Thursday, 25 February 2016

A History of the World in 50 Novels: 36 - "The Ghost Bride," by Yangsze Choo

The Malay Peninsula, home to an Islamic Sultanate since around 1400 AD, was occupied by the Portuguese in 1511, prompting a war with China. The Chinese, unsurprisingly, viewed the peninsula, and its surrounding archipelago, as part of their sphere of influence. Communities of Chinese merchants were already settled there, some of them descendants of men who had sailed there in the early 15th Century, in the fleet of the eunuch Admiral, Zheng He; and the Sultan of Malacca had subsequently paid tribute to the Chinese Emperor.

The narrow Straits of Malacca were important to Europeans as a source of tin, and also as part of the spice trade, bringing cloves, pepper and cinnamon back to Europe. In 1641, the Dutch captured the strategically important town of Malacca from the Portuguese, and, in the course of the Napoleonic Wars, they allowed the British to occupy it, in order to prevent a potential French encroachment. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 divided the Malay archipelago between the two imperial nations, with Britain taking most of what is now Malaysia; and the Netherlands taking what is now Indonesia.

Malacca in c1890 (image is in the Public Domain).

In the 1870s, the British introduced rubber trees to the Malay Peninsula from Brazil, just at the time when rubber was becoming an increasingly important commodity in the rapidly growing economies of Europe and North America. Rubber plantations and tin mines required a great deal of labour and, slavery and penal servitude having been abolished within the British Empire, opportunities arose for Chinese immigrants.

Malacca c 1890 (image is in the Public Domain).

As in New Zealand, Australia and the United States, most of these immigrants arrived in poverty, but Diaspora Chinese, like Diaspora Jews, had effective mutual-help networks, often based on temples and clan-associations. Some of the established Straits Chinese, the "Peranakan," were already prosperous, and lent money to their poorer countrymen, and established schools for their children. There were fortunes to be made, but also fortunes to be lost. Like the Diaspora Jews, also, the Diaspora Chinese retained their own culture, language and beliefs, preserved within a story-telling tradition with roots deep in the antiquity of their homeland.

The Sam Po Kong Temple, Malacca. Photo: Gisling (licensed under CCA).

Yangsze Choo's novel, The Ghost Bride, is set in Malacca at the end of the Nineteenth Century. Coming from a formerly wealthy family, now fallen on hard times, her protagonist, the seventeen year old Li Lang, receives a marriage proposal from a far wealthier family, the Lims, carrying with it the prospect of the revival of her own family's fortunes. There is just one catch: her prospective fiance, Lim Tian Ching, is dead. His ghost begins to haunt her dreams and, as she falls ill, and her life hangs in the balance, she is drawn deeper and deeper into the underworld of Chinese belief, a world from which there may be no return.

"Despite my resistance, I couldn't help falling asleep. Pricking my fingers with needles, biting my tongue, or even standing and pacing were of no use to me at all. Night after night, I found myself in that strange world I had come to associate with Lim Tian Ching. Once I attended a grand feast where I was the only guest at a long table laden with heaps of oranges, bowls of rice, boiled and quartered chickens, and pyramids of mangoes. Displayed like funeral offerings, the food had a distasteful quality to it, despite its splendour."

The burning of offerings, including "Hell Bank Notes," for the use of departed relatives in the underworld. Photo: Vmenkov (licensed under CCA).

"Another time I found myself in a stable filled with horses. Some were dappled, others white, brown or black. Despite their varied colouring, they were all exactly the same size and had the same ears and tail. Each stood in its stall, ears pricked forward and eyes fixed obediently ahead. When they moved, there was no sound other than the loud rustling of paper ... But the most fearful sight was a rickshaw equipped with a man standing silently between the poles, his grip frozen on the shafts as he stared blankly ahead. Though I passed my hand before his eyes, he didn't blink. I shrank back, seized by the sudden fear that he would snatch at my wrist."

"I gradually became aware of a beggar approaching me ... Overcome with pity and horror, I fumbled blindly at my pockets and found myself clutching a few strings of antique copper coins ... he pounced on the money with surprising swiftness. Clutching it with skeletal hands, he began to drift dispiritedly away. To my dismay, I saw other shadowy forms begin to gather about him with interest. Even as I watched, two more hungry ghosts appeared behind me. One was even more tattered and demented-looking than the beggar I had spoken to. It moved in slow fits and jerks, and I wondered whether, in time, such creatures simply wore away into nothingness. The other, however, must have been more recently dead for he pushed forward."

The "Scroll of Hungry Ghosts," National Museum of Japan, Kyoto (image is in the Public Domain). Across East Asia, "hungry ghosts" are variously depicted as spirits being punished for sins committed during a person's lifetime, or as ghosts denied the offerings that ought to have been made by their living relatives.

This novel does not merely provide the reader with a window into another time and place, as all good historical fiction must: it offers, also, a glimpse of a different way of understanding the cosmos, and our place within it; and an insight into a literary tradition unfamiliar to many of us, who grew up with the western canon that began with Homer and Hesiod.

The Chinese deity, Er Lang, who features in the novel. Here he is honoured at a Taoist temple in Dujiangyan, Sichuan Province, China. Photo: Shizhao (licensed under CCA).

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

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