- Performing Grief: Bridal Laments in Rural China
As the other Chinese ritual, weddings are no more associated with loud public displays of grief than with spectacles of brides cursing their matchmakers, parents, and future in-laws. On the contrary, weddings have come to represent in scholarly wisdom the antipode of funerals. After all, funerals are as much about alienation as they are expressions of grief: the alienation of loved ones from their families, the temporary removal of the mourner from the larger community, and the separation of men and women from their previous social roles and identities. In contrast, weddings symbolize processes of unity as much as they connote joy. Weddings conjoin male and female bodies, unite households and lineages, and bring together communities of celebrators. Through her analysis of bridal laments in rural China, Anne E. McLaren overturns conventional wisdom about weddings in Performing Grief. With a careful eye to social context, gender dynamics, and narrative styles, McLaren reveals how weddings (much like funerals) can simultaneously enact and defy the social processes of unity and alienation.
A lithe book that moves at a brisk pace, Performing Grief opens by providing a scholarly context to the specific subject of analysis: the bridal laments of twentieth- century Nanhui, a rural area near Shanghai. McLaren does an admirable job of explaining the intellectual backdrop of her project and delineating her subject matter. We learn, for example, that bridal laments are not unique to the Nanhui area or the Wu dialect in which they were sung. Such laments have been interrogated and documented by anthropologists working in the Pearl River Area and the New Territories. The subject of bridal laments has been studied extensively by scholars in the People’s Republic of China. Initially condemned by revolutionaries as a “backwards” practice, the tradition suffered a decline in the twentieth century [End Page 355] but has recently been revived by feminist scholars as a powerful critique of patriarchy and feudalism (p. 10).
Each of the six chapters, which fall into two parts, looks at bridal laments from different perspectives. The first part of the book focuses on the social context. Chapter 1, “Imagining Jiangnan,” sets the lament within the society of the late imperial and the early Republican periods. As McLaren shows, the subject of the lament is highly imagistic and even allegorical. The tensions between the pojia (the household of the mother-in-law) and the poor bride do not present the experiences of actual women, but instead express class tensions and anxieties over the reach of the state into the rural area. Chapter 2, “The People of the Sands,” situates the laments within the context of women’s history. The laments touch upon subjects as volatile as female infanticide, dowries, and bride price. McLaren illuminates the choices that were faced by the rural women who sung the laments as well as their families. Laments, McLaren further shows, were not sung on the occasion of any marriage, but rather reserved for the most socially prestigious “major mode” of marriage. Chapter 3, “The Hollow Cotton Spool,” explores the laments from the perspective of the household economy, a recurring theme in the laments. According to McLaren, the laments reveal that women recognized their crucial role in the household economy both for generating cash income and meeting subsistence needs. Chapter 4, “Seizing a Slice of Heaven,” investigates relations between the bride and her relatives as well as matchmakers. The laments affirm the importance of ties between the bride and her brothers and brothers’ wives, both before the wedding and after.
Chapter 5, “Weeping and Wailing in Chinese History,” moves the book away from its sociological focus to an anthropological mode of analysis. This chapter situates bridal laments within a long history of classical ritual, where McLaren shows that the practice should be considered as extracanonical. The practice is never mentioned, for example, in the classical record. It surfaces in sources from South China only in the twelfth century. Formal literary aspects of...