Letters from China: Part 4

Reading old letters from China is similar to listening to people chatting on their mobile phone on the train. You only hear half of the conversation. You may not like the noise, but it is impossible to ignore it. You are slightly annoyed because you do not hear the other half of the conversation. You need to make a mental effort to decipher their conversation.

Letters from China represent half of the conversation in the last century between overseas Chinese migrants with their families in China. Where is another half of the conversation stored? Now, more than 30,000 letters are saved and they are on display in various museums in the Fujian and Guangdong provinces in China.

Qiaopi, letters from overseas Chinese to China in the last century

Qiaopi, letters from overseas Chinese to China in the last century

Keywords: Qiáopī and Yínxìn

Letters from overseas Chinese to China had special names, Qiáopī or Yínxìn. (Note: Pronunciation of ‘Qiao’ in Mandarin is similar to ‘ciao’).

Qiáopī 侨批 means letters from overseas Chinese. ‘Pi’ means letter, based on the pronunciation of the Min (Fujian) language of Chinese.  Yínxìn 银信 means silver letters. The letters that my mother sent to her brother to China with remittance documents in the last century has now become a world heritage.

On June 19 this year, letters, reports, account books and remittance receipts from communications between Chinese emigrants overseas and their families in China were included in the Memory of the World Register, of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Qiaopi and Yinxin: Memory of the World, 2013, by UNESCO

Qiaopi and Yinxin: Memory of the World, 2013, by UNESCO

According to UNESCO:

Qiaopi and Yinxin Correspondence and Remittance Documents from Overseas Chinese

Documentary heritage submitted by China and recommended for inclusion in the Memory of the World Register in 2013

“Letters, reports, account books and remittance receipts resulting from communications between Chinese emigrants overseas and their families in China. They record first-hand the contemporary livelihood and activities of Overseas Chinese in Asia, North America and the Oceania, as well as the historical and cultural development of their residing countries in the 19th and 20th century. They constitute evidence of the Chinese international migration history and the cross-cultural contact and interaction between the East and the West.”

Year of submission: 2012
Year of inscription: 2013

Memory of the World

Qiaopi: Memory of the World: Letters from overseas Chinese to

Qiaopi: Memory of the World: Letters from overseas Chinese to China.

To form a full picture of the human migration history in the last century, we need to examine these letters and documents.

I am fortunate to be the guardian of some of these precious letters from my mother.

In the last three posts, I shared with you love, loss, separation, and hope, through the letters my mother received from her only brother in China.

From these letters, you may have now established some recurrent subjects:

  • Blood relatives: Connected through flesh and bone. Sister has moral duty to help brother. Sister must honour ancestors by helping brother.
  • Ancestral home: Shabby house needs to be rebuilt. Brother’s family needs money.
  • Sons need wives:  Brother’s family needs money to help three sons find wives.
  • Medicines: Brother’s family needs medicines: western medicine and Chinese medicine, especially ginseng.

My mother left China as a sickly four-year-old, and she only returned to China to visit her brother more than forty years later. In her adult life, she had 9 children. She brought up her own expanding family in Singapore and Malaysia, as an illiterate, hard-working woman, whose natural ability is multi-tasking.

Furthermore, my mother was burdened with another huge duty. She needed to support another family thousands of miles away in an impoverished village in Zhao’an, in Fujian province of the south of China.

For my mother, the ancestral home that she had left as a four-year-old is always her home. “He’s my real brother you know, real blood brother. How can I not help him?” My mother often told us she must do everything she could to send money to China.

More letters: Insufficient bride price; illness; ginseng 

Today I’m going to share three more letters from China with you.

pattern cloud
August, 1983

“Sister, at the end of last year, brother suffered from high blood pressure, but now I’ve recovered, please do not worry.

I learnt from your recent letter that everyone in Singapore was safe and well, brother is very pleased. In your letter you also included 200 renminbi, and brother has followed sister’s instruction to distribute the money accordingly. Please do not worry.

"Sister, we haven't received your ginseng yet." Letter from China. My uncle sent this letter to my mother.

“Sister, we haven’t received your ginseng yet.”

Now we have three families, and everyone in our families is well. Brother is old, and is feeling tired. Sister you should return to China with brother-in-law, because, sister, you and I are blood related, like hand and foot as part of the body.

Sister, you mentioned you sent me some ginseng last year, but I haven’t received them. Could sister please write a letter to the Customs to check it out, because I’m worried.”

pattern cloud
May, 1986

“Sister, I wish you all good health and longevity. You are all in my thought. I haven’t heard about your good news recently, I’m not sure how you are.

Sister, all my children have now married, and my youngest son, YS only got married in April last year.

Letter from China: Insufficient bride price. My uncle explained that he was poor. His son's wedding was delayed because his bride price wasn't sufficient.

Letter from China: Insufficient bride price

Actually we would have liked him to be married at the end of the year previously, however, the Bride Price we prepared was insufficient, and the marriage was forced to delay for a year.

I had thought about writing to sister for help, but I know that sister’s house got burnt down and suffered great loss, I dared not open my mouth.

…..(illegible handwriting). My youngest son’s wedding cost a lot more. I had also borrowed over 1000 renminbi from friends and neighbours for his wedding, and now brother is very worried about the repayment.

