As good as ‘Wild Swans’ – ‘Crystal Wedding’ book review by Ruth Finnegan

by Ruth Finnegan


Yes it has the same wonderful combination of vibrancy and truth as Jung Chang’s Wild Swans. Here again is the hard-headed open-eyed observation of horrific suffering brought about by human cruelty and blindness entwined with the beautiful endurance and faith of the human spirit – the human spirits depicted in both books. If anything I enjoyed Crystal Wedding even more because it was able to take us so deep into just one person’s experience. By the end I knew – I felt I really knew – Tianyi, the ‘left-over’ woman, intimately in all her strengths and weaknesses as they came out and developed over the years, her loves and joys , including the little beautiful ones, and her skills and laughter and sufferings too. She is introduced to us so ingeniously too: at first we meet her as just an ordinary young girl (true enough), then gradually, in the unfolding narrative and a series of subtle skillful flashbacks, we grow to know her, as indeed Tianyi comes to know herself, as the talented tough and caring woman she becomes amidst a series of impossibly conflicting pressures. It is incredibly moving.

I loved all the little touches, that was what made it sing – the loving accounts, and so many of them, of food and cooking; the delight and touch of a child, a lover – and, in time, the disappointment of both; the look and sound of things; cycling through the streets; the feel of the air and of nature. I could, in a way, envisage them pictured in Chinese delicate drawings. The author knows intimately what she is talking about and it shows.

Even apart from the beautiful writing of the novel itself the book is worth buying for its Preface – a searingly truthful account by the author based on her personal experience, not only of the horrific physical exploitation of the women of China during the cultural revolution but, even worse many would say, of the hidden and ineradicable cruelty that followed: their sexual repression – in other words the repression and forbidding of love itself. A destruction. How could we grasp that if not in the life of one woman, just one woman, one who had to live with and endure that hardihood? We learn it for ourselves through the eyes of the novelist, clearly at least in part autobiographical (what truly great novel is not?).

In the crucial, cruel, unflinching final paragraphs Tianyi’s life is seen to have been for nothing – friends once loved and cherished found to be full of flaws: admired colleagues to be betrayers, no longer admirable or to be trusted; a dear sister ‘morphed into a frustrated spinster’. She reflects, and with truth:

‘What were human beings when measured against infinity? They were so small, rudderless, fickle, anguished, stressed, depressed, deviant, useless, vacillating, acquiescent, self-betraying, vile … She was all of these things herself’. And all her friends too, even her dear love who, sentimentally, we had hoped to see as her redeemer.

Then continue to the end of the book.

I am not in a position to judge the accuracy of the translation but it seems to me to admirably match what comes through so movingly as the poetry and sensitivity of the original and, both, to fully deserve all their accolades and more.

A most wonderful, unsparing and uplifting book, not one ever to forget.


Ruth Finnegan

Crystal Wedding (by Xu Xiaobin, translated by Nicky Harman, Balestier Press 2016)

Wild Swans – Three Daughters of China (by Jung Chang,  Simon & Schuster 2003)

Amid a Sea of Red Flags: Xu Xiaobin on her life-long relationship with literature: featured in ENGLISH PEN ATLAS

Snow – a short story by Xu Xiaobin (Read Paper Republic Week 41)

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