One reason the writers of these works were published is because agents and editors “crave the original and fresh voice” [2, 193]. The success of Chinese writers is partially due to voice and partly due to the original experience offered by the author. Because the typical Western reader has little experience of the East, many readers accept experiences conveyed in this literature as truths about Chinese culture.
Truth is always a delight but how do we know to trust the author? Readers want to know how much to believe while also going along with an enrapturing fantasy. Readers look to literature to provide the illusion of truth for a number of reasons. One reason is the reader’s wish to escape from everyday reality. Another reason is writers often present their experience much like memoirists, richly but imperfect recall. Meanwhile history marches on. Does the writer’s experience still hold true?
The émigré experience like the tourist experience also begs the question of slant. For instance, do émigrés seek to justify their reasons for leaving the old country and therefore bring truth into doubt?
The personal truth that arises from a tourist experience by an author is one where the reader needs to wonder, does this work convey the culture accurately? Ultimately, no single person can experience the life of a nation as a whole, especially when discussing two large countries like China and the United States.
A final cause of doubt arises out of the translation of the works. Most translators hope to provide an honorable and accurate equivalent to the original. Sometimes error is introduced when a translator has to choose between two manners of address, verb choice, etc.
So what is voice? How does Chinese culture affect the voice of Chinese writers? Do we trust Chinese authors are telling us the truth? Is there something to be learned that goes beyond Communist Party released news? What helps a reader understand voice in Chinese literature?
What is Voice?
Writer and Editor Elizabeth Lyon explains voice as “style, diction and … content when expressed through the writer’s perceptions … to convey a unique relationship … with a reader.” [1, 179].
Writers establish voice during the portrayal of their characters. One way unique characters are established is by their vocalizations including the quality of the voice by birth (i.e. thick-tongued, nasal, breathy), the quality of the voice by training (i.e. enunciated, di petto or from the chest, plummy, trenchant), and by situational aspects of the voice implying emotion (i.e. with a quaver, whimpering, bubbly, ejaculatory) [5, 395]. According to Marion Roach Smith, writers “need to tell us the truth and do it in a consistent voice.” [13, 109].
Characters convey direct, indirect, or internal thoughts through dialogue. The diction of what characters say via their choice of hard words or soft words, the use of commands, the use of slang, foreign words, and the ease they have of using language, their use of passive or active verbs, their phrasing and their logic also help convey a sense of class, education, interests and other elements of personality.
But even more than how words are said, as Elizabeth George says, “The point of view character’s speech needs to have attitude [7, 97]”. Andrew Cecil Bradley provided one example, saying “the actor felt it often enough, and we [the audience] can hardly err in hearing his own voice in dramatic expressions of wonder and contempt at the stupid pride of mere authority and at men’s slavish respect for it” [14, 346]. Such attitude conveys actions, facial expression, word stress etc. to the reader that goes beyond the words written on the paper. It’s not just what is said, but how it is said.
Many writers place heavy emphasis on the point of view of the story as a key element of voice because it controls how closely readers identify with a character. An omniscient point of view allows a story to be told through the eyes of many characters, but always in the background the reader should be asking who the narrator of this tale is and identifying the point of view. The reader should imagine a character via aspects of voice. A first person present tense point of view provides a reader with the closest relation since there is little distance between the narrator and the reader. Both the character and the reader are thinking I did this, I felt this. A third person point of view is more distant.
Culture often is a hidden element of voice. Culture is portrayed via voice including all that is said above, but also via actions such as the automatic space adjustment to people they meet, how and when they make eye contact and other elements that many readers might not realize if they’ve never encountered it.
Elements of Chinese Culture
One of the underlying facets of non-Western literature is how the story portrays a culture unfamiliar to the reader. Often subtle cues in the voice of the story will showcase culture.
What is culture?
According to Nanda and Warms, “Culture is the major way in which human beings adapt to their environments and give meaning to their lives. It includes human behavior and ideas that are learned rather than genetically transmitted, as well as the material objects produced by a group of people.”[16, 5]
The increasing modernization and acceptance of Western culture has affected the overall way Chinese culture is portrayed in literature about China. The three main novels used in the following discussion of Chinese voice as it relates to their culture offer glimpses from three separate periods in Chinese history. East Wind West Wind by Pearl S. Buck provides a tale from before the Japanese War and the embrace of communism. Soul Mountain is written post Cultural Revolution years by Gao Xingjian. One Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li is very recent and offers some views based on post-Cultural Revolution years, even perhaps post-Tiananmen Square events and offers also the émigré to the United State experience. There’s definite consistency in the anthropological view of culture in many areas, while a few differences pop up. These differences include a decreasing modesty and decreasing separation between the sexes as shown in the latter two novels.
