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.
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).
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
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.
“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.
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.”
“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.
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.”
“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 Lorelle on WordPress. This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.
My Related Posts:
- Letters from China: Part 10
- Letters from China: Part 9
- Letters from China: Part 8
- Letters from China: Part 7
- Letters from China: Part 6
- Letters from China: Part 5
- Letters from China: Part 3
- Letters from China: Part 2
- Letters from China: Part 1
- When did you last go home?
- An age with relative freedom
- Visiting a Columbarium in Singapore
- A poignant visit to a Singapore columbarium
- Why are we all called Jade?
- Weekly Photo Challenge – Urban life in Singapore
- Postcard from Singapore: East vs West
- Postcard from Singapore: Satay
- Weekly Writing Challenge: My Mum’s Net
- China – Memory of the World Register | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation
- 潮人网——侨批文化研究 (Qiaopi cultural study)
- 侨批_百度百科 (Qiaopi definition by Baidu Encyclopaedia)
- 新加坡的世界记忆遗产 (Heritage: Memory of the World in Singapore)
- “中国侨批·世界记忆工程”国际研讨会发言摘要: 中国档案资讯网 (Qiaopi of China: Memory of the World – Keynote speeches at the International conference)