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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Wedding Party

Liu Xinwu

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To purchase The Wedding Party

Title: The Wedding Party
Author: Liu Xinwu
Genre: Novel
Written: 1985 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 381 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Wedding Party - US
The Wedding Party - UK
The Wedding Party - Canada
  • Chinese title: 钟鼓楼
  • Translated by Jeremy Tiang

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Our Assessment:

B : vivid picture of early 1980s Beijing life and lives

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 12/10/2021 .
SCMP . 9/1/2022 Paul French

  From the Reviews:
  • "Visitors and wedding crashers stop by throughout the day, and the author does a fantastic job of unfurling each character's inner life, as well as the backstories and motivations of other residents. (...) This glimpse of the recent past is a treat." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The Wedding Party is initially a lament for a more communal, “authentic” life before anonymous high-rise apartments sprout in remote suburbs. (...) The perfect Petri dish for the novelist, Liu’s initial semblance of nostalgia belies his insightful social commentary. (...) The Wedding Party (which won the prestigious Mao Dun Literature Prize in 1985) is a fully immersive experience, both in 1980s hutong life and the onset of an era in Chinese history we are living through still." - Paul French, South China Morning Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Wedding Party is -- aside from a Prologue -- a single-day-novel, the action set entirely on 12 December 1982. The action centers around the wedding celebrations for Xue Jiyue and Pan Xiyua, with Jiyue's mother, Auntie Xue, trying to keep a handle on everything. Yet the novel is also a neighborhood novel, less about the young couple and their wedding than the Beijing siheyuan -- "four rows of houses, arranged in a square with a space in the middle" -- where most of the action takes place; indeed, one of the chapters, well into the novel, is dedicated specifically to it -- "A major character in this novel: the siheyuan". The Wedding Party is a novel that tries to capture a specific time and place in history; published in 1985, the author clearly saw the China of these times -- and especially Beijing -- on the cusp of a great transformation; the characters in his novel bridge the recent Chinese past, from the Cultural Revolution to the overthrow of the Gang of Four, with a (then) present-day that already shows clear signs of fundamentally transformational change. (The Chinese title, 钟鼓楼, is 'The Bell and Drum Towers', and refers to the ancient buildings "at the northernmost point of central Beijing" -- another hold-over, of more ancient history -- where the siheyuan where the Xues live is located.)
       The wedding brings a variety of characters to the party, but others in the siheyuan who are less involved -- the way one might be when a neighbor holds a big celebration -- also come into the story. While much of the story is at the fest itself, many individual stories are woven into the novel, as a very large cast of characters is introduced. Occasionally, the action also moves beyond the siheyuan, from when the bride is picked up in a car to another character who has a plane to catch and heads to the airport.
       Auntie Xue bustles about, trying to keep everything moving forward, but small things seem to go wrong at every turn. Xue Jiyue and Pan Xiyua themselves are hardly a romantic ideal -- to the extent that:

