Asian Art Museum
As I detailed in Part One, I used my time in San Francisco to think about teaching Sui Sin Far. Beyond Chinatown, I also took a trip to the Asian Art Museum. The museum is not focused on an American context for Asian art but rather has artifacts from antiquity through to our contemporary times divided into the following galleries: the Persian World and West Asia, Southeast Asia, The Himalayas and the Tibetan Buddhist World, China, Korea, and Japan. I want to discuss how I might use my experience for my class but also will start with a plug for the museum in general. The Asian Art Museum was by no means empty on a Tuesday afternoon, but it was quiet enough that I got to spend a long time browsing around the museum pieces and sinking into my own thoughts. I love museums that are big enough to explore but small enough to feel manageable in one outing. And as a bonus for the bookish among us, the Asian Art Museum was the first home of the San Francisco public library, which you can note by the inscriptions on the building. Even though my project was to think about Sui Sin Far, I also focused my attention on many other exhibits in the museum. Some of my favorite pieces from those galleries were the stone Buddhas and other gods in the South Asia gallery and this rhino (don’t miss the secret message inside).*
Mrs. Spring Fragrance
In Part One, I explored Sui Sin Far’s texts through the images of Chinatown. I think the same could be done with materials from the Asian Art Museum, which, if you can’t visit, has a large collection of educational materials available on their website. Instead of repeating the process of describing close readings, I want to highlight how the museum helped me think about the material culture presented by Sui Sin Far in Mrs. Spring Fragrance. There are a lot of specific items that Far or her characters mention that I did not consider in much detail before walking through the Asian Art Museum. Below I will detail a few moments from Mrs. Spring Fragrance and draw some parallels to my experiences in the museum.
The first example I pulled from the text is the jade pendant that Mr. Spring Fragrance purchases for Mrs. Spring Fragrance in the titular story. Mr. Spring Fragrance bought the pendant, which “Mrs. Spring Fragrance had particularly admired the last time she was down town,” to give her for their anniversary. He did this to please his wife, who had pointed it out, and he, perhaps, made the purchase because Jade is Mrs. Spring Fragrance’s first name. In the museum’s collection, there are many jade objects, and they have a short video explaining a bit about the history of jade in China and the methods for crafting pieces with jade.
Since the video is only three minutes long, it would be easy to show in the classroom during a discussion of Mrs. Spring Fragrance. I would ask students to pick out quotes or examples of information about jade that help them understand the story or the character. For example, a few quotes that stand out to me:
- “Jade is too hard to be carved.”
- “Gold is valuable but jade is invaluable.”
- “Confucious noted, ‘The wise have likened jade to virtue.'”
If my students came up with similar quotes, I would use each sentence to investigate our understanding of Mrs. Spring Fragrance as “Jade”:
- Is Mrs. Spring Fragrance “hard” in that she is inflexible?
- How is Mrs. Spring Fragrance valued by the other characters in the story?
- What role does virtue play in the story? Does the story suggest that virtue might be thought of differently in American and Chinese cultures?
Each of the above points corresponds to one of the previous quotes from the video. Asking students to analyze Mrs. Spring Fragrance in this way will help them pull more content from the video and think more critically about Mrs. Spring Fragrance’s character.
Another series of objects that I was struck by in the collections were the various pieces of clothing. The coat below is a women’s coat from approximately 1900-1950. The placard explaining the coat notes that it is similar to coats that would have been worn in the daytime during the mid-nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries. The coat also illustrates scenes from Dream of the Red Chamber, which I will come back to in a minute.
In terms of the story collection, the importance of clothing is highlighted by more than one character across the collection. Mrs. Spring Fragrance mentions that the first time her husband asked her to wear Western style dress she felt as if she never would, but then he “brought home a gown fit for a fairy” and her mind was changed. In the story, “The Wisdom of the New” the tension between Western and Chinese modes of dress is also present. In this story, however, appearance plays an important role in the strain between husband and wife to much more tragic results.
Because the story will be unfamiliar to many readers, I will give a quick overview and interpretation here. At the beginning of “The Wisdom of the New,” Wau Sankwei brings his wife, Pau Lin, and seven-year-old son, Yen, from China to the United States. He has never seen his son and has not seen his wife since shortly after they were married. They were married quickly once he decided to go to the U.S., and Pau Lin remained in China to care for Wau Sankwei’s mother. The difficulties between the husband and wife start immediately after they are all on U.S. soil. Pau Lin is reluctant to let her son be Americanized, and Wau Sankwei does not pay much attention to her or her desires. Wau Sankwei does a series of things that disturb his wife and one of the events that she focuses on is when he has Yen’s hair cut. When Yen comes home without his queue, Pau Lin tells Yen that she is ashamed of him and places “the queue of her son within the trunk wherein lay that of his father, long since cast aside.” In this moment of placing the queues of father and son side by side, Pau Lin realizes that it is not only her son’s appearance that is changing but also his connection to the U.S. and his relationship to her. This change in hairstyle is the beginning of the complete deterioration of the relationship between husband and wife and is part of the events that cause Pau Lin to make a drastic decision. Pau Lin decides that it is better to kill her child than let him become more Americanized. The story ends with Wau Sankwei finding Pau Lin right after she kills Yen; he then writes a note to his American friend which says, “I have lost my boy through an accident. I am returning to China with my wife whose health requires a change.”
Why showing the coat above might be particularly interesting to students is that the embroidery on it illustrates scenes from the love story, the Dream of the Red Chamber. Dream of the Red Chamber is a novel by Cao Xueqin, an 18th century author. I haven’t read the novel (it’s over 2,000 pages), but the museum provided information about the plot. The story is of love thwarted by family intervention and ends with unhappy betrothal and death.
The story is a completely different kind of tragic love story than “The Wisdom of the New,” but while listening to the talk, inserted below, by Stephen Roddy about the novel’s relationship to the operatic version of the story (currently being staged by the San Francisco Opera), I was struck by how he described the Dream of the Red Chamber as illustrating the “the duality of love as both delusion and illumination” (right after the 18:00 minute mark). This reminds me of the love that both adult characters have for their child in “The Wisdom of the New.” Neither character can see past their own relationship to their son and their ideas of what is best for him to truly connect to the other parent. The tragedy of this story is not ignorance or a lack of understanding. It is the tragedy of love that is channeled in incredibly deluded ways.
In class, the transition from Far’s story to the coat to the theme from Dream of the Red Chamber would take careful planning in order to keep students on track. However, I think an exploration of the ideas presented in the video and perhaps even clipping out a short piece of it would be beneficial to the students in their exploration of “The Wisdom of the New.” “The Wisdom of the New” is quite dramatic, and students might dismiss the actions outright or immediately decide that Pau Lin is the “bad” figure and Wau Sankwei the “good” one. The theme of love and how love both guides and misguides us can be illustrated through the Dream of the Red Chamber images sewn onto the coat, and introducing ideas about the theme of love will help students create nuanced reading of “The Wisdom of the New.”
Although I am sure it would vary by place and student population, from my experience, many American students will not have much knowledge about the role of Chinese immigrants in the history of America or have much exposure to thought outside of the Western tradition. The teacher, then, needs to be sure to provide students with a framework for understanding the work they are reading. Using objects or images of objects which students can viscerally experience and can learn about in their own right will help students find a way into texts that are new to them. While I only present two here, there are many other objects and ideas explored in the Asian Art Museum that would help students read Mrs. Spring Fragrance. Hopefully when I introduce these ideas into my own classroom, my students will be as captivated by her stories as I am. I will let you know how it goes.
*All photographs in this post are by the author.