Monday, March 31, 2014

In Honor of Family

Photograph by David Schlatter

My first book, At Home in Her Tomb: Lady Dai and the Ancient Chinese Treasures of Mawangdui, describes a woman and her elaborate tomb─the memorial created by a grieving family. Writing this book was not only a fascinating intellectual endeavor for me, but also a personal journey of connection to my extended family and our ancestors.

After growing up in China, my parents immigrated to America in 1946. My brothers and I were born in the Northeast, and then we moved to the Midwest when I was three years old. So I grew up far from the land of my heritage. 

But every summer we drove from Kansas City to Toronto for reunions with our extended family. (My father's parents and siblings had also immigrated to the USA or to Canada.) There I was aware of belonging to a large family, a long history, and a complex culture beyond my everyday life. I was surrounded by my grandparents, uncles, and aunts chatting in Cantonese while I played with my cousins. I was introduced to dimsum—small plates of juicy dumplings, steamed buns, and other mouthwatering treats—plucked from carts rolling between a restaurant's giant round tables. I remember my grandfather giving me candy from a secret cache high on his closet shelf, but I also sensed that the entire family treated him as the most honored member.

When I was a mother with two young children, my own mother died. My parents always being there had been my secure foundation, but that shifted with her death, leaving a hole of grief and vulnerability in my life.

In November 1999, I traveled with my father to Taiwan and China. Serendipitously I stumbled upon a special exhibit of Han dynasty artifacts at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. This was the first time I had ever heard of the three tombs of Mawangdui, but I was immediately hooked on learning more about them. Who were the mother, father, and son buried in the tombs? Why would their family bury them with so many treasures, including personal items like the mother's cosmetics case, the father's signature seals, and the son's zither? 

The next week, we journeyed to the southern Chinese village where my father's family has lived since the late 1500's. Along with two dozen relatives living in or near the village, we visited the cemetery where four generations of our ancestors are buried. In front of their niches, we lit candles and incense, offered food and drink, and burned mock money and paper clothes—modern versions of rituals performed for thousands of years. I was struck by the realization of being connected to these people whom I'd never met, yet were literally part of me.

After lighting candles and incense, we set out food and drink in front of our ancestor's niches.

Three years later in June 2002, my father took me, my brothers, and our families to visit his homeland. We entered the Forbidden City, inspected the First Emperor's terracotta troops, sailed down the Yangzi River, and saw where my parents had lived and been schooled.  

I took a side trip to Changsha to see the Mawangdui tomb site and the many artifacts in the Hunan Provincial Museum. By then, I had studied enough about Mawangdui to be completely agog at seeing the silk-draped body of Lady Dai and the cavernous tomb of her son.

The following day twenty-one of us from America and ten of us from China met at the same cemetery I had visited before. My daughters, nieces, and nephews participated for their first time in the traditional rituals of lighting candles and incense, offering food and drink, and burning mock money and paper clothes. I marveled at the continuity of life that bound us together across centuries and continents: four generations of living descendants paying our respects to four generations of ancestors. As I watched the smoke from the burning paper rise into the sky, I saw an image in my mind of an endless queue of our ancestors winding across the cemetery.

It is believed that burning mock money and other paper goods sends them to the ancestors. 

Through seeing artifacts from the Mawangdui tombs and performing rituals at my ancestors' graves, I could imagine the family of Lady Dai expressing their love and respect in creating an elaborate tomb for her. I could identify with her family through my experiences of missing my own mother and of honoring my ancestors. And through learning about Lady Dai and her world, I understand more of the history and meaning behind the rituals my family performs to commemorate our loved ones.


Posted by Christine Liu-Perkins, author of At Home in Her Tomb, which releases on April 8, 2014. Find out more about her at

Monday, March 17, 2014

"When I'm Good, I'm Very Good. But When I'm Bad I'm Better."

