My Chinese Marriage

by Katherine Anne Porter

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

III - First Daughter-in-Law

I clasped my hands in the Chinese way, smiled and bowed. My Chinese mother rose at once and took a step towards me, balancing on her tiny feet with the aid of a thick, gold-headed cane. I saw that she was unusually tall. Then, surprisingly, she extended her hand, American fashion, and I shook it, the eyes of each of us still searching the other's face. I saw in hers the look I needed for reassurance—the mingled kindness and apprehension—a trace of the anxiety that I am sure was the very counterpart of my own expression. I knew then that her heart was no more certain than mine was, and that this meeting was as important to her as it was to me.

Ah Ching brought forward my chair and we sat down together, smiling at each other, letting our gestures speak for us. Finally she stretched forth her right hand, palm down, measuring the height of a small child from the floor, inclining her head towards me, her eyebrows up in a question. I made a pillow of my two hands, laid my head upon it, eyes closed, and then pointed up. We were both delighted at this simple pantomime. The elderly man—her cousin—looked pleased in sympathy and even the three solemn servants smiled a little. She asked me in gestures where my husband was. I waved widely and comprehensively towards the street, in the general direction of the city. She nodded, settling back a trifle, drawing a long breath. We had reached the end of our power to converse without the aid of an interpreter.

When I heard Chan-King's ring at the gate, I hurried out to meet him with the news. He was even more excited than I was and hastened ahead of me to the house. I walked very slowly in order that they might have their first greeting undisturbed, and, when I arrived, they were beaming upon each other and talking the South Province dialect over a very sleepy and cherubic infant, whom Chan-King, with paternal pride, had ordered down to greet his grandmother at once.

The retinue settled, Chan-King informed me that our mother would remain with us for six weeks. During this time, I learned the art of pantomime beyond anything I had ever hoped for in one of my undemonstrative nature. My Chinese mother and I conversed with eyebrows, hands, smiles, noddings and shakings of the head, much turning of the eyes. I had an instant affection and admiration for her, and she adopted towards me a gently confidential attitude that pleased me very much.

She had brought presents for us, in the Chinese way: for me, a delicately wrought chain of Chinese gold in a box of carved sandalwood; for Wilfred, a dozen suits of Chinese clothes in the bright patterns worn by children of the Orient, and so becoming to the proud, wee man that, arrayed in them, he seemed already to be coming into his heritage. She also brought great hampers of fresh fruits—pomeloes, lichees and dragon's-eyes—and countless jars of preserved fish and meats and vegetables, which had been Chan-King's favourites when he was a boy at home.

Madame Liang had the Chinese woman's love for shopping. Accompanied by her cousin and the servants, we went from silk merchant to porcelain dealer, and from brass worker to rug weaver, gathering treasures. Though she carried on most of her negotiations through her cousin, she bargained with a firmness and a sense of values that I admired very much. In the silk shops she bought marvellous brocaded satins and embroidered silks and she made me select the pattern I wanted for myself. Though she preserved most carefully the distinctive features of the dress of her own province, she was much interested in Shanghai styles and examined my wardrobe critically, noting the short sleeves with tight-fitting undersleeves and the skirts with seven plaits—not five, as in Canton, for example—at each side.

Notwithstanding the popular Western fancy that fashions never change in China, the Chinese woman is painstakingly particular as to the exact length and fullness—or scantiness—of her coats, skirts and trousers. She is carefully precise about the width of bias bands or braid or lace that she uses for trimming, the number and arrangement of fastenings, the shape and height of her collar. All of these details vary as tyrannically from season to season—under Shanghai guidance—as certain style features do with us under the leadership of New York or Paris. Moreover, as against our four seasons, the fashion devotee of China takes account of eight, each with its appropriate style and weight of clothing.

At home Mother sewed a great deal, using her hands gracefully and very competently in spite of the long curved fingernails on her left hand. My American sewing-machine fascinated her. She had an excellent hand-power machine at home, Chan-King explained, but mine worked with a treadle and she wished to try it. I took the tiny, brightly shod feet in my hands and set one forward and one backward on the iron trellis. And she moved them very well, alternately, and ran several seams with energy.

Chan-King, his mother and I went to Chinese cafés together and Madame Liang was pleased and amused to see that I not only used chopsticks with ease but had a real taste for Chinese food. We used to treat ourselves to all sorts of epicurean dishes: spiced chicken and duck, sharks' fins, bird's-nest soup with pigeon eggs (my favourite delicacy), seaweed and bamboo shoots, candied persimmons, lotus-seeds and millet pudding with almond tea.

