Jean Liu
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Finding Sima Wensen

Introduction to "Under the Shade of Our Tree", a new project about Chinese writer Sima Wensen 司马文森.

 
My grandmother Lei Weiyin (雷维音) and grandfather Sima Wensen (司马文森) in Indonesia, during the early 1950s.

My grandmother Lei Weiyin (雷维音) and grandfather Sima Wensen (司马文森) in Indonesia, during the early 1950s.

One hundred years after my grandfather was born and forty-eight years after his death, I went looking for him...

"Where are you from?" As the daughter of Chinese immigrants to Canada, I've faced this seemingly simple question all my life. Yet in attempting to answer it, I've experienced internal conflict, mired in the complexities of language, heritage, and an unspoken pressure to assimilate. But to be culturally adrift is to be alone, isolated from the past. And so, to understand where I really come from, I've turned to the past to find my familial, cultural, and spiritual roots.

I've started tracing the extraordinary life of my maternal grandfather: the celebrated writer, filmmaker, and diplomat Sima Wensen (司马文森). Born in 1916, his story was an adventure that spanned countries as well as defining events in modern Chinese history — from the desperate poverty of 1920s Fujian, to the bustling Southeast Asian communities of overseas Chinese; from the front lines of Chinese literary resistance in the Second Sino-Japanese War to the birth of New China in Tiananmen Square; and from the Cold War intrigue of the Hong Kong film scene to the Chinese embassies in Indonesia and France. A larger-than-life, vivacious figure, Sima Wensen remained joyful and endlessly curious throughout his life, in spite of the horrors he witnessed during wartime.

But his story ended abruptly and tragically, following a brutal beating in 1968 during the Cultural Revolution. The traumatic nature of his death reverberated through the lives of his widow and six daughters — my maternal family — and his loss has haunted them, even to the present day.

In 2016, forty-eight years after my grandfather's death, I embarked on a journey to learn about his life. I've scoured the scholarly literature for information about him, chasing his name through footnotes and references. I've also begun collecting his own numerous works, with the help of friends, relatives, and strangers from all over the world.

Although I never had the opportunity to meet him, my grandfather left behind a lifetime of experience through his novels, magazines, articles, letters, and photographs. And yet, these precious materials are frustratingly inaccessible due to my lack of proficiency in the Chinese language. So another barrier has had to be overcome. My determination to hear my grandfather's voice has inspired me to learn our language again. Using half-forgotten Chinese skills to pry open closed doors, I am slowly learning the lessons my grandfather has left to teach me. He is showing me what it means to be Chinese, what happens when we leave our homeland, and how a family's deep bond can transcends words, continents, and even time.

Most importantly, through his life and work, he is showing me where I come from.

4 February 2017  London