Letting Sleeping Dogs Lie, Or How I Found My Family in China

Documentary filmmaker Jessica Kingdon on how she discovered relatives she never knew she had while making her new film Ascension in China.

I never set out to make a personal film in China. And yet, in the process, I ended up unearthing and befriending relatives. My interest in the country started off as an abstract one, like a shape I saw from afar and was always squinting to make sense of. The shape was a moving shadow I was chasing. I came to China to make my film Ascension 登楼叹, both for my connection to it — my mother is Chinese — and fascination with it — I’ve watched from afar China’s rapid and paradoxical changes of the past few decades. I’m drawn to the complexity of the hyper-capitalist nation China’s become, while still retaining communist principles and an increasingly repressive government. The spirit of innovation and the spirit of exploitation exist side by side. The film became about China’s labor force leading to new forms of consumerism. It became a study of materialism, but one that mirrors many other societies. In a way, it was about seeing how capitalism functions in a context outside of my own American one. China is such a hot-button issue in the States that provokes many strong reactions. I wanted to make a film that allows an audience to sit with the sounds and images we experience, rather than trying to make a value judgment. I wanted to make a film where audiences might see themselves and their own cultures reflected back in unexpected avenues.

I shot in China on and off throughout 2018 and 2019. For my final shoot (December 2019, right before the pandemic changed everything), I traveled to Hunan province. I was there to film in an industrial zone of a company that manufactures air conditioning, located in the suburbs of Changsha. I was planning to shoot their boot camp-style training program for new employees. Before the trip, my mother offhandedly mentioned that Changsha is the city where my grandfather is from, but no one in my immediate family had ever been there. I was surprised not to have known this, but it made sense because my mom and her two sisters never talk much about their past. In my experience conversing with my mom and her sisters, their memories of their childhoods were murky and contradicted one another. They could be evasive, even defensive when pressed for details. I could never tell how much of it was due to a repression of memory versus something they simply didn’t know. My grandfather also did not discuss certain parts of his life with his children. I knew a few facts – like that when the communists took over, he and my grandmother fled China for Taiwan in 1949, supposedly on the last plane out – but not much else. I ended up concluding that it was perhaps a combination of both; the subconscious convincing them that whatever was in the past was not worth knowing.

An image from Ascension.

I felt proud and excited that I would be the first in my nuclear family to visit Changsha. I told this to my producer Kira Simon-Kennedy, and she suggested I contact a local historian she knows in Changsha, Yu Pengyuan, to see if he could dig up any information. It never occurred to me that I would have living relatives there. I figured it was a long shot, but I had nothing to lose.

I messaged him: “This is a bit random, but I’m trying to do some research. My grandfather was born in Changsha and I’m trying to find out information about him, like where in the city he was born. Wondering if you’d have any ideas of how I’d go about looking?”

On WeChat, he was kind and responsive. I sent him the basic information I had from my mom’s older sister: the year he was born, the year he married, a few of the names he went by (it was common in China then for people to have multiple names), that he got a job with Chiang Kai-shek in the Nationalist Party government, and that his father was a famous poet in the region. Two names I had for him were Cheng Tin An and Zheng Ding An. Growing up, I had only known him as Gong Gong (Chinese for “maternal grandfather”).

Within hours, I was flooded with messages. “It seems to me your grandfather had stayed in Japan for a few years?” That’s how I knew he was on the right track – I had forgotten to tell him that my grandfather moved to Japan because he was stationed there as a diplomat for Taiwan. My mother was born and raised in Japan and attended a Catholic convent school there. Yu Pengyuan had put forward this “mere conjecture” because he’d discovered records that showed my grandfather was acquainted with a Qian Gechuan, a Hunan native who went on to teach at Taiwan University, and they met in Japan.

“I came to China to make my film Ascension 登楼叹, both for my connection to it and fascination with it.”

