Introduction: We are pleased to present this excerpt from “Spring Flower” A Tale of Two Rivers, Book 1: 1931-1951 (Earnshaw Books 2021) by Jean Tren-Hwa Perkins. Lovingly crafted by Richard Perkins Hsung, son of Jean Tren-Hwa Perkins, from thousands of pages of manuscript left by his mother, the book covers the tumultuous years of war and revolution in China. Adopted as a child by American missionaries, Jean and family leave China and arrive in Yonkers, New York in fall 1942. Jean warmly sketches new friendships made in her middle school and high school years. After the family returns to China in 1945, Jean enters college as her homeland becomes embroiled in the civil war between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist army. Poverty, chaos, and hardships are etched with telling strokes as Jean recounts the toll of life on her friends and family. Rising anti-American feelings spurred by the Korean War compel Jean’s parents to return to the U.S. leaving Jean to navigate adulthood in the new China. Like the two rivers that dominate her landscape, the Yangtze River in Kiukiang, China and the Hudson River flowing by her Yonker’s home, Jean’s stories flow easily following twisting currents of history. Richly illustrated by dozens of family photographs, “Spring Flower” is a riveting account of one family’s life in China and the U.S.
To order the book, visit https://www.onemorepagebooks.com/book/9789888552849
The Great Flood: My Birth – Chapter One
The stories told are of actual events,
although some of the names, dates, and locations have been changed.
I was born on a spring night in the Province of Hubei (湖北), in a small town called Hwang-Mei (黄梅镇) located on northern banks of the Yangtze River straight across from the city of Kiukiang (九江) in Kiangsi Province (江西). The year was 1931. In those days, Hwang-Mei was a farming village, mostly poor peasants living in makeshift mud huts with thatched roofs. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of nearly identical tiny huts scattered along the riverbank. In one of them lived a poor peasant family with the last name Hu (胡), and on this particular morning, there was a stir of excitement percolating from the hut.
The mother of the Hu family was in labor. She was told that her child would be born between midnight and 2 a.m. A local midwife with no medical training, Eastern or Western, was there to assist with a pair of rusty scissors. Her primary duty was to cut the umbilical cord, and for reasons unclear to me, rusty scissors were the instrument of choice. According to this particular midwife, rusty scissors could bring good luck to the newborn.
In those days, China knew little about sterilization, especially in rural areas. There were neither clean towels nor disinfected instruments to welcome the newborn. Midwives used patched-up, mud-stained clothes to receive the infant, and they had dirty rags on hand for diapers. Babies born in that environment died like flies from fatal infections like tetanus, not to mention starvation. To survive, these babies had to be tough. At this late hour, these were the last concerns of the Hu family or the midwife.
Mr. Hu stood at the door, anxiously awaiting the announcement of his child’s gender. He paced back and forth, hoping it would be a boy. His wife hoped so, too. Beads of sweat rolled down her face, and yet she made no sound because it would have been improper to yell. This newborn was by no means their first. Mrs. Hu was having her seventh, eighth, or perhaps tenth child, including unborn and stillborn babies. She could no longer recall the number.
Finally, the ordeal was over. With a lusty cry, I made it known that I had come into the world to stay!
“Mm-Ma” is the Chinese equivalent of Mama or Mommy, still the most commonly used name for mother. With birth pangs still reverberating, all Mm-Ma wanted to know was whether it was a girl or a boy. The midwife shook me loose of bloody clothes and handed me to Mm-Ma. Then she picked up the basin filled with red water and headed for the door to tell Mr. Hu he could stop pacing and come in.
Realizing I was a girl, Mm-Ma let out a scream, “No!” Her contractions came back in full force accompanied with mental anguish and the bitter pain of disappointment. She shouted at the midwife, “Come back. Check again. It has to be a boy (你看錯了吧！你再看一眼， 這次一定是个男孩)!” Without a word, the midwife walked back to the bed, held me up high and, spread my legs wide for Mm-Ma to see clearly for herself.
Mm-Ma screamed again, “My god, not again (天呀—又是个女孩)!” Then she slumped back into her pillow, exhausted and disheartened.
On the banks of the Yangtze River, ca. 1916.
