My Great Grandfather
My sisters, brothers and I must have always known in the recesses of our minds that, like everyone else, we had ancestors. However, as our parents were practical and realistic individuals, anyhow they were too busy living in the present to expend time and energy to regale to us the purported glories of the women and men who preceded them. Since our grandparents died before we even became aware of their existence, none of us showed any curiosity as to who and what had taken place on the genealogical ladder.[I]
Our parents were Protestants and attended church services regularly, hence worshipping in the traditional manner, kneeling and knocking heads on the floor in front of ancestral images, or burning incense and paper money at their graves, was not a part of our festival activities.
Some time in the early 1980s, I ventured to chat with our father on his family origins as I pushed his wheelchair in the tranquil garden of their home in Honolulu. These are his words I jotted down at that time:
My ancestors lived in the Circular Deer Commandery (钜鹿郡) in Hebei and then settled in Henan. The name of our ancestral clan hall was Spring Sunshine Hall (春暉堂). [II] Some time during the 13th century CE, when barbarian tribes were fighting in Central China, my ancestors joined the great migration southward. They settled in Jiangsu along the Yangzi River.
My grandparents were the first generation to make their home in Nanjing.
Father’s grandfather was our great-grandfather, Wei Youfu (魏有福1850?-1903). “You-fu” literally means “in possession of good fortune”, so I have dubbed him “the Blessed Wei” in my writings. He is one of the individuals in history I would like to meet in the hereafter.
“The Blessed Wei” was born in the middle of the 19th century, probably around 1850, somewhere in the countryside on the south bank of the Yangzi River. He was a master craftsman, a weaver of high-end satin and brocade, luxurious silk merchandise, indeed. He was married with two sons at the time he moved to Nanjing.
The tale of how he brought his family into the city was related by my cousin, Xiao Jie (Wei Yunhe 魏蕴和 1936-2010) in 1996. I had taken my daughter Katharine to Nanjing to visit our relatives. It was a grey late November afternoon, cold and windy with drizzling rain, but somehow we decided to go sightseeing outdoors. My cousin, who had retired as Senior Landscape Engineer of Nanjing’s public parks a short time before, came to explain the sights. As we climbed the reconstructed Ming dynasty city wall and were standing right on top of the Eastern Glory Gate (東華門), Xiao Jie, who had been blessed with a long-living grandfather, Great Stone Bridge Grandfather, told us how our great-grandparents literally walked into Nanjing
Besides being smart and determined, apparently “the Blessed” Wei was also a strong man. From the stature and appearances of his male descendants, he must have been physically impressive, slightly under six feet or 180 centimetres tall, with wavy black hair and large eyes.
At the time of his moving into the city “the Blessed Wei” was probably in his mid or late 20s. A bamboo pole on his shoulders, a wicker or bamboo basket dangling from each end of the pole and a son snuggling in each basket, his wife ambling behind, “the Blessed” Wei walked into Nanjing through the Eastern Glory Gate of the city wall built during the Ming dynasty. This trip took place in the late 1870s, most likely before 1878, because his sons, our grandfather and Great Stone Bridge grandfather, were born in 1875 and 1877, respectively. Had the journey taken place later, the boys would have been older than three or four, and would have been too heavy to be carried in baskets hanging from a pole and would have walked instead.
Chances were that “Blessed” Wei was also carrying cash, at that time silver ingots, or even heavier copper coins on strings. From father’s 1935 essay cited below, it can be seen that his grandfather was to buy property as well as equipment and materials shortly after his arrival at Nanjing where he started a weaving enterprise with seven looms. I have no idea whether the cash represented his savings or from selling inherited properties.
In any case, Wei Youfu had been blessed indeed. At least he appeared to have had full control of his own life and made pivotal decisions which changed his and his descendants’ destiny. He was a skilled craftsman, and, albeit not on a major scale, an industrialist and businessman too, managing a cottage-scale home workshop of several looms and selling satin and brocade to support his growing family, who also constituted his labour force.
The following paragraph is what father wrote in 1935 on the importance of silk to Nanjing at the beginning of the 20th century and his family being a part of this economy of sericulture.[III]
Thirty years ago (c. 1900) Nanking (Nanjing) was an important silk centre. Buyers came from all parts of the country, including Tibet and Mongolia, to buy the silk, especially satin and brocade. There were about ten thousand looms and more than one hundred thousand people depended on these for their living. The business was carried on by families. Each family owned one or more looms. The men did the weaving, the women the spinning and cooking.[IV] The people in general were contented and the business was handed down from generation to generation. To one of these silk-weaving families I was born. My grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts all worked together and owned seven looms. Business was prosperous. Life was simple and we were happy. Being the first son of my generation, I was naturally a favourite, and in the natural course of events would certainly take up my father’s trade. But when I was three years old my father died of cholera, and the year following my grandfather passed away, leaving my uncle alone in charge of the family.
Wei Youfu’s eldest son, father’s father and our grandfather, died from cholera in 1902 when he was 27 and father was three. Wei Youfu died in 1903. From the perspective of satin and brocade production, at least half of the labour force was lost to the family. Great Stone Bridge Grandfather, a younger son who had not been expected to carry the main burden for the business, had a hard time. From what Daddy wrote, I believe it took Great Stone Bridge Grandfather almost twenty years to recover, and by then he had given up the weaving, turning into selling other weavers’ products instead. But, he was a visionary, in insisting on sending the younger generation, including Daddy, his sister, and all the cousins, to modern schools.
Subsequently, they entered careers in diplomacy and education, the latter through the next three generations.
[I] I only learned of my own father’s many achievements as a scientist, educator and diplomat when I started to write his biography at my mother’s behest.
[II] All the information is in the Book of History and published Wei clan records. The first man to assume the surname Wei was Biwan (畢萬) the Marquis of Wei in 661 BCE of the Spring and Autumn Period (742-481 BCE).
[III] Wall Call (February 1935), 14
[IV] It is interesting to note that traditionally silk weaving was gender specific since modern silk manufacturing is women’s work. “Cooking” here means boiling the silk cocoon to kill the worm inside, then to locate the lead of the single strand of silk and spin it into thread.