Grandma’s handbook

Translator’s note

information about the author is probably redundant since this is a self-biography. But here’s some background information. This is written by Lee Guang-Show (李光秀, 1912-2001), my grandma. She wrote this in her eighties. And from her writing I learned a lot about history from a small person’s perspective.


In 1912 I was born in a small house next to a Buddhist nunnery on the Baoan Gate (保安门) street of Wuchang city, and was named Hanying (汉英). My mother got seriously ill after my birth, and was skinny and had no breastmilk. She never recovered, so I am her only child.

My father Li Shijin (李士金), style name Yuxin (钰鑫), was from a poor peasant family with double digit siblings. Life was hardly affordable and he had to find a living in the army. the Shengguan ferry crossing (升官渡) is on the only way to the city. There was an old lady running a ferry there, and charged 2 copper cash per ride. And Father often could not spare the two cashes. The old lady was kind enough to ride my father for free. It was told that Father went back and gave her 20 strings of coins when he became an officer. Father was strong back then and became a soldier. In 1912 he joined the Xinhai Revolution and became an officer in Wu Yuanze (吴元泽) ‘s army. My father was one of the people that President Li Yuanhong awarded after victory, some others got discharged. He was assigned the duty for guarding the imperial gardens of Three Seas (三海) in Beijing (Beihai and Zhongnanhai). With little education and bad advisor, he wasn’t up to the job. He resigned after a year back when I was still in swaddling clothes and knew nothing. Mom said that when he departed for Beijing he went by boat. I was constantly crying for lack of milk and my third eldest uncle told her to throw me in the Dongting Lake. She often says fortunately she didn’t do it or she would be childless. After father got back from Beijing he went farming in Hanyang. He changed profession when he met his old coworker Wang Haizhou (王海洲) in the city, who was running a clothing factory.

My mom was a suburban vegetable famer. But she looked like an official wife. She had bound feet, open mind, gentle manner and a mild tone, never been angry. She did things carefully and quickly, and kept the house running efficiently. She was liked by everyone and was called a virtuous wife. When she taught servants to wash cloths she told them to wash the floating dust first and remove stains with soap. Then scrub vigorously so the cloths would be nice and clean. On cooking she could do many dishes. I saw her making fish balls white and soft. She said one must do everything by oneself, there are things one won’t understand without practicing. Nothing can’t be learned if willing. When our neighbors were having newborns, she would prepare a gift of one kilogram of flour and one kilogram of sugar. This made her popular. Her good character, gentle image and caring for my father and her children often come to my mind. Her biggest pity was that she did not have her own son. She often talked to herself when sitting around. When I asked her that what was he talking about, she answered that I would understand after grown up. Later she adopted elder uncle’s son, and raised him as if he was her own.

After 1913 I spent the rest of my childhood in the country side. I like sun, so I got skin inflammations every year, as well as other small but consistent health problems. At age 6 I got a bad lung disease, almost did not survive it with the poor medical condition at that time. First coughing day and night then began spitting blood. Mom was very worried and ask everyone about medical prescriptions for lung disease. Later she heard that 7 pork lungs could be a cure so she got some for me. It was difficult to clean the pork lungs, it takes her a long time to wash it in a pond every time. Once she slipped and almost got drowned if someone wasn’t passing by. A few times she wanted to bind my feet, but once on the way to grandma, I was too hurt to walk and complained, Father felt sorry for me, pulled my foot-bandages off and thrown into the river. After that Father forbit mom to bind my feet. During the childhood, I experienced the hardship of famers’ life and their honest, kind heart, hardworking and simplicity attitude. I gained a lot of perspective from them.

Education and marriage

We returned to the city in 1920. The clothing factory director Wang Haizhou suggested to modify our local specialty straw sandals with ramie for the military. The shoe is comfortable for mountain climbing and walking long distance, and is very cheap to make. Although not very profitable but for military use, the volume makes even a 2 copper cash per pair gain significant. We did shoemaking for 2-3 years during the warring era. We lived in Wang’s home at the beginning, then switched to a pawned house on a Liujia Street in 1921. I was also studying in a nearby private school. The teacher, who gave me the school name Li Guangxiu, was hired by a landlord for his daughter’s education.

