Family letters: a present from home that is worth ten thousand taels of gold

Family letters have a special place in the hearts of Chinese people, who have been influenced by traditional culture and are shy to express their feelings openly.

Family Letter

Author
Li Chengcheng
Photography by
Zhao Le
文/李程程 图片/赵乐
A few days ago, in preparation for moving house, my father rummaged through the wardrobe and bagged some clothes that had not been worn for years so that they could be sold for scrap. However, when I found a big bundle of old envelopes from the innermost compartment of the wardrobe, my father quickly snatched them away, saying to me: “These are the letters your mother and I sent to each other when I was abroad!” He examined the letters one by one, felt reluctant to throw them away. In the end, he carefully put them in a cardboard box and took them to the new house.

Compared to the clothes he threw away without any hesitation, those dog-eared family letters were regarded as treasure. How much importance do people attach to these letters?

Unlike westerners, who speak of their feelings to their loved ones or make a face to face complaint, Chinese people are more likely to turn to letters to convey those feelings.

Before the widespread use of telephones, letters were the only way for people to communicate with their family and review their kinship when they were away from home. As letters came into being with the invention of the written language, a writer could commit to paper and ink his feelings and emotions, ideas and the information he wanted to convey discreetly, allowing them to travel across oceans and continents, from one person to another. However, since the invention of the telegram in the 19th century, people have had many other means of communication: telephones, text messages, blogs, microblogs, video chats…. Wherever you are, communication has become quite easy. Family letters are quite different, for its words are carefully chosen and its contents filled with emotion — a precious item that is able to preserve its sentiments with the passing of time and changing of space. People love their own home because they feel it is their haven, where their family can offer them love, care and understanding. Yet the love for one’s family cannot be fully expressed in just a few passing words, so family letters are still written today.

chinese family letters

Family letters have a special place in the hearts of Chinese people, who have been influenced by traditional culture and are shy to express their feelings openly. Unlike westerners, who speak of their feelings to their loved ones or make a face to face complaint, Chinese people are more likely to turn to letters to convey those feelings. The traditional Chinese virtue of respecting one’s elders is well embodied in letters from the younger generation of a family, in which they will show their concerns for their elders and relay mundane information about their daily lives so as to assure the elders of their peaceful lives. Letters from elders, meanwhile, are often full of words of wisdom and encouragement, where they try to pass on their experiences to the next generation. Letters between couples as well as peers, by contrast, reveal mutual concern and encouragement for each other to progress. A well-written family letter is emotive and appealing, often steeped in culture, with an abundance of advice and love to guide the next generation.

Family letters written by well-known historical figures are being read by more and more people due to their historic or literary significance.

The Exhibition of Traditional Chinese Family Letters, featuring family letters by people from all walks of life from as early as the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), was held by the Museum of Renmin University of China. The letters on display were not written by celebrities, but were in fact mostly written by ordinary people from different periods of history. Those yellowed pages not only record items of family trivia, but also the vicissitudes of the times. In times of unrest, family letters usually spoke of political matters, while during peaceful times, they mostly described people’s longing for their loved ones.

chinese family letters

People love reading historical family letters because they often explain what people were thinking at a point in history. If you go to a large bookstore, you will find sections dedicated to collections of family letters. Family letters written by well-known historical figures are being read by more and more people due to their historic or literary significance. When you read the family letters by Zeng Guofan, an imperial envoy famous for his successful military campaigns during the Qing Dynasty, you may be surprised to find words of self-admonition: “Being an official is only temporary, being with family is for the long run”. This shows Zeng’s wisdom and farsightedness, as well as his awareness of the adage that “After the cunning hare is killed in the hunt, the hound is bound to be slaughtered for its meat”. When you read the family letters written by Wen Yiduo, a Chinese scholar of the Republican period, during his US stay as an overseas student, you will feel the patriotism of a citizen from a weak nation with a fervent wish for his homeland to become strong. When you read the family letters by Fu Lei, you will feel a great yet ordinary father’s love for his son and his efforts to guide the next generation.

In my opinion,  family letters are not limited in form to writing; a painting, a photo or a personal item can also convey one’s feelings to a faraway family member. Shortly after I was born, my father had to work in Australia for a long period of time. I remember my Mom recording my poem recitations, the English words I had learned and my rendition of TV theme songs, and sending these cassette tapes to the other side of the Pacific. Those items served as letters to her father from a little girl who had just learnt to talk. Whenever I mention this, I would say with a smile that the first English word I learned was “Australia”, but my Dad would say with moist eyes: “You should know that when I first listened to the tapes while driving a car, I had to stop at the roadside so that I could cry a little while.”

chinese family letters

With the rapid development of communications technology, the tradition of writing letters to home is evolving. E-mails, e-cards, microblogs, WeChat and even electronic photos have all become new forms of family letters. Smartphone software developers have also launched apps like “Micro Letter” and “A Family Letter” to facilitate sending and receiving family letters, making the practice more fashionable.

“With the beacon fires burning for three months straight, a letter from home is worth ten thousand taels of gold.” These are two famous lines from Spring View, a poem by Du Fu (712-770 AD), widely read by generations of Chinese. It describes how the patriotic poet felt when receiving a letter from home against the backdrop of “a crushed nation with unchanged mountains and rivers”. In fact, whatever its historical context or content, each family letter is valuable whether to the person who writes it or to the person who receives it. It is common yet precious. Perhaps that is why they are “worth ten thousand taels of gold”.

chinese family letters

Family Letters by Fu Lei

Family Letters by Fu Lei is a collection of 186 letters written from 1954 to May 1966 by Fu Lei, a translator and critic of French literature, and his wife to their son, Fu Cong, a young pianist studying abroad. In the letters Fu Lei tried his best to guide his son through life, and more often than not, discussed with him the finer points of art and life. Because of the wide range of subjects the letters cover, Family Letters by Fu Lei is regarded as Fu Lei’s most important work. It serves as a loving guide for the next generation as well as an excellent read to forge an appreciation for art.

chinese family letters

The Beauty of Letters—Exhibition of Chinese Family Letters

The Museum of Renmin University of China. As the fruit of the “Saving Family Letters” campaign started in 2005, it is the only permanent exhibition of historical family letters. All letters on display are handwritten, from as early as the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) to 2011, spanning four to five centuries. The contents of the letters are all closely associated with the period in which they were written, even the design of the letter paper reveals something of their past.


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pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine.
Number 37. Volume II. March 2015.
View/Download the print issue in PDF

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