Once, in a roof-garden café, where I was wearing American clothes, my use of chopsticks aroused considerable interest among neighbouring groups of diners, and stray comments reached us, for the Chinese are always pleased to see foreigners familiar with their customs. "No doubt she is a missionary lady," a young woman remarked in my husband's native dialect. Hearing and understanding, Mother immediately said, in clear, gracious tones, "My son, perhaps your wife would like to have some American food now." Chan-King translated for me both comment and suggestion, and I felt pleased to learn that, at any rate, my Chinese mother was not ashamed, in a public place, to acknowledge her American daughter.

Mother was fond of the drama and, since Shanghai had some excellent theatres, we made up several parties during her stay.

The great semicircular stage on which a famous old historical play that we saw was acted was hung with gorgeous embroideries, laid with a thick Peking rug of immense size and brilliantly lighted by electricity—as was the entire theatre. The actors wore the magnificent official and military robes of an early dynasty. As on the Elizabethan stage, women's parts were taken by men, who achieved by cleverly constructed shoes the effect of bound feet. I found the deafening drums and gongs a little trying, at moments, and the crude property makeshifts somewhat incongruous with the wonderfully elaborate hangings and costumes. But, being familiar with the story, I understood the action and so evidently enjoyed it that Mother was surprised anew, as Chan-King afterwards told me. We sat in our balcony box, above the vague tiers of lower seats packed with a restless audience of men, women and many children in the arms of their amahs. On the wide front rail of our box was the inevitable pot of tea, with room also for such fruits, sugar-cane, melon-seeds, or meat-and-rice dishes as we wished to purchase from the endless variety offered by eager boys in round caps and blue cotton gowns. Now and then an attendant came with a huge teakettle to refill our teapot, and once he offered us the usual steaming hot towels for sticky fingers. Chan-King waved these away energetically. "Awful custom," he said to me. "Unhygienic. How can they do it?" And he added something of the kind to his mother in Chinese. She regarded him with comprehension, a tiny gleam of superior wisdom in her eyes. But she made no reply.

She had taken a fancy to Wilfred, who by this time had a fair vocabulary of Chinese, which he always used in talking to his amah. He was a handsome child, typically Chinese, very charming in his manner, very fond of his amah and his indulgent grandmother. Madame Liang would take his chin in her hands and study his features intently, nodding her head with approval. Then she would stroke his round black poll and give him melon-seeds or almonds from her pocket. Wilfred used a weird mixture of dialects—a confusion of Mandarin and the Shanghai vernacular, with a dash of Cantonese from his amah. Madame Liang set out patiently to teach him her own dialect as well.

When her visit was ended, our mother said to Chan-King, "This is a Chinese house, with a Chinese wife in it. Everything is Chinese. I could never have believed it without seeing, for I thought your wife was a Western woman. I am happy." And she told him again that we must come and visit her, for she needed us.

Chan-King's father, a member of an old, established firm in the import and export trade in the Philippines, was away, looking after his business or exchanging visits with friends of his own age and rank. His home-comings were in the nature of a vacation. The management of the household depended on Madame Liang.

As she talked, I realized by her face, by Chan-King's answers, by all that I knew of Chinese family life, that we were a part of that clan and should be so always. A hint of the solidarity I now feel with my husband's family came to me. We were not separate from them; nor should we be.

After our mother was gone, Chan-King said something of this sort to me, quoting what she had said about my not being Western. "But I love you to be Western in this sense," he told me, "that you and I have companionship and freedom and equality in our love. That is what makes me happiest."

Before Chan-King and I closed the house in Shanghai to depart for the southern hills, our second son, Alfred, was born. An American woman asked me, when he was about six weeks old, if I did not feel a sense of alienation at the sight of the wee, Oriental face at my breast. Quite simply and truthfully I answered no. My husband was not in any way alien to me. How, then, could our child be so?

His coming provided me with a welcome excuse to remain at home quietly for a short while. I now attempted to learn, at the same time, both Mandarin and the dialect of Chan-King's province—a method of study that hampered me constantly at first. But my husband was an encouraging teacher, and I began uncertainly to use my new knowledge, trying it mostly on my young son Wilfred, who was the real linguist of the family. He took my Chinese very seriously. I cannot say so much for Chan-King, who was greatly amused at my inflection.

