Lan Samantha Chang Interview

InheritanceLan Samantha Chang discusses Inheritance, a story of family strife in China at a time of war and revolution.

Inheritance is a novel with a backdrop of historical events. Chang sat down for an interview prior to a public event at Book Passage on August 23, 2004.

The author writes in the voice of Hong, a woman living in America in the 1990's who is trying to sort out her family history. Hong especially recalls the strains between her mother Junan and her aunt, Yinan.

The two sisters were once inseparable, but now there is bitterness and estrangement. What happened in the 1930's and 40's to set the conflict in motion? What role did other family members play? Were the upheavals of the Japanese invasion and the Maoist revolution partly to blame? I discussed these and other topics with Lan Samantha Chang.

Grant Howard: In terms of a broad theme, to a certain extent [the book] is about a family that gets fragmented because of war--and about the pressures and separations that come about because of that. That's at least a partial theme; would you say that's right?

Lan Samantha Chang: I would definitely say that that is exactly one of the themes. It was fragmented also in a country that became fragmented in a time of war. First it was divided into the occupied portion versus the unoccupied portion. Meanwhile, it was slowly dividing into the Communist part and the Nationalist part. The actual fragmentation became concrete when the Nationalist government fled for Taiwan and the Communist government took over.

GH: And within the family, there are different allegiances.

Lan Samantha Chang: That's right. Political allegiances that in some ways mirror what is taking place in the country.

GH: And there were a lot of families that went through this?

Lan Samantha Chang: I think there were. Even in my own family, my father's younger brother was a Communist, and my father was pretty apolitical--but he did leave the country when the Nationalists left, leaving his family in China. His brother stayed there and became active in the party. My father did not understand the extent of his involvement or the way it happened until years later, when China opened up and people were allowed to visit again and people were allowed to leave China.

My father went back to find his family, and his brother was dead by then. But he was looking through a government publication and saw the name of a guy he knew as a kid--and who was really close friends with his brother--who is now this high party official. And my father realized that his brother had probably been interested in communism along with this guy, when they were teenagers and friends together. So he started to put together a picture of what was going on.

He didn't tell me this until I was pretty old. Just a few years ago, I found this out when I was going mall walking with my father in Wisconsin where I grew up. And he told me that his brother had been a Communist, and what he had noticed about his brother's friend, his old buddy. And I thought, "You never told me this!"

GH: And did that partially inspire the scenes in your book?

Lan Samantha Chang: I think it did. I mean, of course, my father is fairly reserved about his years in China. But it did inspire in my mind this imaginary brother pair. I would say that is the closest thing in the book that comes to being taken from my family history. The rest is an imagined history. I used a lot of information that I found when I was researching, and I imagined a history of a family.

GH: In the first place where they live, in the first part of the book, Hongzhou--I saw in the acknowledgement at the end of the book that you did a lot of research on that city, right?

Lan Samantha Chang: I felt like I had to know something about it, because my characters are from there. It is the site of a famous literary legend--a fairy tale called "The White Snake"--about a woman who is a fairy, which is sort of like a spirit. She is a snake who transforms into a mortal woman and falls in love with a mortal man. She is very possessive, overly possessive, and is later punished. Which I thought was interesting given the character Junan, who in my mind is in some ways the main character.

It is an interesting city for a number of reasons. One of my father's cousins ended up living there. And so when I went to China I was able to speak to him about the city. He did some research and sent it to my father, who then sent it to me. Unfortunately, he passed away in the last year.

GH: So the cousin remembered what it was like many years ago?

Lan Samantha Chang: Yes.

GH: Even though there is the upheaval of war, there are other causes of the fragmentation in the family. Without giving away the book, one of the things that is pivotal is when Junan sends her sister Yinan to Chongqing.

Lan Samantha Chang: The wartime capital of China.

GH: What I am getting at is, why does Junan do that? Because on the surface, in her letter to her husband she says, "She can help you maintain your household," or something to that effect. But is there some other motivation? Does it have to do with wanting to be controlling?

Lan Samantha Chang: You are absolutely right. It seemed obvious to me that she was being extremely controlling. Many people have read the book and thought that perhaps she was innocently sending her sister along.

I think that in order to understand her actions, a reader would have to feel deeply the problems that other women in the book have--for example her mother, who was not able to hold onto her husband, she felt, because she did not have a boy. And the desperation that caused in her life. And so Junan the daughter is thinking, "I want to hold onto my husband. I will do anything to make sure that I hold onto him."

