Friday, 23 February 2018

Book Review: My Lady of the Chinese Courtyard by Elizabeth Cooper

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/14325773-my-lady-of-the-chinese-courtyardIn patriarchal societies women seldom play an important public role. Instead they are more or less confined to home and family, so little information about them “leaks out”. Diaries and letters sometimes shed light on their daily lives, but otherwise historical sources use to be scarce. Literature mirrors this situation. Where women live in the shadow of men, they aren’t likely to get leading parts in books, either. Set in China in the late 1880s and the early 1910s respectively, the forgotten classic My Lady of the Chinese Courtyard by Elizabeth Cooper evokes the life of a Chinese upper-class woman through two series of letters. The first she writes a few months after their wedding while her husband is abroad with a Chinese delegation, the other twenty-five years later after having moved to Shanghai where her husband was appointed governor and they have to lead a more Western life.

Elizabeth Cooper was born in Homer, Iowa, USA, in May 1877. During her extensive travels around the world, she explored the lives of women, of those in Asia and the Islamic world in particular, bringing them to the attention of a Western public through her writings. Although a prolific author in her time, above all during World War I, the books of Elizabeth Cooper are almost entirely forgotten today. The most notable of her works are The Market for Souls (1910; published under the pseudonym Elizabeth Goodnow), My Lady of the Chinese Courtyard (1914), The Women of Egypt (1914), Living Up to Billy (1915), Drusilla With a Million (1916), The Harim and the Purdah (1916), The Heart of O Sono San (1917), My Lady of the Indian Purdah (1917), and What Price Youth (1929). The author also wrote the plays Sayonara (1908) and Drusilla With a Million (1916). Elizabeth Cooper died in Miami Beach, Florida, USA, in 1945. Her play The Bedouin Song of Songs appeared posthumously in 1949. In 1990 American author Eileen Goudge reedited the letters of My Lady of the Chinese Courtyard and brought them out under her own name and under the new title Golden Lilies.

Eighteen-year-old Kwei-li became My Lady of the Chinese Courtyard when she married. Before the wedding she hadn’t known her husband, but she fell deeply in love with him at first sight. When he is ordered to accompany Prince Chung on his travels abroad, he asks her to write him every day and she happily complies with his wish that she understands as a command. In her letters Kwei-li reports what is going on in the courtyard of home that she shares with his mother and siblings often allowing the love and longing for her husband to seep into her words.
“The house on the mountain-top has lost its soul. It is nothing but a palace with empty windows. I go upon the terrace and look over the valley where the sun sinks a golden red ball, casting long purple shadows on the plain. Then I remember that thou art not coming from the city to me, and I say to myself that there can be no dawn that I care to see, and no sunset to gladden my eyes, unless I share it with thee.”
As a respectable upper-class wife, Kwei-li is expected to pass most of her time at home and to do everything in her power to please her mother-in-law which isn’t always easy for the young, unusually well-educated woman. Otherwise, she has only her sister-in-law for company until her brother-in-law gets married in autumn and his teenage wife joins the household. In spring, Kwei-li tells her husband that upon his return in summer she may well be a mother. Later, she ecstatically announces the birth of their son, but the happiness doesn’t last and before long she flows over with grief.
“My son, my man-child is dead. The life has gone from his body, the breath from his lips. I have held him all the night close to my heart and it does not give him warmth. They have taken him from me and told me he has gone to the Gods. There are no Gods. There are no Gods. I am alone.”
Twenty-five years later Kwei-li has moved to Shanghai with her husband who was appointed governor of the province and she writes letters to her elderly mother-in-law who has stayed behind in the old family residence. She reports on how different her life is in a city full of foreigners where she has to fulfil the tedious duties of a governor’s wife instead of pursuing a secluded life in the closed courtyard of a traditional Chinese house. Her grown-up children won’t listen to her and clearly favour a western life-style. Meanwhile opposing political powers plunge the country ever deeper into turmoil…

In My Lady of the Chinese Courtyard the author makes her protagonist Kwei-li present herself as a woman deeply touched by the vicissitudes of life, but also as a rather keen and intelligent observer of her surroundings. The gap of a quarter of a century between the first series of letters and the second, i.e. between Part 1 and 2 of the book that have occasionally been published separately, allowed to juxtapose Chinese society in the decades before and after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 highlighting the fundamental changes in the lives of upper-class women like Kwei-li. In her author’s note Elizabeth Cooper stated that a Chinese lady whom she had known for long wrote the letters and claimed for herself only the role of (cultural) translator. Unlike Eileen Goudge who republished the book as Golden Lilies under her own name after modernising the language, I’m inclined to believe, though, that the letters are fictitious and only inspired by actual letters of Chinese ladies or stories about them. The author’s language is unusually antiquated for 1914 which makes the book a bit tiresome to read at times. Its imagery, on the other hand, is most beautiful, not to say stunning.

All things considered, I experienced My Lady of the Chinese Courtyard by Elizabeth Cooper as a pleasurable, engaging as well as instructive read. No matter if fiction or non-fiction, I discovered some new aspects of the female role model and living conditions in ancient China. For instance, I wasn’t aware that despite the pain that they caused them Chinese women were actually proud of their bound feet and tenderly referred to them as “golden lilies” (thus the title of Eileen Goudge’s new edition of the book). At any rate, it was an excellent supplement to my other “Chinese reads” this month that cover the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 (»»» read my review of The Letters Which Never Reached Him by Elisabeth von Heyking) and – from an insider’s perspective – modern Chinese history after 1949 (»»» read my review of Frog by Mo Yan). This forgotten classic is certainly worthwhile my recommendation.

Nota bene:
Having died in 1945, all books from the pen of writer Elizabeth Cooper have meanwhile entered the public domain. Some of them have been digitised and can be found on the Internet Archive. The ebook of My Lady of the Chinese Courtyard can also be downloaded for free from the Project Gutenberg site.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent novel about the bound feet of Chinese women is Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, an American author descended from Chinese people.

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