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,...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bette Bao Lord’s Spring Moon: A Novel of China—chronicles the tribulations of a family—the Changs—and in particular one woman—Spring Moon—between 1892 and 1972. In addition to a prologue and an epilogue, the novel contains thirty-eight chapters arranged in six sections. The first section, “West Wind,” focuses on Spring Moon’s adolescence in Soochow, and the second section, “Spring Fire,” celebrates Spring Moon’s marriage to Glad Promise and her sojourn in Beijing (Peking). In the third section, “Golden Ashes,” the widowed Spring Moon returns to Soochow with her daughter, Lustrous Jade. The fourth section, “Summer Wine,” is unified by Spring Moon’s affair with Bold Talent in Shanghai. Lustrous Jade’s revolutionary activities dominate the fifth and longest section, “Jade Phoenix.” In the sixth section, “Sowing Dawn,” political unrest forces the Changs to flee Soochow for Hong Kong, and eventually the family disintegrates, only to be reunited in Soochow years later. Forty-five years pass between the last chapter in section 6 and the novel’s epilogue.

The events in the prologue prefigure much of the novel’s action. Told that she must marry an aged friend of the Chang family, Spring Moon’s servant girl, Plum Blossom, kills herself. Her death is the first in a series of deaths and antitraditional acts that organize the work. Within weeks after Plum Blossom’s suicide, the patriarch dies, and the House of Chang begins to...

(The entire section is 609 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Spring Moon is one of the few books in American literature to portray the traditional life of an upper-class Chinese woman at the beginning of the twentieth century. Nominated for an American Book Award in 1982, Lord’s novel addresses such issues as arranged marriages, foot binding, and cloistering—all from a woman’s point of view. The American reader is shown the impersonal business of betrothal, which always entailed submission and servitude for a woman, though not always to an agreeable mother-in-law or a kind husband. Spring Moon’s husband is both agreeable and kind, and his love makes it possible for Spring Moon to tolerate her mother-in-law’s sour disposition. The American reader is also introduced to the cruel practice of foot binding, the binding of a woman’s feet to produce small “golden lilies.” It is a painful practice that Spring Moon bewails and later rejects for her own daughter. Finally, the American reader is afforded a sense of the isolation that upper-class Chinese women must have felt in seclusion. Cloistered since birth, these women seldom knew a world beyond the confines of their Edenic courtyards. Spring Moon yearns for a glimpse of the outside world, but even after her marriage she is forbidden to leave the Woo estate. When she finally ventures out into the world, her elation is overwhelming to her and pathetic to the reader.

Lord’s novel can be viewed as a literary precursor of Amy Tan’s successful...

(The entire section is 525 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Lord has recreated the feeling of the traditional Chinese novel through her understated style, by her use of poetic titles for each section,...

(The entire section is 433 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Spring Moon is a novel about clashes. It deals with the clash of different generations, with the clash of different ideologies, with...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As one might expect from a novel based on the collapse of the Chinese feudal system and the subsequent Communist takeover, Spring Moon...

(The entire section is 558 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

A novel chronicling the fortunes of a Chinese family inevitably invites comparison with Pearl Buck's The Good Earth (1931); and to the...

(The entire section is 290 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Although not a sequel to Spring Moon, The Middle Heart (1996) is strikingly similar in its vivid portrayal of Chinese history. The...

(The entire section is 65 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Best Sellers. XLI, October, 1981, p. 256.

Bonner, Joey. Review of Spring Moon. The New Republic 185 (October 21, 1981): 38-39. This review discusses the novel in the context of China’s political and cultural history. It identifies the plot as “a family saga,” describes Spring Moon as “curiously apolitical,” and credits the novel’s success to domestic delineation rather than political exegesis.

Book World. XI, October 11, 1981, p. 1.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, November 9, 1981, p. B7....

(The entire section is 351 words.)