The Love Story of Zhang Hongchi and Wang Xiuzhu Embraced 3 Generations (Part 1)

A man having a heart attack.
Zhang Hongchi, an 84-year-old economist, suffered a sudden heart attack. While being rushed to the hospital, Zhang Hongchi briefly regained consciousness. He grasped his son Zhang Cheng's hand and laboriously instructed: 'If I don't make it, you and your brother must take good care of Aunt Wang...' (Image: via Shutterstock)

On November 5, 2009, around 3 p.m., Zhang Hongchi, an 84-year-old economist, suffered a sudden heart attack. While being rushed to the hospital, he briefly regained consciousness. He grasped his son Zhang Cheng’s hand and laboriously instructed: “If I don’t make it, you and your brother must take good care of Aunt Wang.” Aunt Wang was Zhang Cheng’s stepmother, Wang Xiuzhu.

Zhang Cheng and his brother Zhang Gan never expected this to be their father’s last words. That evening, the medical treatment failed, and Zhang Hongchi passed away. The brothers were overwhelmed with grief and deeply puzzled by their father’s dying request. Why did their father, a university professor, when remarried, choose an illiterate woman? Why was their father so emotionally attached to this elderly woman from the rural village?

In his final words, their father didn’t mention any of his descendants at all, only instructing them to “take good care of Aunt Wang”! The Zhang brothers were utterly perplexed and harbored resentment toward their father.

Zhang Hongchi was born in Tianjin in 1925 and was a professor at a university in Beijing. Zhang Cheng grew up under his father’s prestigious name, inheriting his father’s solid and resilient character. As a young man, Zhang Cheng became the CEO of a technology company in Beijing. In 1996, Zhang Cheng’s biological mother, Feng Hua, passed away. Their father suddenly called five years later, asking the brothers to come home.

Zhang Cheng and Zhang Gan returned and found a strange old lady at home! She was dressed in rustic clothes, with her face full of wrinkles and white hair covering her head. Upon inquiry, they learned that the old lady was over 70, brought home from a rural area near Tianjin, and their father wanted to marry her! Fearing his displeasure, the brothers dared not object to their father’s intent, but found it hard to accept this new stepmother. They cautiously asked their father how he met this woman, but he responded sternly: “My affairs are none of your concern!” The brothers exchanged looks. Was their father losing his mind?

After their father married Wang Xiuzhu, the brothers were distant toward her. They seldom came to their father’s home, and even visiting during holidays, they rarely spoke to her. She didn’t talk much. It was Zhang Cheng’s impression that she was always busy tidying up the house, never trying to please the brothers.

When Zhang Hongchi passed away, Wang Xiuzhu was involved in the inheritance distribution, amounting to tens of millions of yuen.
Now, with their father’s sudden passing, Wang Xiuzhu would be involved in the inheritance distribution, amounting to tens of millions of yuen. (Image: via Shutterstock)

Now, with their father’s sudden passing, Wang Xiuzhu would be involved in the inheritance distribution, amounting to tens of millions of yuen. Zhang Cheng and Zhang Gan were even more indignant — a rural woman in her 70s marrying their father was already a stroke of luck. In these eight years, while not particularly respectful, the brothers were courteous to her. She enjoyed eight years of comfort in Beijing, which was a blessing.

What right did she have to claim their father’s inheritance? Though dissatisfied, their status, education, and upbringing compelled them to act reasonably and fairly. In January 2010, the two began to handle their father’s affairs. Very reluctantly, Zhang Cheng had to personally take care of all the inheritance procedures for Wang Xiuzhu due to her old age, deafness, blurred vision, and slow movements.

In early February, Zhang Cheng arrived at Wang Xiuzhu’s hometown on the outskirts of Tianjin. She had no children of her own and entrusted many things to Zhao Liang, the child of her sister Wang Pei’e, for safekeeping. Hearing that Zhang Cheng had come to collect documents for the inheritance process, Zhao Liang was delighted and brought out a wooden box containing the documents. At the bottom of the box, Zhang Cheng found a yellowed family genealogy.

Upon opening it, he was shocked beyond measure: Wang Xiuzhu’s mother turned out to be the cousin of Zhang Hongchi’s father! In other words, Wang Xiuzhu and Zhang Hongchi were cousins! Marriages within three generations of collateral blood relatives were legally invalid!

