Courtesy of Tian Yeung

Many people slip through the fingers of time like sand and only the few remaining are remembered for centuries. Yu Zhuqing is no different than most in this regard. A ghost of history, her story is long forgotten and erased. Being recorded in history, however, is not the only way to be remembered. Even though I’ve never met Yu, I still remember her four generations later through the memories of my dad and grandma. You see, Yu was my great-great-grandma. I remember her because despite being a ghost of history, she was the heart of my family.

To understand what history erased, I’ll first have to explain what history remembers. The stories of Yu I plan to set free start with the consequences of another family member: Li Yannian (or Li Yen-nien). He was Yu’s husband, my great-great-grandpa, the one remembered in history. 

Li was one of the most prominent military leaders of the Republic of China (ROC). Working with Chiang Kai-shek as a lieutenant general, he once led 300,000 soldiers into war, defeating the Japanese in Operation Ichi-Go in 1944. His success in fighting the Japanese led him to oversee their surrender in Shandong in 1945.

Unfortunately, Li’s success didn’t spill over to his fight against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He and the ROC lost the civil war in 1949. To retreat, Li planned to relocate his family to Taiwan. But his plan fell through for Yu and her two granddaughters, who were only 8 and 10 years old.

What Li failed to take into account was Yu’s desire to stay. He always assumed Yu would blindly follow him wherever he went, never stopping to consider what she actually wanted. For so long, that was their dynamic: Li made the decisions, and Yu yielded to them as she was expected to as his wife. They moved all around the country in this manner, from one battle to the next, until Yu finally grew tired of it. In an act of defiance, she decided to stay in Chongqing, keeping my grandma and grandaunt with her, forgoing the plane that should have taken them to Taiwan. Little did they know what staying in China entailed.

As an all-female trio at the time, Yu and her granddaughters weren’t supposed to have much in terms of income because they didn’t have a man to rely on. On top of that, there weren’t many employment opportunities for older women. All these difficulties put the trio under tight financial constraints. 

To provide for her family, Yu sold her jewelry in secret. However, her earnings attracted attention, something you didn’t want, especially when your family has ties to the ROC, China’s biggest enemy then. The attention led to interrogations from local CCP officers. Yu, a resourceful woman, eventually decided to sell cigarettes as a disguise to ease off some suspicion. Her frugalness and her quiet-but-firm resolve to prevail over adversity helped the trio carry on.

Years later, my grandma had just graduated from high school. Chinese regulations banned her from attending college due to her family ties to Li, so she was assigned a job at the Chengdu branch of China Railway, which was more of a work camp. Following my grandma, Yu moved and settled in Chengdu, while my grandaunt went to college after the regulations had been changed a year later. 

During their stay in Chengdu, people who knew the Li family betrayed the trio. Some lied to CCP officers by accusing the trio of being ROC spies. These accusations led to unannounced midnight home searches for “evidence” of espionage. More seriously, CCP officers threatened to send Yu back to her birthplace, Shandong. These threats instilled great fear in my grandma, as Yu was unlikely to survive the long and arduous trip. Even if Yu did manage to survive, she would have no relatives for support. Having no support system meant death, as conditions in Shandong were dire and many died from starvation. Despite the cruelty from others, Yu never complained or held hate in her heart. She always looked at life optimistically. In fact, her smile is my dad’s fondest memory of her. 

There are many more stories of Yu to tell. While writing this article, I learned that condensing her life into a few hundred words is simply impossible. I also realized how much I wish to meet her and how futile this wish is. But then again, as I look at my relatives, in a way, I think I have met her. She is scattered all around me in my grandma’s kindness, my aunts’ humility and my dad and uncle’s resilience. Sometimes, I wonder which part of me is from her. My quiet disposition? Strong will? Eagerness to learn? 

It’s a pity and a fault that history only remembers Yu’s husband but not her. After all, even though Li might have been the heart of many important and faraway wars, he was the ghost of my family as he was rarely home. In contrast, Yu was the heart of my family. She raised three generations: her daughter, granddaughters and great-grandchildren (including my dad). History may never remember her, but my grandma will, my dad will, my aunts will, my uncle will, I will — her family will. 

MiC Columnist Tian Yeung can be reached at