Gao begins her story with her great-grandfather, a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) official and wealthy landowner who had a wife and two concubines.
“My grandfather had no claim to the family property because he was a son of a concubine,” Gao said. “It was his younger brother, Master Eight, my great-grandfather’s eighth child and his only legitimate son, that eventually took charge of the family.”
The Gao family was a large one. “I had 15 uncles, 10 aunts and lots of cousins. We all lived together once before,” she said. But when Master Eight died, the family succumbed to disputes over the estate. Relatives scrambled for pieces of property, furniture and anything else they could stake a claim to. Gao’s father ended up with a drugstore, an oil mill and the largest mansion.
Gao was six years old. “I was so little and lost, looking up and watching them greedily snatching things up left and right. In the chaos, I saw a beautiful flower-patterned basket. It was so lovely but nobody wanted it. So I took it home. My father later told me it was a ‘promotion basket’ that belonged to my great-grandfather. My great-grandfather would never have imagined that his descendants would destroy the property he worked so hard to accumulate during his life in a single day,” Gao said.
As the eldest daughter, Gao was deeply loved by her parents who had no preference for sons, a rarity in that era. She was first educated in the Chinese classics at a traditional private school. Her teacher wore his hair in a traditional Manchu queue, the official hairstyle of the Qing Dynasty.
At 10, she was sent to a Christian school founded by American missionaries.
“I still remembered the education there all revolved around the word ‘love.’ Teachers taught us to love people, be humble, patient and kind, and that we should overcome evil with goodness and never pay back evil with evil,” Gao said.
Gao later studied in a private school for girls in Xuzhou for four years, but her education was cut short by the Lugou Bridge Incident in July 1937, which marked the start of the Japanese invasion. Gao, then 17, was married off to the son of a landowning family surnamed Zhao.
In her book she describes how parents would arrange marriages, starting with a “preliminary test.” “But that didn’t involve meeting each other,” Gao said. “First, the parents would go to see whether the person was a suitable match for their child.”
Gao’s mother was the first to meet the young Zhao. The meeting was planned for the afternoon. Gao’s future husband, accompanied by the matchmaker, walked slowly down the street and passed the store where her mother was standing.
“My mom was so concerned about my marriage that she was extremely focused on what was happening. When my prospective husband appeared, my mom fixed her eyes on him and didn’t blink. She even wished time would stand still so she could drag him over and scrutinize him from head to toe. When the meeting was over, my mother described him to me in vivid detail, from his face and figure to the color of his outfit,” Gao said.
By the time the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, Gao was a mother of four. An educated woman, she became an elementary school teacher. It would be her lifetime career.
In 1955, when Gao was 35, her husband made a careless mistake while planting potatoes in their village commune. He fled from home.
“The reason he ran was simple - he was afraid of being punished,” Gao said. “He did not tell me any details of his plans to escape. When I returned home from school, the house was empty and blanketed with a thin layer of dust. After two weeks, I received a letter without a return address. The content was simple: ‘I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about my leaving in advance. Take care of yourself and the children and forget about me. I’ll be leaving for Xinjiang [Uygur Autonomous Region] a few days from now.’”
Alone, Gao struggled to feed and raise her children on a meager income. Her husband would return 16 years later, though he had started a new family in Xinjiang.
Gao also talks about the people who made lasting impressions on her life: the priests who gave local kids candy and toys and ran free field clinics to treat illnesses; the Japanese soldiers who occupied Gao’s old mansion; a distant cousin who was executed by the Kuomintang government for his Communist beliefs; the poor who used to treat scabies with gunpowder; and her younger brother, a Kuomintang officer who fled to Taiwan and waited 40 years to reunite with the family on the mainland.