A Family in Nanjing

Colin Thubron

Weigi, a Chinese acquaintance, was separated by his job from his wife and parents, and had asked me to visit them when I travelled to Nanjing. So one evening, carrying his gift of clothes for them, I groped down a dark street in a district of shabby blocks of flats. I felt vaguely misused and prepared myself for an evening of courtesies.

Weigi’s parents lived in rooms of a kind by now familiar to me: bare-floored, crudely furnished, and stark with the signs of modest privilege – a television, a refrigerator. A huge, fragmentary family had assembled to meet me: children of absent aunts, wives of husbands still at work. I could not sort them all out. They massed across the sitting room in a wavering crowd of hesitating hands and smiles and greetings, sabotaged by an undertow of yelling babies.

The old couple were formal and reticent. They had joined the Revolution from Nanjing in the mid-1940s, and had now entered a decent retirement, cushioned by six children. Of their two daughters-in-law, one was a pert-faced girl from Suzhou, a city famous for its women’s beauty. Her delicately lashed eyes looked as if they had been surgically widened, and she chattered with steely brightness.

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