My aunt began texting me fragments of information about my grandfather and great-grandfather’s names. I told Yu Pengyuan that one of my grandfather’s other names sounded like “Zheng Yien Zho” — perhaps a third name? She also texted that my great-grandfather’s name “sounds like Zheng Tze (a soft ‘e’ – rhymes with ‘je’ in French).”

Yu Pengyuan came back with information about my great-grandfather, Zheng Ze. As a child, I had heard myths about this man — my mother would regale my brother and I stories about him, like how he was in China’s version of Who’s Who (people later confirmed such a thing did not exist), and how he was able to read a book once and recite it backward from memory. He’d seemed like a mythical figure to me, a legend, not someone who actually existed. Yu Pengyuan had quickly found him online, and shared some facts. Zheng Ze was born in 1882 and died in 1920, when he was just 38 years old. He taught at Mingde Middle School in Changsha, a well-known school which still exists. He was known for his poetry. He had a three-volume poetry collection published in 1921 and belonged to a famous poetry group known as Southern Society.

Despite this, Yu Pengyuan found the poems to be “obscure.” He told me, “They are kind of buried and forgotten in the flood of history.” He rediscovered a poem online written by my great-grandfather that he’d come across a few years ago called 登楼叹 (Ascension). Reading it again, he noticed, “the poem is obviously seen as an allegory for lamenting the international situation of China then. I did not pay much attention to the poem back then, until his great-granddaughter is actually chatting with me via WeChat now. The feeling is hard to put in words, you know.” That’s when things started to feel real to me, when the past felt like it began to take on some real weight and flesh for me. I texted that quote to my partner, Nate Truesdell, who was on the other side of the world working on a TV show, and told him I was tearing up. He was too, he told me.

Yang Guanghui 杨光辉, current president of the Southern Society poetry group, with a book of poetry by Jessica Kingdon’s great-grandfather, Zheng Ze.

Yu Pengyuan and I made plans to meet up in person when I got to Changsha in a few days. I was in Shanghai, shooting the Lunar new year gala for a well-known cosmetics brand. Hundreds of employees and managers were guzzling wine with many ganbeis in a large dining hall with Top 40 music blasting, tossing wine back as if they were taking shots, when Yu Pengyuan messaged: “Do you know a historical female figure in Chinese history named Qiu Jin? A late Qing revolutionary female figure.” I told him I did not, as my historical knowledge of China was very limited. He went silent. I went to bed early and woke up to nine long WeChat voice messages from him. I initially was apprehensive. This man was still a stranger, and waking up to what appeared to be frantic voice memos from him made me uneasy. Could I be in trouble somehow? I waited hours to listen to them.

Being in China has a way of making one feel paranoid. One is constantly having to negotiate an invisible line that is not to be crossed. I was ready to write off Yu Pengyuan, to forget this whole search. But upon listening, I was immediately put at ease. Qiu Jin was a well-known feminist revolutionary figure who died trying to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. She was beheaded in 1907, five years before the Qing Dynasty was overthrown, the year that my great-grandfather wrote the poem Ascension. Her death triggered the anger of the whole nation. Qiu was from a coastal city, but married into a family from Changsha. When she died, my great-grandfather petitioned to have her tomb built in Changsha. Eventually, her tomb was moved to the coastal city and is now in Hangzhou, where it remains a famous historical site. Yu Pengyuan told me all this because he was in contact with Qiu Jin’s great-granddaughter, Wang Xuedong, who lives in Changhsa. He offered to introduce us. He put forward the idea of having a photo of Qiu Jin’s great-granddaughter with a photo of Zheng Ze’s great-granddaughter.

I asked my co-producer Maggie Li, a 26-year-old from a small Chinese village who’d won the national English language competition, if she had heard of Qiu Jin: “Yes, of course, she’s known as a martyr in China,” she told me.

Jessica Kingdon with her relatives Zheng Chang 郑昶 and Shawn, and local historian Yu Pengyuan 于鹏远.

