Reviews / November 2012 (Issue 19)

Consuming Love: Zhang Yueran's The Promise Bird

by Michael Tsang


Zhang Yueran, (trans. Jeremy Tiang), The Promise Bird, Math Paper Press, 2012. 323 pgs.

In 2010, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei presented an art installation, Sunflower Seeds, at London's Tate Modern. Spread across the floor of the gallery's huge Turbine Hall, the piece was constructed of one hundred million porcelain sunflower seeds, each handmade by one of 1,600 workers in China. Ai claims each seed is unique, and he compares them to China's internet population, insinuating that there are millions of individual, budding voices expressing themselves across the country.

I was curiously reminded of Sunflower Seeds and Ai Weiwei's comment while reading The Promise Bird by Zhang Yueran, translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang. There is no doubt that these are dramatically different works, but both the installation and the novel revolve around the notion of finding one's own sense of uniqueness. In Sunflower Seeds, each porcelain seed stands for an individual voice; in The Promise Bird, seashells contain the record of a person's unique memory, accessible only to the most sensitive of souls.

Set in China and the islands of Southeast Asia in the 15th century (the Ming Dynasty in China), the novel tells the story of Chun Chi, a blind woman who sings on Chinese expedition ships and collects chests of seashells to bring back to the home she shares with her adopted son, Xiao Xing. Chun Chi is everything to Xiao Xing, but she is cold and distant, dedicating herself to the delicate art of shell-reading. She attends to the conches all day, desperate to recover the one which contains the unique memory that belongs to her. When Chun Chi falls very ill, Xiao Xing is determined to go to sea on her behalf and search for her secrets and past. His journey brings him to the islands of modern-day Indonesia, where he finds out about his own origins as well as about the heart-breaking and complicated love rectangle between Chun Chi, his birth mother Tsong Tsong (a wild and exotic Dutch-Chinese song girl), his birth father Camel (a tribal leader on the islands) and Zhong Qian (a eunuch who polishes seashells for Chun Chi and who once loved Tsong Tsong). Over the course of his journey, Xiao Xing satisfies his wish to forge a deeper bond with Chun Chi, as he becomes the only living person to gain access to her intricate emotional history.

Much of the novel centres around Chun Chi's loss of memory, and one of the book's main themes is the struggle to remember and how this quest both hurts and satisfies. Within this theme, seashells become a symbol for the possibility of respite from the pains of memory: "Seashells are the jade of the ocean, and just as jade changes with the touch, they are affected when they touch skin, absorbing some of our heat, infected by our blood, allowing a body afflicted with the burning of memory to find respite in coolness." Yet the quest for salvation from the past also leads to dangerous obsession. Chun Chi's lifelong search to unlock her own memory drains her of energy and humanity, as she obsesses about rediscovering the romance she once shared with Camel.

Memory, then, is one's unique treasure, integral to one's identity and purpose. But memory also exists within a network. There is a Chinese saying that "the birth mother is not as dear as the adopted mother." As Xiao Xing grows up, he becomes obsessed with solving the riddle of Chun Chi's mysterious past, and his story shows us that accessing another person's memory means developing a unique bond with them. However, the loss of memory can equally lead to the severing of personal connections, and with Chun Chi's inability to recall the past, her love for Camel becomes irretrievable.

Like memory, love for Zhang is also not simple, a romantic relationship never smooth but instead full of turmoil. In their search for love, the characters shuttle between burning lust and the rare sense of calm. Through the pain of memory, the novel demonstrates how intensity of affection can bring out a frightening devotion that easily decomposes into envy and destruction. In The Promise Bird, every relationship is emotionally intense and consuming, driving characters almost to the point of insanity. This intensity can give the novel an uncanny and alienating effect, but at the same time, readers have no difficulty imagining how deep an aching desire can bite, thanks to Zhang's meticulous prose and Jeremy Tiang's seamless translation.

The author is good at portraying emotions vividly, such as when Tsong Tsong's wild character is compared to a "raging stream." Zhang also excels at realising scenes, filling each with rich, sensuous details:

The garden was dense with trees and flowers, surrounded by gurgling water. Rosewood chairs and tables of superb craftsmanship, still unused, leaned against the walls. The setting sun shot through the open bedroom window and polished a brass mirror as bright as the moon. Beyond it, the bedspread was made of new cloth from local weavers, so soft, such delicate needlework you'd be hard-pressed to find its equal in all the island. […] Light seeped through the peacock-feather screen and onto the carved bedhead, giving it a blue-green sheen on rainy days or damp mornings.

This haven, of course, does not last.

Although the narrative is sometimes overextended, and the point of view perhaps confusing due to a shift from an omniscient third-person narrator to Xiao Xing's first-person voice, Tiang's virtuosity as a translator largely compensates for these issues, as he employs carefully-chosen diction to pinpoint the lively, animated sentiments of the characters. At times, one can almost feel fits of emotion writhing on the paper.

The novel's plot and style demonstrate Zhang's expansive powers of imagination and expression (seen especially in her explanation of the origins of kopi luwak, otherwise known as "civet coffee"), and Tiang's excellent translation vividly captures her talents. Zhang is one of China's most popular young writers, and as The Promise Bird demonstrates so well, her perspective is fresh and new. Her works appeal to younger generations because they captivate readers with their twists on commonly treated themes and with their complex, unusual tales told through original and creative language. She is a writer to look out for.

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