Bathed in the slant rays of the setting sun, Xiu’er sat with her back to the north window. She and Mother were busily pasting paper coins for the dead. The living room was quiet but for the occasional sighs of Mother, in between the rustling crinkle of tin foil and the soft squelches of glue. All of a sudden she heard the heavy steps of someone wearing leather shoes and realized that Elder Brother had just come in. She did not look up, but rather kept right on with her pasting. The sound of his leather shoes grew louder, closer, until finally she was aware that her brother was standing right next to her and she could not help but turn around and look. Back bent forward, shoulders hunched high, he was struggling to retrieve something from the depths of the lapel pocket of his tailored grey suit.
“Elder Brother”, she said, and quickly stood up to offer him her seat. He acknowledged her briskly with a nod and held out a brown package to Mother, his gold wristwatch glinting in the dim light. “Mother, I ordered this from Wang near the brick market. They cost a dollar, but Father deserves the best.”
There was a pause as Mother slowly finished stringing the coins together with a crimson strand of thread before looking up at Elder Brother. Her red-rimmed eyes sank into her face and her hair, which was now colored by flecks of grey, drooped untidily around her neck. She took the package and clumsily fiddled with the pieces of string, but seeing that she was experiencing some trouble, Elder Brother quickly kneeled down beside her and pulled apart the knot in one deft stroke.
Xiu’er leaned forward curiously and saw a few thin paper volumes. Mother flipped through them slowly and Xiu’er noticed that the script was printed right to left in the old style. Elder Brother smiled approvingly. “I had Wang custom make it. They don’t do it like this anymore!”
“This one is the Analects, and that one is his favorite volume of poetry”, Elder Brother explained when he saw Xiu’er trying to make out the traditional characters on the cover. “Who is that by?” she asked, thumbing through the pages of gibberish that she could not read.
“Oh you wouldn’t know him”, Elder Brother said airily with a dismissive wave of his hand. Xiu’er’s shoulders stiffened and she closed the book with a thud while Elder brother rambled on: “…Father used to make me copy out the jiaju…I think I still have the notebook somewhere…”
While he continued, Xiu’er arranged the volumes neatly into a pile and finally announced: “I’m going to go make some supper. Younger Sister will be back soon.”
“It isn’t ready yet?” Elder Brother asked, his eyebrows arching in surprise. “And where is Younger Sister?”
“She went out to meet a friend. And I was busy with the paper coins.” As Xiu’er steeled herself for Elder Brother’s reprimands, she had the mental vision of little bubbles breaking the surface of the water. She bit her lips and tightened her fist. Whenever she did that, it helped her to keep her emotions under control like a secret in her palm.
“It’s only been a day and this house is falling into anarchy! Younger Sister is off to socialize with her gaggle of schoolgirl friends and you did nothing to stop it?”
Xiu’er glanced at Mother with a pleading look in her eyes, but Mother merely continued pasting the paper coins. “I didn’t want to get into a fight. You know what she would do. She would just run off and never come back again, you know how it is.”
“No, I don’t.” Elder Brother frowned and his eyes darkened with irritation. “She needs to learn some respect, if not for the living, then for the dead. I’m going out now to complete the funeral arrangements and get ready the things for tomorrow. If and when Younger Sister comes back, tell her she’ll get it from me.” With that, he gently patted Mother on the shoulder and stalked out of the house, his coat billowing behind him.
Xiu’er felt the prickle of tears around the edges of her eyes, but she dashed them away with resolve. “I’m going to make the dinner now”, she said again, this time to no one in particular. Rolling up her sleeves, she put on an apron and scooped up the loose tendrils of her long black hair into a bun.
The funeral procession was over. The relatives who had travelled for days to attend the Buddhist ceremony had returned to their respective towns, and the ones who stayed nearby were walking to the local inns, hunched white figures dispersing in the cobble stone streets. Elder Brother had accompanied Mother back home because she wasn’t feeling so well. Her face was sallow, and she had very little appetite. “Go home,” Auntie Xue had said. “Your daughters will see to the rest.”
So there they were now, Xiu’er with a white ribbon tied around her braid and a makeshift armband around her arm, walking towards the graveyard. She was carrying two baskets of paper coins and funerary offerings while Young Sister lagged behind sullenly. Her hair was cut into a short bob, barely covering the small purplish mark on the side of her face where Elder Brother had let her “get it” a few days ago.
It took a while to find the burial mound because Xiu’er could barely read the traditional Chinese characters marking the script. But Elder Brother had told her that the mound was to the left of the graveyard gate and the first character resembled something like a window. “A square with a cross in the middle”, he had said.
Elder Brother had let out a small chuckle. “If it helps you remember.”
