Bette Bao Lord Essay - Critical Essays

Lord, Bette Bao


Bette Bao Lord 1938–

Chinese-American novelist and nonfiction writer.

Lord's background in Chinese culture and history is evident in her writings. She left mainland China with most of her family in 1946. A younger sister, San San, remained behind and did not join the family in the United States until 1962. Eighth Moon is Lord's recounting of her sister's experiences.

Lord's first novel, Spring Moon, is a family saga which captures the turmoil of recent Chinese history from the dissolution of the Manchu dynasty through the establishment of Communist China.

Kirkus Reviews

[Spring Moon] so diverts, pleasures, and instructs with decorative cultural addenda (in glossy, uncluttered prose) that it doesn't seem to matter too much that the characters emerge from … a cool, calculated, pictorial distance. Lord follows the House of Chang, a wealthy Chinese family of Soochow, from 1892 to 1972—starting with the choice of a new Patriarch. He is Bold Talent…. [However,] the Patriarch's younger brother—Noble Talent—will become a revolutionary: he barely escapes the fanatic Harmonious Fists (turn-of-the-century precursors of the Red Guards) and eventually survives to fight, however reluctantly, with the Kuomintang. Amid all these cymbal clangs of political crisis there is a grace note: pretty, graceful Spring Moon…. [Her] two children (by different fathers) will represent two contrasting forces in modern Chinese history…. With coious snatches of Chinese history, poems and folk tales, rituals leavened with warmth, humor, and nostalgia, [Spring Moon is] a gently engaging saga which offers attractive echoes of Pearl Buck as well as an agreeable sheen all its own. (pp. 1089-90)

"Fiction: 'Spring Moon'," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1981 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. XLIV, No. 17, September 1, 1981, pp. 1089-90.

Ronald Nevans

[Spring Moon] one of the most remarkable novels ever to explain the East to the West, follows the history of a Mandarin Chinese family…. Through the eyes of Spring Moon, a lively and intelligent daughter of the House of Chang, we see the beauty of the inner courtyard society and observe its respect for family, order and harmony, scholarship and poetry. But we see, too, how Chinese society's rigid etiquette hobbles the lives of its women as surely as their bound feet. (p. 75)

[Bette Bao Lord] writes in a low-key style that suggests the understatement of traditional Chinese poetry. Her final section, which races through the early days of the Chinese Revolution, seems too determined to score polemical points at the expense of Spring Moon's revolutionary daughter, the tiresomely pedantic Lustrous Jade. But for most of its length, this beautifully written first novel manages to be both poignant and restrained. (pp. 75-6)

Ronald Nevans, "Fiction Briefs: 'Spring Moon'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1981 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 8, No. 10, October, 1981, pp. 75-6.

Katherine Paterson

[In Spring Moon Lord uses] an introductory section at the beginning of each chapter. This section may relate a bit of history, folklore, a family story, or a few lines of poetry, but each selection helps the reader to understand what follows without having to call a halt to the story while one of the characters or the intrusive author himself delivers a pompous lecture…. [The selections] clarify and enrich the novel without seeming to interrupt it.

The problem of language is not quite so gracefully solved. First of all, there is the matter of names…. In this book, except in the cases of actual historical persons, surnames, which tend to be simple, are in Chinese, and given names, which are more complicated, are in translation. Thus instead of calling the characters Chang Chun Yue or Chang K'ang Neng, they are called Chang Spring Moon or Chang Noble Talent. Granted, it's a sort of mongrel solution and results in some rather stilted name-calling … but it does let us know at once who is doing what without having to flip back to check out identities.

Lord is less helpful when it comes to idiomatic phrases. Like anyone who knows a language, she simply can't or won't give up certain expressions…. [When] I read that Spring Moon pushed her cloth-bound feet into a pair of pink embroidered slippers and pulled on her "ta chin p'ao" and stepped out onto the gallery, I was at a loss to know what the child was...

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Joey Bonner

Bette Bao Lord's ambitious new novel, Spring Moon, is a family saga which … attempts to paint a portrait of the Chinese revolution of this century. In keeping with this dual vision, Mrs. Lord has imbued her protagonists with political convictions of differing hues: Bold Talent is a sort of armchair reformer whose love of China's cultural heritage triumphs over his reformist impulse; Noble Talent is a professional revolutionary dedicated, first, to the overthrow of the Ch'ing dynasty and, later, to the reunification of China under the Nationalist banner; Lustrous Jade is a Communist who joins Mao Tse-tung on the Long March; and so on. The thread that weaves this episodic story of the Changs together is the novel's titular heroine, herself curiously apolitical….

