Wife Ma­te­rial

Asian Geographic - - BEST OF LITERATURE - Text Jung Chang

Since its pub­li­ca­tion, Wild Swans: Three Daugh­ters of China has sold over 13 million copies in 37 lan­guages. The first chap­ter of this crit­i­cally ac­claimed mem­oir tells the story of Yu-fang, the jewel of a poor fam­ily in 20th-cen­tury pro­vin­cial Manchuria, who – at 15 years old – be­comes the con­cu­bine of a pow­er­ful war­lord, thanks to the machi­na­tions of her fa­ther When she fin­ished pray­ing, my grand­mother kow­towed three times to the Bud­dha. As she stood up she slightly lost her balance, which was easy to do with bound feet. She reached out to steady her­self on her maid’s arm. Gen­eral Xue and her fa­ther had just be­gun to move for­ward. She blushed and bent her head, then turned and started to walk away, which was the right thing to do. Her fa­ther stepped for­ward and in­tro­duced her to the gen­eral. She curt­sied, keeping her head low­ered all the time.

As was fit­ting for a man in his po­si­tion, the gen­eral did not say much about the meeting to Yang, who was a rather lowly sub­or­di­nate, but my great-grand­fa­ther could see he was fas­ci­nated. The next step was to en­gi­neer a more di­rect en­counter.

A cou­ple of days later Yang, risk­ing bank­ruptcy, rented the best the­atre in town and put on a lo­cal opera, invit­ing Gen­eral Xue as the guest of hon­our. Like most Chinese the­atres, it was built around a rec­tan­gu­lar space open to the sky, with tim­ber struc­tures on three sides; the fourth side formed the stage, which was com­pletely bare: it had no cur­tain and no sets. The seat­ing area was more like a café than a the­atre in the West. The men sat at ta­bles in the open square, eat­ing, drink­ing, and talk­ing loudly through­out the per­for­mance. To the side, higher up, was the dress cir­cle, where the ladies sat more de­murely at smaller ta­bles, with their maids stand­ing be­hind them. My great-grand­fa­ther had ar­ranged things so that his daugh­ter was in a place where Gen­eral Xue could see her eas­ily.

This time she was much more dressed up than in the tem­ple. She wore a heav­ily em­broi­dered satin dress and jew­ellery in her hair. She was also dis­play­ing her nat­u­ral vi­vac­ity and en­ergy, laugh­ing and chat­ting with her women friends. Gen­eral Xue hardly looked at the stage.

Af­ter the show there was a tra­di­tional Chinese game called lantern-rid­dles. This took place in two sep­a­rate halls, one for the men and one for the women. In each room were dozens of elab­o­rate pa­per lanterns, stuck on which were a num­ber of rid­dles in verse. The per­son who guessed the most an­swers won a prize. Among the men Gen­eral Xue was the win­ner, nat­u­rally. Among the women, it was my grand­mother. Yang had now given Gen­eral Xue a chance to ap­pre­ci­ate his daugh­ter’s beauty and her in­tel­li­gence. The fi­nal qual­i­fi­ca­tion was artis­tic tal­ent. Two nights later he in­vited the gen­eral to his house for din­ner. It was a clear, warm night, with a full moon – a clas­sic set­ting for lis­ten­ing to the qin. Af­ter din­ner, the men sat on the ve­randa and my grand­mother was sum­moned to play in the court­yard. Sit­ting un­der a trel­lis, with the scent of sy­ringa in the air, her per­for­mance enchanted Gen­eral Xue. Later he was to tell her that her playing that evening in the moon­light had cap­tured his heart. When my mother was born, he gave her the name Bao Qin, which means “Pre­cious Zither”. Be­fore the evening was over he had pro­posed – not to my grand­mother, of course, but to her fa­ther. He did not of­fer mar­riage, only that my grand­mother should be­come his con­cu­bine. But Yang had not ex­pected any­thing else. The Xue fam­ily would have ar­ranged a mar­riage for the gen­eral long be­fore on the ba­sis of so­cial po­si­tions. In any case, the Yangs were too hum­ble to pro­vide a wife. But it was ex­pected that a man like Gen­eral Xue should take con­cu­bines. Wives were not for plea­sure – that was what con­cu­bines were for. Con­cu­bines might ac­quire con­sid­er­able power, but their so­cial sta­tus was quite dif­fer­ent

Be­fore the evening was over he had pro­posed – not to my grand­mother, of course, but to her fa­ther. He did not of­fer mar­riage, only that my grand­mother should be­come his con­cu­bine

from that of a wife. A con­cu­bine was a kind of in­sti­tu­tion­alised mis­tress, ac­quired and dis­carded at will. The first my grand­mother knew of her im­pend­ing li­ai­son was when her mother broke the news to her a few days be­fore the event. My grand­mother bent her head and wept. She hated the idea of be­ing a con­cu­bine, but her fa­ther had al­ready made the de­ci­sion, and it was un­think­able to op­pose one’s par­ents. To ques­tion a parental de­ci­sion was con­sid­ered “un­fil­ial” – and to be un­fil­ial was tan­ta­mount to trea­son. Even if she re­fused to con­sent to her fa­ther’s wishes, she would not be taken se­ri­ously; her ac­tion would be in­ter­preted as in­di­cat­ing that she wanted to stay with her par­ents. The only way to say no and be taken se­ri­ously was to com­mit sui­cide. My grand­mother bit her lip and said noth­ing. In fact, there was noth­ing she could say. Even to say yes would be con­sid­ered un­la­dy­like, as it would be taken to im­ply that she was ea­ger to leave her par­ents. See­ing how un­happy she was, her mother started telling her that this was the best match pos­si­ble. Her hus­band had told her about Gen­eral Xue’s power: “In Pek­ing they say, ‘When Gen­eral Xue stamps his foot, the whole city shakes.’” In fact, my grand­mother had been rather taken with the gen­eral’s hand­some, mar­tial de­meanour. And she had been flat­tered by all the ad­mir­ing words he had said about her to her fa­ther, which were now elab­o­rated and em­broi­dered upon. None of the men in Yix­ian were as im­pres­sive as the war­lord gen­eral. At fif­teen, she had no idea what be­ing a con­cu­bine re­ally meant, and thought she could win Gen­eral Xue’s love and lead a happy life. ag

above To ap­pear at­trac­tive to men, Yu­fang, like many women of the time, prac­tised foot bind­ing and wore spe­cial shoes

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