Hearing of my gender, Mr. Hu didn’t even bother to enter the hut to take a glance. He hurried to the fields to vent his frustration by whipping the one and only precious water buffalo they had. Oh my, the pathetic water buffalo (水牛), who faithfully plowed the fields for the family every morning, had done nothing to deserve this.
Mr. Hu, a man of few words, understood the value of sons to a farmer. For him, it was even more crucial because he was no longer a young man. Asthma and tuberculosis had begun to plague him, leaving him gasping for air. There were three older boys in the Hu family. The youngest, aged twelve and known as Number Six according to the order of birth, was dying from TB during the days leading to my birth. No wonder Mr. Hu was deeply troubled. To make matters worse, Number Six died shortly after my first cry. Mr. Hu believed that I contributed to Number Six’s death, because Mm-Ma could not care for Number Six during the pregnancy. Mr. Hu never came home that night.
Mm-Ma had other practical concerns about me being a girl. First, she was already forty and her ability to bear more offspring was diminishing. Although she’d already given birth to three sons, a Chinese family could never have too many. Girls, in contrast, were only trouble. Mm-Ma already had two or three daughters who were not stillborn. While my older sisters were still infants, Mm-Ma had to go door-to-door to find a future mother-in-law for them, never a small task. She had to beg and plead with families who had some level of means to accept her baby girls as future daughters-in-law. Once assured, Mm-Ma left her daughters with them.
Unlike many Chinese families, who would end up leaving their newborn girls on strangers’ doorsteps, Mm-Ma was reluctant to do that. She wanted to make sure they had a home where she knew the location, no matter how far away it might be. Doing so, she could close her eyes and sleep with minimal peace in her heart, even while knowing the fate of a daughter was to become a teenage slave if she survived to that age. That was what she had gone through herself.
I was unwanted and unloved because I was a girl. But the chilly reception I received from my biological family on my first day in this world was the norm in old China. Lucky for me, as an infant, I was oblivious to all those machinations, except that I was always hungry.
With a deep sigh, Mm-Ma looked at me and said, “Where on earth will I find yet another mother-in-law?” The thought of bringing me up herself never crossed her mind. I started to cry as if I suddenly understood her agony and that I wasn’t wanted. Mm-Ma gently patted my chest to calm me, and she continued to muse, “Girls don’t belong to the family. They cannot even carry on the family name, so who cares where they end up.” This thought scared her, but also eased her conscience. She tried to smile at me, but I was mad. I closed my eyes tightly and didn’t respond. With the thought of an extra mouth to feed, Mm-Ma’s smile faded.
“Sons are much more valuable,” Mm-Ma unconsciously muttered. “They carry on the family name, produce grandchildren, and take care of their parents when we become old. Woe to son-less parents; they will end up in misery if they live to old age!” She shivered at the thought. “Most important,” she concluded, “sons give their parents a decent burial. One has a great face if there is a funeral procession with many sons in mourning.”
Mm-Ma was a good woman. She was faithful to her family and did what she thought was best for them. Her thoughts were typical for women of her time, who never had a chance for an education. She was also oblivious to anything going on beyond the bounds of her impoverished village.
At daybreak, Mm-Ma reluctantly and painfully pulled herself out of bed. As a peasant woman, she had no time to idle in bed even the morning after giving birth. She was exhausted, but she had a family to feed. Her husband and two sons would surely be hungry when they finished work in the fields. It was early spring, and a new rice-planting season was upon them.
In those days, wives would wait on their husbands like slaves. This terrible tradition had been in practice for thousands of years and applied to all families—poor and rich alike. Most women accepted this as their fate, bearing it all in silence. A rare few would revolt or run away, only to be brought back and punished severely, often a brutal beating. Mr. Hu had no intention to change the tradition, but lucky for Mm-Ma, Mr. Hu was mild-mannered compared to many other Chinese men. He only beat her occasionally. But years later, I learned how Mm-Ma became blind in one eye.
Girls could be excellent helpers, but Mm-Ma would never know. Had she kept her eldest daughter, Mm-Ma might have had help that morning, but she hadn’t. There was no one else in this dark mud hut except me, and I was of no value to anyone.
Opening day at Kiukiang Water of Life Hospital (九江生命活水医院), ca. 1918. This would become Jean’s home after her adoption by the Perkins family.
