The night was still. Soon only moonlight stirred, unveiling cliffs and the giant reclining Buddha, smiling for eternity. They sat for a while in silence, and then Glad Promise spoke.
“We have been happy, you and I – despite of all – have we not, my wife?”
She squeezed his hand, “I have never known such happiness.”
“And if it could not last, would you regret becoming my wife?”
. . . “My husband, why do you ask if I would regret our marriage? Why do you ask such a thing?”
He took her face in his hands and kissed her gently on the lips. “Because . . . “
“Because, my husband?”
“Because you should never have regrets. You should never change.”
“Why would I change?”
“Ours is a time of change,” he said gravely, looking toward the Buddha. (Lord, 1981, pp. 152 – 153)
It is the nature of historical fiction, or literature in general, to mirror how change transpires in the lives of men; for it is the nature of men, of time and of life itself, to change. Along with the changes comes danger, the severing of ties, the throwing away of the old and of starting anew. History records changes for posterity; literature depicts changes for uplifting humanity. The combination of both must aim to awaken among its readers a passion to know and understand the past and link it with the present and future along with a heightened sense of culture and of self. Seldom is it achieved successfully, though. For the reconciliation of fact and fiction is not an easy feat. So when one encounters a historical fiction that can serve the purpose with style, it is treasured, just as Bette Bao Lord’s Spring Moon is.
Bette Bao Lord, in her highly celebrated 1981 debut novel, Spring Moon, wrote of change as it swept the history of China from antiquity to its enlightenment and its opening to the modern world. Chronicling the lives of several generations of the Chang clan in Soochow, China, the novel takes off in 1892, during the Ch’ing dynasty, when Spring Moon once again offended good manners as she searched for her slave girl, Plum Blossom. A spoiled and innocent child of nine, Spring Moon grew up among the illustrious members of the House of Chang and enjoyed privileges exclusive to their era’s elite. It is at this tender age when she learned one important virtue prevalent in the traditional Chinese culture – to yield. That self-same virtue she carried on in her transformation as years went by. From a rather domestic, albeit incompetent, girl, she became learned under the tutelage of her eldest uncle, Bold Talent. From a blind follower of wedding traditions, she became an accomplice of her husband in defying them on their first night. From the insensitive, tactless brat, she sought wisdom both in reticence and in peaceful arguments. She learned to work hard and shed the aristocracy of the names she bore for she also learned to shoulder the consequences of her actions and decisions without bothering her slave let alone the elders in her clan.
As a transition literature, Spring Moon remarkably covered not only one historical metamorphosis to the next. Its vastness stretched from the final dynasty of Imperial China to the Communist nation the modern world saw emerged. Yet events flash as if in a motion picture – fast, vivid, smooth. Apparently, it was Bette Bao Lord’s powerful narration and realistic characters from which the strengths of the novel emanate. Every chapter opened with a reference from written literature, oral tradition or history, thus laying out a background for the events soon to unfurl – a clever maneuver of tenses, all linked and interrelated. Epistolary narration is also employed, creating variety so as not to fully adhere to conventional storytelling. Also, the omniscient narrator’s generosity for details doesn’t compromise the narration’s need to be challenging, barring the readers from getting too close too soon, thus allowing the story flow smoothly.
Bao Lord’s creative use of English translations of the character’s Chinese names as well as their realistic presentation provided variety and ease in reading. Her characterization made the people in the novel real – with all the vulnerability and darkness innate to human beings. Their humanity allows readers to read their story and identify themselves to be like one of them, or perhaps to be like people they know, as if they were reading the history of their own people. It was as if Jews were reading Joel Gross’ Books of Rachel, or the Filipinos Jose Rizal’s El Filibusterismo or Azucena Grajo Uranza’s Bamboo in the Wind. For while China was facing changes, so is the rest of the world. People reacted to these changes in the same way as the Chinese did. When threatened by war, people exhibit the same terror and pain. When reforms were introduced, people manifest the same inimical attitude and skepticism. When oppressed and abused, people succumb to the same anger and revolt.
Realistically portrayed in the novel was the fact that with the effort to bring social and political change comes the vicious cycle of the impermanence of things. Enemies do not remain enemies in the same manner as friends do not. Promises weren’t all kept let alone meant. In times of political crisis when personal interests were top priority, loyalties can be bought and sold.
Another noteworthy strength of this novel lies in the balance of presentation. Bette Bao Lord’s narrative style was careful enough not to be impartial as shown by \the juxtaposition of conflicting ideas in the novel. Spring Moon and Lustrous Jade being the symbols for old and new China, respectively, basically show how the new wave of information both threatens tradition and hopes for a national rebirth. The author showed the strong impact of tradition to the flow of the story by using an oracle as a foundation for the story’s plot. She depicted the tyranny of the Empress Dowager but also mentioned her capacity to govern. She spoke of the soldier’s valor and dedication, yet portrayed him as human enough to be subjected to disillusionment and fear. She also discussed the need to move forward and adoption of new ideologies for the sake of national development yet was audacious enough to write about its dehumanizing effect.
I learned two important things from this novel, the first one dealing with history and change. History documents times of changes since the emergence of the earliest signs of humanity and civilization, the rise and fall of empires and religions, the establishment and abolition of laws and the start and end of wars. History keeps on being written, even repeated. Indeed, the wind of change doesn’t cease from blowing, from sweeping lands and seas, hence the necessity of yielding to it as elucidated by Spring Moon. And the second one is about something that remained, astonishingly, almost undisturbed throughout the entire novel – one’s sense of family.
Lord, B. B. (1981). Spring Moon. NY: Avon Books. pp. 152 – 153.