Janie Chang’s debut novel is filled with people she’s known all her life but never met. Here’s how her grandmother’s story inspired Three Souls, a novel set in the afterlife and in the real world of 1930’s China
Apparently most debut novels are autobiographical in nature. Thanks to ancestors who led far more interesting lives than mine, Three Souls has been spared that fate. The novel features family members I’ve never met, but whose stories are as familiar to me as nursery rhymes because I loved hearing my father talk about his childhood. He came from a family steeped in tradition and spent hours listening to elderly relatives and servants tell stories about our ancestors.
There was my six-times-great-grandfather, Zhang Shiho, who traveled all over China two hundred years ago when travel was inconvenient and dangerous. Once he saw a dragon and another time he met two immortals who were playing chess by a mountainside grotto. According to our family, Zhang Shiho was then invited to enter the land of immortals. There was my five-times-great-grandfather Zhang Liqi, a district magistrate, whose job required him to witness executions. But he couldn’t bear to watch men die, so Zhang Liqi had a pair of dark glasses made, the lenses ground from smoky quartz. Once he put on those glasses, no one could see that he closed his eyes when the axe came down.
The stories that moved me most were about women. There was the many-times great-aunt who escaped from an unhappy marriage with the help of ghost lanterns. There was the young wife who could not have children and ended her years in well-behaved insanity. There was the ghost who danced in the moonlight across a roof, signalling a death somewhere in that house. What ancient duty was she cursed to obey?
But it was my grandmother’s story that cried out to me loudest. She died in 1935 from tuberculosis when she was only 42 and my father just a teenager. Grandmother was my constant companion while I wrote Three Souls. Like Leiyin, the main character in Three Souls, my grandmother Qu Maosu came from a wealthy and well-educated family. As soon as the Qing Dynasty fell in 1912, the Qu clan began sending their sons abroad to university; thus the family was considered quite progressive. Not progressive enough however, to allow a daughter to attend university or have a career. Instead, her father compelled Grandmother to marry a man she did not love and could never respect.
Grandmother’s fate, sealed by what was practically an impulse on her father’s part, has always haunted me and I have always known my first novel would be about her – although for the sake of fiction, Leiyin is younger and far more reckless!
For the sake of fiction also, I had to think carefully about the kind of man an idealistic schoolgirl would fall for. I knew he had to be an older man, someone worldly who moved in different social circles. Someone forbidden. Thus Hanchin is loosely-based on my grandmother`s first cousin, Qu Qiubai, who was an intellectual, a mentor to Mao Zedong, and a leader of the Chinese Communist Party during its early days. Qu Qiubai lived a short but eventful life: he was the Moscow correspondent for a Chinese newspaper, translated books on socialism from Russian to Chinese, and developed the Sin Wenz system of Romanizing Chinese (an alternative to the Wade-Giles system).
The Qu family acknowledged that Qu Qiubai and my grandmother were the two most brilliant children of their clan. Yet my grandmother lived the constrained life forced upon her while her cousin carved out a place in Chinese history.
My grandfather found his way into the novel also, as the character of Baizhen. In the novel it turns out that Baizhen has many redeeming qualities. In real life, on the other hand, my grandfather had very few. No one was ever sure exactly how much schooling he managed to get through. He was lazy, good-natured, and devoid of ambition. Each time he got a job, it was through family connections but he never stayed for very long.
There were people who entered the novel not just because of their roles in real life, but because their stories were so representative of the era. Jia Po, the wealthy bride, was my great-grandmother. She arrived with a magnificent dowry that should’ve supported three generations and rescued our family from penury. Gong Gong was my great-grandfather, who then went ahead and squandered the dowry within 20 years.
My many-times-great Grandfather Zhang Liqi’s smoky quartz glasses vanished years ago, along with other family heirlooms. We have nothing to hold from our ancestral home except a few chunks of roof tile and a cracked porcelain jar. What matters more are the stories, handed down over centuries. They mean more to me than any heirloom. They are the legacy that gave life to my novel. In its own way, I suppose Three Souls is an autobiography.