Interview with Shirley Jane Endicott
Did it help in writing the book that you were her daughter?
Yes. I left China at age eleven and, therefore, remember a lot about the difficult conditions my mother faced there. For example, I had crossed the Yangtze River many times and knew about its treacherous ways, even though I was too young to remember the time we were shipwrecked in 1933. I remembered the Chinese hostility towards foreigners - and the British and American gunboats anchored at Chungking. I believe this sensitised me to the extent that my mother put on a brave face in her letters home - describing scary things as “adventures,” especially during that “first ghastly year” in China. I will never forget the sight of Chungking in flames in May 1939 or being deathly ill in the still unfinished air-raid shelter. I was nine at the time and at some subliminal level aware of my mother’s terror. All this helped me in the preparation of this biography.
What surprised you the most about your mother’s life?
Many personal details of her spiritual journey were unknown to me. I knew she wanted a religion compatible with science but her private writings show the importance of a meditative spirituality that I had not known about. Finding her “Dialogue With God” gave me a whole new dimension to her quest for a satisfying faith. I also discovered her personal religious experience was multi-layered: the God of her childhood returned in times of crisis: she “allowed her heart its voice when the circumstances called for it.”
How would your mother react to China Diary?
She might be dismayed at some of the more intimate glimpses of her marriage. Certainly in her own uncompleted memoirs, there was no indication of any conflict in the relationship. But memoirs written late in life, especially when infirmities have set in, often are a way of healing life’s hurts, of forgiving oneself and others, not a documentary of what actually happened.
How did writing your mother’s life influence yours?
It has brought healing. Old ambivalent feelings have evaporated. As I learned of the many adversities my mother faced, my admiration for her has risen dramatically. After ploughing through the World War II correspondence between my parents and the six months drama in 1947 Shanghai, I now understand why I did not get the emotional attention I craved when she returned to Canada. .br An unexpected gift of writing my mother’s life was gaining a vicarious emotional connection with my grandmother Sarah Diamond Endicott who had gone to China when she, too, was pregnant with her first child. Sarah died before I was born and her importance to my mother was unknown to me. I found myself strangely moved by this 1926 statement: “Every time I look at [her] photograph she seems to be smiling at me encouragingly as if to say, ‘I know, my dear, I’ve been through it all, and I know just where it is hard.”’ .br Finally, I wept when I read the excerpt from Five Stars Over China that is reproduced in Chapter 25. The Chinese woman described there is almost Biblical in stature, a grassroots Miriam leading her people across the Red Sea to Liberation. My mother clearly hoped the experiment she witnessed in 1952 would lead to a contemporary Promised Land. I struggle to believe Green Jade’s sacrifices were not made in vain. I struggle to understand The Promised Land is a metaphor for hope, not an actual place.