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Xiao Zhang

Xiao Zhang studied journalism and worked at daily newspapers and wire services in the U.S. between 1998 and 2006. She first joined the Grand Forks Herald as an intern in 2001 and later worked as a full-time reporter until 2004. She now lives in Beijing in her home country of China and enjoys reading, writing and traveling in her spare time.

XIAO ZHANG: ‘Mosaic: A Family Memoir Revisited’

It is precarious to have a writer in the family. Renowned Chinese writer Eileen Chang was said to have based many characters in her novels on her relatives. “She had nothing else to write about, so she wrote about her own family and its ugliness,” a Shanghai magazine quoted a distant relative of hers almost 10 years after her death.

Another Chinese novelist, Yan Lianke, said his county’s Party propaganda head once called him “the most unpopular person in the county” because many of Yan’s fellow villagers believed he was writing about them in his books (and making them look bad).

In the case of British biographer Michael Holroyd, when he tried to publish his novel based in part on his family some 50 years ago, his father protested angrily and threatened to take legal action. “Had you written down the name and address of the family you could hardly have done more to ensure that they were identified,” Holroyd’s father stated.

As a compromise, Holroyd got the novel — his “limping attempts to become a writer” in his early 20s — published across the Atlantic Ocean in the United States instead of in his home country.

But a decade after his parents passed away and when he had become an established biographer with volumes on Bernard Shaw and Lytton Strachey, he produced a family biography. “Basil Street Blues” told the story of the decline of the Holroyd family and its fortunes in the span of a century.

Through his grandfather and his father’s misadventures in business, as well as his grandfather’s expensive extramarital affair, the wealth of the family — “a fabulous Indian tea fortune” inherited by his grandfather — trickled down in the two generations preceding him into nothing.

The book was part detective story, part genealogy and part comedy. The veteran biographer that he is, Holroyd dug up newspaper articles, marriage registrations, wills and a number of other records to reveal a suicide, affairs, secret love letters and financial details of the family. In the process he strung together a series of lively characters and stories that formed what we today would probably call a dysfunctional family:

Aunt Yolande’s furious long walks, his parents’ silent exchanges through letters he wrote on their behalf, his grandmother’s “empty plotting” and the whole family shouting over one another under one roof. He did not even leave out non-Holroyd characters such as his grandfather’s mistress, Agnes May — a serial bride who constantly changed her name and family story on her marriage certificates, using each husband to climb up the social ladder a bit more. In fact, he especially didn’t leave her out, going through years of phone books and doggedly knocking door by door just to track down a photograph of her, as described in his subsequent book, “Mosaic: A Family Memoir Revisited.” It’s amazing none of these characters stood up from their graves to complain.

Holroyd wrote in “Mosaic” that perhaps his dogged hunt for information on people like Agnes May was revenge, against someone who wounded his grandfather. But I think there are other reasons: When we are young and forming our identity, we go through the phase of wanting to erase any family imprint on us. But as we get older, some of us enter a phase of wanting to know everything about the family history — relevant or otherwise — especially when we start to have fewer and fewer family members to seek answers from. Ironically, the discovery of our family history when we think we know who we are in a way further forms our identity.

As someone who grew up in urban China and continues to live here today, I picked up “Basil Street Blues” because a) it was free, b) I love good tales. But I didn’t expect to feel much of a connection with the book, with the English life. Sure, bits and pieces just flew over my head. Crickets? It doesn’t matter whether the author or his Uncle Kenneth was playing, all I could do was stare at the page blankly. The names of those who were at his great-grandfather’s funeral? Skipped unless I belonged to the British upper-middle class in the early 1900s.

But I found the shakeup of the British society through the two world wars interesting. The determination of some to move up, if by creating imaginary versions of their own past; the loss of fortune and comfort of others and their struggles following the war; all of this told through the stories of one family’s defeat, change and love.

The book throughout conveys such sadness — the family decline, Holroyd’s father’s struggle with employment after World War II and his desperate effort to direct the son into a path that avoids such failure, Holroyd’s mother’s having to work for the first time in her life well into her 50s when none of her previous years prepared her for this and his aunt’s lost love and being trapped in the family for life. But Holroyd told all of the stories through such humor and gentleness that it is hard not to notice the love he never said out loud to this family.

He wrote in “Mosaic” that he wishes his words would “call up spirits from the deep” because “if they could reappear between the covers of my book and somehow touch other people’s lives, then death itself perhaps might be less final.”

I think he did it.

