The Yangtze River is China’s Mississippi, its economic lifeline. To the north, the mammoth Yellow River is indeed the birthplace of Chinese civilization, but the Yangtze is the essential waterway, dotted by many of China’s most important cities and transportation hubs.
When it comes to freight transport, no other inland river in the world comes close. In the case of my family history, on both my parents’ sides, I could tell an awful lot of the story by simply following the river downstream.
At the headwaters to the far west in Qinghai province, I’d point out that my maternal grandfather spent his last years at a prison labor camp there. Halfway down the mountains in the megacity of Chongqing is where my father was born during the Chinese civil war.
If you float down further, to Wuhan, you pass both ancestral villages on my mother’s side. Downstream in Changzhou is where my uncle Tong Bao grew up and hunted for frogs to eat during the great famine.
And the delta city where the river dumps into the sea—Shanghai—is where my mother was born. And where my father boarded a dangerously overloaded boat to flee the mainland ahead of the Communists in 1949.
As best we know, Grandmother Mildred was born in the central Yangtze River city of Nanjing, a historic capital to dynasties and governments past. Her grandfather served as a government official there, relatives say. Then, when she was eleven, her parents took her upriver to attend boarding school.
“It seems to me my mother and father took me there,” my grandmother said in an audio interview that still exists on tape at Boston University.
My grandmother’s trip
This is how I imagine the trip went: During the steepest upstream portions of the trip westward, shirtless male workers onshore had to tug the boat up and over the rocks. At the port city of Jiujiang, or Nine Rivers, they boarded a second, smaller boat; turned left (south); and crossed a massive body of water known as Lake Poyang.
Surely it was hot and sticky, as their destination city, Nanchang, today brags about being in the club of Chinese “furnace cities.” For some reason, a number of Yangtze cities I’ve visited (Wuhan, Changsha, Chongqing, Nanjing) also seek to market themselves that way, as if the label confers a certain branding advantage.
On one broiling-furnace day in July 2014, I have come to Nanchang to try to find her old school. I’ve learned the Baldwin School has now become a public school in the city, the Number Ten Middle School.
My father and I have just visited one of his uncles, and we are stopping at the school address on the way to the airport. We’ve asked the cabbie to stop and wait.
Back in 1911, this was a walled city ringed by a moat, with dogs and chickens roaming the interior. Now it looks like any midtier Chinese city: You can cruise the mall to buy a new smartphone before catching a movie in the IMAX theater.
To me there is a certain sameness to cities like this: A river, a few bridges, a set of familiar chain stores, nondescript medium-rise buildings. It’s not unlike a stretch of road back home that features the same exact chain stores and restaurants—Anywhere, USA.
Can’t come in here
“Gan shen ma?” What are you doing? a male voice rings out as I attempt to walk through the gatehouse and into the school. Most Chinese public institutions are not what you and I might regard as public. They hide behind guarded gates.
A skinny man with a comb-over in his fifties stands to block me. He is simply doing his job. He wears a sweat-soaked security guard uniform with the pants rolled up to the knees. “Can’t come in here.”
I have a plan. In these moments, I’ve had luck playing my family history card, so I start in with my pitch: “I’m an overseas Chinese visiting from America. I’m coming to dig for my roots. My grandmother once went to school here.”
The keys, I’ve learned by error and trial: Stay on message. Speak quickly. Keep talking until they relent.
He cuts me off. “You can’t come in. No outside people.”
My grandmother’s passport
“I’m just here for today, flying out in a couple hours,” I appeal, pulling out my grandmother Mildred’s 1949 passport.
This is the next- level intervention, to present a historical document. It does nothing for him.
“These are not my rules. They’re school rules. If you don’t have permission, you can’t go in.”
In my head, I can hear the voice of my teen daughter: Fail, Dad. I walk out to devise a workaround plan. My imagination is not the greatest, but I am a reporter and this is China, where everyday survival requires a plan B and C.