She is a very, very controlled person. And underneath the control is an extraordinary amount of passion and possessiveness. And she is deeply possessive of her husband. And he is sent to the wartime capital a thousand miles away from her. And she can't follow him because she is pregnant and wants to have the child, hoping that is going to be a son. Because that is the one way she knows she can cement her tie to him.

And she sends her sister to "keep house" for him, because she wants to make sure that he does not stray from her. And even if he does stray to the sister, she knows the sister is somebody she has under her thumb--I mean, that they have this pact, she and her sister. And her sister obeys her in everything. And she knows her sister will be with her forever.

On one level, she is so possessive that she thinks, "OK, I am going to control even the extent that he is able to stray from me." So she thinks, "It will be under my control, it will be under my control." But in the end, of course, what happens is out of her control. And perhaps it is her attempt to control what happens that makes the worst part of her fate come back at her. It is coming from her own decision, her own actions.

GH: There is an interesting contrast between the two sisters. Junan the main character is more concerned with power and later with wealth and those kinds of things. And at the beginning at least, Yanin seems more timid...

Lan Samantha Chang: And shy.

GH: ...and less sure of herself. But Yanin, while being more timid at the beginning, is able to express passion toward someone else more than Junan is.

Lan Samantha Chang: She is. And she is also able to recognize that in herself and try to articulate it to her sister. She tries to explain to her sister what has happened to her, that she has become a person, that she has changed. And her sister refuses to hear it. Her sister won't acknowledge this part of her, because she cannot acknowledge it in herself.

GH: Let me make sure I understand. Junan cannot acknowledge it in herself?

Lan Samantha Chang: She cannot acknowledge that she feels passion or love. She doesn't admit that she is in love. If she had just admitted and maybe told him, perhaps things would have been different. But she was too controlled. She did not want to reveal--she did not want to lose her control. And being so under control, she certainly did not want to acknowledge that her younger sister was capable of such love and passion. She certainly did not want to acknowledge her sister's feelings; they were feelings she was repressing within herself.

So there is a conversation in which the younger sister tries to explain what happened to her, hoping for forgiveness. And eventually she does succeed in indirectly explain to her what happened. But Junan refuses to give forgiveness. She refuses to acknowledge what her younger sister is trying to tell her.

GH: And Junan has this concept--it's like a justification for her controlling personality: "xiaoxin."

Lan Samantha Chang: Xiaoxin means careful. So if somebody said to you, "xiaoxin"--it's what an adult would say to a child who is walking on top of a fence. Watch out, be careful, don't fall, xiaoxin. What the actual characters mean is, "xiao" means small and "xin" means heart. So although I don't think most Chinese people think about this at all, they are saying, "small heart, small heart." In other words, don't put yourself out there, be careful.

GH: And so that's the concept that she lives by?

Lan Samantha Chang: On a certain level, yes. On emotional matters, yes.

GH: And the book is in the voice of her daughter.

Lan Samantha Chang: Yes, the book is narrated by Hong.

GH: And Hong--later in the book, when they are in Shanghai, she rebels...

Lan Samantha Chang: Certainly.

GH: ...against that part of her mother's personality. I want to read a quote. She is having a teenage romance with a boy that she knew before. She says, "Even as his body came together with mine, even as I tried to hurt my mother with each act I did, I heard an echo of her voice telling me that what Hu Ran and I shared was nothing." So the question is, does she eventually overcome that? Maybe not with that particular lover, but eventually?

Lan Samantha Chang: I think she eventually does. I think that Hong manages to enlarge her imagination and her compassion to encompass the story of her family, to rebuild the story and retell the story. And in doing so she in many ways forgives those who came before her for the things that they have done.

And she manages to also understand herself and her actions. I think it is the development of that compassionate intelligence that allows her to be able to tell the story. And it's the development of that intelligence that is really what the book is about. Because essentially it is her story. It starts a little before she was born. She is born fairly early on in the story, and then the book sort of follows her life and ends with her surviving the story of her mother.

GH: There is another quote that is relevant here. This is Hong much later in the book, when she is in America: "No one who looked at me would have known my story or my family's story. But in truth I had been pulled apart by this inheritance, by the separations and betrayals of my country, my family, and myself." So she carries it with her, even though she builds a new life for herself.

Lan Samantha Chang: That's right. I feel in some ways that she becomes large enough, sympathetic enough, to contain all of this--to understand and contain all of these stories, and to see her part in things and her mother's part in things. And to understand that that is her ineritance, that is what made her who she is.

GH: You mentioned this intense desire by the women in the book, when they are in China, to have sons.

Lan Samantha Chang: Yes.