In the center of the small graveyard was a metal burner that was brown with rust. Xiu’er peered into it warily before striking a match. The coal glowed brightly and the two sisters hurriedly unpacked the offerings in the baskets. “Rest in peace, Father”, Xiu’er whispered as she unraveled the paper coins and let them fall into the burner. The flames licked them up greedily and soon they smoldered into ash, on their way to the land of the dead. When all the paper coins had been offered to Father, Xiu’er took out the thin paper volumes in the brown package.
“These are from Elder Brother, Father. He had them specially made for you.”
“Can I do it?” Younger Sister suddenly asked, putting a hand on Xiu’er’s shoulder to stop her from lowering them into the burner. Xiu’er handed them to her gently, smoothing out the pages that curled up at the edges. To her shock, Younger Sister grabbed them from her roughly and hurled them into the burner, her eyes glimmering with anger. The flames swallowed The Analects into nothingness.
“Younger Sister!!” Xiu’er exclaimed.
Without looking at her, Younger Sister mumbled something about being back home late and ran off down the winding dirt road. Xiu’er called after her till her throat was hoarse, but Younger Sister soon faded into a small black bob in the distance.
Xiu’er felt very tired. Her head ached from the events of the past week – the public outpouring of grief, polite exchanges with the extended family and undercurrent of gossip had taken its toll. The words of Elder Brother still echoed at the back of her mind: “young schoolgirls are a frivolous bunch. They follow the wind, be it East or West.” All the relatives had tut-tutted in agreement.
Her eyes also stung from the fire and bits of ash coated her white shirt and skirt. Her arms felt papery with the little flakes and she was badly in need of a bath.
On the walk back home, the empty baskets swinging from her arms, she thought of the time when Father presented Mother with a bar of soap. She remembered how the smooth sunflower green surface had attracted her, and how Mother had pushed her away when she tried to play with it. Xiu’er herself had never used anything but honey locust pods; the soap was reserved for Mother. Even then, that was a thing of the past. Money had been scarce since Father’s illness. Elder Brother was generous with them, but there was no money to indulge in soaps, not when he had his own family to feed, with a newly married wife and a young infant.
That night, Xiu’er scrubbed herself hard with the honey locust pods, but she still felt dirty. The thought of smelling like ash for the next few weeks disgusted her. Going to her wooden clothes cabinet, Xiu’er dug around till she found a small metal tin. She had two silver dollars in small change. “I’ll go and get myself a bar of soap”, she decided. It shouldn’t cost more than fifty-five cents.
The bar of soap she bought was a light yellowish brown in color. After a thorough scrubbing, Xiu’er managed to get rid of all the ash, and she emptied the tub of soapy grey suds out of the window. Instead of the lingering smell of fire, which reminded her of a bitter grapefruit, a familiar scent now clung to her body.
Everyone who was exposed to it said it smelled like sandalwood.
Luxun’s work illuminates the underbelly of human relations through a depiction of intimate every day events. In “Soap”, he explores the problematic nature of Confucian values, the patriarchal power dynamic in the family and the need for social change. This creative fan fiction is a personal interpretation of Luxun’s message, and it expands his thematic focus to related issues that are close to my heart – the unequal access of education for girls and the lack of autonomy for women.
In “Soap”, though Siming’s wife is defined by her role as the mere extension of a man, she does not passively accept this socially ascribed identity. She displays the ability to momentarily overturn the patriarchal power structure when Siming crosses a certain threshold – this is observed when she “[breaks]” her “silence” and “strike[s] fear in the heart” of Siming (p. 272). More importantly, Luxun empowers her by giving her an independence of thought. Her act of calling Siming out on his hypocrisy is a daring reinterpretation of his male-colored judgments. Nevertheless, she is not free from societal expectations, and she tries to fulfill the role of a dutiful wife when she “sympathetically” agrees with Siming’s opinions and affirms that he is “right” (p. 267). Even though the gift of soap is a reminder of her duty to sexually gratify Siming, and thus results in her discomfiture, she ultimately conforms to Siming’s expectations by using it frequently. Throughout the story, she experiences this tension between carrying out her social role while retaining some element of autonomy.
“Suds” is an attempt to examine the continuation of this struggle through the lenses of a second-generation female. My decision to center the story around Xiu’er was inspired by this paragraph in “Soap”:
“Rub-a-dub-dub, shameless, absolutely shameless…”
Siming seemed to hear the faint voice of Xiu’er behind his back, but when he turned to look, there was no sign that she had said anything at all. Zhao’er, however, was still scratching her cheek with two small fingers.
