Heartwarming Memories

January 26, 2017
By Li Wenjie and Gu WentongEditor: Wang Shasha, Lei Yang, Wei Xuanyi and Tong Xin

The exhibition hall [Women of China/Zhang Ping]


Spring Festival, which falls on the first day of the first lunar month, is also known as Chinese New Year. For Chinese, it is as important as Christmas is to Westerners. While the festivities vary from region to region, most Chinese return home to have a reunion dinner on Chinese New Year's Eve. However, given the rapid development of the Internet in recent years, fewer and fewer Chinese have held strong to another family tradition — writing family letters. If you take time to read family letters, you will learn more about the families' histories, and you will surely be impressed by the writers' profound love for their families. Also, you might be interested in studying the rich historical and/or cultural messages conveyed in the letters.

Records indicate that Chinese began writing family letters during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). There was a peak in the development of family letters during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). During that Dynasty, a private organization was established to deliver personal letters and parcels. Before that, people had to ask others to take their letters to their friends or relatives. During the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the embryonic form of the post office evolved.

During the 1900s, China underwent tremendous historical and social changes. Given the rapid development of both education and the postal service, the number of family letters increased substantially. Many of the letters not only embodied the writers' profound love for their relatives, but also vividly depicted the writers' introspection on China's historical and social changes. 

In letters to their relatives, many Chinese celebrities talked about their understanding of art, and/or how to educate and care for children in a scientific way. Many Chinese now consider the letters as "national treasures." To display the unique charm of traditional Chinese culture, and to outline the historical development of family letters, Renmin University of China on October 26, 2016, established the Museum of Family Letters. The museum is the first of its kind in China. 

On the same day, the museum unveiled an exhibition, during which 1,000 family letters and 500 photos of the writers and their relatives were displayed. The earliest letters were written during the Ming Dynasty, and the latest were written in recent years. The museum houses more than 50,000 family letters, written by Chinese during different periods of history.

"As people write family letters to their relatives, who are closest to them, they usually speak their minds plainly. Therefore, through such faithful records, one may get a glimpse of the history and social changes experienced by Chinese (during past millennia)," says Zhang Ding, deputy curator of the museum and Director of the Family Letters Research Center (affiliated with Renmin University of China).

Valuable Letters 

Despite the high market value of letters written by celebrities, Zhang in recent years has taken delight in collecting ordinary people's family letters. He believes many of the letters reflect important social changes and development in contemporary China. For example, during the 1950s, many Chinese in their family letters talked about the land reform, the Korean War and various other historical events. In the letters written during the 1980s, several years after China implemented its reform and opening to the world (in 1978), many Chinese discussed issues such as the reinstatement of China's university-entrance examination (in 1977), and Chinese fascination with going abroad to study. Zhang has donated his collection (of letters) to the museum.

While they collect family letters, Zhang and workers with the museum gather information about the writers and their relatives. Many spectators have been deeply touched by the families' stories, depicted in the letters displayed in the museum. 

Zhang notes that family letters, which embody social ethics and morals, and which promote family education, family virtues and good family traditions, will no doubt boost people's positive energy.

Collecting, Studying Family Letters 

One day in 2004, Zhang learned that a book, a collection of letters sent by or to American soldiers during the previous century, had been compiled by a young American scholar, and that it had become a bestseller. Zhang, then a director with CCTV (China Central Television), thought it would be a good idea to collect Chinese families' letters, to promote traditional Chinese culture throughout the world. Encouraged by Zhang, 40-plus celebrities, in artistic and cultural circles, spent the next year collecting, sorting and studying Chinese families' letters.

During the first few years of the project, several of the initiators quit due to lack of funding. Zhang used almost all of his savings to keep the project alive.

In 2009, Renmin University of China established the Family Letters Research Center, Zhang is director of the center. The center hosts a permanent exhibition of families' letters.


Nowadays, many people, who go too far in their search for material comfort, fail to realize the importance of pursuing their spiritual development. Given their tight schedules, many people have few opportunities to communicate with their relatives. They say all good things must come to an end. The same is true with precious moments with your loved ones. So, why not enjoy life in the slow lane, so you can spend more time with people you love? … It is gratifying to see 1,000 letters displayed during the family letters exhibition. The letters are tokens of the writers' affection to their dear ones. 
 — Yao Xinbing, a professor with Nantong University. Yao was named one of China's excellent teachers in 1993.

It has been a long time since I wrote the last letter. My heart was always filled with delight when I wrote a family letter. I felt as if I was holding a solemn ceremony as I spread out the paper on the table, wrote, with my pen filled with ink, a few lines to pour out my emotions to my dear old folks, and to tell them how I missed them. I have never sent my parents an e-mail. Each time when I wrote a letter to them, I wrote every character carefully. I knew my parents could not wait to read the lines on the thin paper. I was glad to see several of my dad's letters exhibited during the family letters exhibition, held by the Museum of Family Letters in October 2016. When I looked at the lively, vigorous strokes of the characters in his letters, I felt as if my dad was standing in front of me. An e-mail cannot possibly bring me such a magical feeling.
— Tao Siliang, daughter of Tao Zhu (1908-1969, a former Vice-Premier of China's State Council) 

In the letters to their children, many Chinese share their experiences in pursuing their dreams (with the kids). That's a good way to help children establish correct values and a sound outlook on life, as seniors' gentle, heartwarming words are especially appealing to youngsters. Fu Lei (1908-1966, a famous Chinese translator and art critic)'s Family Letters, one of China's best-known education works, has had a positive influence on several generations of Chinese. Therefore, one should not undervalue the important roles of family letters in promoting family education.
— Tan Anli, a man who has donated his family letters to the Museum of Family Letters


Director Zhang Ding [Women of China/Zhang Ping]

Exhibited photos [Women of China/Zhang Ping]

Exhibited items [Women of China/Zhang Ping]

Exhibited items [Women of China/Zhang Ping]

An exhibited item [Women of China/Zhang Ping]


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