GH: They feel this enormous pressure over something that they really can't control. So, that existed in 1930's China. What is the cultural underpinning of that, and does it still exist? Because I have seen things in the media about that--that there is pressure to have sons.

Lan Samantha Chang: Well, like many agriculturally based societies, China developed a culture that valued human labor--the worth of strength. So that, I think, is a large part of the desire to have sons. You have sons and they will be able to work in the fields.

More than that--because women do work in the fields, obviously--it was a patriarchal culture in which a woman married into her husband's family. So, say, I would marry and I would leave my father's family. And I would go to my husband's family. So I would no longer be a Chang, if I had been born at that time. I would be considered whatever my husband's name was.

And as a result, having a daughter was like having a child that you put an enormous investment of food into, if nothing else, who would then leave the family and no longer be a working asset to the family. And so in a way, it was just sort of a heartbreak to have a daughter. It was no good. And sons, on the other hand, stayed with the family and they brought a daughter-in-law into the family who could then work.

And so having a son was very important, and I think it was very important to most women to try to have a son. In fact, I believe they thought that a completely happy woman was a woman whose husband and son and parents were alive. It was kind of this idea that you have value and worth by giving birth to a son.

These days in rural areas, it still is important to have a son. And that is changing, I think.

GH: In Junan's case, though, she feels particularly satisfied with her marriage because her husband does not have parents.

Lan Samantha Chang: Right. She is thrilled that she has married an orphan, because she knows she will not have to be the slaving daughter-in-law. As a matter of fact, she can stay with her family while he goes travelling. And when he comes back he can visit her in her father's home.

She feels like she has gotten away with something by marrying a guy who doesn't have parents. She also feels that his lower status will enable her to maintain her self-control and not really fall in love with him, because she is from a higher position than he is. Of course, that is using logic to contain emotions, and it doesn't work.

GH: Right. There is even a quote in the book, in either Hong's voice or in Hu Mudan's voice, that she was in love but she could not admit it.

Lan Samantha Chang: Right. Everybody knew.

GH: And the sister of the narrator, in other words Junan's other daughter [Hwa], seems to have a similar inhibition.

Lan Samantha Chang: Right. Hwa follows her mother in all things. Hwa is loyal to the mother, since when she was being raised she didn't know her father much. It was during wartime and he was travelling. She sort of believes her mother's side of the story, and that is her burden to bear--that strong belief in her mother. It is difficult to be with her mother, because Junan is such a strong-willed and difficult person. She sticks by her mother through the entire novel, whereas Hong goes against her mother's wishes in trying to piece together the story of the betrayal in the family--and the inheritance of the family.

GH: Early in the book, Junan's mother Chanyi commits suicide. Was that part of the reason that Junan became a cool, afraid-to-be-passionate type of person?

Lan Samantha Chang: I think so. It seems to me that Chanyi was in a very difficult situation, and that part of the reason she came to such a tragic end was that the cultural pressures on her made it impossible for her to continue to live and yet hold onto what she valued the most. And Junan, in her heart of hearts, knew that she was similar to her mother--that she had very strong desires to hold onto what mattered to her.

Junan did not want to compromise and bend even though there were so many social pressures to be less of a person than she was. And I think she knew that there was this dark space inside of her that she did not want to go to--that she would not go to--that her mother did go to. And I think that part of Junan's desire to control her feelings was related to the knowledge that she wanted to stay away from the desolation that her mother had experienced.

GH: This comes up several times in the book, where one or another character--particularly the narrator Hong--refers to passion as being something dark or a darkness...I felt like I was missing something because I am not very knowledgable about the culture, perhaps. Why is it dark to be passionate, to be madly in love with somebody?

Lan Samantha Chang: From a cultural standpoint, if the culture requires a certain kind of behavior, i.e. that you be a loyal wife in an arranged marriage and give birth to a son, and that you serve your mother-in-law and sort of be less of a person, then having strong passions and desires and a strong will is a bad idea. In any case, in this particular family it is a bad idea. It has caused Chanyi to give up on her life--which happens early in the book as you mentioned--and her offspring are aware of that and it is dark to them. The passion that she felt for her husband and that possessiveness was dark. It wasn't a good thing, it was something to stay away from. And yet of course, it is very difficult to stay away from passion, especially if you come from a very passionate family.

GH: So there is an obvious conflict.

Lan Samantha Chang: Yes.

GH: There is a part in the book when Hong is longing to see her father again, when they are separated--she is in Taiwan and he is stuck on the mainland. She says at one point that "it shamed me" how much she wanted to see her father, when she was a teenager. So is that another side of that conflict, a feeling of shame, a longing to connect with the father?

