It is somewhat inexplicable that it has taken more than 35 years for Liu Xinwu’s The Wedding Party to show up in English. The book was serialized in 1984 and published the next year, winning the Mao Dun Prize and adapted into an 8-episode series for television. Popularity can be the result of hitting a particular zeitgeist that may not always translate across periods, cultures and languages, but The Wedding Party is a marvelous story of a single December day in the life of an atmospheric Beijing compound populated by sprawling cast of quirky and all-too-human characters, all-written with style and wit. All it was missing was a pitch-perfect translation by Jeremy Tiang.
The book is nominally about the wedding Auntie Xue is arranging for her son Jiyue to a young woman whose idea of satisfaction is a Rado watch. The siheyuan’s other residents—a Chinese opera star in mid-career, a husband-hunting social climber, a senior government official about to fly off to Europe, a literary editor, a petty criminal, an oafish layabout, spouses, children, parents, relatives, friends—are directly or tangentially involved and have their own stories, backstories, histories, hopes, regrets, relationships, virtues and vices, all muddled together. They help, meddle, and try to be somewhere else. Auntie Xue starts off anxious and becomes progressively more harassed as one thing after another, the excellent quality of the multi-course banquet from the apprentice chef notwithstanding, goes off the rails; the day slowly spirals out of control.
There isn’t, it must be said, an actual plot. People come and go, their trajectories diverge and collide. Things just happen. But the web of stories that Liu spins is inescapable. While there are somewhat more people than can be easily kept track of, each is portrayed with both empathy and gentle mockery.
You don’t read many novels about these people. Some dismiss them as “little city folk,” or even worse, “the masses.”
One gets to know them and to like them
Liu has the same attitude toward society as a whole. The satire is gentle, as here where Liu provides an editorial backgrounder:
Today is December 2, 1982, and civilization on our planet continues to move forward. In countries where technology and manufacturing are more advanced, computer usage is becoming widespread. In our fatherland, many modernizing projects are proceeding full steam ahead. In Beijing, progress is constant, without a moment’s pause. The raised intersections of the second beltway have already been constructed, and one new building after another is rising from the ground like bamboo shoots.
Liu also casts a wry eye on the interaction of society and people, as in this explication of Xiuya, the bride-to-be, and her general lack of interest in anything other than the quotidian:
If we want a young petit bourgeois such as Xiuya to have a Socialist awakening and embrace the ideals of Communism, you must begin by inculcating in them the fundamentals of astronomy, the development of biological organisms, and basic Chinese history—because when you get right down to it, Socialism-Communism is basically a branch of science, which is to say, a form of culture, and a highly sophisticated culture at that.
The Wedding Party has been described as “depicting the lingering impacts of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and exploring the fusion of human history and destiny in a world of uncertainty” and as introspection on “what it means to be Chinese in an era of rapid modernization”. But Liu (thank goodness) does not seem to be taking things quite so seriously: the book displays an admirable lightness of touch. It’s not Liu doesn’t have a message: the importance he places on observation is evident in the detail that he packs into every corner of the book, from the details of shoe repair to stamp-collecting:
Someone once offered to swap an eighteen-stamp set of S44 Chrysanthemums for a W2 Long Live Chairman Mao … W2 stamps aren’t particularly rare, whereas a complete S44 set is hardly ever to be found.
Details specific to this particular place carry additional weight, for example:
If the weather’s not too cold, they can leave it when they’re done, for the convenience of the other families. But in the evening, or when it’s particularly freezing, they have to clear the pipe by putting their mouths over the spout and blowing hard, pushing the leftover water back into the dry well. Then they close the valve and put the lid back on so no matter how cold it gets, the pipes won’t freeze.
Why? So as not to forget.
This is what tens of thousands of Beijingers do each day, and while it may seem like a small, unnecessary detail, spare a thought for future generations of Beijingers. If we don’t tell them the minutiae of our daily lives, how will they get this information decades from now? Any way of living, in all its detail, is a specific form of culture. This doesn’t solely include literary or artistic creations, but also what people eat or wear, where and how they live.
The book’s origins as a serialization are much in evidence: a multitude of short chapters, each focusing on a different protagonist, each a vignette, each a story on its own. It’s easy to see why it was developed as a TV series.
The swirling detail in The Wedding Party manages to convey both the ephemerality of any given combination of time and place as well as the timelessness of human relations that transcend short-term changes in taste and society. Liu Xinwu’s Beijing of 1982 may be on the cusp of massive change, yet it remains eternal: he anchors this Beijing on the Drum and Bell Towers, who preside over both the siheyuan and the book, and which made up the book’s original title in Chinese: 钟鼓楼.
There is something in the combination of social comment, the melding of sympathy and the satire, the gentle humor, the focus on and acceptance of human foibles that reminds one of Russian writers, perhaps Gogol. But any good writer needs a good translator and Liu Xinwu has been fortunate (as have we) to have one in Jeremy Tiang. Without being able to reference and evaluate the original, one can’t know the extent to which Tiang has retained the author’s voice. But certainly, the translated work has a distinctive and very appealing voice: observant, kind, wry, knowing, forgiving, optimistic—and yet rollicking and fun-loving. This translation was worth the wait.