ELLA KELLEHER WRITES — Beijing’s Bell and Drum Towers stand one in front of the other, the Drum Tower in front with red walls and grey tiles and the Bell Tower behind with gray walls and green tiles. These two obelisks have watched over the bustling city for centuries like the omnipresent eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – bearing witness to the swiftly changing tides of China’s history. While only few Beijingers remain who can remember the chimes of the now silenced towers and “everything contains a certain uncertainty,” one thing can be guaranteed: “Beijing’s Bell and Drum Towers will remain as eternal witnesses to history and destiny.”
Set in the winter of 1982, a pivotal point after the brutal hardship of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, The Wedding Party (2021) seeks to sew together the lives and fates of a rich tapestry of otherwise everyday people. Liu Xinwu, born in 1942 and the inventor of Chinese “Scar Literature”, won the prestigious Mao Dun Literature Prize and is known for his diverse array of literary contributions. Expertly translated by Singaporean writer and editor, Jeremy Tiang, The Wedding Party which comes out on November 16th, 2021 asserts itself as a deeply personal introspection into the state of human relationships and what it means to be Chinese in an era of rapid modernization.
In the courtyard of a Beijing siheyuan (a traditional Chinese quadrangle of homes), life begins to stir the cold December air of 1982. Auntie Xue’s son, Jiyue, is getting married today to the materialistic Xiuya, a saleswoman hell-bent on receiving her promised wedding gift of a gold plated Rado watch. Auntie Xue is determined to make this day a social triumph, despite Jiyue’s passionless attitude toward women and himself. Lu Xichun, the chef hired by Auntie Xue and a man of lowly birth, is tasked with the burdensome responsibility of creating an auspicious banquet to impress droves of guests. Quickly, we meet a cross-generational array of wedding attendees. From nervous family members to a bridal party expecting the worst – not including annoying friends, interfering neighbors, a thief, and a drunkard – what is in store for the big day?
With the Bell and Drum Towers looming over in the periphery, the novel’s siheyuan and the community it delicately cradles frames Xinwu’s eclectic narrative. Upon entering through the shaded hutong (back alleyway), we meet Tantai Zhizhu – a famous yet disgraced Beijing opera actress married to a jealous working-class man named Li Kai. History contextualizes Zhizhu’s existence, as when the dreary Cultural Revolution eclipsed Chinese society, she was labeled a “feudal, capitalist, and revisionist black seedling.” Local Beijingers knew her fall from grace could easily taint those in her orbit, but that does not stop Auntie Xue from requesting Zhizhu’s melodic voice to serenade her son’s wedding. However, Li Kai’s ferocious temper and envious disposition comes down like an ax on Zhizhu’s aspirations – this is just one in a series of many inauspicious incidents that the Xue family must deal with on their special day.
In a side house of the siheyuan lives Zhang Qilin, a government worker, and his small family. Zhang’s lovesick daughter Xiuzao wants more from her life. She lives adjointly to Xun Lei, an intellectually gifted young man who knows English and gets to travel for work. Without reservation, Xiuzao believes herself the worthiest of Lei’s love and attention – after all, she loves him for his personality, not just for his merit-driven ascension out of country-life. As Xiuzao enters the main courtyard, she notices the double happiness characters painted on large red banners. This can only mean one thing: marriage. Xiuzao’s heart “all but shatters” as she falsely thinks Xun Lei has chosen a wife already. Xiuzao then must face a cruel reality – Xun Lei is not getting married today but he has brought home his girlfriend, Feng Wanmei, a beautiful city girl with a golden future. “If there were a hundred strings in [Xiuzao’s] heart, every one of them would now be jangling, and not in harmony either.”
In every community there exists a meddling auntie, a loveable yet undeniably annoying and overly enthusiastic older maternal figure. Zhan Liying fits this archetype perfectly. A woman of forty-eight who lives mostly by herself deserves more sympathy than she is granted. After being outed as a “rightist” by jealous and hateful coworkers who could not help but hate her overbearing nature, Auntie Zhan was forced to endure multiple “struggle sessions” and twenty years of “reform” through hard physical labor and humiliation. The reason for this? Her personality. “The most difficult thing to change about a person is their personality. And the most difficult thing to describe about a person? Also their personality. No one has just one dimension, and no one presents just one side of themselves,” explains the novel’s author. Much like the siheyuan itself, people house many conflicting compartments within themselves that can attract some and repel others simultaneously.
As the wedding party roars on with most of the guests seated and enjoying their twelve-course meal, somewhere in a nearby neighborhood a delinquent student gets in a fight with his strict father. Yao Xiangdong rejects Chinese society’s pressure to academically perform. We learn that after the Cultural Revolution a chant was made popular, “Grades, grades, everything else fades.” Xiangdong instead chose to spend his time breaking the rules, which is exactly why he finds himself kicked out of his family home, alone in a busy alleyway. After soiling his best friend’s expensive windbreaker while trying to purchase Beijing’s best street noodles, Xiangdong decides he needs to find the funds to buy a newer, cooler jacket for his pal. Xiangdong sees the festive commotion within a nearby siheyuan, and thinks, “What better way to do this than with cold hard cash stolen from a wedding envelope?” What does he find instead? A gold plated Rado watch.
With the bridal family’s matriarch, Seventh Aunt, in tow everything must be perfectly in order and sufficiently auspicious. How will she and Xiuya react when the cherished wedding gift is gone? Has the bride and groom been doomed from the beginning? Will Xiuzao ever confess her love to Xun Lei? Will Xun Lei truly be happy with a woman from a different social stratum? Will Zhan Liying ever change her personality? Will the wedding party collapse into utter chaos? Only time will tell.
“Time” itself is a major character in the novel. Metaphorically represented by the Bell and Drum Towers, time streams “silently forward, and within [it], human communities write their histories and individuals live out their destinies.” As you progress through this novel, you implicitly understand that no matter the event, whether cataclysmic or miniscule, time always moves forward, notwithstanding the backwardness of the Cultural Revolution. Despite how life may seem to us mere humans, “the two towers stand tall, eternally awaiting the next moment, the next day, the next month, the next year, the next generation.” After turning the last page (whether physical or electronic), we are left with a powerful moment of reflection: If time will continue forth regardless of our actions, much like a river with a cosmic current, then perhaps we should focus less on the minor stresses of life and go with its commanding flow?
LMU English major graduate Ella Kelleher is the book review editor-in-chief and a contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. She majored in English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.