Dragon Springs Road Grapples with Racism and Identity Struggle
2017-01-06 18:40:42 CRIENGLISH.com Web Editor: Li Shiyu
Intimate, engaging, and bewitching, Dragon Springs Road is a personal Odyssey of an unrelenting soul. [Cover: HarperCollins]
Discovering literature and follow the stories behind your favourite authors, this is Ink&Quill, I am your host Yang Yong right here in Beijing.
For any historical fiction writer looking for inspiration, China in the first half of the 20th century is a gold mine of ideas.
This period includes the downfall of the once-mighty Qing Dynasty and its short-lived restoration and the birth and the final success of the Chinese revolution. It is a time-period filled with unpredictable conflicts and soul-touching human stories.
From the prominent Chinese author Eileen Chang to British novelist Adam Williams, many have penned tales about that turbulent age.
Yet few of them could fill a particular void like Janie Chang did, who examines racism and identity struggle in her latest book, Dragon Springs Road.
Zhang Wan has the report.
Reputedly born to a French father and a Chinese mother, Luo Jialing (left) used to sell flowers along the streets in Shanghai until she married Silas Hardoon (right), the wealthy Jewish businessman. Yet accordign to Canadian author Janie Chang, Luo is not the prototype of her latest book, Dragon Springs Road. [Photo: history. eastday.com]
Nowadays, everyone talks about how the world is getting smaller and more integrated, but in reality, racial issues remain and continue to be complicated. Especially for those with a bi-racial background, many are still confused about where they came from and where they belong.
Sounds quite topsy-turvy, right?
But as Canadian writer Janie Chang found out, back in the early 20th century, as a Eurasian living in China, things were even worse.
"......I run across a historical account, just a little snippet of a Eurasian girl named Luo Jialing and she was an orphan who sold flowers near Shanghai Old West Gate. This must be the turn of the 20th century. She married Silas Hardoon, a Sephardic Jew from Baghdad, who began his career as a clerk and rent collector. And then he went on to become the wealthiest man the eastern world can know by the time he died in 1931. As I read more, I researched more. It became evident that the majority of Eurasians in that time were not wealthy and they were not even middle-class. Most of these children were born to prostitutes or poor women. They were rarely acknowledged by their foreign fathers. The girls could be expected to be sold to brothels and the boys bounded to factories. In those days, because Chinese society highly valued family and lineage, such children were scorned for having neither and the westerners who lived in China also reviled them. "
In her latest novel, Dragon Springs Road, the protagonist Jialing is a Eurasian outcast facing contempt and discrimination. Ever since she could remember, the young girl is isolated in a small courtyard house with her mother, a not-so-retired prostitute. They seldom have any visitors except for the mother's patron, the owner of the estate.
Well-shielded by her mother, the child is not aware of their plight. Until one day, the seven-year-old finds herself abandoned, left alone in that courtyard with nothing but her mother's empty promise. Then, a heart-gripping tale begins.
The author summarizes the theme of her book.
"It's a historical novel. So I hope readers would learn something about the early 20th century China and how chaotic it was. In Dragon Springs Road, I want to counter the glamorous image of pre-World-War-Two Shanghai by depicting characters who are not wealthy, and to show how brutal life could be under the imperial and the early national governments that women could be just cast aside. It was a very, very brutal time compared to what we consider normal life these days. "
A postcard showcases the street scene of Shanghai in the early 20th century. [Photo: blog.cntv.com]
With no one to depend on, our heroine's only hope is to be accepted by the Yang clan, the new holders of the estate. Luckily, Grandmother Yang, the matriarch of the family, agrees to play the Good Samaritan. But the old woman takes the orphan in, not out of goodwill or sympathy, but to earn merit for her afterlife. Now a bond servant, the girl bitterly learns the social stigma brought on by her mixed-race lineage.
A few years later, Miss Morris, a tenant of the estate as well as a headmistress of a mission school takes Jialing under her wing. Staggering along the path of womanhood, the girl gradually realizes that no matter how hard she tries, she is bound to experience alienation, otherness, and rejection. Her Eurasian appearance, which is exotic and queer to both societies, becomes the first and even the sole identity people ascribe to her.
Racism, as Janie Chang points out, is one of the key elements in the story.