Towards the close of the year, I decided to take a place as teacher of English and history in a Chinese girls' high school. Chan-King was surprised when I told him that I wished to teach, but he offered no objection, and watched with interest my progress through the year. I loved my teaching. Still more I loved the girls in my classes. Collectively and individually I found them supremely worth while in spirit and mind. I cannot say how lovely the young womanhood of China seemed to me. I began to yearn for a daughter, and when, towards the close of the second term, I found that I might, perhaps, have my heart's desire, I realized that my husband shared it.

In the early autumn, our mother wrote and asked us to come south for the cold season. She also expressed the hope that the coming grandchild might be born in her own province. Chan-King had been encouragingly strong for over a year, but he had always found the northern winters hard. We decided that the time had come to fulfil our promise of visiting the ancestral home. Chan-King secured six months' leave of absence.

Within ten days we had closed our affairs temporarily, dismissed the servants, with the exception of the amah and the faithful Ah Ching, got our boxes together and bidden our friends farewell. The leaves were falling in the avenue; the plants were shrivelled at the edges in the sun porch; the winds blew ominously shrill under the eaves. Chan-King grew pale and began to cough again. Out of the teeth of the terrible Shanghai winter we fled into the hospitable softness of the South.

By a large steamship we started out on what was ordinarily a brief journey. But, by those war-time schedules, changes and delays were the invariable rule. After three unforeseen changes and as many delays we reached a port just over the line in my husband's province. There we stopped, intending to go on three days later by the little, battered, tramp steamer that puffed noisily at the dock, putting off dried fruits and dyes, taking on rice and cloth and sandalwood. But we did not go on, as it happened. Instead, a tiny, smiling, competent woman physician, wearing the southern costume and possessed of a curious fund of practical wisdom in medical matters, attended me in her native hospital at the birth of our daughter Alicia.

On a vaguely grey, gently stimulating winter morning, ten days later, our bouncing little ship—for I had cajoled Chan-King into allowing me to travel—stood to, out from port, and sampans came to meet us. Like giant fish, bobbing and dipping and swaying upon the waves, these sampans with their great eyes painted on each side of the prow and their curious, up-curved sterns, came towards us in a gala-fleet, rowed by lean, over-muscled men in faded blue cotton garments. I was very gay and much exhilarated by the soft sunshine that broke through the mist as I climbed down with Chan-King's help into one of these boats.

The harbour was busy with small craft—flat-bottomed gigs or baggage-boats besides the junks, whose square brown sails swung creaking in the wind. Two Chinese men-of-war rose over us, their vast, bulky sides painted battle-ship grey.

Out and beyond, an island not more than a mile long turned its irregular profile towards us, a long mass of huge grey boulders jutting abruptly from a sparkling sea. As we were being rowed in to the mainland, we were near enough to the island to see quite plainly the tile-roofed houses surrounded by arched verandas, repeated again and again in long, undulating lines that gave a pleasantly lacy effect. The island was shaded with trees in winter foliage, not the brilliant green of summer, but the sage-green and pale tan of November. Through this intermittent curtain the walls of the houses shone in dull blue and coral pink and clear grey. Jagged cacti shot up among the bulbous rocks and everywhere the scarlet poinsettia set the hills aglow with patches of brilliant colour. I loved this island instantly. I said to Chan-King, "This is our Island of the Blest, where we shall live when we are old."

At the jetty, Ah Ching went up to hail sedan-chair bearers, and soon I was borne rapidly along a few yards ahead of my husband's chair.

I was filled with a delicious elation at being in Chan-King's province, so near to the very village that he knew as a little boy. With enormous curiosity, I peeped through the curtain-flaps, which were transparent from within. We were passing through the town that lay along the water's edge—a bright, open little place, where the small houses, with curved tiled roofs, hugged the ground. We went through the crooked streets, which were really nothing more than broad paths, at a steady pace. We left the ragged edges of the town and began to ascend the hills. I raised my curtains a trifle and ventured to look out freely. Emotion surged up in me. I wished to cry for joy in this home-coming, for it was our real home-coming together, and I felt a secret share in all the life my husband had known here.

