Spring Moon

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The author of Spring Moon, like Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind (1936) and Boris Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago (1958), has written of civil war and social change from a uniquely informed position. Bette Bao Lord, born in Shanghai of a scholarly, aristocratic clan, came to America as a child; her father was an official in the Chinese government. The family remained in America after the Communists won the Chinese Civil War. The author first returned to China in 1973 with her husband, Winston Lord, principal adviser to Henry Kissinger for the China opening.

In her “Author’s Afterword,” Lord expresses satisfaction with the timing of that reunion with her Chinese past: “Only at thirty-five was I looking at life from both sides: . . . as mother and daughter, as Chinese and American, as younger and elder, as one person and a member of a clan, no longer thinking that . . . mortality [was] but a word. . . . [In China] I heard tales of the ancestors and saw the lives of my relatives—the life I might have led. The soul of Spring Moon lives in that trip. . . .”

Drawing on these personal memories and a strong sense of clan tradition, Lord has nevertheless remained evenhanded in her representation of both the “feudal” society of old China and the Communist takeover, introducing a broad spectrum of societal experiences and political reactions through her many characters. In these dramatically human terms, she shows the changing face of China over the long chaotic years of the revolution. To avoid encumbering her narration with political datelines, Lord has furnished as an appendix a four-page chronology of Chinese history from 1990 B.C. to A.D. 1981. This list provides detailed historic background for history buffs; even the casual reader, having become involved in the human dimensions of this revolution, might be expected to scan the chronology with newly awakened interest in Chinese history.

Poetic titles for each section of the novel and appropriate introductory passages preceding each chapter give Spring Moon the effect of a traditional Chinese novel. The author’s point of view becomes apparent without cant; she writes in the understated style of traditional Chinese poetry. Avoiding direct comment, Lord shows, for example, the rage and resentment aroused by the “unequal treaties.” She speaks early in the novel of a time when the “Chinese still valued scholarship above silver,” then shows in later chapters the success of August Winds, the family ward who has bribed his way to wealth under the new regime. In heroic tone, her Preface to the Epilogue recounts the long March by the Communists and the leadership of the Great Helmsman; in contrast, the chapter itself depicts Lustrous Jade and her husband driven to suicide by the Party they had served so faithfully and long.

Spring Moon, the central figure, endures by adapting, representing the novel’s recurrent theme of the yielding nature of Confucianism bending before the confrontational spirit of both Western Protestantism and the Communist movement. She is caught between the Confucian ideals she unsuccessfully seeks to hand down to her daughter, and the scholarly doubt of her mentor and lover. To her daughter, Lustrous Jade, she insists that civilization depends on the family, and the family on yielding filial piety, but from her mentor uncle, Bold Talent, she hears:

The revolution has put an end to yielding. . . . Do you not see what is wrong? . . . With all Chinese? With the Old Empire? With the old ways? . . . In the end, we always yield—to tradition, to foreigners, to family, to authority, to duty. . . . What no other men will tolerate, I will endure, for I am Chinese.

Bold Talent, the philosophical patriarch educated at Yale, expresses in his thoughts and personal relationships the ambiguous position of those bred in Confucianism and educated in Western culture. Faithful to his responsibilities as head of the Chang clan, obedient in his choice of a mate, he has also allowed himself a discreet, incestuous relationship with his widowed niece. Struggling for serenity amid tumult, he writes: “I fear that when change comes to ancient ways, no matter how long in the making, no matter how fervently wished for, chaos follows.” As the novel progresses, these expressions of concern yield to voices of despair. “What has happened to the revolution? Have we been dragging the lake for the moon all these years?” asks Bold Talent in 1916. Still later, the clan’s career revolutionary, Noble Talent, stands over the body of his brother the patriarch, shot in the street during the “White Terror” of 1927, and weeps, “Is this what revolution means?”

For the aristocracy, revolution brings an end to centuries of tradition. The endpapers of this handsomely designed volume begin the reader’s intimate introduction to the customs and values of traditional China, mapping the ancient and extensive courts of the House of Chang as it appeared in 1892. In this meticulously described setting, the irrepressible Spring Moon grows to maidenhood with bound feet but unbounded intellectual curiosity. Within courtyards and rockeries, in spare but elegant rooms furnished with calligraphy sets, rosewood furniture, and Ming urns, her clan’s numerous members pass serene hours in scholarly pursuits,...

(The entire section is 2196 words.)