     Love ! The word had never entered Xiuya's mind. She only has the idea of finding a "partner" The simple words "I love you" have never passed between her an Jiyue. All they've ever said to each other is "I'm willing."
       At twenty-five, they are both members of the generation that grew up during the Cultural Revolution, which impacted their education:
     Jiyue is of the cohort that has a middle school certificate, but in practical terms hasn't really finished elementary school. They'd just started third grade when the Cultural Revolution kicked off, so they rattled around until 1970, spent a short time in middle school, then got packed of to the countryside.
       So also in furnishing their apartment the couple don't need any bookshelves because they don't have any books -- as Xiyua, for example: "read nothing but magazines -- in fact, only movie magazines, and even then only for the pictures". . Xiyua is practical, but even that in only a limited way -- and: "She lacks imagination and has no sense of romance whatsoever". The thing she seems to be most looking forward to on this day is not being united with Jiyue forever more but rather the watch she's been promised as a wedding gift (or trophy).
       Meanwhile, Jiyue only has a relatively foggy idea of what being with a woman might actually entail, never having learned much about the facts of life at school or home. There was that one time, years earlier, when: "he ended up in an intimate scenario, entirely at the initiative of the woman -- and failed to rise to the occasion", and so he also has considerable performance anxiety as his wedding night approaches.
       The two, and Auntie Xue, are significant figures in the novel, but The Wedding Party is really a larger-scaled chamber- (or siheyuan-)piece.
       Liu notes at one point:
     So far, no sociologist has done any research into Beijingers, not in the broad sense of people who live in Beijing, but what you might call the "indigenous" folk -- that is, those whose families have been here at least three generations, the ordinary working folk of the city, the "lower rungs of society." [...] You don't read many novels about these people. Some dismiss them as "little city folk," or even worse, "the masses."
       The Wedding Party is such a novel, with its large cast of characters a cross-section of everyday Beijing lives -- as well as the occasional visitor from the countryside. Liu presents many of their personal stories and backgrounds along the way, too -- often colored by the dark experiences of the Cultural Revolution, even as these are almost universally just accepted as a fact of life: there's little wallowing here about past injustice, it was just something they all lived through.
       Meanwhile, times have changed, and there's certainly a sense of some concern about where things are going. One of the characters is involved in real estate speculation of sorts -- limited by the system in place at the time, but certainly already suggesting what might come. And Liu is clearly concerned about what is being lost -- hence also this paean to the siheyuan, as he maintains:
To modernize Beijing, a number of siheyuans will have to be removed; yet we must preserve some of the intact ones, and restore others. Perhaps certain neighborhoods could be designated heritage zone, conserving the Beijing of bygone eras. If we were to do this, our descendants would surely be grateful to this generation of Beijingers.
       Liu tries to capture what is being lost:
     As the siheyuan homes of Beijing fade away and are replaced by apartment buildings, people live in closer proximity, but the connections between them have atrophied, and neighbors are often cut off from each other. When visitors arrive, those tightly shut apartment doors feel heartless and stark, unlike the casual welcome that siheyuans offer.
       And The Wedding Party is all about those connections, the constant criss-crossing of people, incidentally and not, a coming and going and interacting.
       The two towers of the Chinese title anchor this particular historic neighborhood -- true old Beijing for Liu -- but he clearly worries about the rapidly accelerating transformation of the city around them. And this in a novel published in 1985 (and set in 1982), when China was only at the beginnings of its building booms and rapid industrialization .....
       Readers encounter a large and engaging cast of characters and stories in The Wedding Party, from the stand-in banquet chef to a performer who has to worry about her troupe falling apart to a poetry editor overwhelmed by submissions to a few ne'er-do-wells. The novel doesn't exactly feel crowded -- there's space enough for all these characters and stories in Liu's easygoing presentation -- but it is teeming and busy. And it saps a bit of the narrative flow, to constantly be introduced to new characters and life-stories, as even halfway through the novel Liu closes a chapter noting:
     Life flows on without pause in this little courtyard. It's now the afternoon of December 12, 1982. The people we have already met are still to reveal their full selves, but new characters are already coming into view. So much waiting for us to find out, and so much to comprehend, in this world, this life, this humanity !
       The Wedding Party becomes something of a cascade of a novel -- enjoyable in that rolling, free flow but then also somewhat hemmed in by its single-day cut-off. It is a sweeping panorama of a day in the life of this corner of Beijing -- both representative of the times, but with so many individual stories as to make it very much its own, too -- but the presentation also gives it the feel of the most recent episode of a long-running TV show.
       A vivid glimpse of Beijing at that time -- and a fascinating look at how everyday lives were affected by the Cultural Revolution, and what the consequences were and how they dealt with that --, The Wedding Party is a fine and often interesting big read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 December 2021

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The Wedding Party: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Liu Xinwu (刘心武) was born in 1942.

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© 2021-2022 the complete review

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