Anyone looking for a subtle treatment of the political issues that have convulsed China over the course of the last 100 years will not find it in Spring Moon. More successful than her depiction of China's political revolution is Mrs. Lord's dramatization of that country's first cultural revolution, which occurred during the heady days of the May Fourth era (1919–1927). Like her illustrious predecessor, Pa Chin, Mrs. Lord is at her best when chronicling the demise of the traditional social order, in particular the collapse of the Chinese family system and the Confucian ideals which underlay it. (p. 38)

Unlike Pa Chin, however, who (writing in the 1930s) holds the phenomenon of the joint [or extended] family in contempt and wallows in portraying its demise, Mrs. Lord views the putatively "feudal" society of pre-liberation days with an ambivalence which endows her novel with a peculiar poignancy.

Having grown up, in the late 19th century, behind the high stone walls that enclose the Changs' spacious compound, Spring Moon is the epitome of feminine virtue, traditionally defined. Because, however, she fully subscribes to such cherished Confucian ideals as filial piety and humility (in women), Spring Moon frequently finds herself at odds with her "modern" daughter….

The interest of Mrs. Lord's novel lies precisely here, in her depiction of the clashes between Spring Moon and her daughter, old values and new, which constitute a principal motif of modern Chinese cultural history. (p. 39)

Joey Bonner, "Brief Reviews: 'Spring Moon: A Novel of China'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1981 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 185, No. 16, October 21, 1981, pp. 33-9.

Charlotte Curtis

Chinese mandarin households are virtually unknown in the United States except to a handful of scholars. Pearl Buck's best-selling novels dealt mostly with peasants. Historians and journalists have neglected the aristocrats for the most part….

With such a gaping hole in the popular literature, it is no wonder that Bette Bao Lord's historical novel "Spring Moon" comes as a delightful surprise. Using the story of the Changs of Suzhou, a centuries-old clan of scholar-landowners, she has delivered the details of appropriate rituals, beliefs and cultural trappings of Confucian conformity and character with an attractive abundance. The family's orderly search for knowledge, inner serenity and profits serves as an indelible reminder of a way of life that has very nearly vanished. (p. 15)

Despite the growing firestorm of Chinese history, a deftly sketched but compelling backdrop against which Mrs. Lord plots Spring Moon's survival, the author's chief concern is with the Changs themselves, and how they feel, think and change through the years. And although early portions of the book are sometimes slow going, it is in the account of Spring Moon's younger years that Mrs. Lord, a teacher rather than a tour guide, has portrayed daily life so vividly. (pp. 15, 24)

At the end five generations of Changs, led by Spring Moon and including those from overseas, gather at the tombs of their ancestors and once more perform the familiar filial rituals, all of which obviously is implicit commentary about the role ancestors still play in contemporary China, as well as among those who have left their native land. Mrs. Lord uses the ceremony to underscore the devotion to family that characterizes the Chinese—a reminder, perhaps, to Mao's legatees that his dream of a nation solidly united beyond the clan is still to be fully achieved.

Clearly, Mrs. Lord has done a lot of research. More important, she herself is Chinese…. She has a wealth of remembrances upon which to draw. Yet in view of her strong Chinese connections, she has been heroically cool and evenhanded in the recounting of her country's politics. (p. 24)

Charlotte Curtis, "Among the Ming Urns," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 25, 1981, pp. 15, 24.

Enid Saunders Candlin

This extraordinarily good novel [Spring Moon: A Novel of China] presents a panorama of those events which have precipitated China from one crisis to another during the past century. The personages, members of a privileged family, range from the most old-fashioned clan elders and their wives to the half-Westernized "returned students," and the thrusting younger generations, whose world is collapsing around them. One's interest is held from start to finish, so well organized is the complicated mise en scène of this necessarily tragic account….

[Spring Moon is] a careful and vivid account of the crucial years of the dissolution of the Manchu Empire, the attempt to establish a...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

There is cause to have high hopes for Bette Bao Lord's historical fiction, "Spring Moon: A Novel of China." If nothing else, there is the Prologue, set in 1892, in which Plum Blossom, the slave girl of the young Spring Moon, bitterly laments the news that she is to be given away [and commits suicide]….

Not only is this incident the stuff of folk tales, it also artfully prefigures the larger action of the novel. It puts a symbolic curse on the House of Chang that will not be redeemed by 100 years of violent history. It is also the first in a series of anti-traditional acts that all together can be seen as China's experience in the 20th century.

And as well as this prologue and its...

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