I have some good news. My second son YL now has 2 beautiful children, with fair eyebrows and beautiful eyes.

And, your sister-in-law is now nearly 70 years old, and she misses you dearly. Because of her ill health, I hope you could send us some ginseng and the H3 drug for her treatment. I wish you happiness.”

pattern cloud
Feb, 1988

“I received your letter in the New Year that brother-in-law had broken his foot, so sister had been unable to stay in touch with brother. I’ve been very upset. In sister’s letter, you sent me 200 renminbi, and brother has received it, and I have distributed the money accordingly. Please do not worry.

Sister, you don’t have to worry, and you must return to China with brother-in-law, because in China, our Chinese doctors and Chinese medicine is famous around the world, and many overseas Chinese have come to China for treatment and in the newspapers, there are also a lot of recommendations. These are all true. If brother-in-law could return to China for treatment, I guarantee he will be cured.

Since brother-in-law is unwell, sister, you don’t have to worry about our ancestral home, but please do send me letters to stay in touch. Brother’s spirit is willing, but is unable to help you, and I’m praying to our mighty heaven for our gods to bless you.”

The Letters from China series was inspired by Blog Exercises: Before the Blog by Lorelle VanFossen. You can find more Blog Exercises on . This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.

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31 thoughts on “Letters from China: Part 4

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  10. 经雅

    Dear Janet,

    I have seen the light at the end of the tunnel throughout the part 4. It reflects Chinese people who lived in villages were having better and better life. They began to concern how their families who lived overseas were and their well-being.

    I hope your mum’s burden had got lighter since your uncle and his family’s life were improving in China.

    Your true stories reflect Chinese people’s family value and strong bond. Very moving. Very well written, Janet.

    Reply
  11. 经雅

    Dear Janet,

    Your true stories did not at all surprise me, as I know, in general, people in the mainland China in the late 70s and 80 thought overseas Chinese all got money, car, house …. and thought they were rich. So for overseas Chinese to support their blood relatives in China financially were common, for it was what most people in China expected from their overseas Chinese relatives.

    But to compare your mum’s situation what she did for her family in China was really exceptional. Very touching. Your mother is a really kind human being; a very kind and generous sister to her brother and his family.

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Indeed, 经雅, there was a high expectation that the overseas Chinese had to support their families ‘back home’. The duties were heavy, as you could see from those letters — almost every single letter was a plea for money and medicines. Demands like these caused a lot of tensions in many families in similar situations. Some relationships with overseas Chinese and their Chinese families in China broke down due to excessive demands. Some relationships with older and younger generations in the overseas Chinese community also broke down due to misunderstanding.

      However, for my mother, her brother’s family was florishing, and all his sons managed to marry and have families, and they are no longer poor. I think my mother is very proud.

      Reply
  12. Lorelle VanFossen

    My personal site started out as “letters” to our friends and family as we traveled around the world. I wrote the stories specifically to one friend, a friend who could not travel freely as I could as she was tied to work and family. We joked that she was raising “my children” and I was living the traveling life she dreamed of, both of us living vicariously through each other’s letters and emails.

    Letters such as the ones you have saved and uncovered for us from historical records help us live vicariously through their eyes, seeing the world differently. As the previous commenter said, many believe that x-pats are rich, living in high style. This assumption is not true in many cases including my own.

    These are stories worth sharing. Thank you so much for them. It’s wonderful!

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you. Reading these old letters in different periods of my life brings different understanding.

      As a child, I could not have understood the yearning for letters, the anxiety, real poverty. I could not have understood why my mother would do strange thing, such as sending money away for relatives that she hardly meet, and go round collecting money for her brother’s family in China.

      I’m pleased readers appreciate the history of that time with me. It’s moving, for you and for me.

      Reply
  13. ShimonZ

    The letters and the stories sadden me. And as far as your mother was removed from her roots, and the ancient family home, you have gone much further. It is my hope that you have found happiness.

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you Shimon. I live a very simple life in the suburbs of England, comparing with my mother,who went through separation, WWII and poverty. She coped with her new life in Southeast Asia and her old family in China. She also had survived a cruel environment, when her government decided that the language (Fujian – or Min) that she speaks was of no value and she was forced to learn to speak Mandarin, to communicate with her younger generation.

      The strength of my mother and her generation is remarkable.

      Thank you for your kindness — I’ll alway remember to cherish happiness in my new land here in the suburbs of England.

      Reply
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  25. HF Shen

    Hi, Janet, sorry for a wrong action that I provided an incomplete comment.
    Yes. the story of your mother and the letters are touching. I also read many letters from China to relatives in SEA, which had common themes as the ones you put. Your letters are special for your mother had left Zhao’an since she was a very young kid. She is so kind and generous, loves her family so much. My best regards to her.

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Many thanks HF Shen for your kind comment. Sorry it has taken me a while to get back to you.

      Yes I’ve known of many letters like these and many families had experienced the same emotions, especially in the South East Asia. For many elderly people, China was their homeland, and they have struggled all their lives to survive, and to provide for their families. Their strong belief and their resilience are so humbling. I hope the younger generation would learn to appreciate the sacrifices by their parents or grandparents.

      Reply

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