Up the narrow, twisting path we wound, toward the hills, which were covered with a smoky, amber mist. Scattered closely along the upward road, apart from the dwellings, were small terraces enclosing plots of cultivated ground, filled with growing things. Wherever the folk could find a lush, flat place on the stony hills, robbed by deforestation of all but grass, they had planted their vegetables. These little patches of colour, coaxed by thrifty gardeners out of the soil washed into the hill-pockets, added a festive, humorous note to the winter landscape, otherwise so brown and sear. I thought frivolously of a solemn giant wearing his party nosegays. The hills billowed away immensely, until they were silhouettes against the dull orange and ashy purple of the morning sun struggling through the clouds. Solid, steeply curved, narrow bridges of stone made us a path over the frequent streams that rushed downward to the valley.

Here we came full upon the ancestral village of my husband's family. It lay, compact and many-roofed, upon the side of a hill, as intricately woven and inevitable-looking as a colony of birds' nests, as naturally a part of the earth as though it had sprung from planted seeds. Rows of walls ran along the main thoroughfare. There were few people astir yet and the doors were closed in all the low-eaved plaster and stone houses.

Our chairs were set down before a tall, hooded gate in a wall of stone-grey. Ah Ching knocked. The gates were opened, and servants came hurrying out, accompanied by three leaping black Chow-dogs, which barked in frantic challenge till Chan-King spoke to them and changed their menace into joyous welcome.

We entered a spacious courtyard and crossed an exquisite garden, one of the most beautiful I saw in China. An artificial lake rippled placidly, disturbed only by the darting goldfish. Laurel- and magnolia-trees darkened the paths. A thicket of bamboo wavered and cast its reflection in the water at the edge of the lake.

Chan-King helped me from the chair and together we passed into the main hall through the wide-flung doors. Madame Liang, early apprised of our arrival, was standing there, and my first sight of her gave me a renewed sense of home-coming. I was dimly aware of a large hall, at the back of which stood a high altar, with wreaths of sweet-smelling smoke rising in straight columns before lettered tablets and brilliant images under glass cases. The glitter of golden and scarlet embroideries against the wall splintered the dimness with rays of light like sunshine through a prism. Heavily carved blackwood chairs with tea-tables and also marble-topped stools with gay, brocaded cushions were ranged about the room.

We passed through this main hall into the apartment of Madame Liang, where I was given a chair, and I sat down, suddenly remembering that I was very tired.

Other members of the family, distant relatives and first cousins, and guests, all women, came in and I was presented to them. Madame Springtime, wife of the second son, did first honours for the family. She was so very youthful—only seventeen—and so wistfully other-worldly that among those mature housewives, clever and practical managers of their households and husbands' estates, she seemed like a branch of peach-bloom. In festal garb of jade-green and lavender, embroidered shoes on her tiny feet and an embroidered head-dress crowning her shining black hair and framing the oval of her shy, smiling face, with its sloe-black eyes, she came bearing a lacquered tray and presenting to each of us sweet tea, in cups of finest porcelain with standards and covers of silver and with tiny silver spoons having flower-shaped bowls.

The pretty little tea ceremony was then repeated by various members of the family, while the small sons were given hot milk and cakes. An eager group gathered about the tiny new daughter, still sleeping peacefully.

A bubbling, busy little lady, about the age of Madame Liang, leaned over me, with a quizzical smile, and bobbed her gay, pretty head emphatically at me when my mother introduced her as Madame Chau. Elaborately dressed in rich colours, in direct contrast to my soberly garbed mother, she was as merry as Madame Liang was grave and she tripped about on her almost invisible "golden lily" feet with an energy that yet did not destroy the grace of her "willow walk."

But the many-coloured costumes, the great curtained bed on one side, the voices—all suddenly seemed far away. And, as I wavered, smiling determinedly, I heard my husband's voice. "Mother thinks you are tired; so this woman will show you to your room, where you must lie down and rest."

Some time later, as I lay resting—with Alicia sleeping on my arm—on the bed, which had purple curtains and soft white blankets, Chan-King stepped quietly into the room.

"Feel as comfortable as you look?" he asked and, when I nodded drowsily, he touched a box of cakes.

"These were brought to you by Madame Chau, the busy little lady out there. You know"—he hesitated a moment—"she would have been my mother-in-law, if I hadn't insisted on your mother instead!" and he gave my cheek a gentle pinch.

I was now wide-awake. "The little bird-lady out there—mother of Li-Ying?" I asked. "Where is Li-Ying, then?"

