Once Our Lives
Life, Death and Love in the Middle Kingdom
by Qin Sun Stubis
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Pub Date 01 Jun 2023 | Archive Date 30 Jun 2023
Guernica Editions, Guernica World Editions
Glamour UK Best New Books of June 2023 Pick
Gold Book Award Winner - Nonfiction Authors Association Book Awards
Once Our Lives is the true story of four generations of Chinese women and how their lives were threatened by powerful and cruel ancient traditions, historic upheavals, and a man whose fate – cursed by an ancient superstition – dramatically altered their destinies. The book takes the reader on an exotic journey filled with luxurious banquets, lost jewels, babies sold in opium dens, kidnappings by pirates, and a desperate flight from death in the desert – seen through the eyes of a man for whom the truth would spell disaster and a lonely, beautiful girl with three identities.
A moving account of family lore and life, Once Our Lives is paradoxically both heartrending and heartening – heartrending in its depiction of this family’s suffering and heartening in its depiction of the love that survives it all. I was riveted and moved.
—Gish Jen, award-winning author of Thank you, Mr. Nixon, featured in The New Yorker’s Best Books of 2022, NPR’s Books We Love, Oprah’s Favorite Books of 2022, and The Best American Short Stories of the Century .
This gripping memoir illuminates the full humanity of real people across four generations as they traverse the tectonics of modern China. A truly haunting tale of resilience, endurance and hope.
—Helen Zia, acclaimed author of Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese who Fled Mao’s Revolution
Qin Stubis combines oral traditions of mythologized family lore with the creative non-fiction writing of memoir. The reader experiences firsthand the vacillations of recent Chinese history.
—Dr. Jennifer Rudolph, Professor, Asian History, WPI, and co-author of The China Questions
A wonderful writer whose extraordinary ability and beautifully descriptive writing allow her to share her unusual experiences with readers in a uniquely powerful way.
—Diane Margolin, editor and publisher, the Santa Monica Star
Qin Sun Stubis is notable for the warmth of her writing and her ability to touch the
hearts and minds of a wide variety of readers – a rare talent.
—Christine Crosby, founder and editorial director, GRAND Magazine
Review copies available for mailing across Canada and the US.
Pitching widely to US media (broadcast/print/radio)
Qin Sun Stubis will be holding launches and readings in Washington D.C., Toronto, and other cities TBC.
Average rating from 11 members
Once Our Lives is the remarkable, true story of a family weathering the storm of China’s tumultuous 20th century. A saga that is breathtaking in scope and heart-wrenching in its harsh realities, Sun Stubis expertly marries the granular with the grand. Once Our Lives reads like a nesting doll of novellas, each section a perfectly polished building block that becomes something more in its larger structure.
At the level of the sentence, the writing is vivid and descriptive, bringing the reader into the narrative as a listener, just as Sun Stubis heard the stories and legends of her family retold by her mother. The tale shifts between that kind of around-the-fire storytelling and firsthand accounts of the brutal reality of life under an authoritarian regime. The scope of the work is astonishing. From the posh cosmopolitanism of Shanghai in the early 20th century to the Wild West of China to the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution and the lasting effects of WWII, Once Our Lives brings to life a succession of vignettes, each with a particular, authentic sense of time and place.
Sun Stubis expertly weaves together folklore and history, teasing out how individuals and families make sense of the inexplicable cruelties and miracles of life. Though I received an advance copy of this book and have written this review without any form of compensation, I can’t wait to buy additional copies for my family and friends. Once Our Lives is a lasting testament to the power of storytelling and the strength of familial bonds.
. So many families have incredible stories of love and endurance that never go beyond the dining room table, Qin Sun Stubis manages to weave her family’s remarkable stories, with historical references, and memories of her own difficult childhood; taking us on an intimate journey through the tumultuous years of China’s cultural revolution. This is an engrossing read filled with vivid imagery and tenderly depicted characters, that will ultimately leave you with a sense of hope.
I received a free advanced copy of this book and was not compensated in any way for my review
'Once Our Lives' kept me drawn in from the start! I prefer non-fiction and this is the true story of four generations, of two families, in China during the early 1900's through the Cultural Revolution to the end of century. There is deep rooted superstition that affect the elders choices and then the following generations. The story takes you on a harrowing adventure of loss, tragedy, suspense, love and hope.
I found 'Once Our Lives' a well written and compelling story throughout. Bravo, Qin Sun Stubis, for taking us on a journey in the lives of your ancestors, and the enduring hope that leads to the rising from the ashes!
I received a free advance copy and voluntarily submitted this review without compensation of any kind.
