Remembering My Grandfather

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My grandparents in front of our house. Grandmother was holding me and Grandfather was holding my cousin.

My maternal grandfather, who has been posthumously recognized as one of the most important scientists in the 20th Century in China, took his own life 47 years ago today during the Cultural Revolution.  He was wrongly persecuted as a foreign spy and a “reactionary `bourgeois scholar”  because he studied in the US and in England. 

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Grandfather in the Suzhou Hospital where he had apprenticed since the age of 14. When I filmed the Chinese version of Who Do You Think You Are last year, I went on the same balcony where this photo was taken. The building was to be torn down soon.

In the months before he died, my grandfather was summoned daily into a windowless office in Shanghai Medical University to confess his crime.  The only person sent by the Party to interrogate him in that office was Yang, the deputy head of the Pharmacology Department, a “red” scientist.  My grandfather was the head of the department and was well loved and respected.  According to my mother, who also worked in the same department, Yang was an insecure and despicable person.  He was not only jealous of my grandfather’s accomplishments, he was also intimidated by his incorruptible character and integrity.  No one knew exactly what was said in that windowless room. I can only imagine the darkness that enveloped my grandfather’s mind in those final moments of his life.  After he died, Yang declared that my grandfather killed himself because he knew he was guilty.  The Cultural Revolution was an extreme time in China when people’s worst nature surfaced and flourished.  In the early years of the Cultural Revolution, countless innocent people committed suicide.

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I was too young to remember much about him.  My parents and grandmother didn’t talk to me about my grandfather during my childhood for fear that the memory of his “guilty” suicide could hinder my revolutionary future — the only kind of future that mattered then. But subconsciously, I must have been haunted by his sudden and premature death all those years.

When I left China for the US, my mother told me to only pack what was necessary and essential.  Along with soap, toothpaste and a couple of other “essentials” were all the photographs of my grandfather that were in the house and my Chairman Mao badge collection. It was curious why I felt the pictures of my grandfather and the badges of Mao were essential to my new life in the US.  Yet looking back, I see that those irreconcilable objects, in a strange way, represented the make up of my contradictory character. 

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My friend Anchee Min took this photo of me with my Mao badge collection in the late 1980s.

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Grandfather in Suzhou before he left for London in 1937

In 2006, there was a commemorative event in Shanghai to celebrate my grandfather’s 100th birthday.  Many of his former students and colleagues gathered to remember him — a talented, passionate and incorruptible person who loved and lived for science.  Many of them wanted to help my mother get closure and demanded that Yang tell where he had kept my grandfather’s diary, and what was said during those months of interrogation.  Unfortunately it never happened as Yang was already well into his 80s and suffered from senile dementia.

I will never know what finally pushed my grandfather off the cliff on that cold night of 1967.  It no longer matters.  At the event in 2006, I suddenly remembered the song Vincent — how I was gripped by it when I first heard it. I felt the song was sung for him, too.

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Grandfather in England

Now I understand

What you tried to say to me

And how you suffered for your sanity

And how you tried to set them free

They would not listen, they did not know how

Perhaps they’ll listen now

For they could not love you

But still your love was true

And when no hope was left in sight

On that starry, starry night

You took your life, as lovers often do

But I could’ve told you Vincent

This world was never meant for

One as beautiful as you

10 thoughts on “Remembering My Grandfather

  1. 我父亲对我的家教,最后凝结成两句话。第一句,是他们清华的校训:自强不息。第二句,就是:好死不如赖活着…他特别用了那个时代加以注释:“你看,那些要强清高的人,死了也就死了。那些赖活下来的人,才可能看到后来的日子。以后,可能好也可能不好。但如果你死了,就什么也看不见了。”他这种赖皮教育,支持我挺过了许多艰难困苦无依无靠的绝望日子。那个时代,很悲剧。但悲剧,也能成传家的家训😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂

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