Two days later, I was standing in front of the Mingde Middle School gate, looking around for someone I didn’t know. I had woken up at 5:15 that morning to shoot the bootcamp training outside in the darkness and icy cold. In the monitor of my camera, I could make out the faint outlines of people on the road doing push-ups and squats. I had to shoot again at 9 p.m. that night. I wanted nothing more than to take a nap, but I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

The day before the meeting with Qiu Jin’s great-granddaughter, Yu Pengyuan told me he had found a relative of the Zheng family. (My mom’s maiden name is Cheng, but I later found out that’s the anglicized spelling of my family’s name, and it was actually Zheng.) He messaged, “Hi, a distant relative of the Zheng family will join us tomorrow, he says he wants to bring you some materials concerning your great-grandfather. I have not met him before. It is also my first time meeting him.” I warned Yu Pengyuan that my Mandarin is practically non-existent. He assured me, “I think this is a charming part of culture and history. Strangers coming together and bonded by history and the past.” The day of, I found out it was my grandfather Zheng’s birthday. He would have been 110. Yu Pengyuan informed me that the relative I was to meet shared the same name as him. A coincidence?

I stood at the gate, nervously looking around, studying the faces of strangers with whom I might share blood. Would I immediately feel some sort of kinship? Would we share a resemblance? I spotted a group of people on the sidewalk excitedly talking over one another. A man in his early thirties approached me gingerly. “Hello, I’m Michael,” he said. I hadn’t heard of a Michael. “Are you the person I’ve been communicating with on WeChat?” “That’s me,” he said. It was Yu Pengyuan.

Jessica Kingdon (center right) with historian Yu Pengyuan 于鹏远, President Tao 陶校长 of Mingde Middle School, Qui Jin’s great-grand-daughter Wang Xuedong 王学东, her relative Zheng Chang 郑昶, and Southern Society president Yang Guanghui 杨光辉.

Michael led me over to the group of eight people who had all gathered on a day’s notice. One was Wang Xuedong, the great-granddaughter of Qiu Jin, who stood there proudly and kept grabbing my hand. Another was Yang Guanghui, the current president of the Southern Society poetry group my great-grandfather used to belong to. He had driven hours from a neighboring city. As the group of us walked down the street on our way to the school’s entrance, Yang Guanghui produced a crisp, clear plastic folder. Inside was a fragile-looking book, yellowed by age. He took it out and began flipping through it. “This is the book by your great-grandfather. He wrote it. Here, you can see his portrait,” Michael translated for me. I asked to hold it. We posed for photos, in many different configurations of different people.

The first relative was introduced. His great-grandmother was my great-grandfather’s sister. He was slight and quiet, with a serene face, in his fifties. They told me to call him Shawn. Then they introduced me to a second relative, a boisterous and chatty man with a large, round head and folds of flesh on the back of his skull. He was the one who shared the same name as my grandfather, but they simply referred to him as “the fat one.”

As we walked and talked, I felt a strange sensation, a warmth and numbness flooding over me. They barraged me with sentences I couldn’t understand and Michael couldn’t translate fast enough. I felt a sense of expansion, like my sense of self or identity in the world had suddenly become more than what I had thought it was. I was surprised to have this visceral reaction, since part of me still wasn’t sure how real it was. In a country of more than 1.4 billion people, how improbable it seemed that I would find living relatives I didn’t know existed until yesterday. I wondered if this was just the simulation of feeling connected to a new part of myself, or if it was the real thing, or if there was a difference.

We posed for pictures at the steps of Mingde Middle School, where my great-grandfather once taught. It seemed to be an occasion of sorts. The principal appeared, and once again we took photographs with dozens of permutations of people in front of the camera. We ate in the school cafeteria. Through Michael, Shawn asked me if I knew that my grandfather had planned to return to China for a visit in 1978, nearly 30 years after he’d left. I did not. Shawn asked Michael to tell me that the entire town prepared for his visit by sweeping the streets, scrubbing floors, tidying the shop windows. It sounded like it would have been some sort of epic return. And yet he never showed up. I felt a wave of sadness and guilt. I felt the need to make an excuse for his absence on his behalf, but I did not know what that would be.