"They didn't tell me anything directly," Chan-King answered. "But I gather from several pointed conversations carried on in my hearing that Madame Chau has just returned from her daughter's house in Singapore. Just imagine: little Li-Ying is married too, and also has three children—two girls and a boy. I think," said my Chinese husband, with charming complacence, putting a hand over mine and stooping to kiss Alicia's pink, sleeping face, "our arrangement is much better. Sons should be older; then daughters are properly appreciated!"

At noon, after an hour's quiet sleep, I was again aroused by Chan-King, who stood beside a maidservant with a tray.

I sat up. "I expected to be out for luncheon," I said, preparing to rise.

Chan-King looked perturbed. "Stay where you are," he warned. "My mother has just been scolding me for allowing you to travel with a ten-days-old baby. 'As if I could do anything about it!' I told her, blaming it all on Eve in the most approved Christian fashion! She admires your spirit, but thinks that, for your health's sake, you should rest two weeks longer at least!"

I lay down meekly. "Very well," I said. "Obedience is my watchword!"

And for the prescribed time I lay in my pretty room—all my senses deeply responsive to the life going on in a Chinese household: the clang of small gongs that summoned the servants; much laughter coming in faintly or clearly as my doors were opened or shut; the tap of lily feet along the passage; the glimmer of Madame Springtime's radiant pink or blue robes as she entered to inquire after my welfare or bring some new delicacy that had been procured for me; the smoke of incense from the altar floating into the room at intervals, with a pungent sweetness that roused vague memories and emotions. Everything in the house—hangings, clothes, furnishings—was saturated with this aroma. Mingled with a bitter smell, which is distilled by immense age, and touched with the irritative quality of dust, this odour now means China to me and it is more precious than all other perfumes in the world.

"But, Chan-King, life is nothing but food!" I protested, about the third day, when my fourth meal had been served to me early in the afternoon.

"But the quantities are small," he answered. "Much better way, don't you think, than taking great meals many hours apart?"

Early in the morning, the young maid assigned to me would bring in a bowl of hot milk and biscuit. In our apartment, at half-past eight, she would serve breakfast, consisting of soft-boiled rice—congee—with various kinds of salty, sweet and sour preparations. At eleven o'clock there was turtle soup or chicken broth. At noon came tiffin, which consisted of substantial meat and vegetable dishes, fish and soup, and dry-boiled rice. Our mid-afternoon refreshment was noodles of wheat or bean-flour, or perhaps a variety of fancy cakes. Tea, kept hot by a basket-cosy, was always on hand in every room. At seven the family dined, and, after the two weeks were up, I joined them, sitting at the first table with Mother and my husband. Dinner was an elaborate meal, in courses, with rice at the close. At bedtime came hot milk again, or sweet congee or perhaps tea, brewed from lotus-seed or almonds. I was continually nibbling. I thought Chinese food delicious, particularly in my husband's province, noted for its delicious "crunchy" fried things.

But Chan-King had yearnings for American dishes. I gave the head cook minute instructions for preparing fricasseed chicken, fresh salads, beefsteak with Spanish sauce—even American hot cakes, and he enjoyed the American canned goods, with butter, cheese, jams and bread, which were brought in frequently from the port.

An episode that caused much merriment was Chan-King's initiation of his family into the mystery—and history—of chop suey. The rich joke of that "made-in-America" Chinese dish is penetrating to every household where the returned student is found. In Shanghai we had heard with amusement how the bewildered chef of the Y.M.C.A. café had gone down to one of the great trans-Pacific liners lying in port, to learn from the head cook on board just what this "chop suey," which all his returned student patrons were demanding, might be. Now, with memories of old college club activities prompting us, and with a skilful cook to carry out our directions, Chan-King and I introduced into the ancestral home that most misunderstood dish in all the world. The family agreed that, though vaguely familiar, it was unlike anything they had ever tried before, and they decided without dissenting vote that it was superior to fricasseed chicken, Spanish steak or hot cakes.

At this time, my husband's brother, Lin-King, came home for a brief stay. I decided from photographs that he resembled his father, who was still away. Lin-King and Madame Springtime seemed well-suited to each other and happy, although the marriage had been arranged by their families and they had never seen each other before the ceremony. I decided that the old custom had much merit, after all—for other people—and said so to my husband, adding, "When our children are grown, we must have them all marry Chinese." Chan-King looked at me long in silence and then, sighing humorously, he asked, "What of their father's example my dear?"

