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  • Writer's pictureFang Sheng

Danshari: A Delicate Dance Between Memories and Letting Go

Mother standing in front of one of the old bookcases before her downsizing move, Spring 2024.

Since my father's passing in Beijing last year, the call for my mother to downsize has become increasingly insistent. The three-bedroom condo, once filled with the warmth of their shared lives, now feels too vast, a vastness echoing with memories that she struggles to escape. Knowing she would have trouble letting go of her belongings, I’ve offered to fly over, all the way from Toronto, to help her navigate the delicate dance of deciding what to keep and what to release.

The home they've shared for two decades exudes an air of serenity. On the walls of the living room and dining room are large Chinese brush paintings, and sharp coloured abstract oil paintings. By the sofa, on a display shelf, are porcelain figurines and decors my parents have bought on their world travels. In the piano room, shelves of books and music recordings that they’ve collected throughout the years.

Despite the apparent order, hidden in nooks and crannies lie decades of accumulated possessions: photo albums, greeting cards, various tea sets that they’ve never used, and more recently, unopened boxes of oxygen tubes when father contracted COVID.

For months, Mother resists touching any of Father's belongings, overwhelmed by the emotions that arise when faced with his old bed and clothing. None of their collectibles are of high commercial value. The Chinese brush paintings are by Father’s best friend, and the oil painting by a talented Down Syndrome son of one of their colleagues. The tea sets and figurines are either gifts from friends or souvenirs from their travels.

By the time I arrive in Beijing, Mother seems to be more emotionally settled and ready to embark on the next chapter of her life. “I’m ready to move to a new place.” She’d announce to her friends and relatives, “But before that I must do a lot of danshari.”

The Japanese word literally means “cut off 断, give away 舍, and let go 离”. It represents a mentality toward one’s worldly possessions – to give up and let go of unneeded things. It’s a movement across the world propelled by decluttering gurus such as Fume Sasaki and Marie Kondo, who advocate a “less is more” philosophy to life.

Seeing Mother embrace the danshari mindset, I feel relieved that my work of helping her downsize would be easier than I thought. Sorting and donating my father's old clothing, discarding unnecessary kitchen appliances — these tasks are accomplished with relative ease. However, the true challenge lies in confronting my father's extensive books, a collection representing not only diverse subjects but also his intellectual growth and curiosity of a bygone era.

They say as an old person dies, a library burns down. It must be the hardest for Mother when her danshari comes to Father’s books. Yet, as I delve into his collection, I can’t help but notice volumes adorned with his signature, chronicling the time of purchase, most of them in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This was the famine-stricken period in China, known as the "Great Leap Forward", a radical economic movement that derailed China's economy and caused incredible political unrest and suppression. Yet, in addition to books related to his profession as a musician of Western classical music, Father’s collection demonstrates his wide range of interests and curiosity, from history, socio-political studies, to literature (both Chinese and Western) and fine arts. For example, there is a biography of American poet Walt Whitman, by Soviet-American scholar and writer Maurice Mendelssohn, and a volume of selected poems from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass collection. These were translated into Chinese and published in China when hostility toward American Imperialism was at its peak and the ideological split with the Soviet Union was intensifying. I am not only in awe of Father's keen learning spirit, but also amazed by the very active publishing industry in China in such a time, often assumed to be stifled and rigidly dogmatic. 

A surprising revelation surfaces as a number of volumes bear both my parents' names on a shared seal — an engagement gift from my father's uncle. In the early 1960s, Mother just graduated from the conservatory and was hired as a piano accompanist of the Beijing Central Orchestra where my father was a violinist. Father, still a bachelor in his thirties, was immediately attracted by this graceful yet modest and soft-spoken newcomer from Shanghai. At first, Mother wasn’t interested at all, even made up an imaginary boyfriend to fend off this strange suitor, who was seven years her senior. However, Father persisted. “What tricks did he use to change your mind, mom?” We’d ask. Even after decades, Mother would giggle and answers, “What tricks?! He’s not handsome. He isn’t a sweet talker. But he has a whole shelf full of books! I love to learn, and I love people who learn. To put it in today’s term: That’s sexy!” It’s Father’s independent mind that captivated Mother.

Mother loves learning too. In particular, she loves learning languages. In the 1950s, Russian was the only foreign language taught in China’s middle schools. But she was most interested in English. In the 1957 National Higher Education Entrance Exam, Mother earned full score for the foreign language subject, written in Russian. And she got the offers from two institutions in Shanghai: the English language major of the Aurora University, and the Music Academy. She chose music as her lifelong profession. But her love of English never fades. A natural talent who can pick up various Chinese dialects, Mother tries for many years to better her English. Even during the years when English learning was officially forbidden, she got a shortwave radio and would hide in the bathroom, put on a headset, tune in to “English 900” from Voice of America and murmur along, late into the night when both my brother and I, small boys then, were deep asleep. And now her “English 900” textbooks are still standing on the shelve, along side Father’s books, both with discoloured pages and dog-eared edges from heavy usage, tangible remnants of their shared intellectual pursuits.

