Jessica Yu reviews Forged from Silver Dollar by Li Feng
by Li Feng
Reviewed by JESSICA YU
Li Feng’s memoir, Forged from Silver Dollar, traces the author’s matriarchal lineage, beginning with the story of her great grandmother-in law Silver Dollar, her grandmother Ming Xiu, and her mother Rong. Joining the tradition of memoirs and fictionalised accounts of Chinese womanhood and family life such as The Joy Luck Club, The Good Earth, Wild Swans and The Concubine’s Children, Forged from Silver Dollar adds a fresh voice for those who are interested in the re-writing of history on a Chinese woman’s terms.
The narratives of Li Feng’s ancestors are witty and pungent and, more importantly, they make for an interesting case study into Chinese motherhood and womanhood under Chairman Mao’s regime in China. Li Feng’s female warriors span several different classes, from meek Silver Dollar who rises to prosperity and matriarchal ferociousness in her later years, to the genteel Ming Xiu who loses everything in Mao’s Land Reform Campaign, to the well-educated but impoverished Rong who’s ‘landlord parentage’ prevents her from grasping the opportunities she deserves for the most part of her life.
Interestingly, apart from this key cast, Feng also zooms in on the minor players of this story: Ming Xiu’s husband and Silver Dollar’s second son, Lu is married twice before he marries Ming Xiu. We learn of how Lu abandons his first bride Le, who he is arranged to be married to by Silver Dollar. From their unconsummated wedding night till her death, Lu despises Le for her ugly, pockmarked face and perhaps also for the coercion he feels at being made to enter the traditional arranged marriage. Silver Dollar negotiates with Lu, offering him the option of living his life apart from his wife and away from his hometown if he makes Le fall pregnant with a son. Having done his marital duty, Lu lives and works in Guangyuan where he falls in love with and impregnates the young and delicate Zhao. Naively, Lu leaves Zhao in his mother and wife’s home where she and her newborn baby are abused and starved to death. Later on in the story, Le, having been rejected by her husband, takes several lovers from within the village for herself. When Le and her lover, Huai Chun, are caught by Lu’s younger brother, dunked into a pond and asked to confess, Le remains defiant. After Lu’s third marriage, when he offers to buy Le a lot of land and provide for her and her children saying, ‘You and your son Hong will not go hungry, but I really do not want to see either of you again,’ Le refuses and says, ‘You ruined my life … I hate you, heartless man! Even if you burned to ashes one day, I wouldn’t forget and forgive you!’ That these oftentimes tragic stories of desperate women who do not comprise the central plotline are told by Li Feng is crucial for me. It shows me that the author is interested in the experience of Chinese womanhood as a whole and tells the stories of a wide variety of lives in an effort to unloose the lips of these invisible and silenced women.
Unlike the women in many tragic Chinese stories, Li Feng’s women are not saints or martyrs. Just as often as they are abused, rejected or abandoned, they have the capacity, like Silver Dollar, to become complicit in and continue the cycle of abuse and control. Often their initial naivety changes to resentment as they are forced into power struggles with each other. At different times in their lives they reject filial piety towards their mothers and demand filial piety from their daughters. Yet neither are any of these women painted as monsters, bitches or whores. They are human and the strokes with which Li Feng’s brush draws out these characters are deeply empathetic ones. Each character carries its own complexities throughout their story. Fifteen year old Ming Xiu meets her husband briefly at a matchmaking meeting and is kept almost completely in the dark about her impending marriage. She is called inside from a game of shuttlecock by her mother and tricked into having her engagement photos taken with her fiancé. A few days later, Lu and Ming Xiu are married. She falls pregnant often but against her will, disliking having to care for so many children. During a financial crisis, Lu begins seeing a prostitute and, despite her outrage, Ming Xiu remains loyal to her husband and attempts to free him when he is jailed during Mao’s Land Reform Campaign.
For these desperate women, the hope and the tenacity to realise their dreams is an inheritance handed down from generation to generation. In different ways, each woman sees hope in education and the money-making potential of their children. Li Feng’s memoir interprets the pressure to succeed and feelings of filial loyalty which mark Chinese children as a by-product of the political unease and financial instability of recent Chinese history. Mothers whose dreams are snatched from them during their youth, whose own economic and vocational prospects are past their use-by-date are given a second-chance with their children. It is an impulse which is easy to condemn if one has never been in the same circumstance; how would you feel if, after tireless striving, the opportunity at tertiary education was taken away from you because of your family’s kulak background? And yet the reader’s empathy remains equally on Li Feng’s side (as it does on Rong’s) as she tells of how far Rong is willing to go to ensure her daughter’s success: giving her daughter ugly haircuts in high school and personally confronting a potential love interest to prevent her from being ‘distracted’. Extracting the resentment Li Feng initially felt towards her mother for demanding perfection from her in all areas of her academic life, she writes with absolute empathy and honesty of how damaging yet essential her relationship with her mother has been to her happiness. She writes of the wordless emotion she feels when an American university tutor, Tom, asks her to tell him who she is as part of a conversation class. Li Feng had identified herself not as an individual but as ‘a thread in my family tapestry which, when I looked closely at it, had been woven solely by my mother’. When Li Feng brings home a married lover, Da Ge, her mother yells at him, ‘Now tell me, young man…what made you think that you deserved my daughter? Do you know the price this family has paid to produce a postgraduate like her? … As a mother, I beg you – do not ruin the dream of my family.’ Following this episode, Li Feng considers suicide and matricide but never confides these feelings in Rong because she believes her mother who views ‘suicide as an act of a loser’.
Having long made peace with her mother and their violent love for each other, Li Feng wrote and dedicated Forged from Silver Dollar as an offering to her mother, a way to use the freedom she gave her to make her proud. So while Li Feng’s gripping read contains the flaws of a first-time writer—losing some of its fire through its writing of what sometimes reads like a transcript of a verbal re-telling of story which is in many ways less immersive than a memoir tempered by showing of story—it is nonetheless a passionate and inspiring success in its ability to humanise its characters who are so often born into inhuman circumstances.
JESSICA YU is a twenty-two year old Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Melbourne. She was selected as one of Melbourne Writers Festival’s 30 under 30 in 2015. Her writing has been published (or are forthcoming) in The Best Australian Poems, Overland, Mascara, Cordite, The Lifted Brow, Award Winning Australian Writing, The Saturday Paper, Overland, Kill Your Darlings and more. She has received a ROSL Arts Travel Scholarship to complete a fellowship and public outcome in the UK, a Glenfern Fellowship and a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship. She is currently writing her first novel.