Bidding farewell to Father
book still sat in the same location.
“Where is the Chao Yang Gou Crematorium?” I asked my sister Wen. “I’d like to go and spend the rest of the night with Father.”
His wake and cremation were scheduled early the next morning.
My words were met with silence. Then, one after another, my sisters and brothers-in-law stated their objections. They spoke
gently, measuring their tone. They told me that Chao Yang Gou was at theoutskirts of the city and difficult to reach at night. The
room where Father’s body was placed was too cold. And it was not safe for me to spend the night there. Looking at their
exhausted faces, I couldn’t bring myself to argue.
Finally, my brother-in-law Minfu said, “Jian Ping, you’ve traveled a long way, and we haven’t slept since yesterday. Why don’t we
all get some rest. I’ll take you to the crematorium early in the morning. Four or five o’clock, you tell me the time.”
I nodded reluctantly.
I wiped away my tears and stared at Father’s image. His look was gentle, a hint of a smile crossing the corners of his mouth. I
called out to him, keenly aware that I’d never hear his response again. For the first time in my life, I felt I had lost my right to be a
child. Despite Mother, the loss of him gave me a sense of being orphaned, a feeling that had hit me during the long flight, and
engulfed me again.
I adored Father and admired his resilience and enthusiasm. He was a strong man all his life. He joined the Communist Eighth
Route Army when he was 18, survived the brutal torture in the hands of the Japanese in 1940 during the Sino-Japanese War, and
eventually rose to become a high-ranking government official. Then the Cultural Revolution turned everything upside down. He was
persecuted and beaten by his own people, the so-called revolutionary masses, and was detained for more than two years by his
own government. When he was “rehabilitated,” he was banished to manage a coal mine instead of being restored to his former
Deputy Governor position at the Baicheng Prefecture. But he didn’t complain. He worked with the same dedication as he had
before. “We need to move forward, not backward,” he said to us.
I found it hard to understand him — his resilience, devotion, and enthusiasm. Father was a chain smoker most of his life. Even
his diagnosis of lung cancer at age 85 didn’t change his habit. The ever-rising blue veil wafting around him seemed to be a curtain
that shielded him from the outside world — including me. Every time I asked him about his experiences during the Cultural
Revolution and his feelings about them, he dismissed my questions with a wave of his hand. “Liu Shaoqi died. Deng Xiaoping was
persecuted. They were the true generals of China. What I went through was nothing,” he repeatedly said, minimizing his own
At 5 a.m. the next morning , Minfu and I, together with my sister Wen and my cousin Yonggui, went to Chao Yao Gou
Crematorium ahead of the rest of the family. The drive was long and the exit to the site was difficult to locate. Once inside, we went
directly to room 206. There he was, lying in a refrigerated coffin surrounded by flowers. I could see him through the glass panel. His
thin, silver hair was combed back, and his lips pursed in, as if he was about to say something. The slight blush of rouge on his
face, applied by his granddaughter Tingting, made him look alive. He looked so peaceful that I felt as if he were resting and could
rise to my call at any moment. Wen announced to him that I, his youngest daughter, was back again from the U.S., and told him a
list of people who had come to pay tribute the day before.
Despite my tears and blurred vision, I couldn’t help from noticing the bright red Communist Party flag over the coffin, with the
yellow sickle and hammer crossing each other on one corner. A pang of pain overwhelmed me. The night before, I had asked Wen
the procedure for Father’s funeral and who would be speaking. I had wanted to say something about Father, celebrating his life
and reminiscing about the treasured memories I had of him. “There will be no funeral,” she said in a soft voice. Seeing my
bewildered look, she added: “It’s a government regulation. No funerals for high-ranking officials.” She explained it was meant to set
a good example for ordinary people. No lavish ceremony or extravagance of spending. “There will be a wake,” she added. “Family
members and friends will be able to say goodbye.” I swallowed hard. Father had devoted his entire life to the cause of the
Communist Party. He deserved better treatment from the party and the government.
At 7 a.m., all the people who came to Father’s wake gathered in a large hall. A representative of the crematorium read a list of
the official positions Father had held at various stages of his career. His voice was loud, but monotone, and his expression blank.
My sisters, in-laws, a nephew and his wife, a niece and I, all lined up next to his body according to our ranking. Mother’s high blood
pressure had shot up to 190. Afraid that the final farewell might be too much for her to bear, my sisters had taken her to say
goodbye to Father the day before, and had arranged to have Wen’s mother-in-law, Ms. Liu, keep her company at home today.
Father’s body had been transferred from the wooden coffin to an open cardboard box, elaborately decorated with a blend of
fabric in burgundy, red and gold colors. He was placed in the center of a large hall, once again, covered with the Communist Party
flag, all the way from his feet to his chest. Earlier when we were in the private room, I had placed the signed copy of my book under
his pillow. I wanted it to accompany him in the last leg of his journey. Now, standing in the large hall by his side, I gazed at him.