The view from Jessica Kingdon’s relatives’ house in the countryside.

Michael had to leave. He told me my relatives were offering to take me to the home of my grandfather out in the countryside, where my “uncle and aunt” (despite the distant relations, they insisted on calling everyone my aunt and uncle, which I found endearing) still lived, and then drive to me back to my lodgings on the factory’s campus, a total of two hours northeast. Since I had met them just hours ago, I felt apprehensive about getting into a car with strangers, and then guilty for harboring suspicion. I got in the car. Shawn’s wife could speak English, so we all still had a means of communication. She told me to call her Angela.

On the drive up, Angela peppered me with questions about whether I had been to the Chinese countryside before, what kinds of towns I’d been to, and how this all looked to me. She and the family wanted to understand what these Chinese rural landscapes looked like through my eyes. I told her we have many rural areas in the States as well, so it didn’t strike me as all that remote or unusual. Angela ran a stationery company that sold products to the U.S. Shawn worked at a bank. I asked Angela what “the fat one” did for a living. She laughed, and after a moment asked him directly. They exchanged dialogue for quite some time. She looked at me, unable to find the right phrase. Finally, she spoke Mandarin into a translation app on her phone. She held the phone up to me: Planning and planning is what it came up with. “Planning and planning?” I asked her. “Yes, event planning and things like that,” Angela said with a smile.

The new house …

We arrived at the home. In the courtyard, tea leaves and bright red peppers were drying in woven baskets arranged on the ground. A new house had been built next to the original one, which was still standing. The inside of the old structure seemed to be used as storage for old tools covered in an ancient dust. I sat awkwardly on the couch in the living room of the new structure, rubbing my hands together from the cold. There didn’t seem to be any heating. In front of me was a table overflowing with snacks: a basket of oranges and an enormous bowl of fried sweet potato chips my “aunt” Liu Wenbai had made from scratch. She brought me and Angela cups of hot water with salty beans at the bottom and fried sesame seeds floating in a thin layer of oil at the top. It tasted like greasy salt water, and warmed my insides as I gulped it down. My “uncle” sat next to me and we took more photos. In broken translation, someone mentioned something about him being an English teacher in the local school, but I figured I misunderstood, because my “uncle” spoke no English. Something in his eyes reminded me so much of my grandfather, the one I knew as Gong Gong and could not communicate with due to language barrier. So much we never said to one another.

… and the old house.

As we all conversed, I eventually ascertained that this man had known my Gong Gong. His name was Zheng Changshi and he was my grandfather’s brother’s son. So my Gong Gong was his uncle. Zheng Changshi repeated the same story I’d heard earlier about my grandfather’s impending visit in 1978 that never happened. Again, he recounted how streets were cleaned, floors were swept. This visit that never happened seemed to have left a deep impression. Angela then said that my “uncle” taught Shawn English at the local school. “That’s why Shawn’s English is so bad!” she quipped. We all cracked up. I began to feel at ease. At the end, as I was leaving, my “aunt” gave me a plastic bag stuffed with her homemade fried sweet potato. They told me to bring it home to my mother so she could have a taste of where her father was from.

That night, I called my mom and told her everything. She was delighted, but skeptical. “How do we know it’s not some sort of scam? Did you have to pay anything?” I was baffled. “Of course not, there was no money involved.” She was still mistrustful. At the end of the call, she mentioned something offhandedly she had never explicitly told me before. Her parents intentionally never kept in contact with their relatives when they left China. Multiple reasons were given. One was because they worried everyone would want their help to escape Mao’s China, something that, as refugees themselves, they were not equipped to do. Another was the fear of being accused of being a spy – contact with communists at the time was politically risky. There was a mentality of survival then, a constant haze of suspicion hovering in the air. When we hung up, I felt deflated. All this time, it was on purpose that we didn’t know who our family was. And now I had gone out of my way to dig it up.

