Excerpt from Autobiography (2)

Ying’s recollection of his great-uncle from his autobiography:

From Warriors to Gentlemen

Of my grandfather’s siblings, the one I was closest to was great uncle Number Four, the wrestling champion. He had an official name, but everyone knew him as simply “Ying Siye” or Fourth Master Ying. He took his career as a wrestler very seriously, building up a reputation for himself in those circles. I loved to go with him to Tianqiao, where all the popular entertainments took place. He would be greeted by the itinerant wrestlers there, which was great business in Beijing, and he’d be given the best seat and a special cup of tea. He loved taking me there because I had such a good appetite. These people admired anyone who could eat a lot of meat. He took each of my two older brothers out to the matches a few times before he took me out—but every time he did that, the next day my mother would complain to him, saying, “Where did you take him? The boy is sick, he ate too much.” I, on the other hand, never complained. So, in the end, it was I who had the honor and amusement of accompanying him to the matches, not my brothers. He even preferred to take me rather than his own sons.

I never saw my own grandfather alive, but all my elders claimed that as Fourth Master Ying grew older, the likeness between the two became more and more marked. When I played the role of a 70-year-old man in the stage adaptation of Lao She’s Rickshaw Boy, I made myself up to look just like my great uncle, and my mother and all my relatives of that generation were tickled by the similarity—they could see from my makeup and from the way I played the role that I had him in mind as a sort of inner image. His head was usually shaved, because he had all his hair cut off after the 1911 Revolution and remained bald ever since…

Until his last days, Fourth Master Ying was tough. One of the things he loved to do when he came to our place was to show off the muscles on his legs. He’d say, “Come over and feel that.” We’d all have a feel and it was like a rock. That’s part of the reason he was such a good wrestler. Part of his training was in massage and various drugs for healing injuries. I still remember once when I was about eight years old, I jumped off the top of a high wall as the result of a bet with a friend. When I reached the ground something happened to the muscles in my leg. My mother was so worried that she took me to the Beijing Union Medical Center Hospital. It seemed to be very serious, a bad muscular sprain. When Fourth Master came to our house, my mother told him about it, and he said, “Oh, let me take care of the boy.” He made a mixture with alcohol as a base and some herbal medicine added to it. He rubbed my leg with the concoction and even lighted it with a match which ignited the alcohol, so it looked rather frightening. He prayed over my leg, while it was on fire, and sure enough the next day I started walking freely—and in about three days’ time the pain was gone and the injury was healed…

Because of his associations with the underworld, he admired a kind of people in old Peking who were more or less carefree hooligans. According to him, these people formed gangs and collected protection money from the shops. They had their own moral code, and they never asked for too much. He used to tell stories about these people, and most of these tales involved their ability to withstand pain. This was a great achievement, because physical torture was still regarded as the official way of defeating the unruly elements of society. Anyone involved in a criminal case or even a misdemeanor would get beaten up upon arrival at court. These people prided themselves on their tolerance for pain. They’d never shout, never make a sound, but would silently endure all these punishments until the torturers had no choice but to admire their courage…

Fourth Master used to tell us horror stories about two factions of these people who were competing for a section of the city to extort money from the shops, each faction having its own sphere of influence. They arranged a bizarre duel in which iron pokers were placed in the stove until they were red-hot, and then they took turns holding them with their bare hands. He said he could smell the flesh being barbequed alive. Sometimes they would pick up red-hot coal balls and place them on their laps with a pair of pinchers. They did this to see who could stand the greater pain without begging for mercy. My great uncle was in one of these gangs himself, and I imagine he must have been one of the winners in these grotesque competitions…

Fourth Master Ying admired appetite and he admired strength. Even in his later years, he could still pull a bow and arrow. His bow was so tough that even two children together couldn’t pry it open…

My great uncle Fourth Master Ying died in December 1948. I was already a student at Qinghua University when I attended his funeral.


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