Ai Qing’s Wetnurse

I’ve been listening to Ai Wie Wie’s memoir 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, where he writes eloquently about his father’s life that in so many ways mirrored his own. Both father and son had been persecuted by the state. Although I’ve been following Ai Weiwei’s life and works for years, his father was always in the background until now. That is, a good book is one that leads me to another.

Ai’s father, Ai Qing was a well-known poet. Pablo Neruda, a contemporary and friend, referred to Ai Qing as the ‘Prince of Poets.’ Of the many fascinating episodes in his father’s life that Ai Weiwei recounts, there’s one that I can’t get out of my head. Ai Qing’s family belonged to the gentry in China in the early 1900s and as was the custom, babies were fed and mostly cared for by their wetnurses. In Ai Qing’s case, his wetnurse Dayanhe had several children of her own. For Dayanhe to secure employment as a wetnurse, she had her last child – a girl – killed. As Ai Weiwei explains it (forgive the paraphrase, but I’m working from an Audible book), so was the need for income from being a wetnurse and the prestige of working for Ai Qing’s family, the sacrifice was understood and not uncommon. Ai Weiwei adds that even today it is not unheard of in poor rural areas of China.

This is one of those examples of the lives of women and girls being expendable, disposable, and defined by their willingness to forgo something precious for themselves and others to survive.

AI Qing’s’ his first collection of verse (1936) was titled after a poem about his wetnurse that bore her name Dayanhe. Trying to find a copy of this book in English, I’ve stumbled across summaries of the poem which euphemistically call her a ‘foster nurse,’ a ‘childhood nurse’ or ‘the woman who reared him.’ There appears to be something about wetnurses that requires censoring.

In ‘Dayanhe’ Qing praises his nurse’s character as steadfast and kind-hearted, describing her life of poverty. Without a specific mention of the infanticide that she and her family committed, he writes of her ‘lifetime of humiliation at the hands of the world’ and suggests her fate was shared by all oppressed women in China. The poem ends with a dedication to these Chinese women: ‘Dedicated to all of them on earth, the wet-nurses like my Dayanhe, and all their sons.’