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