In Geography of Thought, Richard Nesbitt explains a number of studies he undertook with the conclusion that in certain areas, Chinese people respond in a different manner than people in Western societies. These can include the way they resolve conflict, the way they communicate, how they seek rewards, the depth of relationships that they seek and many more dimensions.
Here are eight examples using text from the three books based on Richard Nesbitt’s criteria for differences seen between Western and Eastern thought.
Example 1: Chinese seek the middle road or try to restore harmony in a relationship, avoiding confrontation and debate [15, 10].
In this passage from East Wind West Wind, the main character Kwan Lei’s brother has married a woman from the United States. Kwan Lei’s mother is very distraught; her husband is appalled at the brother’s defiance of his parent’s wishes, even though he himself has embraced Western attitudes. He tells his wife:
“Stupid boy—foolish—foolish!” he muttered, crumpling the letter in his hand. “How could he do this thing? Yes, go at once to your honorable mother. You must comfort her [17, 962-964].”
He is referring to Kwei-lan’s instinctive desire to comfort her mother and try to find a solution for her brother. He is also implying that he would have avoided the confrontation by obeying his parents, especially since his own marriage was arranged.
In Soul Mountain, the author, Gao Xingjian writes about the ending of a relationship:
“Eventually, she turns and walks off. You deliberately don’t look; you know she is waiting for you to turn your head. If you turn to look, she won’t leave, she will look at you, holding back her tears until they begin streaming down her cheeks. You will give in, beg her to stay [18, 303].”
With these words, he tells how he avoids a continuation of the relationship.
In Yiyun Li’s story from the same collection titled A Thousand Years of Good Prayer, even though the characters have moved to the United States and father, Mr. Shi, and his daughter acknowledge they enjoy the freedom in which they speak, a key turning point occurs when they both discuss their marriages and their silence with their partners. The conclusion is less than happy as they both retreat as culturally expected as shown in the following passage:
“You didn’t hurt me. Like you said, you were only talking about truth,” he says, and stands up. Before he retreats to the guest bedroom, she says quietly behind him, “Baba, I’ll book the tours for you tomorrow.”[6, 200]
Thus the daughter ends any debate about her life style and shuts off his participation, while he avoids further discussion of his own life. Even though the women in the stories have more freedom in their actions, the cultural behavior of avoidance still is evident even in the most recent story.
Example 2: Chinese people enjoy a sense of collective agency (people accomplish goals as a group) [15, 6].
An example of this occurs in the story “Persimmons” by Yiyun Li. At one point, the men of town go into town demanding justice for the loss of a young boy but what really happens is as follows:
“A dreamer is what you are, asking for the impossible.”
“We all asked for that at the riot, but it didn’t get us anywhere.”
“That was because we gave up.”
“Bullshit. What’s the point fighting for a dead boy?”[6, 81]
The story is told from the point of view of the community rather than anyone individual and helps strengthen the sense of collective agency not just about standing up for their friend, retreating from the authorities but also facing down the drought conditions. They speak of their actions as a whole unit rather than any one thing an individual did.
In Soul Mountain, a less dramatic sense of collective agency occurs when a baby Panda returns and the entire group of researchers respond as the narrator describes:
“They are very excited and go into minute details – who was first to hear, who was first to open the door, how he saw it through the crack in the door, how it followed him… Normally they scarcely speak to one another but here they are talking about Beibei as if it’s everyone’s sweetheart. [18, 39]”
The Panda acts like the mother of the family, drawing them all to concerted action in its support.
Despite the political changes that occurred between each of the three stories, the cultural commitment to group activity is coming out of the cooperative society that came from the roots of their agricultural society. Author Fei Xiaotong in From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society agrees with the idea of collective agency saying, “The unit of isolation is not the individual but the group [20, 40].”
Example 3: Chinese people find a connection between nature and human affairs [15, 15]
The metaphorical connection between the Chinese and the natural world is often the one item most pointed out in Chinese Literature. An example of this is provided in East Wind West Wind, when the narrator explains her desire to converse with her husband, thinking the following thoughts:
“What if the pale wan waters should never feel how the moon draws them? … guard thyself, and return to me safely, lest I be that pale wan thing without you.”[17, 36-37]
The analogy made by Kwei-lan between the moons pull and the emotional pull of her husband is beautifully full of natural imagery.
In this passage from Soul Mountain, the narrator is camping out and has heard a noise and goes to investigate it.
“…to grope in this thick dark night; you hear it in motion, it is not the wind in motion but this darkness which is devoid of top bottom left right distance and sequence; you are wholly fused with this chaos, conscious only that you once possessed the outline of a body, but that this outline in your consciousness is rapidly vanishing; a light emanates from your body, dim like a candle in the darkness, a flame with light but no warmth… [18,113]".
Here the author has so lost his ability to see he no longer believes he has a body, instead merging with the night. He is in awe of what he imagines about the world and the moment, almost hopeful that he can provide his own direction.
