Bette Bao Lord Charlotte Curtis - Essay

Charlotte Curtis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.