“Once Our Lives” by Qin Sun Stubis

Qin Sun Stubis (photo: author's website) Qin Sun Stubis (photo: author's website)

At the beginning of Once Our Lives, Qin Sun Stubis’s family memoir, the author’s grandmother feeds a beggar because she feels sorry for him. She is pregnant with the author’s father at the time and goes on to break the traditional month-long confinement after giving birth in order to continue giving food to the beggar. What ensues, according to the grandmother, is a curse that plagues her son throughout her life, and the family indeed meets with much hardship. But so did most people in China between the years of 1942 and 1975, the time in which most of the multi-generation story takes place. Much of the story takes place in Shanghai, a cosmopolitan city when the memoir begins and a place undergoing a deep thaw when it ends.

Stubis is not the first to write about a Chinese family’s history from World War II through the Cultural Revolution, but her book stands out because—at least until she herself comes into the story—it reads like a novel, poetic and descriptive; it can at times be difficult to remember it’s a memoir.


Once Our Lives, Qin Sun Stubis (Guernica Editions, June 2023)
Once Our Lives, Qin Sun Stubis (Guernica Editions, June 2023)

After the curse is placed on the author’s father An Chu, the story quickly reverts to his early adult life when he hopes to marry, but falls short of offering a future bride anything of substance.


According to traditional Chinese courtship customs, a young man was supposed to secure his wedding promise with stacks of gold and silver coins. An Chu’s sleeves carried only wind. He knew the situation was hopeless. He must have been devastated because he decided to abandon his family and friends, leave the city he loved, and set off for a place as far away as the edge of the earth.


That place would be a dusty village in Gansu province on the Silk Route. It’s in this Russo-Chinese border town that An Chu meets Yan, his future wife and the author’s mother. Stubis also narrates her mother Yan’s early years, abandoned by her birth mother after her father is lost at sea, and later again when her adopted mother dies. Yan, like An Chu, sets out from Shanghai in the late 1950s, just before the Great Leap Forward, for China’s “Far West” to help build the new nation. These pioneers are the hope of China until Soviet-Chinese relations fall apart and there’s no longer a need for them to develop border towns.


And what would eventually happen to all the idealistic young pioneers like themselves? They had come all the way here to seek a new future, filled with socialist enthusiasm to help their motherland. And on a personal level, while their adventure had “freed” them from their past, it had also cut them off from their roots. An Chu and Yan had both vowed to run away from the city of Shanghai and never return. Now, they had to discuss the impossible possibility of having to go back and resume their lives there. The question was: How to get back?


It would not be easy. The couple already had their first of four daughters (part of An Chu’s “bad luck” in not having a son) and the volunteers who go out West are all but abandoned when the Great Leap Forward starts and food becomes scarce. It is by great luck—maybe the curse isn’t as strong as first believed?—that the couple and their daughter Ping make it back to Shanghai.


The author is born around 1960, still during the Great Leap Forward, and it’s then that the book takes on the tone of a more traditional memoir. There is some first-person storytelling, although most of the narrative still centers around An Chu and Yan.


Although, in the old days, white skin was a happy sign of high birth and an easy life, Yan knew better. When An Chu was finally allowed to come in to see the baby, it only took five minutes for them to abandon any notion of using one of the many poetic, hopeful, or frilly girls’ names so favored and savored in the old China. Instead, they agreed to call me by the serious-sounding name “Qin.”


Life in Shanghai is not much better than it was in Gansu. The young couple and their daughters first live with An Chu’s family, but Yan wants space of her own. They eventually move into a shanty made from flimsy wood and other materials that can easily blow over in a typhoon. Even when they are allowed to move into a modern home, the family doesn’t find much relief.

The curse of the beggar returns at the end of the story when An Chu is an old man and his mother even older. She continues to blame her son’s string of bad luck on the beggar’s curse, but An Chu knows it was more than superstition that was responsible for his fate.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.