XIAO ZHANG: Up The Mountain, Load By Load

So there they were, taking each step slowly and with great care. They usually put one hand on the iron chains that run along the steep path that goes up the mountain, while leaving the other hand on the carrying pole on their shoulder for balance. From a few steps behind, you could hear them breathe, heavily: One step they would inhale; the next, exhale.

The porters are an amazing sight on Mount Hua in western China. They climb the mountain with at least 110 pounds of goods on their backs every day, rain or shine. And on this snowy day in March 2011, I got to watch in awe how they trek some of the most dangerous trails I had ever seen.

Some 75 miles from China’s ancient capital Xi’An, Mount Hua is known as one of the Five Great Mountains in China and is famous for its Daoist traditions. It is also famous for having some of the most hazardous trails in China — steep, narrow and often exposed on bare rocks.

Sure, there are stairs running up the mountain, as in many of the country’s mountains, but some patches of the pathways go up almost vertically, and climbers have to hold on tight to the handrails or iron chains for their dear life and slant their feet to increase contact with the tiny and uneven stone stairs. One misstep, and the hiker could fall into the abyss.

The climb up Mount Hua is exhausting and risky for even day hikers carrying only a light backpack containing water and a few snacks. But porters have to balance more than 100 pounds of goods on their shoulders while making the same trip, day after day, sometimes in bad weather conditions, often with swarms of sightseers trying to pass them and hurry on to the next site.

On the day I went, the snow started in the early morning but got heavier as the day went by. Fresh snow on the mountain paths was especially sticky and slippery. Some of the more stunning sites were closed out of safety concerns; and by midafternoon the mixture on the ground had turned into a combination of snow, ice and slush.

It was under such dicey conditions when I caught up with a group of porters. Their yokes stretched across the path and on them were boxes of beer, cooking oil, instant noodles and whatever else needed by the hotels up the mountain. Every few minutes, they would shift the wooden pole from one shoulder to another.

There’s a silent rhythm among the group: they trekked slowly but steadily, as if they had measured with precision the time to spend on each step. But they hardly stopped to have a rest. I guess when you are carrying such a heavy load, it’s hard to get the momentum going once you stop.

But during the few breaks they did take, I learned a few things about them. A porter typically carries more than 50 kilograms of goods (about 110 pounds), and gets paid Rmb0.8 for each kilogram he moves up the mountain. Most of them make just one trip up the mountain each day, which gets them a little more than Rmb40 (around $6), about half the price a tourist pays to ride the cable up to the north peak, or probably just enough to buy a couple of beers served by the shops on the mountain. If they work every day, their monthly wage would be about Rmb1,200 to Rmb1,500, much less than the national average for migrant workers in 2011 (around Rmb2,000). And the porters don’t get paid extra in bad weather conditions. (All the numbers mentioned were from 2011.)

None of the porters I ran into was young — the younger generation tends to be better educated than their fathers, allowing them to get better-paying jobs; and unlike their fathers, they have no appetite for such grueling work.

One man going up the mountain by himself looked older than the groups of porters I saw (probably in his late 50s) and walked at a much slower pace. He was carrying 50 kilograms of cement up for some pathway being built — to make the mountain more accessible to tourists like me, I suppose — and got a slightly better rate of Rmb1 per kilogram, i.e., he would make Rmb50 or $7-plus for the day. But he started his day at 5 a.m. and hadn’t even reached his destination by the time I ran into him at around noon.

The man was from the neighboring Sichuan province and told me that he had hardly taken a day off in the 10-plus years that he had been doing this. “Yesterday, the snow was even worse than today,” he said. “And a lot of people (porters) took the day off. But I carried 75 kilograms of cement up the mountain.”

He said he has a wife and a child back home in Sichuan and that he misses them very much.

Walking behind these porters, I slowly acquired their rhythm. Not too fast, I told myself constantly. And going slowly allowed me to always feel a certain level of energy hidden inside me, ready to be drawn upon at all times.

I was more than annoyed when tourists passed the porters without care — sometimes a hiker’s shoulder touched the load a porter was carrying, breaking his balance. To do this on a steep, narrow mountain trail was not only careless but also disrespectful for others’ lives.

Most of the time, though, the porters were left alone to walk. Their steps were slow, measured and solid. But once in a while, they paused to regain balance on a particularly slippery patch.

And each time a porter faltered to find his balance, I felt as if my heart quivered. I was afraid they might fall backward onto me, knocking me off the trail and into the abyss. But even if they just accidentally broke a bottle of beer or crushed some instant noodles they were carrying, it would create no small hardship for them.

Xiao Zhang initially wrote this story in March 2011 following her trip to Xi’An, Shaanxi Province in western China; she revised it this week for unheralded.fish.