In 1923 we purchased a 400-square meter broken house on the Bapu street (八铺街) for 3000 strings of cash. We remodeled it into a mansion with two storefronts on the front side, a garden in the middle, a duplex and a terrace in the back. We could not really use all of the buildings and rent some out for living costs. Father was a benevolent person, giving food in the winter and tea in the summer, as well as doing volunteer work in a charity. Before every Chinese New Year he asked me to give nearby beggars some rice coupons, so I earned the “little nice one” reputation too. Because it was dark in the New Year’s Eve he bought candles to light the road. The bamboo candles could last for a whole night. On the new year, many relatives and friends would come , greet and go, including uncles, nephews and nieces. My father liked to party. Every time the hometown send dragon lights he welcomed them at home. The community liked my family. My father earned the first barrel of gold from straw sandals, thus nicknamed “Straw Sandal Li” (李草鞋). When father was doing charity full time, we were living on renting out the house, and could afford to do so because the family was small.

In 1922 my parents granted me permission to attend an elementary school affiliated to the Hubei Women’s Normal School (省立女师附小), after persuasion from the principalwho was the younger sister of one of our tenants. I attended the first grade the first year, then jumped to the third grade in the second year. Two years later I was admitted to the Hubei Women’s Normal School (湖北女子师范学校) as a public financed student with an allowance of 6 Yuan per month, until the northern expedition army reached Wuchang. Also in the same year, I was engaged to the son of a businessman Hu with factory director Wang’s arrangement. Hu was 12, small, good at calligraphy, can write couplet and plaque – need to stand on a box when writing on the counter. My poorly educated parents liked him because his family had two stores and could afford a decent living, and agreed an August wedding date. In the old times engagement was called exchanging astrological birth data. My family had a dinner of 8 tables and his family sent in 4 shoulder carriages and 4 gold ornaments (bracelet, earring, finger ring and necklace). Mom also bought many gifts in return. My parents agreed that the marriage was properly matched because his family had two stores and he was the only son, and only a year older than me. In the day that a girl was supposed to obey her parents’ order and follow the advice of matchmaker I submitted. Father had Hu’s writing decorated and hang them all over the place. I knew those were his writing but didn’t like other people talking about it. After engagement, I was studying in the boarding school, only return home once per week. Mom gave me 20 copper coins for allowance, I spent on nothing but school supplies. I cared about my grade not my food and cloth. The urban childhood lasted until the northern expedition army joined forces at Wuhan.

In 1926 Wuhan was under the attack from the North Expedition Army (北伐军). For 40 days, the gates of Wuchang was shutdown. A lot of people died of famine. His family had two stores, one Hu Huchang (胡福昌) was on the Garden Street (府院街), and the other Hu Shouchang (胡寿昌) was on the Arrow Street (弓箭街). Both in the city. When the gates reopened, Father send people to see them, and they were unscratched, but their goods were gone. Because his family was in the rice business, their family hid some rice to subsist, when soldiers came they had to surrender gold jewelries, and at the end became poor. Father asked him to came to study but he was stubborn. His grandma also said he was the only son, so won’t take shelter at the wife’s home. Father met him peddling instead of studying, so had to settle with getting him an apprenticeship. Because his mom was crying all day, he returned in a year and moved to be an unloader at his uncle’s shipping business. After the North Expedition War, Father suspended my study, and Mother taught me needlework. Mom often said “you got ten thousand and half is from sewing, if you don’t patch small ones, they will grow as big as one and half feet”, and “refurbished is just like new. be industrious and thrifty, you won’t be poor. “ During the school suspension Mom taught me a lot of things.

The Hu family borrowed 200 dollars for our wedding. Because he had 16 per month from his job at his uncle’s, and he had to support his parents as well as a sister, the money was only enough for the tip for the shoulder carriage people who carried me to their home. A few days after the wedding people came to collect debt such as the dinner and the rent of the shoulder carriage. I asked him to sell my goldarn jewelries to clear the debt. Afterwards we had 5 people living on his 16/month wage, and the life became hard.