Jessica Kingdon (center) with her relatives Zheng Changshi 郑昌世, Liu Wenbai 刘文白, Angela and Shawn.

The next day, WeChat messages continued to flood my phone. Photos, old documents, more characters were sent. I decided to put all the information together and present it to my mom and her sisters. Even if their parents had tried to lose their relatives, that was in the past.

My co-producer Maggie and I were still in Changsha, shooting at the sprawling campus of the air-conditioning company. I asked the relatives if they wanted to have a final lunch before our flight to Shanghai the following day. Shawn and Angela showed up and met Maggie and me at the campus hotel. We shared a delicious Chinese meal (everyone was always asking if I wanted Western or Chinese food, as if I must be missing American food). As Maggie and I packed our bags, Shawn and Angela went and explored the campus. Then they drove us to the airport, seeing me off like family would.

Back in Shanghai, I felt exhausted from information overload, but kept sending my mom and her sisters photos and videos from my encounters. They continued to be delighted by my updates of our relatives, but made no mention of wanting to contact them. Finally, my aunt messaged me, my mom, and my brother: “Hi People! I’ve been thinking about Jessica’s adventure in Changsha. The romance of such discovery was very exciting. However, I would advise you not share any further information about our names or anything else. In fact, you don’t know these people. China is fundamentally a repressive, authoritarian, Communist country. While these people may be wonderful, the government had scouts embedded in every community. You don’t want to get tangled up with them. You made wonderful discoveries. You can find out a lot more on Google. No need to get deeper into creating a family tree with them. Two adages the nuns in my convent school used to tell me: ‘Loose lips sink ships’ and ‘Let sleeping dogs lie.’ I think they apply to this situation.”

I was struck by my aunt’s mistrust. What was she afraid of?

Jessica Kingdon (right) with her relatives Zheng Changshi 郑昌世 and Zheng Changmin 郑昌民.

That night, I dreamt I was fishing. I had a small fishing hook and string, no rod, just my hands. I felt something start to tug at the string from the dark water below. The tension was enormous. With all my strength, I pulled up the string. Another person had to help me. It was a blue whale. Someone commented, “Now that’s a whale of a documentary!” People were telling me we had to put it back, to let the whale go. We had to unhook it. The dream is a bit on the nose for many reasons, including the fact that I’ve often considered documentary filmmaking as a kind of fishing expedition. You dip your net into dark, murky waters where you have no idea what you’ll find (that’s the shooting), and then you examine it in a tank and make sense of what you’ve found (that’s reviewing the footage). In this case, my documentary led me to an accidental discovery of something larger than I was prepared to handle, something epic and rare. And here, I had fished out something that people didn’t want me to find.

The next night, I had another one of my recurring dreams. For the past several years, I’ve had a dream where I’m watching my film at a public screening and I discover that the edit has been modified. Entire scenes are switched around, and there is even new, unfamiliar footage. I grow mortified as the crowd watches. It’s like the movie is taking on a life of its own, like I don’t control it anymore. I think it’s because everyone will take what they want from it and once it’s out there, there’s nothing I can do. It’s as if the byproduct of my obsessive efforts to curate an experience then decided to go off and do its own thing. Often films are bigger than what we think they are. In those moments, the four walls of the frame are porous, tenuous, and other realities threaten to spill in or to pour out. The fiction I’ve meticulously crafted has fallen apart.

How might this relate to meeting my family? Reflecting on my aunt’s response, I thought about how family history is often rearranged and reshuffled beyond the control of those who have lived it. It’s common in families that had to emigrate to not want to talk about what or who they had to leave behind. Family stories in Chinese diaspora communities are never straightforward; there are always holes due to fissures and traumas of the past.

