The man behind the Yin Yu Tang house at Peabody Essex Museum
Nancy Berliner, the Wu Tung senior curator of Chinese art at the Museum of Fine Arts, was formerly curator of Chinese art at the Peabody Essex Museum. While at PEM, she was instrumental in the Yin Yu Tang house coming to the museum. The house was built in the 18th century as the residence of a rural Chinese merchant. Since opening to the public in 2003, it has been one of the most popular permanent museum displays in New England.
Huang Binggen was the family representative chosen to assist with the myriad details of bringing his ancestral home from a small Chinese village to a museum in Salem. He died in August.
Chinese New Year’s 2004. Huang Binggen did not look around when he first entered — or shall I say reentered? — Yin Yu Tang in its American location. He walked right through the entrance, across the courtyard, directly into the reception hall where portraits of his ancestors hung, and bowed down — down all the way on his hands and knees, knocking his head to the stone floor — in reverence to them.
The ancestors, and tending to them, were his foremost missions. Missions far more important than beholding the walls around him which, as if by miracle, had reappeared 7,800 miles from their home in a small village in the Huangshan mountain region of China. Binggen had been a constant supporter and facilitator during the seven years of work — family negotiations, research — that had brought the house to America and had organized days of interviews with Binggen’s father, Huang Zhenxin, who had been born in the house, in 1914. Now Yin Yu Tang had immigrated to another land and reopened its doors to a new atmosphere. But Huang Binggen was focused on his ancestors and paying them their due obeisance. Binggen was filial. In traditional Chinese society, there was no higher virtue. Who had instilled this most precious virtue in the young man, and nurtured that virtue over the many hard years of his growing up in Shanghai?
Binggen was born in Shanghai to parents who had already been living there for over a decade. Binggen’s father — like most young men from their region — had left his tiny home village. He’d moved from Huang Cun at the age of 12, to be a businessman. He first worked in his father’s pawnshop, in the southern city of Hankou, and then, for economic reasons they decided to move to Shanghai. A scuffle with a porter on the journey led to Huang Zhenxin father’s sudden and unexpected death and the son’s immediate return to his home village for the funeral. His newly widowed mother hurriedly found her fatherless son a wife, before the official start of the mourning period that would have prevented his marrying for three years. The bride’s family carted a complete set of newly commissioned bedroom furniture and dowry-filled trunks into Yin Yu Tang. The elders performed a wedding, and soon enough Zhenxin was back in Shanghai, establishing a small coal-delivery business with his cousin. In time, Zhenxin brought his young wife, his mother, and even a nephew to be with him in the big city.
The young couple’s first son died at a young age. When the second son arrived, in 1947, a fortune teller suggested he might need extra fire, one of the five principal elements of the universe, to survive. The boy’s parents named him Binggen, specifically selecting the character “bing” with a component denoting “fire.” Binggen grew in health, joined the army, where he entertained his comrades with lively performances of kuaiban, a traditional Chinese form of rhythmic and rhyming storytelling. In time, he studied engineering and worked for a state-owned company that among other enterprises constructed and managed the Four Seasons Hotel in Shanghai. Binggen had not only survived, but succeeded in an urban and professional realm once considered impossible for his family.
Binggen, who had married and had a daughter, cared for his parents. From his father, he heard about the distant ancestral home, Yin Yu Tang, in the mountains of Anhui Province. His father constantly talked about his plans to move back to Yin Yu Tang in his retirement; to raise chickens and pigs and to be able to send fresh meat and eggs at New Year’s to his relatives in the city. Each month, the older man received a bonus for good work habits at his small but now nationalized shop. His wife used the extra funds to buy household items — pots, thermoses — that she put in a box, preparing to take them back to the village one day. In 1976, when a cousin in the hometown suggested the family sell the deteriorating house, the patriarch refused, insisting he would be moving back.
In the mid-1990s, Huang Zhenxin, over 80, told his children that he was ready to head back to the homestead. Binggen tried to talk his father out of the move, explaining that there was no running water, no indoor toilet, no heat, no stores for food shopping, no medical facilities, and no one else residing in the house. His father had not lived in the countryside for over 60 years, had not even been back to Yin Yu Tang for 50 years. How could he really survive there? The older man was determined. “When leaves grow old, they fall towards their roots,” he said, quoting a traditional adage. He had his pots and pans ready. The son, realizing he could not dissuade his father, agreed to accompany him back to the village to explore the situation and consider the possibility. It was 1996, and that trip changed the direction of their lives and even the lives of their ancestors.
