Part of Vancouver writer Janie Chang’s first novel, Three Souls, is set in pre-World War Pinghu, a small town in China that as she says, “drowsed its way through the centuries” until change was dramatically enforced upon it in the late 1920s and 30s. In this guest post, she explains why Pinghu was important to her novel, and why understanding small-town China is key to achieving more than a superficial understanding of the extent of China’s transformation today.
When we think of China today, it’s often images of rapid modernization and materialistic pursuits that come to mind. Shanghai, in particular, is a poster child for progress in China. The city has always embraced the new. In the years before the Second World War, the intellectuals of China congregated there in salons to debate politics, literature, and music. Many had returned from university in Europe and the United States. Hotel lobbies featured jazz musicians and cocktail bars. Dressmakers stitched both ball gowns and formal Chinese qipao dresses for their clients. Neon signs advertised clubs where Chinese and White Russian hostesses taxi-danced all night and theatres screened Gone with the Wind non-stop during the movie’s opening weeks.
But Shanghai and sophisticated big cities such as Beijing, Hangzhou, and Nanjing did not represent the China of my parents and grandparents. Big cities were the anomalies. Most of the Chinese population was rural; the bulk of the middle class—small-time landowners and merchants—lived in small towns.
My parents grew up in the town of Pinghu, a quiet backwater that drowsed its way through the centuries, jolted every so often by a flood or famine, the occasional outbreak of disease, sometimes a local conflict between petty warlords. Prior to the 1920s, its inhabitants lived the same modest, complacent lives as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents before them. Shanghai’s high society might condone divorce, but in Pinghu, the answer to a failing marriage was another concubine. High schools in Hangzhou hired foreigners to teach English and German, but in Pinghu, children of wealthier families were tutored by that last relic of the Qing Dynasty—the town’s failed Imperial scholar.
When change finally struck the town, it came in a deluge, within a single generation.
The year 1927 and the Chinese Civil War brought the first refugees trickling in to Pinghu, families seeking shelter with more fortunate relatives. In 1937 Japanese troops marched into town and my mother’s family fled to the safety of the International Concession in Shanghai. My father’s university, pledged to look after its students, packed up library books and cooking pots and the entire campus took to the road. They stopped whenever possible to continue with classes and slept in temples, separated by only a few miles from the advancing armies. Then in 1939, World War II aligned Japan with Germany. Bombs fell on the town, destroying homes where families had lived for a dozen generations.
Part of my novel, Three Souls, is set in pre-World War Pinghu. One of the characters dismisses it as “a place where no one ever goes and nothing ever happens” but I wanted to feature the shabby, unremarkable town where my parents spent their childhood. I wanted to portray a China of contrasts, of country and city, where traditional roles conflict with modern ambitions, where educated families enjoyed Tang Dynasty classics but also read Russian novels in translation, and where daughters were permitted an education—but not too much.
When I was researching Three Souls, it was hard to find books about small-town China. Far less exciting than Shanghai and devoid of significant events, they don’t seem to command much attention from Western authors. Their dramas are domestic rather than historic, their inhabitants more suited to caricature than heroics for clinging to the world of their ancestors just a little bit longer.
These towns were flimsy barriers against the most profound social and political changes ever to transform China. Rendered anonymous by their size and ordinariness, small towns existed at the periphery of great events. But it was this old-fashioned ordinariness that defined the life most Chinese of that era understood; only by knowing this can we appreciate the magnitude of change endured by a population essentially still feudal in its outlook.
Janie Chang was born in Taiwan and spent parts of her childhood in the Philippines, Iran, and Thailand before settling in Canada. She has a degree in computer science from SFU, and recently attended The Writer’s Studio at SFU. Three Souls is her first novel and you can visit her on the web at www.janiechang.com.
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