Approaching my mid-50s, I've developed a keen interest in unraveling my family history. I believe, as a generation growing up through the turbulent times of war and political movements in China, my parents’ experiences, if written down, would be compelling addition to the narrative of that history, making it more personal, authentic and truthful. Yet, they seem to be less enthusiastic about my little personal project. Often, when I try to extract stories from them, they’d either say they don’t remember much, or tell me that there are so many people having similar experiences through the same historical events, and theirs are nothing special.

Then I’d have to rely on other sources to piece together my family history intertwined with the grand history. Now flipping through my parents’ old books, I’m elated to find a treasure chest. I can’t help but ask about the circumstances Father got these books. Mother starts to get impatient. With every book I open, she’d utter the word, “Danshari!” For decades, Father and Mother have been taking all these old books along, through multiple moves, from Beijing to Toronto, then Shanghai and back. And now, is she really that eager to close the book of their past life and leave it in the dump?

With yellowing pages and “obsolete” contents, these books are obviously unwanted by any modern reader. If we can’t give them away, we can either dump them in the trash or sell them as scrap paper for 15 cents a kilo! I can’t fathom these are scrap! Look at these titles - one can see the intellectual growth of both of my parents, hence their influence on me and my brother. And now Mother seems to be eager to move on to her next stage of life, she just doesn’t care what memories these books carry? Am I the one that can’t let go?

Mother often says, "We are atheists. These are all external possessions." Born in the 1930s, my parents spend their formative years through Japanese occupation, civil war, and the communist rule thereafter. Such a conviction comes more from their conscious learning and reflections than from indoctrination, as manifested through the titles of their books. For example, in my father’s collection, one can clearly see his attempt of cross-referencing different subjects: Karl Marx – A Biography, Life of Mozart, History of Chinese Art, Selected German Poems, Robert Schuman Essays, History of Russian Literature, Concise Chinese History, History of Chinese Philosophy, History of Chinese Literature, On Utopian Socialism, Outline of Dialectical Materialism, History of Western Philosophy, Selected Poems of Milton, Complete Works of Shakespeare, and many more. When the whole nation was blinded by fanatical revolutionary doctrines, these volumes helped anchor their principles for their independent mind.

Modest and respectful as they are, my parents make their life choices based on such principles. When it comes to their own end of life, as atheists, they choose to have no graveyard, and expect no one to come to sweep their tombs every year on April 5 – China’s Ancestors Day. Father has already been buried at sea. And Mother will follow him when her time comes.

But what does being an atheist really mean to Mother in her daily life? Has she already seen through the veneer of life and has let go of all worries? As much as she would love to stay in this same place for the rest of her life, with her beloved husband gone, downsizing is inevitable. These days, she often talks about the disruption to her comfortable routine of the past two decades. "How am I going to do grocery", "how am I going to arrange the furniture", or "how am I going to cook if I can’t find the condiments". Besides such things we might see as trivial, she also likes to talk about death, particularly, "the arrangement". She’d meticulously describe how she will adapt to her new place, what we two brothers should do with her money when she dies, even the funeral plan. Then she’d conclude, as always, "With the arrangement all in place, I would have nothing more to fear." Which always makes me, or whoever listening uncomfortable. And Mother would comfort us with, "There's nothing bad talking about one's own death. I'm an atheist. I have no fear." Ok, Mom.

Mother opts for a Japanese style moving company. Increasingly popular in China, a Japanese style move is one where you don't even need to touch a thing and leave it all to the movers. The team, usually consisting of several male movers and female packers, would sort, clean and pack everything in the house, then move them to your new home, unpack, put everything in the places you want, even make the beds, and you will sleep in your own bed the same night – in your new home. It is pricy but a great no brainer option for people who want to spare themselves the hard labour (both physically and mentally). They can just have their whole home packed up, including all junk in it, and continue their life in another place.

Ironical for mom who'd want to do so much danshari - letting go. Weeks before, she already starts to sort and box many of our personal items: memorabilia, photos, etc. and marks everything. She says this way, on the day the movers come, she can just point and tell them what to keep and what to dump. I just hope that she won't point at Father's books and say "dump"...

On a chilly but bright Beijing morning, three box trucks and 11 uniformed men and women arrived down Mother’s condo building. The door buzz rings. The movers are here.

The dance between memories and letting go continues, a delicate waltz echoing through the empty spaces left by discarded possessions.


Note: Names of institutions have been altered to protect privacy.

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