 Mae West spoke those provocative lines in the movie I'm No Angel, and women have been identifying with it ever since. But women were bad a lot further back than that 1933 movie. Find twenty-six of the world's most notorious females in Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves, & Other Female Villains by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple, with illustrations by Rebecca Guay.

Modern Times and Changing Gender Roles

If Salome dropped her veils today, would we call her bad? Or would we arrest her parents for a variety of crimes against a child? If Mata Hari made up a whole new self tomorrow and danced her way into a criminal lifestyle, would we execute her or send her to counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder? Would we encourage Lizzie Borden to move into her own apartment, Bloody Mary to establish an ecumenical council, and Typhoid Mary to take some nursing courses at a community college? Would we still consider these women bad? Or would we consider them victims of bad circumstances? As our world changes, so does our definition of bad. Especially when it comes to half the world's population--the half that happens to be female.

With women's relatively new rights--to speak out, to vote, to have power over their own bodies--comes a new set of responsibilities. Women are no longer required to do a man's bidding--no matter whether that bidding is legal or not. But no longer can a woman say that she was just followign a man and count that as justification for bad acts.

We measure guilt and innocence today on a sliding scale. And never has it been easier for the general public to "weigh" the misdeeds of its favorite modern-day bad girls. The nightly news, tabloids, blogs, and the fast pace of the Internet all make sure of this. Today, as throughout history, the court of public opinion is capable of swaying or tempering the criminal courts.

Now that you have been introduced to some of history's bad girls, you will have to decide for yourself if they were really bad, not so bad, or somewhere in the middle. And perhaps you will see that even the baddest of bad girls may have had a good reason for what she did.

from the Conclusion of Bad Girls

March is Women's History Month!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Sloth Bears and Sun Bears and Grizzlies, Oh My!

I didn’t know it at the time but the seed for Wild About Bears was planted in my mind twelve years ago when my husband, three children, and I traveled by car from Maine to Montana. 

Friends, guides, and park rangers had all told us that the chance of a bear encounter would be next to nil. Boy, were they wrong. Minutes after passing through the gate into Glacier National Park we spotted two black bears close to the road. Later that afternoon, after hiking a well-traveled path, we spied two grizzlies meandering down that very same trail. We started to call ourselves bear magnets!

Grizzly & Discovery Center, West Yellowstone

Later that week, after seven hours in the saddle on the first day of a pack trip, we found ourselves deep in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, camping beside a beautiful mountain meadow and a clear cold stream. That afternoon my husband, blissfully fly-fishing downstream, looked up to see a large bear standing up and staring at him from thirty feet away on the opposite bank. Defying the rule “Never run from a bear,” he turned tail and sprinted, yelling and gasping for breath. At an altitude of 8,000 feet, needless to say he did not get very far. Luckily the bear did not follow . . . or so we thought.

Within the hour I spied the same bear in our camp curiously peering at us from behind a tree, almost as though he were playing hide and seek. He was much too close for comfort. Our guide and wranglers had to run him off two different times before he was gone for good.

That night our family of five settled uncomfortably in our tent. My husband, a shovel by his side as his weapon of choice, didn't sleep a wink.

The seed thus had been sown, along with great memories and a love, fascination, and respect for bears. Wild About Bears is the result.

Original artwork from Wild About Bears

Years later, my husband and I built a small home in Montana, just an hour from Yellowstone National Park. I am always on the lookout for bears. My husband prefers to watch from the car. 

Wild About Bears will be published on March 11, 2014, and I am jumping for joy at the prospect of visiting schools to share the many bear facts I have been collecting for several years. Kids will marvel at the uniqueness of each of the eight bear species as well as the commonalities they share.

I am currently working on the illustrations for The Decorated Horse, written by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent (forthcoming from Charlesbridge).

Posted by Jeannie Brett, author and illustrator of Wild About Bears. Visit Jeannie's wesbite at, "like" her on facebook, and follow her on twitter, @jeanniebrett. Be sure to check out the Wild About Bears facebook page too!