I was happy that Mingxi (民玺) was born in 1932. But there were many traditions in the feudal society such as the father should be barred from the birthplace. His mother and sister slept on the floor to accompany me. One day he entered and I asked him “See your son? He hasn’t peed in 2 days, can you check?” The kid peed when on his hand and he smiled. He had to leave because he did not want his mother to know his visit, he was a dutiful son, he should not be there when she doesn’t allow him. When the kid was 2, his parent had problem with bills. I have a house among my dowries on the Wanghui Street. His father planned to leave his uncle to open an independent shipping business but lack startup funds. Father could not resist helping him, pawned the house for 300 and made some tarpaulin to help him open a shipping business named “Yucai”. The business did not survive long due to his lack of confidence from little experience, and trusted the wrong friends. I determined to do something to get afloat, and asked Father for supporting my sewing study. I could help him by working, and once we get more children I had to return home for housekeeping. I had another child named Jifen (继芬) a couple months later. His sister left for marriage from our place with over 40 cloths in dowries, all made by myself. When Jifen was a little older than 1, I sent her to his grandma and started teaching at the Dragon God Temple (龙王庙), near present day Democracy Road (民主路), for a vocational school, I taught the literature subjects while two coworkers taught science subjects. The school had a ruined temple as the dormitory, and I lived there with Mingxi and sent him to kindergarten. Sometimes I was afraid to open the door when coworkers went to Hankou to see movies and return late in the night. Later we rent a house nearby, and Jilin (继林) was born there. Because the Sino-Japanese war broke out, I sought asylum from my hometown Hanyang with Jilin, and part ways with his parents who then had to make a living by themselves. The family was broken apart.


The year was 1939. The Japanese arrived Wuhan, and we went back to Wuchang. Hu Guangrong (胡光荣) found a job taking care of the venders at the Huatian food market (花天菜场), living on their contributions. But the job had a “swords of Damocles” hanging over his head. Often some venders would disappear without trace after conflicts with some Japanese. We were so scared each time we heard this kind of news that he returned to his uncle’s business to be an unloader and I returned to teaching in Hankou. Jifen went with him, but she was too small to walk fast, and had a boil on the belly that almost cost her life. Finally, I carried her to one of my father’s friend who used to be a medical officer in the army. He gave me some medicine and told me that if the medicine turn out to be ineffective, send her to the Wukou sanitarium (吴口疗养院), now on the Three Buddha Pavilion Street (三佛阁街), for X Ray and doctor there could tell me how to cure her. We tried the medicine that day and she was not getting better, so had to go there for X Ray. The doctor said there was a boil in the belly and requires surgery. The price for X Ray was 5 dollars and surgery one. We didn’t have that much, and had to explain that to the doctor. The doctor was sympathetic for me and my daughter’s situation and waived the X Ray fee. Surgery began when I signed papers. She discharged a big tray of blood and pus during the operation. Shortly after the operation the daily air defense siren went off. I was afraid she would be noisy in the shelter so I went in a barber shop where I got a haircut for her while waiting the siren to end. After the siren, I saw corpse everywhere on the way back, and I was sad and angry. After getting home, I was worried about the safety of the daily trip to change the dressing. After 3 days she recovered a bit, and I asked the doctor to give me dressing so I could do the changing myself. The doctor agreed on six dime worth of dressing. A few days later the hospital was bombed and many patients were dead. Japanese’s sin. Jifen recovered gradually since then.

After the fall of Wuchang, the Bapu street house was among a refuge area surrounded by checkpoints, where pedestrians must bow to pass. The checkpoint at the Wutai Sluice Gate (武泰闸) also had a public notice about a tax for suburban peasants and traders who sell vegetables in the city. Having a personality of a revolution army man, Father was angry about the notice and was jailed by the Japanese military police for removing it. Misery loves company and got Mom too. My parents opened a two-person store for the living, and one day someone went in to buy cigar. After lighting up the match was thrown into a kerosene barrel. Mom was worried about the burning down refugee neighbors and risked her life to control the file by carrying the barrel to the street. The tea seller on the street poured tea on her but that was not enough to stop the file on the cloth, until I woke up in the back and had my cotton sheet soaked wet in the goldfish tank and put on her. She was badly burnt and I sent her to hospital. The puppet police came and arrested every man in the house without even questioning. After 8 pm nobody was released and I decided appeal to the police. Grandma did not agree with me because the child still need feeding and she worried that I might not return too. I went anyway. After a long wait, the police chief talked to me, saying that my family used cotton sheet soaked with kerosene to burn down the refugee area and face elimination. I rushed an explanation that nobody would start a fire then stay to burn herself, and I learned a cotton sheet soaked wet can be used to put out a fire from the primary school textbook. Hearing my explanation, the police checked the sheet and it was indeed wet with water and not oil, then told me sand would work too. Afterwards every arrested got released. but Father was still not back and Mother was in hospital, my husband and I had to kneel before the vigilante head to beg him help releasing Father from the Japanese. Father returned the next day, but seeing the situation, went down during dinner after returning from a purchase. The doctor first said he had a stroke, then said brain bleeding. He never regained consciousness and lasted only a few more years. Afterwards we lived on the little rent income, and returned to our country side residence where we built a little house for my in-law parents.

