- Ink and Tears: Memory, Mourning, and Writing in the Yu Family by Rania Huntington
How do we remember our beloved dead? How are our remembrances shaped by the language, genres and practices at hand, even as, in changing times, these change and are changed by our very use of them? How do we find comfort and meaning in our endeavors to compile and transmit the textual, material [End Page 118] and ephemeral traces left by our loved ones? How do these efforts make us into mourners who may be one day in turn commemorated for this? Where is the proper focus of mourning, upon the mourner or the mourned? Who are the real and imagined audiences for remembrances?
This book explores such questions through a remarkable trove of texts produced by the Yu family and their kin by marriage, "generations of interrelated clans of the aspiring scholar official class and educated professional class, primarily in the Hangzhou and Suzhou area" (p. xviii), from the 1870s through the first half of the twentieth century, with focus on the period 1875–1897. Bracketing these generations are the renowned Yu Yue (1821–1907) and his equally renowned great-grandson, Yu Pingbo (1900–1990). Both men were among the most prominent scholars of their day. Yu Yue was known for his philological scholarship on the classics and his many protégés as head of Hangzhou's prestigious Gujing jingshe for over thirty years. His own examiner had been Zeng Guofan, a piece of whose calligraphy remains a Yu family heirloom. Educated in childhood by his great-grandfather, Yu Pingbo was the founding Redologist singled out in 1954 for criticism by Mao and rehabilitated in the 1970s. In addition to his scholarship and other writing in both classical and modern genres, Yu Pingbo took seriously his responsibility to carry on the family tradition of memory writing.
After what must have been years of painstaking archival research, visits to sites preserved and lost, and conversations with descendants who now carry on the family tradition by welcoming those who would transmit it, Huntington leads us on a masterfully curated tour of Yu family remembrances. Writings in many genres include poetry and lyrics, of course—rhymes matched and themes shared across generations, and also tici, diary entries, biji, letters and strange tales, in their many compilations and compendia. Inevitably, much of the subject matter of these texts becomes the memorial endeavor itself, writing about writing and about the preservation and transmission of writing, about compiling for publication the copious verse of those women who left a corpus, or retrieving scraps from others of the work of women who chose to burn it instead. We read too about material memorials, the family's retreats and abodes around West Lake, next to graves for bodies and graves for texts (spoiler alert: they rotted)—and even, famously, one for teeth, as well as photographs, and descriptions of dreams and of paintings of dreams. Ink and Tears is a trove in its own right of translated primary sources that address the same instances and anecdotes of family history—and especially women's lives—not just from a variety of perspectives but in a variety of genres and across a span of time. Huntington is at her best when she judiciously reads across genres, pointing to their limits, showing us where those limits stretch or burst, reminding us of the varying preoccupations and priorities of various actors in choosing what to say, how to say it, and especially, what not to say at all. [End Page 119]
The richness of all the texts and relationships captured in this book defies a simple summary, because the family's fame itself compelled the preservation, publication and sheer quantity of the texts and deeds described, including those showing heartfelt emotions both following and exceeding expectations for certain social roles and relationships, especially among in-laws and women's side kin. Mourning is above all about relationships, and so...