- Performing Grief: Bridal Laments in Rural China
In the 1980s, cadres from the Culture Bureau of Nanhui County, east of Shanghai, persuaded Pan Cailian, a woman in her seventies, to allow them to record her singing a lengthy cycle of bridal laments. Nanhui was a poor place on the coast of the lower Yangzi delta, into which Shanghai’s sprawling limbs are now extending their fingers. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Pan Cailian and her forbears had eked out a living there growing cotton on saline soil reclaimed from the sea and spinning and weaving it in their courtyards. Pan Cailian had passed away by the time Anne McLaren visited Nanhui in 1994. According to a relative, however, she was reluctant to sing the laments, but “once she began she was able to recapture much of the emotion she had felt as a young bride” (p. 14). The Culture Bureau eventually transcribed and published Pan Cailian’s laments, along with many others from the region, in two compendia. Pan Cailian had sung in the Wu topolect, employing local expressions, and the transcriptions contained many nonstandard usages of Chinese characters. Yet, as McLaren discovered when she read and translated them with the help of Chen Qinjian of East China Normal University, they were rhetorically complex and emotionally poignant, full of earthy wit, laced with ambivalent emotion, and replete with evocative descriptions of the lives of the “sands people” (p. 15), the most vulnerable and deprived inhabitants of this difficult place.
Before the mid-twentieth century, young women across large areas of rural China learned bridal laments from masters of the genre like Pan Cailian. Singing laments before and during their weddings was a way for a young woman to give poetic expression to the complex affective content of this life transition. A bride might select passages to mourn the difficult life of a girl, rail at the injustice of being sent away from her family, or express filial love and gratitude. Later in life, she might learn funeral laments to ease her parents’ transition from life to death. As a women’s art, bridal laments were rarely recorded, however, and when they were, they were often refined and made literary. [End Page 488] Scorned by modernizers of the May Fourth movement and frowned upon by Communist revolutionaries, lament traditions gradually died away in most parts of rural China: today lamenting is a living practice only in some so-called minority areas. Only a few collections of transcriptions of this lost art exist: the compendia from Nanhui, which McLaren explores in Performing Grief, are the largest.
In Performing Grief, McLaren uses Pan Cailian’s lament as a mirror to capture refracted glimpses of rural Jiangnan society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The lament places the bride precisely in a social terrain where the extreme poverty of the “people of the sands” contrasts with the relative wealth of local elites. The lament draws this contrast with witty precision, while engaging in an unlikely fantasy of hypergamous social mobility. The bride’s family—the poorest of the poor—live up against the sea-wall that keeps the Eastern Ocean off of the salty reclaimed land. They gather seaweed in the rocks; they live in crude thatched dwellings with earthen floors; they eat rice, gruel, mixed grains, weak soup, and fish from earthenware bowls. The family into which the bride is to marry—and in which she will suffer many imagined cruelties—live in large houses with floors of timber, tiled stoves, and tall chimneys. They eat sticky rice, pork, goat, chicken, noodles, and rich sea foods from large enameled bowls. They speak with the “pointed tongues” of the educated and write with their “pointed fingers” (p. 29). In the nineteenth century men and women grew cotton in Nanhui’s alkaline soils; women spun and wove it into cloth. Household cotton production for the market declined in the early twentieth century when mechanized cotton mills were introduced, but it remained part of local...