Family Secret

Alumna uncovers long-lost secrets while researching family history.

Buried secrets, political prisoners and long-lost family members were just a few of the unexpected twists and turns Lois Yu ’93, MS ’95, uncovered while working on her undergraduate research thesis.

Growing up in the United States with immigrant parents, Yu had heard rumors about an illustrious family history and decided to investigate her Chinese heritage while studying abroad in Taiwan in the 1990s.

“I was researching my paternal grandfather’s life, but I was really researching my own identity,” says Yu. “I’m an American, born and raised, yet I felt there was something more to me, and it was in China. But I had to unravel a mystery to find out where I came from.”

By conducting interviews with older relatives, utilizing archives and talking with Chinese historians, she uncovered the story of her grandfather’s life. He was born to a “second wife” a concubine with few rights. To escape poverty and bullying, he left his rural home as a boy and made his way to Shanghai, the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party. He was recruited and eventually became a party leader. But infighting and civil war forced him to flee China to Russia. After four years, he returned to China to reunite with his wife and daughter. They had other children and raised their family in the midst of nonstop wars the ravaged China throughout the early 20th century. Although he supported the Chinese Communist victory in 1949, his record of defecting to the rival party for a time raised suspicions and he was labeled a counterrevolutionary. He was arrested and died a political prisoner in 1956, survived by his wife and children, including Yu’s father.

“I talked to a lot of people who knew my grandfather, but who are no longer alive even now,” says Yu. “The Chinese archives were a big resource; he was enough of a historical figure that I could find him in books and meeting records.”

An elderly man and woman gently embracing each other in street.
Yu’s father meets his full biological sister for the first time.

Amid her research, Yu discovered a family secret. Her grandfather also had a second wife, a Chinese ex-patriate like himself. They had two children. First, a daughter born in Moscow and left in an orphanage when they returned to China, and second, Yu’s father, born in Shanghai and raised by the grandfather’s first wife as the younger twin of her son. It seemed impossible that Yu would ever find her aunt. There were no leads—not even a name. But decades later, in 2017, with her missing aunt nearly 90 years old, Yu brought her father to meet his full biological sister for the first time. “I felt that claiming this story would make me whole, but I found so much more,” says Yu. “I found a personal connection to the history of others and because of that, a new perspective of how we are all interconnected.”

Yu’s life-changing experience in China was made possible through an undergraduate summer research fellowship. Today, she wants to offer students the same opportunity that she had—to engage in hands-on learning through a full-time research immersion experience.

“I want to help young people have those defining experiences, too.”

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