Since my Chinese was still bookish and unpractised in the all-important matters of tone and local idiom, I could not converse with the family, and at the dinner-table and in my mother's apartment I was as silent and meek and pleasant of manner as Madame Springtime herself. Madame Springtime served formal tea to our many guests in absolute silence, with a sweet, fixed smile at the corners of her red mouth. I watched her with consuming interest, for she was acting as first daughter-in-law in my stead.

The machinery of life ran with the smoothness of long habit and complete discipline. The meals were served, the apartments kept in exquisite order and the children cared for by a corps of servants trained in minutiæ by an exacting mistress, who knew precisely what she wanted. Our days were left free for the practice of small courtesies, the exchange of pretty attentions and the care of the ancestral altar.

From the ceremonies that took place before this altar at various times, my husband kept himself, his wife and children sedulously aloof. It was neither asked nor expected that he would do otherwise, just as our attendance at the little mission church was accepted without question. At other times, however, I had ample opportunity to study the altar and to enjoy the beauty of its massive carvings, its elaborate incense-burners and candlesticks, its exquisitely wrought embroideries. A porcelain image of the Buddhistic Goddess of Mercy in her character of Son-Giver, set within a large glass case, fascinated me by its remarkable resemblance to certain Catholic images. But the ancestral tablets interested me more, and the respect that I have always accorded objects sacred to others was in this instance mingled with profoundly personal feelings: the inter-blended characteristics of those men and women so many years dead and gone lived on in the man who was my husband; their life currents pulsed warmly in the veins of my children; perhaps some deep insight gained beyond the grave enabled them to know how truly I acknowledged my debt to them, how earnestly I hoped those children might not prove unworthy of their heritage.

With the help of Chan-King's coaching and my personal observations, I soon learned the gracious routine of the house. At ten o'clock every morning I presented myself at the door of Madame Liang's apartment and sat with her for several hours, often over tiffin, even till tea-time, if she signified a desire for my company. If the weather was fair, we would walk in the garden, she leaning lightly on my arm, her cane tapping on the flagstones. At times, also, tea was served here, with the small children joining us for hot milk and sweet cakes.

I was several days in getting the members of the household identified in their proper relations, for there were thirty persons gathered in that big, low-roofed, rambling compound behind the high, enveloping wall. They were nearly all women, and two-thirds of them servants. The quiet, soft-mannered woman relatives spent nearly all of their time in their own apartments. Madame Liang's powerful personality, silent and compelling, paled the colours of nearly all the temperaments around her. Her friend, Madame Chau, was immensely comforting to her, for she could not be persuaded to take anything very seriously. Madame Liang laughed with her more than with anyone else. While they busily embroidered, they gossiped, and I listened to their musical speech with its soft southern accents and chiming, many-toned cadences.

I used to think, as I sat in a deep-cushioned chair, nursing the small Alicia, with a pot of tea at my elbow, that Madame Liang, in her gorgeous, heavily carved, black-and-orange bed, enclosed on three sides by panels of painted silk and draped over the front with silk curtains held back by tasselled brocaded bands, was a link in the Chain of Everlasting Things. She had come into the house exactly as "new women" had done century after century, and she had lived out her life unquestioningly according to their precepts and example. There was a monumental, timeless dignity about her as she sewed and talked of simple matters. In her presence, I felt young and facile and terribly unanchored.

I talked these things over with Chan-King in the dark of the night, when all the household was silent. He was interested in my reactions, knowing they were the outcome of a profound personal love for his family and sympathy with everybody in it. Spiritually, Chan-King also was in sympathy with his family. Practically—well, as I have said, there were moments when he longed for American food, and his first deed in the house was to order the bed curtains removed from our apartment.

They were removed, and nothing was said. A wonderful spirit of courtesy and toleration prevailed in the family life, with a complete absence of that criss-cross of personal criticism that our Western freedom of speech permits. Not that there were not undercurrents, intimate antagonisms here and there, personal sacrifices and sorrows. But they were not recognized, for in Chinese life individual claims are eternally relinquished in the interest of clan peace and well-being. There was one authority, and it was vested in Madame Liang. Such a system makes for harmony and preserves the institution of the family, on which all China is founded.

Making no conscious effort, I myself yet became so imbued with this spirit that, when the Government summons came for Chan-King to report in Peking early in the new year, I choked down my anguish and said, "How splendid for us all, Chan-King! When are you going?"

We were in the last week of the old year, and at Madame Liang's earnest entreaty my husband delayed his departure (as the summons permitted), that, in the midst of his family, he might celebrate the most delightful of all holidays. Delicious cooking odours now drifted about everywhere, new clothes for every one were made ready, and faces took on a shining happiness.