Dad is still sitting in the cab up the street, and we don’t have much time. I decide to try to identify a collaborator, someone who can at least go into the school and snap some pictures for me. That’s what I’m really after—to compare the place today with the old vintage photos of the old Baldwin School.
It is lunchtime at the Number Ten School, and students are filing in and out of the gatehouse. For the next ten minutes or so, I discreetly approach one middle-schooler after another, requesting this favor and delivering the same elevator pitch: Grandson of China, traveling from America, digging for roots.
They all walk on by without answering—except for one pair of students, a girl and a boy. “Would you take my iPhone in and take some pictures for me?”
The girl is in charge here and answers immediately. “Can’t you go in yourself?” I like this dynamic. The student wears tortoiseshell glasses and a level of fearlessness.
I shrug my shoulder. “I can’t. The guard in there stopped me.”
“You’re from America?” she asks. Non sequitur, no problem. “America where?”
Handing over my iPhone to a twelve-year-old
She nods. “Okay.” In this rush, I fail to consider the risk of handing over my iPhone to a twelve-year-old whose name I don’t even know, and just foist it on her. She asks: “What do you want me to take pictures of?”
I hadn’t planned for this. “Anything you find interesting. Trees. Old buildings. Anything that might have been around a hundred years ago.”
They disappear in, and I retreat up the street to avoid the sight line of the guard. But on this day it’s pretty hard for me to blend in, with my fire-engine-red T-shirt that says “Washington Capitals” on the front and “BACKSTROM 19” on the back.
Within a minute, she reappears. “Battery’s dead.”
So I pull out my low-end Android purchased just for this trip. It’s a lousy phone with a lousy camera, but that’s all I have at this point. My dad pops his head out of the car, and I motion for him to wait just a bit more.
The girl runs back in five minutes, heaving victoriously, and shows me the snapshots: Main entrance, signs, administration building, trees, garden. Perfect.
“I ran out of time for the sports field,” she says. I thank her profusely. “Mei shi,” no worries, and she’s gone.
A park-like feel
The pictures make clear the old Baldwin School has retained a rare, park-like feel in the middle of a Chinese city. Many of the green, open-space areas in Chinese cities are spots once controlled by foreigners in nineteenth-century neocolonial days.
Here, there is still a pavilion with traditional characters—pre-Communist—and an arched stone bridge sloping over a lily pond. Surely this is where female students in Baldwin uniforms sat and studied and wondered what New China might bring.
Just before ducking into the cab, I notice a sign on the outside wall of the school, with a quote attributed to Deng Xiaoping. It would have been relevant during my grandmother’s time there as well, perfectly capturing an ambitious China trying to find its place in the world: “Education must face modernity. Face the world. Face the future.”
A hundred years ago, in roughly that same spot, a different sign stood on the wall. In English, it was a Gospel passage from the book of John: “Ye shall know the truth. And the truth shall set you free.”
The woman who put up that verse: The towering school principal at Baldwin, Welthy Honsinger (later Welthy Honsinger Fisher). She would go on to become a lifelong mentor to Mildred Zhao.
Their story is, to me, a fascinating collision of two separate stories—of women from opposite corners of the world, unsatisfied with the choices before them.
Editor’s note: This feature is adapted from “A Village with My Name: A Family History of China’s Opening to the World” (University of Chicago Press, 2017).
Scott Tong returns to China to find his grandmother’s old school in Nanchang.
Grandmother Mildred was born in the central Yangtze River city of Nanjing, a historic capital to dynasties and governments past.
To me there is a certain sameness to cities like this: A river, a few bridges, a set of familiar chain stores, nondescript medium-rise buildings. It’s not unlike Anywhere, USA.
The pictures of my grandmother’s school make clear it has retained a rare, park-like feel in the middle of a Chinese city.
There is a sign outside the school, perfectly capturing an ambitious China trying to find its place in the world: “Education must face modernity. Face the world. Face the future.”