Jessica Kingdon’s relatives Shawn and Liu Wenbai 刘文白.

Nearly a year later, when I was struggling to commit to the final title of the film before the first festival submission (we had been calling it simply Untitled PRC Project for three years), I was stuck. We had several title ideas, but none of them fully clicked. Kira urged me to look back at my great-grandfather’s poems that Michael had found during that last trip. It seemed unlikely that anything would resonate, but I gave it a shot and read through some of the first translations. I looked back at the poem that Michael had first stumbled upon a few years before meeting me, the one called Ascension (登楼叹).

In the poem, the narrator (my great-grandfather) ascends to the height of a structure, from which he has a vantage point to survey the land. The narrator expresses that “the tower is too high to climb,” which resonated with the film for me, as it expresses the idea that actually achieving the “Chinese Dream” of upward mobility is daunting and seems impossible. The opening line of the poem echoes the opening shots of the film — day laborers at a low-wage job market, the base of the tower of capitalism. When the narrator finally ascends the top of the tower, he feels despondent, as that perspective has allowed him to see the invading territories destroying his country. I see a resonance to today, where the ascent of the ladder of capitalism, which we call progress, does not have the intended effect of alleviating our problems and worries, but the opposite effect – creating new, unforeseen consequences and allowing us to witness the full extend of the destruction we’ve wrought. Although written more than a century ago, the theme of the paradox of progress within the poem spoke to me.

Here’s the poem:

Hand on my sword, I ascend the tower;
Gazing afar, I try to ease my cares.
The tower is too high to climb;
In my despondency, cares only grow.
Leaning on the railing, I look to the east.
How hazy the east is!
I don’t see the lovely Fusang tree,
I see only a shrimp transformed into a whale.
High tide and crashing waves rise to the sky,
Making me sad, my heart stunned!
Leaning on the railing, I look to the northern frontier;
How distant the northern frontier is!
Sands raised by Hu armies fly and block my sight;
Hu wind blows and chills my mind.
Ferocious Yayu stands by the roadside;
Ten thousand men retreat,
Making me sad, my heart frightened.
Leaning on the railing, I look to the southern sea;
How deep is the southern sea!
Howling gusts shake the earth and sky,
God of Sea churns the soul, and Pearl Cliff collapses.
Deadly torrents and vile mists follow one another,
Making me sad, my heart alarmed.
Leaning on the railing, I look to the western frontier;
How narrow the western frontier is!
Heavenly Mountain runs from north to south like a gate;
Grapevines are planted for no purpose in the Han palace.
Even the old monk who has forgotten the dusty world
Finds himself trapped like the Buddha in the Forbidden City,
Making me sad, on the verge of tears.
Yee, the tower is too high to ascend.
Yee, ascending the tower gives me more cares.
When shall I forge the Zhanlu Sword
To ride the wind and slash the whale,
Cross the vast desert and chase away the ferocious Yayu?
With one strike I shall quell the western land;
With the second strike I shall calm the southern sea.
I ascend and look far into my heart
Only to find that everywhere is already razed.

(Translation by Michelle Yeh, Kira Simon-Kenedy and Jason Kingdon)

New York-based Jessica Kingdon is a Chinese-American director-producer whose debut feature, Ascension, a striking observational portrait of the “New China” which is nominated for six Critics Choice Documentary Awards and the Gotham Award for Best Documentary, is now streaming on Paramount+. She was named one of “25 New Faces of Independent Film” by Filmmaker magazine and selected for the 2020 DOC NYC “40 Under 40” list. Her shorts include the award-winning Commodity City (2017), It’s Coming! (2020), and Routine Island (2019), and her producer credits include Tania Cypriano’s Born to Be (2019), Ian Bell’s 808: How We Respond (2019), Nathan Truesdell’s The Water Slide (2018), and Johnny Ma’s Old Stone (2016). She is a member of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective. (Photo by Tomo Saito.)