Old Shanghai Loses a Living Legacy

1378466586466781Teacher Gui – Gui Biqing (桂碧清) – was my Chinese teacher during the years I lived in Shanghai. When I first met her, in 1997, she lived in a tumbledown old house in a quiet lane in the French concession. Twice a week, I would exit the cacophony of cars and bikes on Eternal Happiness Street and enter the skein of ageless alleys where laundry flapped languidly on bamboo poles, katydids sang fiercely from tiny woven cages, and itinerant hawkers called out wares and services in the sibilant, sonorous tones of Shanghainese; one time I even saw a man selling live snakes from a squirming burlap bag.

Reaching Teacher Gui’s building, I would call out her name; she would lean out her second floor window and toss me the key to the gate of the old, French-built house. I would climb the creaking, uneven stairs to her room – carved from a larger apartment in which she had lived with her family pre-liberation – and enter a serene oasis filled with thriving plants and treasured tchotchkes given to her by students from around the world. A bronze urn had belonged to her parents, one of the few antiques to survive the Cultural Revolution; the worn sectional sofa had been given to her by a favorite student, a UPI journalist who had to leave China in a hurry – in 1949. (Midway through my studies, Teacher Gui happily moved to a newer building in which she recreated a more comfortable version of the home in which she had spent much her life.)

Seated at a small table covered with oilcloth, Teacher Gui would guide me through essays on subjects like cricket fighting, Daoist nunneries, or Kunju opera. Invariably, after parsing some passage that I found challenging, she would take off her glasses and say, “I have a story to tell you…” or “Let me tell you something about Chinese history…”  And with these words, I would be transported, as on a magic carpet, back into the bi-cultural world of urban, pre-liberation China, a place that emphasized ideals, rather than ideology; education, rather than indoctrination; and in which the boundaries between people – foreign and Chinese, Christian and Communist – were not yet ossified for political purposes.

Teacher Gui was born in Hubei in 1917. Her grandfather was the first Chinese Anglican bishop in charge of the Yangtze River region. Her father went to St. Johns University in Shanghai and the University of Chicago. Her parents had worked in Japan and had English names – Frank and Emma. Teacher Gui was “given” to a childless aunt (Gui was her mother’s family name) who called her “Beatrice,” after the character in Dante’s Divine Comedy. When she was 4, her father took a job at Tsinghua Yuan (later Tsinghua University) where she and her two older sisters, younger brother, and younger sister grew up speaking English and Chinese and playing volleyball and basketball, with friends foreign and local in a Beijing she remembered as full of mountains and lakes – a wonderful place to be a child.

When Teacher Gui was 18, she caught an eye disease that doctors said would leave her blind; her only hope for recovery was to lay flat so the blood would remain in her eye vessels. For two years, she stayed abed, cared for by her mother, who bought the best foods she could find – even Sunkist oranges. When she got better, the non-Christian doctor told her, “It’s because you believe in God. All my other patients became blind.”

During her illness Teacher Gui received a letter from a young Cantonese man she liked; unwilling to burden him with a blind partner, but loathe to let him vanish, she sent him a booklet commemorating the death of her cousin, and hoped he would write again. But, the July 7th incident happened and war broke out with Japan. Teacher Gui’s family fled – to Tianjin, Qingdao and finally Shanghai, where they settled. She never heard from the young man again, and there was never anyone else. Looking back, she said it was for the best – she had a happy memory, free of the regrets of real-life romance.

In Shanghai, Teacher Gui studied early childhood education and became a kindergarten teacher. Her father had to go further south, her younger sister was at St. Johns and her adored brother, Wang Yuanhua, was always busy praising the Communist Party, but never earning any money.  Shanghai was a “lonely island” and inflation was rampant – Teacher Gui cried every night. But, tears didn’t put food on the table – to support her mother and younger siblings, she created a popular children’s radio program for Tass Radio; made and sold straw hats; played the stock market.

And, in 1940, she began teaching Chinese to foreigners – her first students were a couple from the Bank of Moscow but she soon had many others, mainly Russians and Americans, many of whom became friends. They took her to the Ukrainian restaurant outside Xiangyang Park and the American Club on Fuzhou Road; when she was hospitalized and needed blood an American journalist came to the hospital, rolled up her sleeve and offered her own. (Teacher Gui was embarrassed to take a friend’s blood and bought some from a stranger instead.)  On the eve of liberation, she stood on the roof with an American journalist to watch KMT soldiers flee. The day after liberation, her brother rushed home shouting, “We’re liberated! We’re liberated!”  It was only then that she knew he was underground CCP.

Her brother got an important job as director of a publishing house but the works he published included those of Hu Feng – against whom a major campaign was launched in 1955. He was told to renounce Hu and his works but refused – he said Hu had done nothing wrong. He was jailed for much of the 1950s, freed briefly, and jailed again in the Cultural Revolution. Teacher Gui, too, came under attack in the Cultural Revolution because of her foreign students – her apartment was ransacked and she was locked up for eight months. She lost sight in her left eye.

But, in the 1980s, things looked up again. Public restitution was made to her brother, who became head of Shanghai’s Propaganda Bureau. Teacher Gui began teaching again – when I studied with her, she was sometimes booked 8 hours a day. Various students invited her to tour Japan, the U.S., and Europe. “God takes care of me,” she said.
I had to stop studying with Teacher Gui in 2000 when I got married and left Shanghai. She was thrilled – especially because my husband was Chinese – and delighted when we had a son and a daughter. When her brother got cancer, she stopped teaching so she could care for him. His death hit her hard – “It should have been me. He had so many more books to write, so much to give the world.”  But, she recovered, and continued to live alone, insisting that she would die sooner if an ayi did her work – keeping busy and remaining independent kept her alive.

I took my family to see Teacher Gui every year; last summer, when she was 94, she cooked us five dishes for lunch. She radiated serenity. Her mother had lived to be 100 and she would, too – but, if death came sooner, that was alright because she looked forward to Heaven. This July, when I called Teacher Gui to arrange a visit, I got a recording that said the phone was an “empty number.” My stomach dropped. I sent an email to a Shanghai journalist, Chen Yi, who had written about Teacher Gui and become her friend. She told me what I did not want to hear: Teacher Gui had died on July 12, of pneumonia.

Teacher Gui’s apartment has already been emptied, her treasured possessions scattered, a few photos of her with foreigners left at the local paichusuo in case any former students show up and want a remembrance. But her legacy – of boundless optimism, openness, resilience, faith, and friendship – will forever endure among those of us who were privileged to call Gui Biqing both teacher, and friend.

This article first appeared in Caixin:

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  1. Mary Sbley says

    What a beautiful, loving and heartfelt tribute from a student to her teacher! I was in tears by the end of the piece. How I wish I had known this incredible woman. Sheila Melvin, you were truly blessed to have made the acquaintance of someone as extraordinary as Teacher Gui.

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