Of China and Concubines

by Ariel Katz

“Does anyone in the audience come from a family that had concubines?”

So asked author Amy S. Kwei, who the Yale-China Association hosted for a Yale-China Fireside Chat this Friday. Kwei was there to talk about her book, A Concubine for the Family: A Family Saga in China.

Kwei smiled at the audience. A young woman in the back raised her hand and said her grandfather had had a concubine. “I didn’t realize for a while why I called two people ‘grandma,’” she said.

The author nodded knowingly. Concubines were historically a common phenomenon in Chinese families, Kwei said. Her novel is based on the story of her grandmother, who gave her personal maid to her husband on his birthday to serve as his concubine. The mistress was close to her maid, and gave her to her husband in the hopes of producing a male heir. Kwei’s grandmother chose the maid as a woman she trusted.

Kwei hopes her book will give Western readers a taste of Chinese values. She heralds family solidarity as one of the most important of those values. While initially some readers might view the gift of a concubine as demeaning to women and destructive to a family, Kwei feels that it shows a woman’s willingness to do whatever it takes to perpetuate that which is most important to her. Her book opens with a scene in which the maid is bathing her mistress. Kwei witnessed an identical incident in real life between her grandmother and her grandmother’s servant, and remembers it as a tender, loving act that spoke to a strong bond between them. The maid otherwise would have been married back into the peasantry in which she was born, and separated from the mistress who took her in as a child off of the street. And so she was grateful to be chosen as a concubine. Kwei hopes to show in her book that the story of hierarchical families is not always one wrought with female cattiness, but often filled with strength and gratitude.

Some of the reasons the concubine was grateful and the mistress was willing to share her husband might be tied up in the value system of Chinese culture, which Kwei says hasn’t changed all that much over time. She described buying a fan on the street in China, one that she held up in front of the audience. It was black with intricate gold writing, and contained a poem with the message “don’t be angry.” Kwei said the poem also wove in maxims like “don’t compare yourself to your friends” and “don’t bother your children too much, they have their own lives.”

“In this country we tend to view every Chinese as a businessman” Kwei said after showing us the fan, “but their heart is in their culture.” Ultimately, this is what the book is about: the cultural history of China viewed through the frame of a family saga. Set against a backdrop of wars from the Sino-Japanese War to the Cultural Revolution, the book explores Chinese traditions as ancient, but fluid. This dichotomy is also prominent in the family she writes about: Kwei describes the tightness of the family, but the book ends with its dispersal. It is a story about how things come together and how things fall apart.

On the back of her book is a photo of Kwei’s husband’s family. The family is not her own because when her parents emigrated to the U.S. from Shanghai, they didn’t bring any pictures with them. They assumed they would go back. Now Kwei has no photos of her family in China, and says she uses her writing as a way to access, interpret, and honor her family’s stories.

An audience member asked if she read a lot of books or letters to research her novel. Kwei smiled and said, “When you’re a child, you sit and listen to stories. These stories I heard, and put in a book.”

Ariel Katz is a sophomore in Morse College. Contact her at ariel.katz@yale.edu.