In an ongoing attempt to expose some of the great literature written by or about Chinese folks, this week I’ll introduce several novels dealing with traditional China. That is, the China that most of us foreigners probably imagined before coming here: pre-revolutionary “old” China, place of concubines and foot binding, of emperors and walled cities. I am not talking about classical Chinese literature, however – about which there is a load of information available – but rather books written by modern authors – Chinese historical fiction, if you will. For a good dose of escapism, curl up with these books and travel back to the China of days long gone.
Empress Orchid and The Last Empress by Anchee Min
Two books which follow the life of China’s last empress, the much reviled Cixi, the dowager empress who is often credited with bringing down the Qing dynasty and allowing China to be ravaged by foreign powers. Anchee Min has always been a favorite author of mine, having written in the past about the Cultural Revolution and another much-hated historical figure, Jiang Qing. Empress Orchid and The Last Empress attempt to re-tell the story of Cixi from a feminist point of view, however, rehabilitating the memory of Cixi.
Empress Orchid is about Cixi’s youth, and her transformation from a girl from a noble family fallen on hard times to her selection as a concubine of the emperor, to finally his empress. The lush descriptions of life within the Forbidden City, the palace intrigues, the cutthroat competition between the emperor’s many wives and their eunuchs, as well as the small personal tragedies which take place, are all set against the backdrop of an empire that is clearly in decline even before Cixi has any sort of real power. While Anchee Min takes huge liberties with history in order to prove her point, it is hard not to get swept away in the story.
Unfortunately the sequel, The Last Empress, which focuses on the latter-half of Cixi’s life, is not nearly as compelling. Reading much like a revisionist history book, it lacks the magic of Empress Orchid, perhaps reflecting the fact that the main character is no longer a fanciful girl, but an old woman. Long passages pertaining to politics, battles, and the interactions of certain key figures read more like a textbook than a novel, and make The Last Empress drier than Empress Orchid. However, both books are worth reading, and if you cannot take seriously the revising of certain historical facts, then Empress Orchid and The Last Empress can be treated as fantasy.
Anchee Min has also tried quite valiantly to show how a strong female figure can be scapegoated by historians, and, at the very least, throws a bit of doubt on the idea that Cixi was the great villainess that she is portrayed as being.
Peony in Love by Lisa See
I chose Peony in Love rather than the more popular Snow Flower and the Secret Fan as a selection from Lisa See, a Chinese-American writer whose popularity has blossomed over the past several years, because Peony in Love, I feel, offers something unique that many Chinese novels don’t – a close look at Chinese ideas of the afterlife. Set in the 17th century, Peony in Love tells the story of a young girl who dies before her wedding and spends the next several decades as a ghost, wandering around with no one to light incense, perform rituals, or give offerings to appease her spirit. The book is strongly influenced by the classical drama The Peony Pavillion, and there are detailed scenes from it throughout.
The most interesting aspect of the book, however, is how traditional Chinese ideas about the afterlife are given real context – we see what happens when families fail to leave offerings for their ancestors, and are given a dramatic account of the pathetic existence of a hungry ghost feeding off of scraps left at Qing Ming. While most modern Chinese people go through the motions regarding these rituals – lighting incense, grave sweeping, making offerings – at the time those beliefs were taken very seriously, and neglect was believed to have very real consequences.
This book is so very thoroughly researched that you’ll feel like an expert on the Chinese ideas about the afterlife after reading it, and, yet, at the core, there is a very touching love story with a main character whom the reader cannot help but feel sympathy for. Set against the backdrop of the end of the Ming Dynasty, there are a lot of references to the bloodshed that takes place when an empire falls, and the stories of the secondary characters during this period are shocking, disturbing, and exquisitely written. Recently, Lisa See has also written Shanghai Girls, a novel which starts off in China but takes place largely in America and is a very gripping look at the Chinese-American experience during the '30s-'70s.
Cloud Mountain by Aimee Liu
While the setting of this book isn’t quite as ancient as that of the other two, it is nevertheless a pre-revolutionary Chinese story, but with a twist. What makes this book unique is that it tells the real-life story of the author’s grandparents, a Chinese man and an American woman. They dared not only to fall in love, but to marry and raise a family together at a time when such a pairing was almost completely unheard of. Beginning in the U.S. around the turn of the century, the book moves to China and against the backdrop of the struggling Nationalist movement.
Paul and Hope Liang become pioneers in their time, raising multicultural children who grow up both Chinese and American. Their relationship faces many twists and turns, and anyone who has had a relationship with a Chinese person, male or female, will recognize some of their struggles as they try to figure out whether their marital problems are based on cultural or personal differences. As someone who is married to a Chinese man, I was very happy to see a relationship like mine portrayed in a novel. Even though I don’t always agree with Hope’s characterization of Chinese men, I nonetheless have to applaud her for daring to love when doing so meant being ostracized from her people.
Historically, this book recalls both the American Old West, as well as the last hectic years in China before the revolution – the poverty and decadence of old Shanghai. There is a frantic feel to parts of the novel, much as there certainly must have been a certain frantic feel to life in those days. I finished the book in a few days, as it's a page turner and hard to put down.
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