Bette Bao Lord Joey Bonner - Essay

Joey Bonner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.