Here, Xiu’er subtly parrots her mother while Zhao’er casts an explicit judgment on Siming (the footnote suggests that the gesture of “scratching” one’s cheek with “two small fingers” means “Shame on you!”). In “Suds”, the energy that Siming’s wife displayed in “Soap” has been depleted after a lifetime of struggle against a seemingly static society. The baton of the conflict experienced by her is thus passed to the two daughters. Just as Siming’s wife is trapped between the binary of being a paragon of virtue (“filial girl”) and a perpetrator of vice (“hairbobbers”), Xiu’er is someone who attempts to live up to the trope of the “filial girl” but feels great frustration in the process. Xiu’er takes ownership of domestic responsibilities, and in the burning of funerary offerings, she is depicted as the archetypal “filial girl” who pays due respect to her late father. Notably, her objections to her brother’s domination are “faint”, comprising only body language and her internal monologue. While she does not express any explicit criticism, her sister Zhao’er lives up to the impertinent gesture of “scratching her cheek”, for she openly rebels by adopting a modern haircut deemed inappropriately masculine. Zhao’er’s defiance is also juxtaposed to Xiu’er’s filial behavior when she hurls her father’s funerary offerings into the burner.
While the two daughters’ struggles are inherited from their mother, Xuecheng, or the Elder Brother in “Suds”, takes on the role of Siming when he dies. Just as his father was a strong proponent of gendered roles, Xuecheng seeks to entrench the patriarchal structure in the family. He enjoys the increased benefits that are due to him when women are denied equal access to opportunities. In some of his works, such as “Diary of a Madman”, Luxun explores the idea of parents corrupting their children with wrong values. Xuecheng’s innocence and unwavering piety as a child are thus subject to Siming’s influence, and the result of this influence is manifested in his adulthood. Like his father, he applies traditional Chinese values selectively and ultimately distorts the Confucian ideal of filial piety – for example, he is highly abusive to his sisters while retaining a respectful, if patronizing, attitude to his mother.
“Suds” is the continuation of the vicious cycle of China’s social decay, and this is achieved through the re-cycling of Luxun’s opening and closing paragraphs in “Soap”. There are, however, subtle indications of change – the “cotton shoes” of Siming are now the “leather shoes” of his prosperous and Western-educated son, who enjoys the advantages of his time at the academy. The fact that they are “pasting coins” for their father is a clear indication of how time has elapsed, but the essential remains the same.
The choices and beliefs of the previous generation also leave a lasting impact on the second. In “Soap”, Siming asks: “What business do girls have going to school anyway?” The consequences of this conviction are made clear in “Suds”. Xiu’er’s illiteracy reinforces her inferior social status to men; her well-educated brother conspicuously sports indications of material wealth, as seen in the golden wristwatch and his tailored suit. In addition, the divide between men and women is emphasized when he mocks her inadequacy. With little to no formal education, Xiu’er can only visualize the “Si” Chinese character as a window. This limited mode of understanding is her only window into the world of the privileged.
Nevertheless, “Suds” is not a damning projection of China’s future. In ”Soap”, the bar of soap is symbolic of Western intrusion. The foreignness of the object is signaled to the reader through the description of it as “exotic” and the repeated emphasis on its “olive” scent, which is not native to China. The soap has multiple layers of meanings, but most broadly, it is a symbol of the need for a moral cleansing of Chinese society. Interestingly, the shift in scent from “olive” to “sandalwood”, a type of wood traditionally associated with the Chinese, seems to be an expression of Luxun’s hope that China’s progress will one day no longer be limited to importing the Western model wholesale. Rather, this cleansing process will stem from the Chinese.
“Suds” reflects the belief that the transformation of China will be a gradual process. Although Xiu’er, like her mother, is unable to achieve true freedom, she does make some progress in gaining increased autonomy. The women in the family continue to be financially dependent on Xuecheng, but this time, Xiu’er is able to exercise her agency in buying her own soap. Previously, the symbolic nature of the soap’s cleansing was tainted by the fact that it was purchased by Siming, which channeled strong patriarchal undertones of sexual domination and reduced Siming’s wife to a passive receiver. By removing this aspect, Xiu’er assumes ownership over her body. She cleanses herself of the effects of the dead traditions that pervade society, as represented by the ashes. The scent of sandalwood is a renewal of the promise of a progressive future for China.
The title “Suds” is a tribute to the faithful love of Siming’s wife and the tears she sheds for him. It comments on the hardship that Chinese women collectively experienced from their subordination to men. “Suds” also carries on the reference to the cleansing process that China must go through, and hints at the residual work that must be continued by all.
Lu Xun. Diary of a Madman and Other Stories. Translated by William A. Lyell. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.
Categories: Stories and Casual Thoughts