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Manoa 15.2 (2003) 209-210
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Four Sisters of Hofei by Annping Chin. New York: Scribner, 2002. 310 pages, cloth $25.
Four Sisters of Hofei is both social history and family history. Yale historian Annping Chin meticulously documents the politics, art, and literature of twentieth-century China, primarily using the personal memoirs, oral and written, of four Chang sisters: Yuan-ho, Yun-ho, Chao-ho, and Ch'ung-ho.
Born into the comfortable traditions of Chinese gentry between 1907 and 1914, the sisters live through the three revolutions that produced Communist China. The early chapters of the book describe the old China and the forces that shaped the sisters' lives as children. The later chapters chronicle their adult lives, following them through periods of social upheaval.
Notable passages in the first half of the book include the description of their mother's elaborate dowry procession and wedding, ten years in the making; an intimate portrait of the girls' Buddhist grandaunt, Shih-hsiu, who adopted and raised Ch'ung-ho as her granddaughter; and the heart-rending account of the [End Page 209] death of their fifth sister as a baby, an event that tragically coincided with the death of their dearly loved mother.
It is the second half of the book, however, that contains the heart and soul. Dense with history and filled with humanity, this half devotes entire chapters to the sisters' colorful nurse nannies, to their scholarly father, Chang Wu-ling, and to each of them.
The pace accelerates with the chapter on Chang Wu-ling. Unlike his famous governor-general grandfather, Chang Shu-sheng, he was a shy, studious man. Like his grandfather, he stressed the importance of education. He hired the best tutors available to instruct his children in every subject from geometry to k'un-chü, an elegant form of Chinese opera that became an integral part of their lives. Chin cleverly uses techniques from k'un-chü when she tells the sisters' most significant stories.
An important part of the family portrait involves the kan-kan, nurse nannies, who probably held more sway over Chinese gentry than history records. They were peasant women who came to the Chang family as young widows. Daily life in the Chang household often played out like a Chinese version of Upstairs Downstairs. In front of the children, the nurse nannies showed restraint, but in private, they enjoyed "non-vegetarian" stories and songs. Among the most colorful of the nurse nannies were Wang Kan-kan, who had a language of her own, and the exuberant Big Sister Kuo, who was an entertainer and comedienne.
Yuan-ho, the eldest sister, fell in love with and married a gifted k'un-chü actor who was considered far beneath her in social status. Despite the social stigma and even the many difficulties created by the union, she remained loyal to him.
Tough and feisty, second sister Yun-ho preferred to play k'un-chü characters that best expressed her own temperament—extreme. Labeled a counterrevolutionary in 1952, she lost her job as an editor due to her status as a landlord. To protect herself from further political ramifications, she classified herself as an ordinary housewife.
Sister Chao-ho married a famous young writer, Shen Ts'ung-wen, who never realized his potential and became deeply discouraged. Intimate correspondence between them shows a couple at odds throughout a lifelong marriage.
Chin was inspired to write Four Sisters through her friendship with Ch'ung-ho, the youngest sister. The contemplative Ch'ung-ho wrote poetry and became an expert in the art of calligraphy and Chinese opera; she married German-born Hans Frankel and moved with him to America in 1949. Chin captures Ch'ung-ho poignantly in the final chapter.
A scholarly endeavor and a labor of love, Four Sisters of Hofei is a feast for the Sinophile, but a challenging read for the layman. Chin took on a monumental task when she attempted to render the lives of four women and three political revolutions against the backdrop of a tumultuous century. This is an important work and a...