Review: Once Our Lives
Qin Sun Stubis
Skilled writers create a universe that the reader enters and often does not want to leave. In memoirs, the reader is often intrigued by the writer’s ups and downs, actions, non-actions, reactions, wise or foolish choices and varied adventures. Sometimes, the reader may even be held hostage by the writer’s tale, unable to exit the recreated universe because of its intensity. The latter state accurately describes the newly published memoir, Once Our Lives, by Qin Sun Stubis.
Using the backdrop of modern 20th century China, but never ignoring the deeper background of ancient and ancestor-obsessed China, Qin Sun Stubis paints a bleak and often harrowing portrait of her paternal and maternal families’ struggles to survive life under changing regimes. Natural and man-made disasters abound, from famine and drought to wars, both foreign and domestic, to revolving ideologies, petty jealousies and backbiting, the panorama of life in a vast country seeking to reposition itself on the global stage appears and is examined.
By focusing on the microcosm, her mother’s story, the author does not overlook the macrocosm, which remains the prime mover for all involved—the part that is beyond the protagonist’s control. Although the mother is the primary focus of the narrative, the tale is a “frame story” in which the opening is reflected in the ending and ties into it neatly. The origin of the frame construct involves the author’s father, rather than her mother.
Nonetheless, the technique used to unveil the drama is an ancient one: oral tradition. Stubis gathered her stories from those told to her over and over primarily by her mother but also from other relatives. Children are sponges and absorb what they hear. They are also more in tune with innuendo than most adults realize. Stubis reconstructs the whispers and murmurings as she, herself, was growing up and deftly recasts them for the reader.
In addition to the mother’s tales, Qin and her sisters witnessed firsthand the illegitimate detention and imprisonment of their father during the Cultural Revolution. Years of tumult and wretched poverty when the bread winner of the family was missing resulted in sacrifice and suffering for the mother and children.
Despite the date on the calendar, imperial and ancient China never seem far removed from the “present” in the narrative. The text is rife with superstition, ignorance, and the inhumanity that results from them. Almost from page one, the reader is reminded of the low esteem in which girls are held—an idea not unique to Chinese culture but one that is glaringly recalled by the selling of Chinese baby girls to the highest bidders in recent times.
Given the historic undervaluing of females in China, some of the occurrences that are scandalous in the narrative are less shocking than they might appear in another culture: When she is six years old, Yan, the author’s mother, is given to a couple, relatives, who are unable to have a child. Even more disturbing is that the natural mother and the adoptive mother both seem impervious to the trauma caused by unmooring a little girl from her large (six siblings) family and her natural father, who is not consulted in the transaction and is away at sea when it occurs. After several years, the same barren couple decides it needs a son, and buys one for gold in an opium den!
Naming is key in Chinese culture and seems to resemble in many ways the naming traditions among Native Americans—children are often tagged with names taken from nature, natural phenomena, or desired qualities. Yan is the third name that Qin Sun Stubis’ mother carries: her original name is Ai Zhu meaning “loving pearl”; after her adoption and the beginning of a brief stage career, she is Chon Mei, “worshipping beauty” and finally, Yan, meaning “swallow,” which she retains for the rest of her life.
Ironically, the baby purchased in the opium den is called Chun Gao, “worshipping noble heights,” while Qin’s father’s name An Chu means “peaceful shelter,” something that he is hard pressed to supply for his wife and four daughters. On the other hand, “Qin” means “diligence” and that is exactly what she displays in her life pathway and her ultimate ability to escape poverty and the bias of her native land.
One aspect of Mao Zedong’s reforms that did advantage Qin and her sisters is the decree that all children, boys and girls, receive free education for twelve years. While both of Qin’s parents struggled to learn how to read and write, she and her sisters were able to thrive and succeed through education. In Qin’s case, it was through the study of English and her mastery of it that she ultimately left China and was able to thrive outside of its confines.
In some ways, Once Our Lives represents a reverse Horatio Alger story (riches to rags) since both An Chu and Yan came from well-off families that were decimated by war and political upheaval. The Sun (paternal) family owned a factory that was destroyed in the Sino-Japanese war, while the Gu (maternal) family was upper-middle class and brought low by the redistribution of wealth under the Communist regime. As Stubis astutely notes in the chapter entitled A Topsy-Turvy World: “Under the new reforms, all private property became the property of the government, the people, and the country. Suddenly, everyone owned everything, and no one owned anything.”
An odd combination of fatalism and hope dominates the conclusion of the book. An Chu calls his daughters “my golden phoenixes” and predicts their rise from the proverbial ashes, while at the same time succumbing to ancient lore without objection.
It seems fitting that Qin Sun’s path to freedom and a new life took her to Arizona, the land of Phoenix. For indeed, the mythological bird represents healing, renewal, and rebirth. Qin Sun Stubis has produced a family story that includes indelible and epic events. Temporarily, her universe becomes ours.
Jeanne Fuchs, Professor Emerita
Department of Comparative Literature and Languages