Original title: 钟鼓楼 Zhong Gu Lou (1985), translated by Jeremy Tiang
The cover of the book looks like it could be a children’s book or a comics. But that is totally misleading, this is a sprawling novel of 400 pages, full of humor, people, events and considerations on life and history. I don’t know if the title of Wedding Party has been chosen by the publisher or the translator, but it is an English choice. It is obviously the focus of the main action, as we follow a group of people who are gathering on that day for a wedding celebration. Yet, the Chinese original title refers to the location of the action: the Bell and Drum Towers in Beijing. These historical buildings are towering the action and acting as eternal landmarks compared to the agitation and constant changes of the humans that live in their shadows.
The book is set in the winter of 1982 in Beijing, which is a bit of a low-key period in Chinese history. The struggles and upheaval of Maoist era are over, people are coming back slowly from being sent away by the Cultural revolution. Yet, it is not the booming economy and wealth that we now know, or rather, it is the first moments of the dawn. People are just starting to have their basic needs covered and they can start to buy some things for pleasure, and even buy fancier wedding presents and wedding food. Some even have Japanese brand watches and install electric bells on their door, instead of letting people drop by unannounced. The Bell and Drum Towers are not a wealthy neighborhood, people live in hutong and siheyuan, which are courtyard houses split between lots of families. This make for rather… ahem… rambunctious relations, when people with various interests, wealth, status, culture and prospects are obliged to rub shoulders every day and share water taps and more.
A wedding is a stressful day for the bride and groom and their families, and it was as true in 1982 in Beijing as it is today. The mother of the groom is hosting, and her aim is to have all the guests fed with delicacies and properly impressed. The bride is a young materialistic saleswoman who basically measures her happiness to the amount of wedding gifts and especially a much awaited gold watch. The wedding will be all but serene and auspicious when dozens of neighbors and guests, including people who aren’t quite welcome (a drunkard and a thief) go through the courtyard and share this day of excitement.
The novel is full of humor and humanity. Liu Xinwu has so much empathy for his large cast of characters, and he takes the time to explain the origins of many misunderstandings and disputes that erupt on that day. Liu Xinwu is the author who is credited for inventing the scar literature, a literary form who presents the suffering of the victims of the Cultural Revolution. It is visible in this novel as more than one character alludes to their past and how they have endured the previous decade, but not in a tragic, heavy tone.
This book was awarded the Mao Dun prize at his publication in 1985, which is the equivalent of the Booker prize for China. It’s not meant to be a direct criticism of the regime, but it is quite direct in showing cases of injustice, cronyism, hypocrisy and incompetence. Liu Xinwu also shows how the parents and grandparents of those living in the siheyuan had a miserable life before 1949 as Communists came to power. Because we also see the younger generation more interested in achieving success for themselves than proclaiming any Communist ideal, we can only reflect how these havej grown up and probably turned into the wealthy generation of the 2000s.
I was in Beijing in the early 2000s and the neighborhood of the Bell and Drum Towers was a favorite place with trendy, shabby cafés and run-down siheyuan. Many younger and wealthier families had long since moved to the high-rises in the suburbs or near the fifth ring road. Older and poorer people still lived there in the shadows of the towers, a glimpse at eternal Beijing. When we visited again in 2018, it felt like the towers had not changed much, however different the rest of the city was.
I enjoyed this novel a lot because it was linked to a lot of personal memories, but I believe it might appeal to Western readers who’d like a fun glimpse into old China daily life.
Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.