The Wuchang arsenal was bombed shortly before the Japanese surrender. The fire reached the sky when I was teaching in the Hongyi Lane 31st Elementory (红益巷31小)。 We did not sleep that night and gathered children together. My thinking was if we are bombed then die together. Next day we were going back to Hanyang, but only reached Guiyuan Temple (归元寺) in daytime. We took shelter in the kitchen of an old lady, who was kind enough to give me a cluster of straws. The kids were asking for food shortly after settling down, lucky enough He took abox of leftover meal. After finishing the food He said: “World is meaningless without you. Now a leftover meal is more important than what you were asking me to bring along.”

We settled down in Hu’s grandma’s cousin’s home in ErZhai [sic, should be Eryao] road, Hankou. We had a fourth child with an infant name Simao at that time. Jilin was in boarding in kindergarten. One day my poor energetic one got burnt badly on face, thigh, legs and hand by a child bride roommate with boiled water when playing. The doctor looked at the injury and said that had he arrive a few minutes later he would be beyond treatment. The hospital in Hankou was opened by the Americans, and the cost was very high, called “Five Blessings Hospital”. Even a bamboo bed was 1 dollar a night. The family hired a sitter for Simao as I needed to be at hospital with Jilin. More than a month and a hundred dollars later Jilin was still not fully recovered. Misery loves company and Hu Guangrong was arrested at workplace. He worked at his uncle’s shipping business that was involved in a pawn shop raid with an accusation of aiding guerrilla with new cloth (they are supposed to only have second hand cloth). More than 150 were arrested, and Hu Guangrong could walk free if he turned in his uncle. But he thought his uncle was too old for interrogation, besides he already had 3 sons, so it was better for him to go to jail instead. However, he was tortured and jailed in Xianning. When I visited him and send new cloth in, blood was all over on his old cloth. He was later transferred to Hankou and sentenced for 2 years in Hankou Court jail. My in-law parents lost income and had to live by congee at Wangfukou. Mingxi was between 7 and 8 years old at that time and was living with his grandpa. He grew a boil on his head and grandpa wanted to send him to doctors. I said it would come off by itself, and grandpa insisted to go to a hospital for surgery. The doctor at hospital was not very good, he removed all the boils at once, making the recovery took 2 years and left a scar. That was the result of elders’ words were to follow, not to argue against at that time. Original sin to be born in a feudal society, can’t really rebel against elders. Hu Guangrong had to server 2 years after his extorted confession, to take care of the kids’ wellbeing and education for a significant time I had to go to the education commissioner and ask for a job with my teacher’s certificate. The considerate commissioner gave me a job at the city’s No 40 Primary School at Duoluokou, Hankou. Some friends had safety concerns with that location but I could not afford to wait with four kids need feeding. A week-minded me let Simao to be adopted and he died of illness in a few months.

I stayed at the sister-in-law of my second uncle for a day before reporting to the school. The principal had a last name Qi [sic, should be Liu based on following text]. All other faculties were man and they wanted a woman for teaching music. That wasn’t part of my training so I became a homeroom teacher for grade 1-6 instead. I get up at six and boil water for other teachers. An old school worker helped my family on cooking congee with crock on the big stove. We then buy sesame seed cake and shared between 4. Kids were friendly and leaving the bigger one to each other. Jilin was a fast eater and his older brother and sister would give him their share if he watched them eat. Formal class began after morning workout. After class we bring water and rice to a nearby temple where the school allowed us to cook there. Class began again after lunch. The place we lived was a bathroom, with eight desks as beds, in addition to a square table. In the evening I would mentor kids’ study and make cloths and shoes for them. We lived a simple life. To save some food for the father we mix broad beans with rice because beans were cheaper. The work schedule was tight and I could only visit their father at Hankou every first Monday in a month. It was a long, blistering walk to Hankou. Despite all the difficulty my children were pretty healthy. Once the father saw Jilin’s growth and joked “my little third looks like a baby pig”. This routine lasted more than a year, until Principal Liu returned to the 32rd primary school and I went with her to Hankou.