Example 4: Important relationship pairs have clear obligations to each other [15, 15]
In East Wind West Wind, the duty of the son to marry his betrothed and the duty of the parents in arranging the marriage is explained simply:
“He, their son, sent his filial respects to his parents and begged them to break off the early betrothal with the daughter of Li, which had always made him unhappy, even in contemplation [17, 1009-1010].”
The statement is confrontational in rejecting that obligation, saying in two different ways that the son no longer is following Eastern style of thought and behavior.
An example of the extent of the obligations people feel, Gao Xingjian explains the search his younger brother made for his grandmother who was placed in a home for the aged and then passed away as follows:
“In those chaotic years, no-one knew whether she was alive or dead. By pretending to have revolutionary contacts my younger brother was able to travel free on the trains and he made a special trip to search for her [18,322]”.
Later the author goes in search and finds her nursing home but no common grave for her ashes. He concludes, “Nevertheless, I have finally visited my deceased maternal grandmother who once bought me a spinning top [18,324]”.
In Yiyun Li’s tale “After a Life” two different relationships are contrasted against each other. The protagonists, Mr. and Mrs. Su, have spent their life caring for a daughter with cerebral palsy and severe mental retardation. Played against their life, is that of the life of Mr. Fong, his wife and his mistress he wishes to play marriage with while his wife is in jail, but ultimately:
“Nothing’s right with the wife after she’s released,” Mr. Fong says.
“Are you going to divorce her?”
Mr. Fong downs a cup of wine. “I wish I could,” he says and starts to sob. “I wish I didn’t love her at all so I could just pack up and leave [6, 40].”
Despite the differing relationships, the cultural norm is for people to commit to others and accept the obligations that are involved.
Example 5: Chinese describe themselves in terms of a situation [15, 53]
In East Wind West Wind, Kwei-lan’s dying mother describes her heart thus:
“It is empty,” she said. “It awaits my grandson, the son of my son. When he shall have been taken before the tablets of his ancestors, I may die in peace [17, 1225-6].”
Here, the mother’s entire purpose has been dependent first on producing a son, then by having her son marry and have a legal son. So saying her heart is empty has many levels of meaning all dependent on the culture and on the situation.
The following passage from Soul Mountain also demonstrates the principle. The narrator has stepped outside himself to remember his upbringing and there are two of him, not just one:
“The me of the present is standing at a back door overgrown with weeds looking at the me of my childhood years. I am wearing a pair of cloth shoes and am in a predicament – my shoes have cloth knot-buttons and those primary school classmates who use dirty language say I’ve got girls’ shoes and make me feel embarrassed.”[18, 198]
He is the person in that situation as well as the person looking back to his school time years, but he sees himself at specific moments as a unique being.
In the story by Yiyun Li, “The Princess of Nebraska”, the main character Sasha is looking at herself in two situations, one being in China, one being in the United States:
“It was such a wonderful phrase that Sasha could almost see herself stapling her Chinese life, one staple after another around the pages until they became one solid block that nobody would be able to open and read. She would have a fresh page then, for her American life [6, 69]”.
The imagery is specific to the situation and she mentally sets herself so that she can move from one life to the next.
Example 6: Chinese tend to submerge themselves in two-person relationships [15, 72]
One way this is exhibited In Soul Mountain occurs when the narrator tells of visiting a man to ask him questions and the man:
“…invites me home to drink and we become friends. I ask whether the Yi people have to drink blood in liquor when they form a friendship… He has a daughter who’s just gone to Beijing to attend university and he asks me to help look after her [18, 122]”.
So two men who were complete strangers share a drink and commit themselves to a long term friendship, a situation that would be less common in Western society.
Another example occurs in Yiyun Li’s story “Love in the Market Place” when character Sansan agrees to marry her childhood friend, Tu who married a woman that they both helped to escape China. The way Sansan sees it:
“Not a surprise, as she promised Tu at their engagement ceremony. “I’ll be thinking of you until the day when all the seas in the world dry up,” she said [6, 97].”
Sansan has immersed herself in this two-person relationship and nothing will budge her to give up, not with her friend or with Tu. She is stuck at that point in life, permanently awaiting her marriage.
Example 7: Asians attribute behavior to external factors [15, 116]
In Soul Mountain, a woman talking to the narrator speaks about a night when she and a girlfriend sat out doors watching the moon:
“She says they even heard the sound of the moon flowing over the tops of the trees which looked like rippling waterweeds in a flowing stream, and they both wept.”[18,154]
Here, the action of the environment struck both woman emotionally rather than the relationship between the two of them.
In Yiyun Li’s tale “Love in the Marketplace”, Sansan describes how her mother believes her father died:
“Later he was discovered by some kids in a pond outside the town, his body planted upside down. The pond was shallow, waist deep at most; he had plunged himself into the mud, with the force of a leap maybe, but nobody could tell for sure how he did it, or why. Sansan’s mother believed that it was Sansan’s failure at marriage that killed him [6, 94].”
