◎ Bing Xin
In the autumn of 1911, we returned from Yantai of Shandong Province to our native place Fuzhou. While on the way, my parents warned me again and again, “Since we’ll be living in a big family in Fuzhou, remember always to behave properly and never act like a naughty child. Show respect for your elders, particularly your grandpa, who is head of the family…”
After settling down in the big family in Fuzhou, however, I found that my previous worries on the way turned out to be unfounded. My grandpa, uncles, aunties and cousins never thought me a naughty child. We treated each other lovingly and equally. There never existed anything like “family rules of good behaviour”. I also found that the big family was a loose community of several smaller ones, which lived and ate separately. They each had their own relatives and friends, for example, their own in-laws.
That year, or the year after, Fuzhou began to have its own power company and electric lights were to be installed in our big house too. That was something new in our home town. We kids, wild with excitement and joy, ran here and there in the house at the heels of the electricians. Each room, I remember, had an electric lamp hanging from the ceiling. The drawing room had a 50-watt bulb; the bedrooms each a lower-wattage one; the kitchens each an even-lower-wattage one. The whole big house at least had a total of some 60 electric lamps. The first evening when they were turned on, the whole house was suddenly ablaze with lights. We kids clapped with joy.
The master switch was fixed in grandpa’s room. Grandpa, who kept early hours, would switch off all the lights when he went to bed at 9 o’clock in the evening, thus plunging the whole big house into deep darkness.
Having just set foot in our old home, we seldom slept before 9 o’clock in the evening. For it was but natural that after the long separation, my parents enjoyed hearty chats about the old days with their brothers and in-laws, and we kids of the younger generation played about together to our heart’s content. Hence, in anticipation of the sudden blackout at 9 o’clock, each small family would get a dimly-lit kerosene lamp ready in a couple of their rooms. No sooner had the big house been blacked out on the hour than we turned up the wicks of all the kerosene lamps. And, looking and smiling at each other, we would continue to chat and play merrily by the light of the kerosene lamps.
It was then that I realized what a complete whole our big family was, with grandpa as its head.