One evening after a visit to his mother, Chan-King came to me, laughing heartily. "Mother reminds me," he said, "that for three days it is customary for the maids, when sweeping the floor, to pile the dust carefully in a corner instead of throwing it out, lest the family good fortune should be thrown out with it. But she says of course it is only an old superstition and if you like you may tell the maid to remove the sweepings as usual." I laughed too. Then I said, "Tell Mother we shall do our part towards keeping good fortune in the family." "For three days, also," continued Chan-King, "no harsh or scolding word is to be spoken by anyone. And therefore," he went on sonorously, "your tyrannical Chinese husband will cease to lecture his American wife—who is certain to need it, though." I looked into his eyes, bright with irrepressible gaiety, and suddenly I kissed them shut, my own eyes misty. "Oh, my dearest," I whispered, "you are just a little boy at home again, in spite of the silver threads." And I smoothed the black locks, already sprinkled with grey. "Chan, I love the Chinese New Year!" I said.

Even now I see it all again. My husband was wearing a long, dignified gown of dark green satin—unfigured, as is customary for officials—dark green trousers, short brown jacket, lined with soft fur, black satin cap and black boots. Wilfred was quite a young gentleman in long gown of blue-green silk, braid-trimmed jacket of dark green, blue trousers and red-tufted cap. Chubby Alfred was dressed in lavender jacket, scarlet trousers, a tiger-face apron of red, white and black, embroidered shoes and a gay little knitted cap. Alicia, whom the whole family loved best in her frilled white American dresses, added now a pink silk jacket and an adorable little pink and black cap, which gave an Oriental grace to her features. I wore my latest Shanghai creation, in pale lilac-and-black figured satin. Guests came and went incessantly, and we made our calls in the village. The air was filled with odours of spice, molasses, roasted meats, seed-cakes and millet candy and with sounds of fire-crackers, gongs and happy voices.

But it was over at last. The time for my husband's departure had come.

With silent expertness, Ah Ching set about packing. In three days Chan-King was ready to go. He was coaching me in the household phrases I should need most in making myself understood without his help. Madame Liang decided that, during my husband's absence, I should assume my position as first daughter-in-law. I had no apprehension in regard to the minute, exacting duties that would devolve upon me as a right-hand companion to my husband's mother, for I loved her, but I was not sure of my tact or my deftness, and I felt strung up painfully at the thought of my immediate future.

After the hourly companionship of months, parting from Chan-King was very terrible indeed. He was in and out of our apartment, moving about the house with restless energy, arranging final details. At last he came and stood beside me. "Say good-bye now, dearest," he whispered. "Afterwards—out there—we shall have no opportunity." He drew me close and we kissed with deep feeling, the tears in my eyes refusing to be suppressed any longer.

"Don't cry," he begged, with unaccustomed emotion. "Don't cry, or I can't leave you!" Then he held my face up and dried my tears with his handkerchief and said solemnly, "Smile at me!" And I smiled.

We went across to his mother's apartment, and she came out, the tears on her cheeks not stanched. Joined by the rest of the family, we accompanied him to the entrance and then to the gate, which stood open, almost blocked by the waiting sedan-chair. Chan-King was in Chinese dress, and as he stood there—profile towards me—among the group of servants, giving his final directions, he seemed more Oriental, more absorbed into his country, than I remembered ever to have seen him.

He made a profound bow to his mother, with formal words of leave-taking, and gave me a grave little nod. Then, without looking back, he stepped into the chair, the curtains were drawn, and the coolies trotted off down the steep path, followed a little way by the bounding black dogs.

Mother and I stood together, after the others had gone, and watched his chair jostling down the narrow, paved way. Then we turned and looked at each other—rueful smiles on our mouths, tears in our eyes. We shook our heads at each other. I half raised a hand to my heart, then let it fall. I think both of us found our lack of mutual language a welcome excuse for silence.

Madame Liang turned toward the house. The gates closed behind us. I gave her my arm in support until we reached the doorway; then I stepped a pace behind her as she entered. Without speaking, I waited until she had knelt at the altar, and the incense was rising in clouds before the imperturbable images under their glass cases. Then I attended her to her own apartment. My life as a real Chinese daughter-in-law had begun.

Return to the My Chinese Marriage Summary Return to the Katherine Anne Porter Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson