Xie Wanying (1900-1999), one of the most prolific Chinese writers of the 20th Century, better known by her pen name Bing Xin, and her husband Wu Wenzao (1901-1985) tied the knot thanks to a beautiful mistake.

Meeting on a Ship

On August 17, 1923, many young Chinese overseas students gathered at the U.S. Steamer Jackson to depart from Shanghai for Seattle.

Aside from over 100 talents from noted Tsinghua University, Xie, the then 23-year-old emerging literary star well known for her poem collection A Myriad of Stars and novel Superhuman, was also among the passengers.

At that time, she had just finished her studies at Yenching University. Before setting off on her American study journey, she received a letter from her high school classmate Wu Loumei asking her to help look after his younger brother Wu Zhuo, who would be among the Chinese overseas students from Tsinghua, during the voyage.

On the second day the ship sailed, Xie asked her classmate Xu Dishan to help find Wu’s brother. However, he brought Wu Wenzao in front of her by mistake without knowing that the beautiful mistake was the beginning of nearly six decades of a romantic relationship between Xie and Wu.

Simple and plain though he appeared, when it came to literature, Wu listed several famous books written by British and American critics in one breath. He spoke to her with frankness: “If you don’t do more outside reading whilst abroad, you’ll come to America in vain this time.”

Though his words stabbed her proud heart, and they never met each other again during the two-week journey crossing the Pacific Ocean, a seed of love was quietly sowed.

Reaching America

After Steamer Jackson arrived at Seattle, these overseas students wrote down each other’s address and then went their own ways.

Wu scrimped on food and clothing and saved money for books. Each time he finished reading a literary book, he would send it to Xie by post, highlighting contents depicting love.

For such a special kind of expressing his love, she responded with a tacit understanding. Upon receiving his book, she read it immediately and then wrote him letters to report her understanding of the book. “I was quite careful as if reading reference books recommended by a teacher,” she recalled many years later.

As their knowledge increased, their love also deepened.

Two months after Xie enrolled herself in Wellesley College in the west of Boston, she was hospitalized due to an illness. Hearing of this, Wu paid a visit to her ward after a journey of some eight hours by train.

In the spring of 1925, Xie and her fellow Chinese students decided to perform a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Chinese play, The Story of the Lute, for their American friends. Along with her letter she sent Wu a ticket for her performance. Although he answered that he was too busy to come, he showed up in front of her unexpectedly.

That summer, when attending a French course at Cornell University in New York, she found Wu was also among the trainees. Every evening after they left the library, they sat on the stone step chatting with each other.

In her two years abroad, Wu appeared in front of her “by accident” one time after another. One day when they were going boating on a lake, Wu finally confided his love for her.

Returning to China

In February 1929, after earning a doctorate in sociology from Columbia University in New York, Wu got a regular job at Yenching University and a part-time job at Tsinghua University. They then came back to China and paid a visit to the east China cities of Shanghai and Jiangyin to meet each other’s parents.

On June 15, after returning to Beijing, Wu held a simple wedding ceremony at the Lake House in Yenching. He invited his colleagues from the two renowned Chinese universities and classmates, spending only 34 yuan (U.S.$ 5) buying cake, coffee and tea.

Their wedding night was spent in a vacant room at Dajue Temple in the west of Beijing. Aside from the two canvas beds they brought with them, there was also a three-legged table — the newlyweds replaced the lost fourth leg with several bricks. The entire atmosphere demonstrated a kind of romance peculiar to scholars.

Going Through Times of War

In his 10 years at Yenching, Wu put all his energy into promoting the sinicization of sociology while Xie undertook all housework.

In addition to looking after three children and their respective parents, she also needed to cope with various social relationships.

Her delicacy, thoughtfulness and warm-heartedness and Wu’s rigorous, careful and simple character complemented each other. Their home was often filled up by guests, friends, teachers and students.

In 1937, the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression broke out nationwide in China. Unwilling to becoming “colonial slaves”, they moved to Kunming, capital of southwest China’s Yunnan Province, and an area under the rule of the Kuomintang (KMT), then the nation’s ruling party, after Xie gave birth to their youngest child.

After their arrival, Wu was employed by Yunnan University as director of its sociology department. To seek refuge from Japanese bombs, they moved to Chenggong, a suburban district of the city. Later, Xie became a teacher at a local high school.

In 1946, Wu left for Japan to serve as head of the political group of the Chinese delegation to Japan while Xie was hired to teach literature in Tokyo University.

After seeing KMT’s corruption, they returned to their motherland in 1951.

In 1953, Wu was transferred to Minzu University of China in Beijing while Xie joined the China Writers Association. Their son studied architecture at Tsinghua, and their two daughters followed Premier Zhou Enlai’s advice majoring in English.

Hand in hand, the couple then went through the most difficult time in their life, the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), a dark period especially for the nation’s intellectuals. During that period, the eight members of their family had to stay at eight different places.

She once wrote: “There are more rugged paths than smooth ones in one’s life… [Husband and wife should] let go of their pain and encourage and help each other when walking on roads full of thorns.”

In February 1999, the talented writer passed away at a hospital in Beijing at the age of 99.

(Source: Study Times/Translated and edited by Women of China)

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