My grandfather Liu Chengyu was a scholar revolutionary bent on overthrowing China’s Qing (aka Ch’ing) Dynasty in the early 1900s. He was also a poet and author. Alas, in keeping with the custom of humility in Chinese culture, he wrote little directly about himself. His anecdotes instead relate to little-known twists in Chinese history and tales of his many friends, who ranged from notorious warlords to the leaders of the Chinese Revolution led by Dr. Sun Yatsen. Occasionally, though, he dropped personal details that have provided me with extraordinary insights into the history of my biracial family.
My grandfather published his anecdotes in the mid-1940s in books that I found in the East Asian collection of UCLA. I had to hire a scholar of classical Chinese to translate them for me, but once I could finally read his work, I understood the sense of kinship I’d long felt for this grandfather, who died in China the same year I was born in Connecticut.
Called Papa in our family, my dad’s father was the only other writer in our family. His poetry is gorgeous, filled with meandering paths and mountain spirits, bridges beyond bridges, and mysterious gates into a world that seems to me as remote and inaccessible as the Middle Ages. He wrote with immediacy of this realm of emperors and palanquins, viceroys and concubines, because it was the world he knew best. His father, my great-grandfather, was an imperial magistrate. Yet Papa Liu Chengyu was determined to upend his known world to bring democracy to the Middle Kingdom.
The revolutionaries pull some strings
America must have seemed as alien to Papa as Imperial China seems to me, but he approached it as a fan. That’s what drew him to the man known as the Father of Modern China, Dr. Sun Yatsen. Papa wrote, “We believed the time had come to bring down China’s Ch’ing dynasty and replace it with a modern republic.” Like the United States.
Sun Yatsen appointed my grandfather to edit San Francisco Chinatown’s revolutionary newspaper, Ta Tung Daily. The paper’s agenda was to raise funds for rebel action from overseas Chinese — including the journeymen who had come…