After the speaker finished his announcement, all the attendees — Father’s former colleagues, family friends, and representatives
from different government agencies — filed in, walking in a semi-circle around his body to bid farewell, then they walked to us
family members, shaking hands with each of us to give their condolences. I moved my hands mechanically, murmuring “thank
you.” In my heart, I silently went over the words I wanted to say to him. Only the call from Minfu to line up at Father’s feet brought me
back to the present. I stood side by side with my siblings and dutifully knelt on the floor. We kowtowed three times to him.
Upon finishing the kowtow ritual, I didn’t want to stand up, knowing that Father’s body would be pulled away for cremation. My
brother-in-law Zhicheng lifted my arm to help me stand up, unaware I was delaying the process on purpose. But I couldn’t prevent
the workers at the crematorium from whisking his body away. I heard my sister Yan call out after him, “Baba, Nin Zhou Hao!”
“Father, we wish you peace!” Yan and my sister Ping burst into tears. The door closed before I could reach over to take a last look at
Two hours later, we received Father’s ashes wrapped in a piece of cloth and transferred them into a small wooden box. We took
it to a memorial room allocated to government officials. The room resembled a locker room, with metal frames lining the space
from floor to ceiling, dividing storage space into small cubes. Father’s resting place was waist high. My three older sisters gently
covered his ash box with a party flag. I had noticed similar flags placed on top of most of the ash boxes in this room when we
walked in. Then, they took out an array of items from a handbag and placed them in the small cube: a pack of his favorite
Dazhonghua cigarettes, a pine tree that symbolizes longevity, two small towers, one “gold” and the other “silver” to ensure
abundance in his next life, and a plate of fruit. Finally, they made room for a plastic basket of flowers on the far left, and on the right
a mahjong set, his favorite game. They finished the decoration by placing a miniature jade “tombstone” in the middle. It said:
“Father, At Peace Forever. Respectfully Presented by Your Children.” I stood at my sisters’ side, wondering if they realized the
conflicts of their offerings — a symbol of the Communist Party side by side with objects that had long been regarded as
I didn’t raise any questions. Instead, I lined up with my sisters and silently bowed to Father’s small photo on the ash box for a
About the author:
Jian Ping is author of “"Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China." She has a BA degree in English from Jilin University, Changchun,
China and a master's degree in Film and a master's degree in International Affairs from Ohio University.
By Jian Ping
“Your Father is gone,” Mother said in a choking voice over the phone.
“What?” I asked incredulously. I had called my sister Wen earlier in the day and learned my
Father had slept better the night before and had eaten some solid food during the day. There
was a 13-hour time difference between Chicago and Changchun, China, where my parents
lived. When I called again in the evening, Mother’s first sentence froze me on the spot.
“What are you talking about?” I managed to ask, interrupting Mother’s sobbing.
“He was rushed to the hospital shortly after seven this morning and passed away in 10
minutes,” she said after a pause.
I threw a glance at my watch and realized it was less than an hour ago. Father had been
fighting lung cancer for three years. I had just returned from a weeklong visit to him in
Changchun 13 days before. Father was thin and weak then, but he insisted on getting up each
day to watch segments of the Beijing Olympic Games on TV in his study. He had been a fighter
all his life. I believed he could continue his battle with the disease for another year or so. I burst
into tears. I couldn’t find any words to comfort my eighty-year-old mother.
In the end, it was Mother who pulled herself together.
“You’ve just returned to Chicago,” she said. “No need to take the long journey to Changchun
again. There is nothing you can do now.”
I told her I had to go back. Distance and jetlag were of no concern. I must see
him and bid him farewell.
I spent the rest of the evening searching the Internet and talking with airline
representatives. I couldn’t wait another day. Thirty-two hours after I heard the news,
I stepped into Mother’s living room. It was 10 p.m. local time the next day. All my
sisters and brothers-in-law were there. From their red eyes and pale faces, I could
tell they had not slept much.
I sat on Father’s black leather chair in his study and touched the frame of his
photo that had been set up on his desk. Less than two weeks ago, he was sitting
on this chair while I wrapped my arms around his shoulders. “Father,” I whispered
into his right ear. “It’s time for me to leave for the airport ...” The departure had
been very difficult that time and I couldn’t finish my sentence.
Father nodded. Then he raised his head. “Nothing to worry about,” he said in a
hushed voice. “People die all the time.”
I was speechless.
“I wish you a good journey, and you should wish me a good one as well,” he
continued after a pause.
I broke down. Through my tears, I could see he had put my recently published
book, “Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China,” on a shelf above his desk. I had signed
a hardcover copy for him when I got home. Father couldn’t read English, but he
looked at the book and examined each of the family photos in the book. He raised
his thumb and congratulated me. His gentle smile warmed my heart. Now, the
In a small cube that contained the wooden box
housing Father’s ashes, offerings included a pack
of his favorite Dazhonghua cigarettes, a pine tree
that symbolizes longevity, two small towers —
gold and silver — to ensure abundance in his
next life, and a plate of fruit, a mahjong set (his
favorite game). A plastic basket of flowers served
as decor, and a miniature jade “tombstone” in the
middle said: “Father, At Peace Forever.
Respectfully Presented by Your Children.”