"You know one of my editors sort of objected to the way (that) a couple of minor characters were portrayed. She thought they came across as the very stereotypical, ugly white people and she wanted their racism to be less blazing. I pushed back at it, because it was a time when westerners who were racists didn't bother, they didn't have to bother hiding their scorn of non-white races. We live in a more enlighten(ing) time and the world of Dragon Springs Road is a reminder how far we have come and how vigilant we must be to protect human rights . "
Living in the margins of society, Jialing makes two friends. One is Anjuin, the moderate eldest daughter of the Yang family; while another is a fox spirit, a mysterious, fickle supernatural creature who can shift shapes and cast charms. In certain Chinese folklore, the fox is always portrayed as a Succubus-alike trickster who will take the form of a beautiful woman and manipulate men.
In traditional Chinese folklore, fox spirits, especially nine-tailed ones, are commonly regarded as Succubus-alike supernatural beings. [Picture:baidu.com]
When asked why she introduced a mythical character that is commonly regarded as a morally ambiguous seductor, the author answers:"Jialing is neither Chinese nor European. She doesn't really belong in either society. (As for) foxes, they are not human and they are not really animal and they are not totally celestial yet. So it's sort of like parallel and Fox does have her own agenda. But I think what was interesting is that my impression of foxes turned out to be very superficial and sort of informed by pop culture. When I actually did the research, it turns out that there's a long history of foxes in China as celestial beings all the way back to the Shang Dynasty and they evolved over the centuries. Originally they were companions to the Queen Mother of the West and they became omens of good fortune. They were wise counsellors to rulers. And then they became worshipped as minor deities. And then they became demons and mischief makers. For Fox in Dragon Springs Road, I wanted to give her back some of that dignity from ancient times. She has a goal of her own. But she's also intelligent and she enjoys new experiences and towards the end, we understand that how much the loyal and devoted friend she has been. "
Despite the verbose narrations on Fox, essentially, Dragon Springs Road is still a domestic coming-of-age story.
Although our protagonist lives through one of the most turbulent times in Chinese history, all of those grand historical moments, ranging from the fall of the Qing Dynasty to the rise of warlords in northern China, only serve as the backdrop of the main story.
Instead, the book recounts a personal Odyssey of an unrelenting soul; a tale of how a young Eurasian woman makes sense of the world. Unlike many other underclass women of her time, Jialing doesn't sink into hedonism; she survives murder, intrigue, and eventually finds her place in that grim world.
Born in Taiwan, Janie Chang has published two novels on China in the early 20th century. [Photo: janiechang.com]
Intimate, engaging and, bewitching, Dragon Springs Road is Taiwan-born Canadian writer Janie Chang's second novel.
It is also her second attempt to depict life in China and the struggle of women in the early 20th century.
"It's such an interesting time, right? First of all, it's China of my parents and my grandparents. There's so much social and political turmoil going on. It fascinates me because it's a vanishing era and it lives now only in the memories of our elders and in memoir and in literature. When I was a child, some of the best times I spent with my father was when he would tell me stories about her own childhood to university days, his life in the small town of Pinghu, and of course, stories of our family. It was all very vivid to my imagination. But then of course to write a credible historical novel, I had to get rid of my preconception and research. I realized my father downplayed how terrible things must have been. In a way, doing research and writing these books bring me closer to my parents, because now I feel I have a better understanding what they had to live through."
Three Souls is Janie Chang's debut book. [Cover: janiechang.com]
That was Zhang Wan giving us an introduction to Canadian writer Janie Chang's latest book, Dragon Springs Road, which tells the tale and struggle of a Eurasian woman in the early 20th century. If you want to read more on that era of Chinese history, you could also seek out Chang's debut book, Three Souls, which is largely inspired by her family legends.
Well, time to take a break. Coming up is our usual bookchat segment. This week, our reporters are going to talk about the recently released best seller list and how it is going to affect the publishing industry in 2017.
Shiyu and Ningjing discussed the top selling titles of 2016 and the driving force of literary trends in China.
Ok, time to wrap up today's program. Don't forget that there are always more interesting happenings in the literary world. To know more about us, you can follow our Facebook account: China Plus.
Thank you for tuning in. I'm Yang Yong. See you next week!