Mr. Hu finally returned from the rice fields. He went from beating the water buffalo to pushing it to plow the fields. On seeing his tired and muddy face, Mm-Ma said, “Oh, here you are. Well, she (meaning me) has to have a name, even though she’s a girl.” Still fuming, Mr. Hu agreed.
Girls were named after flowers that bloom in the season of their birth. For sons, it was another story. Parents would seek out traditional scholars to find a name that would be favorable according to the year, month, day, and time of birth. Also, to protect their sons from evil spirits, a boy’s name was used only on special occasions or when he went to school. At home, he would be referred to as a dog, or a tiger or some other animal to trick the evil spirits into believing there were no boys around, keeping their sons safe from harm.
It didn’t take long to name me. Practically in unison without much thought, my parents said, “Call her ‘Tren-Hwa (春花),’” which means “Spring Flower.” They didn’t bother to specify which flower. Since there were so many flowers at that time of year, it was simplest to include them all. Also, they didn’t know the exact date on which I was born.
My birth could have been as early as days after the Chinese New Year in 1931. There is a reason why the Chinese New Year is also referred to as the “Spring Festival (春节). It is less of a lunisolar calendar (农历) equivalent of Gregorian’s January first (格里历/西历的元旦) but more of an annual celebration to signal the beginning of the spring. For farming purposes, ancient Chinese had devised twenty-four terms to describe seasons and climates throughout the year (二十四时节/气候). And one of them is called “beginning of spring” (立春: “Li-Chun”), which takes place shortly after the Spring Festival during the first week of February, and is much earlier than Gregorian’s March/Spring Equinox.
Incidentally, the beginning of spring or 立春 is also the time when plum trees blossom (梅花) in Southern China, including the Yangtze River valley. And of course, plum blossom (梅花) historically represents a symbol of China, much as cherry blossoms are a symbol for Japan.
I must also note that my name春花 (Spring Flower) should be Romanized as “Chun-Hwa” and not “Tren-Hwa.” Perhaps, when my Americans parents heard my birth mother say “Chun,” it sounded to them like “tren.” In any case, the misspelled, or mispronounced name “tren” would become a saving grace for me many years later.
So Spring Flower I became, whether I was born in February or May. Giving me a name, though, did not mean my parents had decided to keep me. Mm-Ma remained determined to find a future mother-in-law for me and send me away as soon as she could.
For months, Mm-Ma searched in vain, without a glimmer of hope. She didn’t enjoy carrying me on her back while trudging along the dirt roads on her tiny bound feet. To win the hearts of a family that might take me in as a possible future daughter-in-law, they had to see me in person, like an interview. With bound feet that were only five inches long and me on her back, she found it challenging to stay upright even on level ground. I don’t know how she did it with her bound feet, but during busy seasons, my poor Mm-Ma also had to work in the rice fields. In any event, in my defense, none of this was my fault. I was not her firstborn, and I never asked to be married off at the age of three months.
I should add that Mm-Ma hated having her feet bound. However, for her generation and those before, it was the fashion—and compelled by force. Men would not marry a woman with standard-size feet. The smaller, the daintier a woman’s feet were, the increased likelihood she could be betrothed. So Mm-Ma could only walk as fast as her special-made heels would allow her. I wouldn’t even call them feet, they were so deformed. All that was left were her toes, ankles, and arches. These fragmented parts had been crushed to pieces and recalcified to make her feet as small as possible. They were a mangled mess.
There was a cruel joke that women had their feet bound so they couldn’t run away from their men. Mm-Ma used to think it was funny, but now that she needed to cover as much ground as she could in her search for a future mother-in-law, Mm-Ma wished she had the biggest feet in the world. She also found breastfeeding upsetting. Why should she have to feed a worthless baby girl?
As the months passed, the issue took a turn, and Mm-Ma became afraid she might get attached to me. Taking care of me for an extended period, she might lose the will to give me up. Breastfeeding was a natural form of birth control and would at least delay her next pregnancy. But when mothers breastfed their babies until they were two or even three, it could lead to infantile malnutrition diseases such as vitamin A deficiency and partial or complete blindness.
But I digress. Mm-Ma wanted to be fertile to have another baby boy. She knew she was running out time. She did have two more births after me; both of them were girls.
