Monday, 16 February 2015

The Monkey Queen: Researching a Family Secret for a Family Novel, by Tess Berry-Hart

This Thursday the great wheel of the Chinese zodiac will spin to welcome in the Year of the (Wooden) Ram; a year of calm, creativity and goodness (according to my online resources!)  The five elements of the Chinese calendar – Fire, Water, Wood, Metal and Earth – intersect with a zodiac animal only once every sixty years.  In an interesting coincidence, during the last days of the Year of the Wooden Ram in 1896 (Chinese New Year starts mid-February to our calendars), my grandmother Mimi was born in China, to English missionary parents in a small white church on the marshy banks of the Yangtze River. 

Mimi, centre, with her sisters "Sixth Precious" and "Seventh Precious"
When I was young, Mimi – we only ever called her Mimi rather than her birth name Alice Harriet - seemed incredibly old and exotic.  She always dressed in sky-blue or linden green silk, and her bright eyes radiated a Zen-like calm that impressed me even as a child.  She spoke and sang fluent Mandarin, her small bungalow by the sea was crammed full of Chinese paintings and manuscripts; her missionary father James had engaged himself in translating Chinese texts such as the Monkey King and the sayings of Confucius.  

As a four-year-old child she had escaped the Boxer Rebellion sweeping northern China in 1900 by sailing down the Yangtze on a raft with her family; they had avoided massacre by moving constantly between villages while many of their missionary colleagues were killed.  She had lived in Peking during the last years of the failing Qing dynasty; later when travelling to America during the war, her convoy was torpedoed by German submarines and her boat was the only one that survived.  She had lived and worked all over the world from Malaya to Carthage, Tokyo to Trinidad, New York to St Andrews; she had published books for children and magazines and been interviewed for radio and books.  

A title, erm, of its time ...
There was also a rumour in my family that despite being born to English parents she was actually herself partly Chinese, the product of a liaison between a half-Chinese servant and my great-grandmother; or perhaps my grandfather and a half-Chinese servant, or maybe an abandoned mixed-race child adopted by the missionaries.  This wasn’t as hard to verify as it sounds; despite the fact that she always wore a great deal of make-up to disguise a birth mark and a scar on her lip, she was so old by the time I knew her that her very gender seemed indeterminate, let alone her race.  The mystery was further deepened by vague references amongst diaries and letters of the time – of a “Chinese daughter” of James Ware, her father.  But nobody living really seemed to have any idea.  Had Mimi really been born mixed race, in an environment where it had to be kept strictly secret?

As an adult, I decided to research her life for a novel about a mixed-race girl born to a family of missionaries living in China during the turbulent last years of the nineteenth century.  Whether or not Mimi was truly mixed race, I decided that the idea was too good to pass up.  But first I had to discover the truth.  I read Mimi’s writings and interviews, scrolled through countless microfiches of missionary papers, scanned the Yale Divinity archive, checked through the (existing) website of the missionary society,  trawled through boxes of diaries, old China Dailies, and East Asia magazines.  The reality as you've probably guessed, was different to the myth, but no less interesting.  In Mimi’s own words:

“My father was walking one night towards a ferry where he hoped to catch a house-boat.  He had only an oil lantern, but when he heard a child crying he went to find it lying in a ditch.  When he picked it up its feet dropped off.  He put a blanket around the child although he feared that it would die.  It survived, however, and was adopted into our family.  Her feet had been bound, and because of the unusually cold weather they had frozen and come off.  She had therefore been taken some distance from the village and thrown into a ditch.  As a child she had cried so much from the pain [of her bound feet] that her parents said she had a devil and wished to be rid of her.  Esther, we named her, and she became headmistress of the Ware Memorial School in Shanghai, and got about far better on her artificial legs than her sisters did on their bound feet.”

So there you have it – the Chinese daughter of James Ware was a real and actual person, though not actually my grandmother – and none of my family living had ever heard of her!  After a bit more fishing around I found a picture of Esther (God bless Ancestry!) and a whole string of Australian second cousins related to my great-great-aunt Rosa who eagerly supplied me with more information.

Esther Lo Ware, circa 1929, Shanghai
 What became of Esther through the tumultuous years of the Revolution is not clear; she remained headmistress of the Ware Memorial School until her adoptive sisters were forced to leave China, and her last letter in 1949 is dark: “I have established a school in memory of Father to carry on his work to help the Chinese people.  I have been elected as the head of the district that I live in.  But all around me there is war and famine everywhere which shows that Jesus is coming soon ...” 

Reading Mimi’s early memoirs painted a stunningly vivid picture of life at the time.  She wrote of floods along the Yangtze where the “farmers who had lost everything made nests of mud and dried grass on higher ground and lived in them like rats.”  She described being “terrified by the troops of children with matted hair and filthy rags who were hustled along by rascals who had found or stolen them.  At best they would be sold as household slaves.”  And in one particularly affecting piece:

 “At the entrance of an alley near our school ragged country-folk used to gather to beg food from the throngs in the adjoining market.  There we children saw one day a man in an attitude of exhaustion.  His head was on his knees, and around his neck was a placard offering for sale his three children, who, poor little things, totally unaware of their fate, were playing with stones in the dust at his feet.”

So currently I’m writing The Monkey Queen - a heavily fictionalised story of travelling missionaries during the Boxer Rebellion and based on the family of five children; the mission station and father James; their servants Li Peng and Chi Gang; Esther is a real character, and the circumstances of her foot-binding and rescue remain.  Mimi was the fifth child of the family, and was referred to as “Wu-Pao,” or “Fifth Precious,” and her other siblings are the three rescued children of the Shanghai market and Esther.  The title is a reference to the classic Chinese myth of the Monkey King, in which the Monkey King is born of a stone and yet becomes king of the monkeys before his help is enlisted to travel to India to bring back the holy sutras; passages from my great-grandfather's translation of the myth are woven throughout.  It also references the derogatory way in which mixed-race children were seen by Europeans.  In the novel Mimi is truly mixed race, though the how and why remain a mystery until the final pages ...

... Final pages that I have still to write!

Writing about one’s own family and the borders between reality and fantasy is fascinating, but truly hard.  At what point will I have to abandon the truth for literary security? The story does not seek to glamorise or make heroes of the missionaries; I am not a Christian, nor do I approve of imposition of faith on people, though the humanitarian good done by many missionaries in times of famine, war or to improve the lot of women is hard to dispute.  There are plenty of books and articles written dissecting the harm done by the Opium Wars, the encroachment of foreign powers, railways and missionaries on Chinese soil; of the famines, wars, loss of traditional livelihoods and disaffections that fuelled the Boxer Rebellion.  The magic rituals that the Boxers followed were no less devout than the faith of the missionary; the Boxers were seen as the terrorists of their time though in their eyes they were fighting for their very existence.  All these themes weave themselves through the novel which is told from multiple viewpoints; the Christian missionary, the Chinese servant, the disaffected Boxer recruit, the shameful mixed-race child ...

Now the mystery of my "Chinese grandmother" is solved, it's time to create the story for myself.

 I only wish she was alive to read it. 


Mystica said...

This sounds like a mystery/adventure/memoir read which sounds fascinating!

Tess Berry-Hart said...

Thanks Mystica - I'm still in the middle of it but all the investigating I've done so far has been fascinating!

Pippa Goodhart said...

Fascinating and moving! I look forward to reading the finished story.

Joan Lennon said...

Absolutely HAVE to read this - good luck with finishing!

Sue Purkiss said...

Absolutely fascinating - how lovely to have such interesting forbears!