Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 2, 2019

The Poison of Polygamy, by Wong Shee Ping, translated by Ely Finch

The Poison of Polygamy has to be the most exotic book I’ve read this year. It certainly has the most compelling title…

This is the blurb:

Serialised in 1909–10, The Poison of Polygamy is a rare gem of Australian literature.

The first novel of the Chinese Australian experience, it is a roller-coaster tale of blackmail, murder, betrayal and even thylacine attack, partly based on real people, places and events. Revealing the human face of migration between imperial China and colonial Australia, it recounts the story of a man from southern China who tries his luck on the Victorian goldfields, the wife he leaves behind, and their eventual fraught reunion.

In this bilingual parallel edition, Australia’s and possibly the West’s earliest Chinese-language novel is presented in English translation for the first time. Illuminating introductions explore the work’s historical, cultural and linguistic context, and establish its unique significance in Australia’s literary and social history.

Wong Shee Ping c.1915 (Wikipedia*)

The book begins with a comprehensive Introduction, which, contrary to whatever one’s usual custom, should be read first, because it explains the book’s context and unique characteristics.  It comprises:

  • a profile, written by historian Michael Williams, of the author Wong Shee Ping, and the story of how he came to be identified after years of anonymity; then
  • there is a chapter by Mei-fen Kuo and Michael Williams, entitled ‘Why is polygamy poisonous? An historical context.’ It gives background information about Chinese migration during the Goldrush, and how the themes of the novel mesh with Wong Shee Ping’s political and social preoccupations; followed by
  • the Translator’s introduction, by Ely Finch, which explains the intricacies of Literary Chinese as distinct from translating Mandarin.

The novella follows, in bilingual format, the English translation on the LHS and the Chinese, reproduced from scans of the newspaper The Chinese Times on the RHS.  Extensive footnotes explaining everything from cultural issues to the symbolism of the text can take up a good bit of both pages. This is how it looks:

The Poison of Polygamy, pp. 138-9

So while the book is 446 pages long the actual story is 318 pages and half of those are in Chinese, so the length of the story in English is a mere 159 pages, and with much of that being footnotes, the story can be read in a day.

There are also appendices (probably of more interest to scholars) and maps (which are of great interest to Melburnians who can identify the sites of C19th Chinese businesses where the action takes place.  There are also some photos, including one of a Chinese Nationalist Party convention outside a building designed by Walter Burley Griffin.)

  • Appendix I: Character names and connotations
  • Appendix II: The romanisations used in the translation and the footnotes
  • Appendix III: Business names
  • Appendix IV: The newspaper business and Chinese Australians
  • Appendix V: Place names
  • Maps

So…

This story of the Chinese Diaspora in the Goldrush era has a unique place in our literary history.  It’s thought to be the first Chinese-language fiction in Australia (and perhaps the world) and the novella’s serialisation in Melbourne’s Chinese Times, makes it a very special cultural artefact.

Wong Shee Ping was a Christian preacher, a Chinese revolutionary and a member of a prominent family in Victoria’s Chinese business community. He is reported to have spoken little English, yet he made it his mission to espouse Western-influenced values and ideas. His authorial interventions in the story make it clear that there was a didactic purpose to his writing.  He ascribed the entire problem of Chinese poverty to the prevailing government of the Manchu dynasty, whose exploitative regime made it necessary for families to be separated for many years while the husband worked in destinations far from home.  He is scathing about the position of Chinese women, whose lack of education and subservient position made them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, as well as making them ‘silly’.  But he reserves his most potent condemnation for the practice of concubinage, which was destructive of family values and insulting to the senior wife.

The story begins in China, with the central character Wong Sheung Hong and his hapless wife Ma.  Sheung Hong is an opium addict, and a barely literate man, without any fixed vocation, who, while cruelly greedy by nature, had not a penny to his name. Ma, consistent with the expectations of a Confucian society, cares for his old mother, but remains childless. When they get into serious financial strife and have pawned everything they own, Sheung Hong takes up an offer of assistance from his friend, and together they set off for the Victorian Goldfields, leaving Ma to get by on foraged herbs.

The journey by sailing ship is fraught, eclipsed only by the horrors of the overland trek from South Australia to the Goldfields.  (Due to immigration restrictions imposed on the Chinese by the then colonial government, Chinese migrant workers landed in South Australia and trekked overland to Victoria).  Only thirteen of about 70 men survive hunger and thirst, getting lost, being attacked by a Tasmanian Tiger (!) and by Aborigines.  However, once they arrive at the Goldfields, a combination of hard work and (mostly) good luck enables them to prosper.  In time, they set up successful businesses in Melbourne and form a thriving community there.

Meanwhile, Ma endures loneliness and anxiety, waiting for letters (which she cannot read) and remittances (which are irregular).  Wong Shee Ping writes very movingly about the plight of this woman, and her struggle to come to terms with a state of semi-widowhood.  What she doesn’t realise, however, is that her troubles are only just beginning.  When Sheung Hong eventually comes home after many years away, his money burns a hole in his pocket, and before long he has to return to work, managing his friend’s store in Melbourne.  Where he begins to desire a second wife.