Lan Samantha Chang: Sure. Part of the reason she feels shame is that her mother feels shame over their relationship. Because the mother feels betrayed by the father.

GH: And is not able to forgive.

Lan Samantha Chang: Right. Junan feels betrayed; she cannot get over it. She is angry at him, and the daughter is excited to see him. And the daughter feels guilty about this, because she should be loyal to the mother. It is like any family in which the parents are separated; the child is living with one parent and wants to see the other, even though she knows that the parent she is living with is hurt or estranged. It's a tricky situation to be in.

GH: And Hong uses a word to describe her father: He has something called "qi".

Lan Samantha Chang: Qi, yes. It is usually spelled "ch'i".

GH: So she has a sort of idealized vision of him.

Lan Samantha Chang: He is strength, masculinity, he is going to come and save her.

GH: He will protect her

Lan Samantha Chang: Yes, he is handsome and charismatic. He will make things OK.

GH: So he becomes kind of an archetype of men who were to a certain extent broken by the war. Right?

Lan Samantha Chang: Not just broken by the war, but broken by the forces of history that are beyond their control. Broken by the brutal and complex history of 20th century China. I think many people's lives were broken--not simply by the war with Japan, but afterward when the Comunists took over China. Many people's idealism was dashed by the history of what happened under Communist rule.

For example, we have seen many memoirs of people who went out to the countryside filled with idealism and came back broken in many ways.

GH: Disillusioned.

Lan Samantha Chang: Yes, disillusioned.

GH: Do they still have arranged marriages in China?

Lan Samantha Chang: No, not in the cities. I suppose there are still a few. But I think that practice is ending.

GH: Because in the book, when Junan gets married and Yinan does not have a relationship at all, Junan almost becomes like a parent. Replacing the mother?

Lan Samantha Chang: She has been like the mother ever since the mother died. I mean, she has replaced her mother for her younger sister ever since the mother died.

GH: And she assumes that her sister is going to have an arranged marriage. She just rules out love.

Lan Samantha Chang: She does. She thinks Yinan will have bad taste. She doesn't trust Yinan. She thinks she will end up falling in love with somebody totally impractical, because Yinan is such a space cadet and such a romantic. And she wants to make sure that Yinan is going to be safe.

GH: What made you select the Bay Area, where part of the family ends up?

Lan Samantha Chang: Well, I lived in the Bay Area for almost six years. And I started writing the book when I was living in the Bay Area. The whole first draft was written in the Bay Area, and a lot of the research was conducted while I was living in the Bay Area. I was in Palo Alto and Menlo Park when I was involved in the Stanford creative writing program, and I think the experience just imprinted itself on me. It was a very important time in my life.

GH: I am sure you travelled to China at least a little.

Lan Samantha Chang: I did. I did travel to China a couple of times. And went sort of naive in high hopes that I would be able to find the place that my parents had told me about in their recollections of China. But by the time I got there, of course, the country had changed enormously from when my parents had been there.

It had been under many years of Communist rule, under a different government. People's minds had been sort of convinced, religions had been repressed, town walls had been raised, documents had been destroyed. It was another country.

It is still a very forward-looking country--an enthusiastic, modernizing country. The country that my parents remember so much was in many ways gone. And so it was when I saw this that I realized that in some ways I had been liberated by this modernization--and that I would be able to use my imagination fully.

It is true that I did an enormous amount of research for the book. But I did not sit around and worry that I had to get everything exactly the way it was. Because that time had passed; nobody could say for certain how things had been anymore. I could talk to people about it and get their experiences, but I did not have to stick to any one person's experience. I think if I had been able to find that other China, I might have written a memoir. But as it was, I was able to write a piece of fiction--which is good, because that had been my intention.

GH: So you were able to find people who had lived during the war and remembered it, and remembered the revolution afterwards?

Lan Samantha Chang:
I did.

GH: That must have been a powerful thing, to listen to what people remembered.

Lan Samantha Chang: Yes, it was. The most powerful experience about going back to China was meeting my father's family. I got to meet two of his sisters, and I got to meet some cousins that I had never met. So that was very important.

GH: In the book there is a scene like that. I got the feeling that in the book the people connect even though they are from different worlds.

Lan Samantha Chang: Absolutely, I felt something in common with my father's family, even though I had never met them before and we grew up in such different parts of the world.

GH: Well, we talked about "qi" before, but here is a quote from the book [describing Hong's father]: "Pure qi poised to leave the ground." What does that mean?

Lan Samantha Chang: When I think of qi, it is the element of air. So somehow he is light, really light-footed. He is bouyant. There is something about him that can almost take flight.