Zhang Cheng dared not speak out, but quietly placed the family genealogy into his briefcase. At that moment, he made an even more astonishing discovery — among the items cherished by Wang Xiuzhu was a divorce certificate: Zhang Hongchi, Wang Xiuzhu, Republic County, Qinghai Province, married in 1955, divorced in 1965. They had been married for a staggering 10 years! What on earth was going on?

Zhang Cheng understood that filing a lawsuit with the court would mean that Wang Xiuzhu would not receive anything from this invalid marriage; she would return to Yangliuqing Town in Tianjin empty-handed. Zhang Cheng struggled emotionally on the way home, but ultimately decided to file a lawsuit.

Considering that Wang Xiuzhu had no children and would be left sadly alone in Tianjin, he and his brother discussed and decided to provide her with a certain amount of pension each month. On March 25, 2010, Zhang Cheng filed a lawsuit with the People’s Court of Haidian District, Beijing, requesting that his father’s marriage to his stepmother be declared invalid and that Wang Xiuzhu’s inheritance rights be revoked according to law.

A few days later, Zhang Cheng visited his brother’s home and discussed the matter with their stepmother. His sister-in-law reminded them: “Dad entrusted us to treat Aunt Wang well, and we promised. Now that his body is barely cold, aren’t we being a bit too harsh by stripping her of her inheritance rights?” Zhang Cheng was shaken.

Why was their father so profoundly attached to a village woman? There must be an untold story behind this; he must not do anything unfilial or unjust. Zhang Cheng returned to Tianjin to uncover the truth and ensure his father could rest in peace.

Seeking the truth about Zhang Hongchi and Wang Xiuzhu

In early June, Zhang Cheng returned to Yangliuqing Town in Tianjin. Wang Pei’e, Wang Xiuzhu’s sister, learned that he had come to trace Zhang Hongchi’s life trajectory and couldn’t help but shed tears. She told him that Zhang Hongchi and Wang Xiuzhu were childhood sweethearts and cousins. In those days, cousins could marry. In 1944, they paid respects to Heaven and Earth and held a traditional wedding ceremony.

That same year, Zhang Hongchi was admitted to the Department of Social Economics at Furen Catholic University. To support his studies, Wang Xiuzhu came to Beijing and worked in wealthy households washing clothes and bedding, earning money to pay for her husband’s education. Their young love was as turbulent as stormy waves.

During his studies, Zhang Hongchi fell in love with a beautiful city girl. Moreover, being educated, he learned that marriage between close relatives was against science and ethics. In 1947, Wang Xiuzhu and Wang Pei’e went to visit Zhang Hongchi at the university. He didn’t want his classmates to know about his marriage. When he saw the sisters, he angrily exploded: “Who let you come here!” Wang Xiuzhu had to lead Wang Pei’e away quickly.

In the early 1960s, China began to suffer from widespread famine, and Beijing was no exception. (Image: via Shutterstock)

Wang Pei’e still remembers that day vividly. She and her sister wore their best floral shirts with no patches to meet her brother-in-law. They walked there and back for a whole day on foot. She innocently asked: “Why is brother-in-law unhappy?” Her sister replied: “Marriage is not allowed during studies, and he’s afraid his classmates will find out.” Wang Pei’e believed it until decades later when she found out that the school didn’t have such a rule.

On that scorching hot noon, Wang Xiuzhu swallowed her grievances alone, not letting her sister notice any clues.

In 1948, Zhang Hongchi graduated from the university. In 1955, realizing that their original marriage ceremony only involved paying respects to Heaven and Earth, Wang Xiuzhu’s parents made the couple register their marriage at the Civil Affairs Department to solidify their union.

In the early 1960s, China began to suffer from widespread famine, and Beijing was no exception. At the most brutal times, people would be mobbed by the starving crowd for eating buns on the street. To save food for Zhang Hongchi without being noticed, Wang Xiuzhu sewed a small cloth bag to her waist, saving half of her rations in the bag. She would clench it in her hand every night, waiting for her husband to return every week to let him have a hearty meal.

Wang Xiuzhu became so emaciated, but she held onto her bag and continued saving food. She fainted from hunger many times in front of piles of clothes and bedding waiting to be washed and starched, but when she woke up, she tightened her bag and continued to work. Listening to Wang Pei’e’s recounting, Zhang Cheng’s heart was in turmoil for a woman who could leave the hope for survival to her partner when her existence was threatened; how unquestionable that love was!

See Part 2 here

Translated by Katy Liu

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