told me it was my grandmother. I knew that it was really true when I saw a small photograph of my father hanging on an opposite wall. “Yes! That’s my father!” I cried out. Ma, out of breath from rapidly translating back and forth, seemed every bit as excited as I was.
Someone brought me tea. Someone took my grandmother’s portrait off the wall, and out of the frame, and gave it to me. Someone else showed me another photograph of my father painting (he must have sent both of the photographs from New York). Everyone was talking all at once. It was dizzying.
I learned that the Gee Village was now comprised of three villages, mine being the main one, with a population of 1,200. Originally there was only one village, of 100, and everyone had the same roots. They said that my great, great grandfather owned the village. I’m not sure what they meant by this, but his house was certainly the best one in this poor village: a well constructed three story brick building, it stood taller than any of the others, and had a balcony on the second floor.
They said that the family of the son of my great-great-grandfather now lived in the house (he was away at work, but I met his very friendly, outgoing wife, and four children). They showed me around their well cared for home, bringing me into each one of the rooms, with pride.
I tried to imagine my father growing up in this very house, probably not much different then from now. He had always spoken of China, and his home, with nostalgia and love. He would tell me about fragrant fruit trees in bloom . . . What would it be like to grow up here? Dirty New York streets had been my playground, and Washington Square Park my only green.
My father was a legend! Yun Gee – a Gee – the artist, was respected and admired. They remembered that in 1931 he had sent money home to China, to aid the flood victims. He had raised the money by selling a painting in New York.
We walked down several narrow streets, lined with small brick houses with peak roofs, to the other end of the village, and stopped before my father’s primary school. We were a procession. People had come from nowhere, or from everywhere, and crowded around us. They had never seen a foreigner before. And they said I was the first person ever to take color photographs in the Gee Village. They chattered away excitedly about the legend of Yun Gee, and me, his daughter, the foreigner in their midst.
In all the tumult and confusion, it became difficult to talk to any one individual at a time. However, one woman tugged on my sleeve. She said that she was closer to me than the family in the house. Just what her relationship to me was, was never made quite clear, but my guide thought she was an aunt, the sister of my uncle’s wife. She started to cry and said the house should really be hers. When she married she left the Gee Village, and they assumed she had gone abroad . . .
One man remembered his friend, Yun Gee, very well. I could not believe that this tall, handsome man with strong, clear features was 72 years old. He was also an artist and recalled my father painting as a young boy. They drank wine together the night before my father was taken to the United States by my grandfather, 60 years ago, when this man was 13 and my father was 15 . . .
From the time I was two, until he died when I was twenty, I would visit my father in his studio on East Tenth Street. He lived alone. I stood in China surrounded by the Gee clan remembering the terrible isolation he lived in, on the other side of the world, in New York City. How he must have suffered. How alone he must have felt, so far from the feelings of family and kinship that were his in China.
Last October, exactly one month before I made the decision to go to China, the William Benton Museum in Connecticut held an exhibition of my father’s work (the show is now traveling to other museums in the United States.) It was the first time I had ever seen a body of his work hung together and this was a sensitive presentation. His art that had so long been neglected was beginning to emerge from obscurity and live a life of its own. To see this was a very special gift. I could not say much, but I was deeply touched. And now, as I stood in China, I wondered if his poetic, visionary paintings created in San Francisco, New York, and Paris would someday hang in his homeland.
“We must leave . . .” said Ma. It was time to make the five-hour trip back to Canton. My group would leave China the next day. It seemed the entire village was crowded around us. The two hours at the village had been so intense and full of emotion that I felt intoxicated. An old woman carrying a baby on her back told us she had a dream the night before. In her dream, someone would visit their village from abroad. I believed her. The trip had all the force of an unremembered dream come true.
It is now five weeks since I left China, three since I have been back from Japan. When I returned to East Hampton, I found a letter from my aunt in China waiting for me. She is expecting my next visit, waiting for my next visit to the Gee Village. I am sure that someday I will go.
In China I discovered a vital part of my heritage, a vital part of myself. In my father’s birthplace – his spiritual home as an artist and a man – the child in me, with all the pain and elation of discovery, was awakened. I recognized that the distance I felt from China had detracted from the knowledge of who I am. Now I have come to feel the desire to come out of hiding and face myself in all areas with the awakened sense of an enriched cultural heritage. Perhaps that awakening will knit the fragments within me.
It is now three months into 1980. I continue my life as usual – painting in the quiet of my studio, letting the work integrate the vivid energies flowing in my experience of China and Japan.