As if the frustration I’d brought wasn’t enough, the weather was also terrible. What had begun as typical spring showers turned into a steady downpour, day after day with no break in sight. While farmers needed ample water for rice planting, too much could rot the roots and drown the entire plant. Every day, Mr. Hu looked to the sky, hoping for the sun to shine.
While trotting home one day from another unsuccessful hunt for a mother-in-law, Mm-Ma noticed the water levels rising along the northern riverbanks. She also noticed the river was wider. She’d grown up along these riverbanks, and she knew something was wrong. With the rain coming down in torrents, she started to run, and I didn’t make things easier for her with my cries of hunger.
As soon as she got home, Mr. Hu walked in from the fields, Mm-Ma, completely drenched, asked anxiously, “Lao Hu ya (老胡呀), do you suppose there’s going to be a flood? The river is rising rapidly.” Ya (呀) is a term of endearment. Lao-Hu (老胡) was a common phrase referring to one’s husband. Hu was the family name, and Lao means “old.”
“It’s possible,” Mr. Hu answered with a deep tone, as he glanced out the door.
Mm-Ma too looked out and saw the pond near their hut overflowing onto the rice fields, which Mr. Hu had tried all morning to drain.
“If the rain doesn’t stop, we are in deep trouble,” Mr. Hu rumbled to no one in particular. “There will be no harvest this fall, and we will all starve. The rain is drowning our crops—and us.”
Mm-Ma scanned the interior of the hut with our meager belongings. Crude as they were, they were too precious to lose. This hut had been her home for a long time. I never found out exactly when Mm-Ma’s mother gave her away as a future daughter-in-law. My parents had been married for at least twenty-five years when I was born. It was not only the custom to marry young, marrying away girls when they were infants was common.
Mm-Ma’s wedding bed was the only thing in the house that had a touch of grandeur. It wasn’t as grand as the rich had, with fancy carvings on the bedposts, but hers did have a wooden top with strips of traditional blue flower cloth hanging down like curtains that could be drawn at night to keep mosquitos out as well as for privacy. There were painted wooden panels that had seen their better days covering both edges of the bed, so one could use the bed as a table, a desk, or a wooden seat also.
On the other side of the hut were two boards, each the width and length of a door, supported by homemade benches. These were my elder brothers’ beds. A not-too-sturdy table stood in the middle of the hut where the family could eat, but more often than not, each person would take a bowl of rice with homemade pickled vegetables and have their meals in the courtyard by the rice fields. Except for Chinese New Year, there was rarely enough food to fill the table.
While Mm-Ma looked around thinking about what to take in the event of a flood, her five-inch bound feet were busy rocking me in a wooden crib, the same crib all the siblings, now dead or alive, had slept in. All mothers in China had wooden cradles. The only way they could get anything done with screaming infants was to rock them with one foot while working with their hands. A Chinese woman’s hands were never idle. Mm-Ma was either sewing new clothes from cloth she’d woven on her precious loom or making cloth shoes for the family.
As Mr. Hu fell asleep, Mm-Ma’s eyes finally rested on her spinning wooden wheels. At last, she was calm, and she knew she had to work late into the night after wasting a whole day looking for a mother-in-law. Without these late-night hours spinning cloth, the family would not have clothing. It was pitch dark, and Mm-Ma could hear the rain still pouring down. From time to time, she stood up to stretch her legs by the window. As she glanced back at the wooden cradle, she could hear the river rising. She began to think there might be a flood likes the ones she’d heard about as a child, and she wondered aloud, “What will happen to us? What will we do with Spring Flower (我们咋么办哪? 春花又咋么办呐?)?”
One of the most massive floods in nearly a century was about to hit….
Jean’s father, Dr. Edward C. Perkins, at the Water of Life Hospital morning clinic, ca. 1920s.
Editor’s Note: Jean’s story continues as she marries and becomes an ophthalmologist specializing in glaucoma. Her husband became a prisoner of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Later, Jean served as a translator for Communist Party Chairman and Premier Hua Guo-Feng. After an American doctor found her, she was able to return to the United States. Book Two will be published in 2022.
We wish to thank Richard Perkins Hsung and Arnie Kotler for making this excerpt of “Spring Flower – A Tale of Two Rivers” available to East Wind ezine readers.