I am thrilled to welcome Frances McNamara, author of five Emily Cabot mysteries, including Death at Chinatown. In this fascinating post, Frances contrasts different attitudes towards romantic love.
Chinese Love stories guest post by Frances McNamara
I recently read Lisa See’s novel Peony in Love. Set in seventeenth century China, the crucial early scenes take place during the festival of the Seventh Day of the Seventh Month. It is a festival somewhat like our Valentine’s Day that celebrates the quintessential Chinese love story of the Cow Herd and the Weaving Girl. It is also a holiday and love story that I used in my novel Death at Chinatown because I think it provides a compelling contrast between attitudes towards romantic love in the East and the West.
Certainly one archetypal western love story is Romeo and Juliet. Two young people whose families’ feud, find their love doomed and they die tragic deaths. In the famous Chinese story the lovers also come from different backgrounds. The weaving girl is of the gods while the herdsman is a mortal. As in Romeo and Juliet, mixing the two groups is doomed. But in the Chinese tale the lovers marry and have children before they are parted forever by the girl’s angry mother. The cow herd shows great courage in trying to fly up to the forbidden territory of the gods to reunite with his wife and in the end the goddess grants them one night a year when birds make a bridge across the Milky Way that allows them to be together.
What a different story it would have been if Romeo and Juliet had had a couple of children before being parted. How much more complicated the situation! How prolonged the agony of the mother parted not only from her husband but from her children. And the tantalizing concession of one night a year, in some ways seems more painful than the mere death to the young Italian lovers.
For Romeo and Juliet all is over and done with. They exist as a story with a moral; their love is pristine. For the cowherd and the weaving girl it’s never over. There is relief once a year but the punishment goes on. The difference between the two quintessential love stories seems a very telling point to me. It reminds me that in my Chinese language classes I learned a term used to denote the “people.” It translates as “those who eat bitterness.” It’s a term taken for granted in Chinese literature, as we sometimes refer to the English people as “John Bull.”
People of any background can be affected by the story of Romeo and Juliet or the story of the Cow Herd and the Weaving Girl. But the difference in the stories, the different way of looking at the world they represent is like viewing the same jewel through different facets.
In Death at Chinatown I am particularly interested in showing how alike and how different the world in 1896 is for Emily Cabot, a young mother, graduate student and social worker in Chicago and for Shih Meiyu and Kang Cheng (Mary Stone and Ida Kahn), two young Chinese women who have received medical degrees from the University of Michigan and are caught up in the doings in Chicago’s Chinatown before they return to China to open clinics. They have much in common and critical differences in the choices they face in life. I do think the comparison is of interest today when the world is made so much smaller by the Internet and travel and when there is a lot of interest in the intersection of Chinese and American cultures.
About the Author
Frances McNamara is author of five Emily Cabot mysteries, Death at Chinatown being the most recent. She is a librarian at the University of Chicago and a native of Boston who has lived in Chicago for two decades.