Six month later Hu Guangrong finally finished his two-year sentence and went back to school. The Principle was considerate to offer him a job at the school. But he refused the offer and want to return to the shipping industry. One day he was running errands with a friend surnamed Zhang from Yanglou Dong (羊楼洞), shipping a basket of bread and carrying cash for a third-party payment. The Japanese passenger bus he took had an incident at the Lotus Pond, Puqi (蒲蕲). The bus was overturned by a landmine, 150 Japanese and some Chinese died, Hu’s brother and he’s friend Zhang among them. There was no news about Hu. I asked a family leave from the principle, turned over my work and went to inquiry around. On the way there I met an old neighbor from Hankou, old sister Chen, who mentioned there was one Chinese survived the bombing and perhaps that was Hu. I responded that Hu had to be too lucky to be the sole Chinese survivor. A soldier at the military police told me that the survivor was not there but at the hospital, and he had the payment and watch from him. An honest solder indeed because he did not pocket the payment for the third party. I hurried to the hospital and found out it was Hu who survived. He went to take an empty seat left by a Japanese who got off at Xianning, and survived because a chair covered him when the bus was overturned. At the time he was unconscious and I was preparing for the worst. But I had to find a place to sleep first. Hu was left at a soldier’s resident without doors and only grass bags on windows for the wind. The soldier, who was from Sichuan, said a woman should not sleep there. I said that was considerate but I have to be with him when he was dying. My politeness convinced him to let me stay over. I borrowed a bamboo bed and bought some charcoal. Every night I lighted a one-pound candle that can last half night and sit-sometimes nodded off- at his bed. The hospital dean was a hospital processor from Beijing went hometown to escape from war, but was forced to serve by the Japanese. He came for injection every night while teaching me nursing. Hu could only ingest rice and beef soup because his gum was broken and need help for drinking. After 26 days his condition was no longer critical.

After Hu’s life was no longer in danger, we were planning to move back to Wuhan for recover. Because only military vehicles were running on railroads at the time, we had to pull some strings to get to a policeman who would allow bamboo bed to be on board for 400 reserve dollars. At the time my life was hash, my monthly salary was 90 Japanese dollars, or 600 dollars in reserve currency. Although there was cash with Hu Guangrong, it was not his, and I was thinking “If it means to be yours, it will be yours after all; otherwise just let it be.” The cash won’t help him survive and pocketing it would be against my conscience. After arriving Wuhan, I hired a bamboo carrier to get Hu home. He could not get off bed still, and I had to move him to my school where I worked and took care of him while living on selling my cloths and ornaments. At the time there was a French dentist who was good at repairing gum, and as Hu often said to me, “World is meaningless without you”, I spent a whole month’s salary on his gum. He recovered.

We had a fifth child named Junde after spending more than a year at the school. When the school was on vacation we moved to Hecheng Lane(合成里) , where he caught smallpox and died after sick for 5 days in a plague. After his death the situation was chaotic and we moved back to a friend’s house at Hansangong Street (寒三宫街), Wuchang, rent free. I had my sixth child Jifang here. After a year Hu’s uncle moved him to Hengyang for the freight business there. When Jifen was born there was no letter nor money from him for a long time, therefore I had to visit him in Hengyang with the newborn in person. I saw he changed in Hengyang, with my letters to him unopened. I questioned him why and he said he knew they were all for the money. He was living in hotel at the time, and was preparing to rent a room and buy furniture when we arrive, but I said I’d rather leave after the cold welcome. After he admitted wrongdoing and wanted us to watch his actions, I burnt the letters and warned him I would follow the ashes into the river if he treated us bad again. After the incident, we settled in Hengyang.

In 1942, my mom fell sick in Hanyang countryside. I called the elder Hu to send him to the street hospital, however without money, he left mom in the Bapu street house unattended. When I arrived she was beyond help and soon died. We did not even have the money for the funeral and had to mortgage the Bapu street house for 300 dollars to the tenant, interest free, rent free, for 3 years. My adopted brother was staying at his mother-in-law’s and I handed over my father and belongings to him before returning to Hengyang. A few years later I went back to Wuchang to get medical care, the adopted brother told me my father passed away in 1953 and he buried my father. He also said after the Liberation in 1949, the Xinhai Revolution Committee called my father to meetings, and gave him 20 feet of blue cloth and a medal. Without much education and insight, he hid the medal in fear that the Communist would not stay long and eventually lost it. Father was still without consciousness all those years so I could not get the revolutionists aid. My poor parents left the world in such regrettable ways and we could not even afford our responsibility to them. Death is final, and I am already at the age to join them.