And while the reader has very little sympathy for this wastrel, the author clearly explains how lonely men in the diaspora were torn between the values of the West and their homeland.

‘Who knows how many of our countrymen residing overseas have married Western women,’ replied Kung.  ‘In my humble opinion, though, it is at heart a source of displeasure for them.  Why? Upper-class Western women are constrained by racial boundaries, and would almost never lower themselves to accede to intermarriage.  Harlots from the lower class, one would not wish to marry.  And while those of the middle class do occasionally marry, they are as rare as morning stars.  If men should come by them, though, they show in the end too an exalted sense of feminism, and no sense of frugality, so scarcely any such couples keep by each other into their white-haired years.  As to the daughters of Chinese fathers and Western mothers, in the extravagance to which they are accustomed to aspire, and their unbridled feminism, they do not fall short of Westerners, but tend rather to exceed them.  However, they lack the comprehensive education of the Westerners, and the subservient nature of the Chinese.  And their barbarous liberty is not dissimilar to that of the so-called women of liberty in China today’.  (p. 256)

(A footnote explains that the reference to ‘women of liberty’ refers to Western-influenced women in China who were assertive with men, and insisted on their own choice of husband.)

Well, Sheung Hong gets much, much more than he bargained for when he wangles getting a Chinese concubine to Melbourne.  She humiliates him in the community, and when she accompanies him back home to China, she does much worse.

The style of the translation is charming.  Literary Chinese is apparently completely different to the Chinese used for modern writing, resulting in quaint expressions like this one:

Throughout the day Sheung Hong was in the shop, and unbeknownst to him, his house’s interior was the very semblance of a brothel’s, wild bees and wandering butterflies going unceasingly to and fro.  (p.328.)

(A footnote explains that ‘wild bees and wandering butterflies’ is an allusion to ‘womanisers and philanderers’, bees and butterflies having a fondness for flowers, which in Chinese represent women. The Chinese character for ‘wandering’ also has the meaning of ‘loose’ or ‘dissolute’, which is lost in translation.)

One thing that startled me, and wasn’t explained (unless I missed it) was the Chinese practice of buying unwanted children, if there is a prospect of the family line dying out.  Perhaps it had to do with families being unable to support all their children in an era without birth control, but the author is very matter-of-fact about it, with no thought for the relinquishing mothers.  It seems rather chilling to me.

I really enjoyed reading this book, and I learned a lot about all manner of things Chinese while reading it.  While it has a lively plot and a thrilling denouement and it’s perfectly readable for the everyday reader, I’d recommend it more for people who are curious about Chinese history, culture and language.  And scholars of literary Chinese will find the bilingual layout perfect for their purposes.

The Poison of Polygamy was featured on Radio National’s The History Listen program. 

Image credit:

  • Wong Shee Ping c.1915, Trove, via Wikipedia (Portuguese edition).  This Wikipedia page says the photo is from an ‘unknown photographic studio’, but the book identifies it as the Burlington Studios, 294 Bourke Street Melbourne, and they credit its source as the Kuo Min Tang Society of Melbourne.

Author: Wong Shee Ping
Title: The Poison of Polygamy
Series: China and the West in the Modern World
Publisher: SUP (Sydney University Press), 2019, 446 pages, but see above re the actual length of the story.
First published as a serial in 1909-1910 in the Chinese Times, Melbourne
ISBN: 9781743326022
Review copy courtesy of Sydney University Press

Available from the SUP website and Fishpond:The Poison of Polygamy: A Social Novel (China and the West in the Modern World)

 


Responses

  1. How fascinating Lisa. Sounds like a wonderfully scholarly edition, which is what we should expect from university presses (not that that’s all they should do but this should be part of what they offer I think.)

    Like

    • Absolutely. There’s years of expert scholarship gone into this, and they’ve packaged it so that it caters for as many audiences as possible.
      And you know how I’m intrigued by other languages, I am sorely tempted to have a go at learning a bit of Chinese with Duolingo, just to see what it’s like.
      (I’m having a great time resurrecting my old school Latin with Duolingo!)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was aware of the presence and roles of Chinese communities in the USA, from the railway workers to the laundries of SAN Francisco, but this Australian account was a revelation. How enterprising of the publishers to provide such a detailed and scholarly edition.

    Like

    • Simon, you would love this. I have barely scratched the surface here because I was trying to control my geekiness. With your knowledge of early English, you’d find the discussion of Literary Chinese fascinating. It’s like getting three books in one: you get an absorbing social novel set in an exotic time and locale but realistically so; you get history about China and Melbourne written at time when events were in living memory; and you get the story of the book too.

      Like

  3. Well it sounds fascinating, and I think the background info would be as interesting as the book itself. Plus what a wonderful title! :D

    Like

    • It’s great, yeah! And that waste-of-space husband gets his comeuppance too!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Another resource for those of us who are curious about China and particularly our long connection which has so often been ignored. It does sound fascinating reading and increases our knowledge of this influential country. You certainly find the ‘gems’ Lisa.

    Like

    • I was very lucky to hear about it… I came across it on Twitter. It’s not the sort of book you see promoted in Readings!

      Like


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