Walking around the once-grand but now worn and tired 16-bedroom home and around the village, the aging patriarch realized not only that the house lacked comforts of Shanghai, but that most of his old friends and contemporaries had died. He agreed to return and remain in Shanghai. The local cousin who was also part-heir to the house suggested the family sell the building, which had become a burden. After some discussion, the decision was made. It was then, on Oct. 1, 1996, as the cousins and their families were all poking around the house and taking photographs, that foreigners suddenly appeared.
Thus began the process that brought that ancestral house to America. Huang Binggen, sharing the decision-making with a second cousin, Huang Xiqi, took charge for all family matters. He encouraged the family to let the house go to America. He felt, he said at that point, that the family’s “luck had arrived.” The house that was so important to his father would be preserved. Their family would be the focus of a museum, a deep honor for the ancestors. He threw his energies into the project. He shared all family documents. He urged his elderly father to sit and recollect the stories and events that had happened in the house through the years. “This was meant to be,” he would say over and over to me whenever I saw him during the following 22 years. “It was fate: yuanfen.”
Before the dismantling of the house began, Binggen and his cousin made offerings to their ancestors, who had bequeathed them Yin Yu Tang. As they were bending down to burn faux money for the spirits, filmmakers, who had come to record the dismantling, passed by and saw the ritual about to unfold. In the video, one can hear Binggen and his cousin reassuring the ancestors about the move. Yin Yu Tang became Binggen’s new primary project, and his pride. For his account on WeChat, China’s comprehensive social media app, he used the eponym “Descendant of Yin Yu Tang.” He constantly posted articles, photographs, and videos about Yin Yu Tang.
Huang Binggen’s first visit to Yin Yu Tang in its Salem location was in early 2004, just after it had opened to the public. It was Chinese New Year. Binggen and his family, a daughter, a niece, a nephew, performed private rituals to welcome their ancestors back into their home. They set off fireworks, lit incense, burned paper money, and presented food offerings to welcome their ancestors’ spirits back to their relocated “home” for the New Year.
Chinese New Year is a time of familial gathering. People may travel for days from their urban jobs to be at home. For the entire time Binggen was in Massachusetts he would daily chuckle about how he had to take an airplane around the world to a country he had never been in in order to go home for New Year.
Once Yin Yu Tang opened to the public in Salem, and began appearing in mass media — in China and the United States — Binggen’s friends and work colleagues became aware of the project and Binggen’s role in making it happen. In their eyes, he had good luck. One day, a co-worker came to him. There were lottery tickets for sale, and the co-worker suggested that a group of them purchase a ticket with Binggen, whose luck would surely assist them. Binggen agreed and threw some money into the pot. The day of the drawing arrived and, lo and behold, they hit the jackpot. When Binggen came to America to visit that year, he could not stop smiling. He beamed.
He beamed from his luck at the lottery, and beamed from his thrill that Yin Yu Tang, this out-of-the-blue project that fell into his lap, had, against all odds, succeeded, and from his pride that, of all families, it was his that, seemingly at random, had been selected to represent China in America.
Several years ago, Binggen was coming to the United States for business and arranged his flights so he could visit “his home” in Salem. He again marched straight into Yin Yu Tang’s reception hall and bowed down before his ancestors’ portraits, a small wail erupting from his vocal cords as he greeted them. The wails became louder when we climbed to the second floor and entered the bedroom of Binggen’s parents — by then both deceased — which was filled with their bridal furniture. He draped on the bed red ribbons that he had brought from China. He bowed down to them. He draped more ritual papers on their dowry trunk. He wailed, he pleaded for their souls’ well-being. His outpouring of emotions affected all of us standing in the room. It was no longer just a room in a museum with a story. It was a gentle man overcome with filial love.
Now it is our turn to wail. Huang Binggen left us at dawn on Aug. 9. He was an earnest, generous man whose contributions to his family and the world will live on in Yin Yu Tang and in the many deeds of his days.
Nancy Berliner is Wu Tung senior curator of Chinese art at the Museum of Fine Arts. She can be reached at email@example.com.