BIRTH OF A SISTER
By Tan Shih-hua
BIRTH OF A SISTER, from A Chinese Testament, purporting to be the autobiography of Tan Shih-hua, as told to Sergiei Mikhailovich Tretiakov, New York, Simon and Shuster, 1934, Chapter XI.
Tan Shih-hua （Teng Hsi-hua） was a student under Sergiei Tretiakov, a teacher of the Russian language in Peiping and known also for his Roar China, a dramatic episode in nine scenes.
My uncle’s school moved to another temple—a little larger than the old one, but further away from our house. To prevent me from getting too tired, walking to and from the school, he took me to live with him, and sent me home every Saturday. He adopted the European method of holidays. In his school, just as in the public schools, we had one day a week for rest. In private schools the pupils had to sit over their books from one Chinese holiday to another, and holidays in China are as rare as springs in a desert.
One week day I was called out from the class. Our maid was waiting for me. I gathered that something must be wrong with my mother. We had a maid in the house only on days when mother was unable to work. I walked home in a great hurry. On the way the maid told me news which I had not expected at all.
“Your mother has borne you a sister.”
I was glad; I had always been so lonely at home.
The maid turned me over to my grandmother. Craftily and solemnly the old woman led me into mother’s room. My mother was lying silent on her bed. She was pale and thin. Her arms were stretched out on the cover. A funny little bit of a bed stood next to hers. Something wrapped in white and made entirely of little balls and wrinkles was in it.
“A little girl,” said my grandmother.
I wanted to touch my little sister, but my grandmother would not let me. Having failed in this, I decided to go immediately to a store and get her some sweets. My grandmother sat down on my mother’s bed and released her high, thin laughter. She would stop, look at me, then laugh again. I paid dearly for those sweets. My grandmother loved to tease me.
I said to her, “It is nice to have a girl.”
“No, it is very bad,” she said. “Here in Szechwan, we have to give a dowry with the bride. It is just an expense. It would be different if we were living in Kiangsu—there people pay the bride’s family.”
I did not agree with my grandmother. But she did not care. She was laughing again, probably remembering those sweets.
Careful not to spill it, the maid brought my mother a bowl of boiled chicken. Every woman in China gets boiled chicken for a few days after her labor. Chicken is good. I looked longingly at the bowl. Mother put me next to her on the bed, and we ate the chicken together.
Taking away the empty bowl, my grandmother looked at me, and said seriously and in a businesslike manner, “Really, Shih-hua, it would not be bad if your mother bore you a sister or a brother every year; then you would eat chicken quite often.”
A month later, our house was buzzing with relatives. Such a lot of them. My mother was walking about, sweet and affable, but still white and thin, although she had not worked all that month. She entered the sitting room with my little sister in her arms, and all the relatives, one after another, came up to her and touched the little big-eyed girl, whose small stomach was covered with a red flannel apron—a protection against the cold. The relatives argued about whose nose the little girl was going to have, whose eyes, whose mouth. They wished her good fortune.
“May she grow up to be as intelligent as her mother.”
“May she become a good hostess.”
“May she be the most beautiful bride in Hsien-Shih.”
“She will be a famous authoress.”
This last wish was expressed by my elder uncle. I knew it because, being himself fond of writing, he always said the same thing to every new-born baby.
The inspection was over, the little girl was wrapped up again and carried away. The relatives presented my mother with gifts. There were eggs in woven baskets, cackling hens, bags of sugar, selected rice—beautiful rice, which one would like to string on a thread and wear for a necklace, so beautiful it was—and sweets. . . .
My grandmother glanced from the bag of sweets to me, and began laughing again.
The procession of relatives moved to the dining room. At the table, the return gifts from our family were distributed, each relative receiving two red eggs. I was sad; we did not have enough money, so I could not stick a gilt-paper hieroglyphic meaning “luck” on the eggs.
A year later, on my sister’s birthday the same relatives again crowded into our house. A red tablecloth was put on a table in the sitting room, and all sorts of objects were spread out: a needle and thread, a saucepan, a teapot, a paint-brush, an inkpot, a knife, a book of verses, a book of stories, a flexible fencing-foil, a piece of printed silk.
Then the little girl, who, in her embarrassment, was trying to stick her foot into her mouth, was brought to the table, to see what object she would pick up first. If she takes a brush, she will be an authoress; if she grabs at a saucepan, she will be a housewife; if she touches silk, she will be a well-dressed woman; if she picks up a foil, she will make herself famous as a heroine or a chieftain.
I don’t know what object my little sister chose. Judging by the fact that she is now in Peking University, and shows a great deal of interest in literature, she must have chosen a brush or a book. However, she was a niece of two teachers. So many books and so much stationery were piled up that day on the red cloth that the insignificant needle and thread had no chance of getting into the hands of little Shih-kuen.
In those days, she was the important person in the house. But I did not mind. I was grown up. I was six years older than she.
European method of holidays, having one day of rest a week.
public schools, in our country, the schools established by the city, provincial, or national government where every qualified person can get a free education; the opposites of private school which are maintained by private individuals or bodies for the education of private students.
springs or places where water wells up from the earth are rare (hard to find), because so few, in a desert.
one week day, any day in the week but not Sunday.
cover, the quilt or bed-cover.
Why little balls and wrinkles?
some sweets, some sweet candy for the new-born baby to eat. Of course we know that babies of that age do not eat candy, but how was the little brother to know that? It was cruel of the grandmother to laugh at the young lad. Still, we must excuse her for she was only an ignorant old woman.
paid dearly, suffered much teasing; was often teased because of his mention of going to the store to get the baby some candy.
On what occasion did the grandmother tease him, a little later in the story?
dowry, the money, goods, or estate which a woman brings with her to her husband in marriage; dot.
labor, childbirth; the giving birth to children, because of the pains that attend childbirth.
longingly, with eager desire.
Why businessslike manner?
buzzing, noisy because there were so many of them around.
What is this occasion mentioned here, that happens a month later, after the birth of the child?
affable, gracious; courteous; sociable.
Hsien-Shih, their home village in Szechwan.
cackling, making sharp broken noises.
gilt-paper, paper golden-yellow colored.
hieroglyphic, word; pictorial symbol or emblematic figure.
flexible fencing-foil, soft sword used for fencing or sword-exercising.
embarrassment, not knowing what to do.
stationery,writing paper. Stationery is not stationary, which means “standing still.”
Shih-kuen, the name of the sister.
- Notice the customs mentioned in connection with the birth of the sister, the celebration a month later, and the sister’s birthday a year later.
- How much older than his sister was the writer?
- In what ways does the essay reveal the age of the brother?