Again, it is some external event that caused the death, not Sansan’s father committing suicide.
Example 8: Asian mothers teach relationships and politeness norms [15, 150]
An example of how Asian mothers educate their daughters occurs in East Wind West Wind, when the narrator’s mother says she has taught her how to deal with her future mother-in-law in such things as:
“…how to prepare and to present tea to an elder; how to stand in an elder’s presence…. [17, 64-66]”
Although the ceremony of those early days in Chinese society has passed away, Gao Xinjian explains that mother’s still teach behavior in Chinese society:
“When she grew up her mother warned her not to laugh stupidly in front of men. But she just couldn’t help laughing aloud. When she laughed like this people always stared at her and it was only afterwards that she learnt when she laughed like this it was inviting [18,172].”
Even modern mothers play the role of censoring daughter’s behavior in Yiyun Li’s tale “Death is Not a Bad Joke if Told Right” when the daughter hasn’t eaten any of the chicken stew her nanny made for her. The scolding is public:
“I have to admit twice to my mistake, once to my mother and then in a louder voice so that all the passengers can hear me, before my mother drops the topic and the passengers turn their eyes away from my burning face [6,167]”.
Author Lin Yutang, writing in 1935 in his book My Country and My People, explains polite behavior and patience as “the result of racial adjustment to a condition where over-population and economic pressure leave very little elbow-room for people to move about, and is, in particular, a result of the family system, which is a miniature of Chinese society. [19, 846-848].”
All these examples point to cultural behavior shown in common with how Chinese people see themselves. So while voice in literature shows elements of culture, it can contain sound quality, pronunciation, vocal qualities, behavior and another element, that of tone.
The general tone changes between the three novels. Tone is an element of style that conveys a general sense of emotionality.
There is much hope in East Wind West Wind, because both Kwei-lan and her husband, and her brother and his new wife continue on in successful lives. Loss is acknowledged with grief, for the practices such as foot binding that were terrible mistakes, but also the loss of wealth and family that arose when Kwei-lan’s father took on a new heir leaving her brother to fend for his family.
Soul Mountain contains a good deal of loss and grief at the loss of Chinese culture including buildings, historical artifacts, Buddhist religion as the author visits his own past and the past of his country. He is saying goodbye, not just to his imaginary lover, but to the world in which he grew up and can no longer participate due to the politics of the country that wants to arrest him.
In One Thousand Years of Good Prayer the tone takes on a more biting, critical view of culture: lost promises, annoyance at marital affairs, failures of government businesses, more notice of restrictions on liberties, and a desire to dump the culture but it, too, is backed by the grief over losses of such elements of culture as the Peking Opera, the inability to be honest, and the dissolution of normal family life.
Is this a true view for everyone in China? The answer may be more or less true depending on the exact circumstances the individual character or person faces, yet all are surely Chinese.
By examining cultural behavior in these three novels, reader’s realize that there is more consistency in the cultural traits of the characters than there are inconsistencies related to issues of time or political cause. What readers learn about China goes beyond what and how things are said. Hidden behind the screen of clothing, situation, character name are cultural cues that make the story uniquely Chinese and all three writers have fulfilled this requirement.
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 Donald Maas, “Writing the Breakout Novel”, Writer’s Digest Books, 2001
 Janet Burroway, “Writing Fiction A Guide to Narrative Craft”, Longman, 2003
 Tony Hoagland, “Real Sofistikashun”, Graywolf Press, 2006
 James E. Miller, Jr. and Bernice Slote, “The Dimensions of the Short Story”, Dodd, Mead & Co, Inc, 1964
 Barbara Ann Kipfer, “Roget’s Descriptive Word Finder”, Writer’s Digest Books, 2003
 Yiyun Li, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers”, Random House, 2009
 Elizabeth George, “Write Away”, HarperCollins, 2004
 Renni Browne, Dave King, “Self-Edit Yourself into Print”, Quill, 1993
 Frank A. Dickson, Sandra Smythe, “The Handbook of Short Story Writing, Writer’s Digest Books, 1970
 Roach Smith, Marion “The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life”, Hachette Book Group, 2011, Kindle Edition.
 Bradley, Andrew Cecil, “Oxford Lectures on Poetry”, Oxford Press, 2011, Kindle Edition
 Nisbett, Richard E, “The Geography of Thought”, Free Press, 2003
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 Pearl S. Buck, “East Wind West Wind”, Open Road Integrated Media, 1930
 Xingjian, Gao, “Soul Mountain”, HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
 Yutang, Lin, “My Country And My People”, Read Books Ltd., Kindle Edition. 1935
 Fei Xiaotong, “From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society”, University of California Press, 1992 (written shortly after WWII)