A single act of defiance from a daughter. An impulsive decision from a father, made in a burst of anger. A life changed forever. 

“There’s a scene in your story that’s unrealistic. The one where your main character’s marriage was arranged so quickly. In those days, matchmaking could take years, especially between old, wealthy families.”

This was the feedback from a family friend who read the manuscript for Three Souls during its early stages of editing. This friend grew up in a very traditional family and had majored in Chinese literature. If my novel’s depiction of Chinese family life in the years before World War II passed her critical judgement, I could breathe a sigh of relief.

Grandmother was married under such unusual circumstances that the story of her betrothal made its way into family legend—and into my novel.

However, the scene she had flagged as unrealistic was actually based on a true event. It is in fact almost a word-for-word retelling of how my grandmother became a bride. Grandmother was married under such unusual circumstances that the story of her betrothal made its way into family legend—and into my novel.

Grandmother was born into a wealthy, progressive, and well-educated family. At the turn of the century, when the Qing Dynasty was drawing its last gasps, the Qu clan began sending their sons to university in Japan and Europe, and their daughters to private girls’ schools in China. Grandmother possessed a keen mind, worked hard for her grades, and cherished a modest ambition to teach school one day. Her father, however, would not allow his clever daughter a career. It was not for lack of money or because the right sort of schools were not available; there were some very well-respected women’s universities in China she could’ve attended. Women of their family, he declared, did not work.

Determined to take control of her destiny even if it meant disobeying her father, Grandmother found a surprising ally when she confided in her own grandmother. The old woman gave her money for tuition and a train ticket. But in such a large household, secrets were impossible to hide. Grandmother made her escape but only got as far as the railway station before she was caught and dragged home. She had openly defied her father’s authority during a time when the family patriarch’s word was law.

Her punishment came a week later.

In a fit of anger, her father had arranged her marriage to the son of a man he had just met on a business trip. The wedding, which followed almost immediately, sealed her fate. She moved to the small town where her husband and his family lived, far away from her beloved sisters and the cultured sophistication of the Qu estate. It must have felt like live burial.

The Qu family was considered modern because their sons were educated to Western standards. But then as now, Western values were adopted unevenly, selectively and not at the same pace—especially for women. Thus Grandmother knew there was more to life than the closed-in world of courtyards, but she had to remain within that world. She may have seethed at this injustice, or perhaps her spirit was broken after the failure of her one rebellious act. Whatever her feelings, once she was married, Grandmother quietly slipped into the role she had been raised to perform: of dutiful wife, daughter-in-law and mother.  

When I began writing Three Souls, I knew it had to include this unwanted marriage and the circumstances leading up to it. The story refused to take shape until the day an image came to me: a young woman’s ghost perched in the roof beams of a small temple, looking down at her own funeral. I knew immediately this had to be the opening of the novel.

I also knew the ghost had to be the novel’s narrator because my grandmother’s sad story has haunted me since the day I first heard it. Furthermore, it felt right to make the protagonist a ghost who could not be seen or heard, unable to impact events in the real world. She was like all those generations of Chinese women who’d had to act behind the scenes, working indirectly to influence outcomes, nudging circumstances through undetected means to achieve their goals.

In life, my grandmother had no champions. With Three Souls, I wanted to give her some small token of recognition to acknowledge her talent and the difference she might have made, if not for an impulsive decision made in anger by an all-powerful parent.  

Canadian author Janie Chang was born in Taiwan and grew up in the Philippines, Iran and Thailand. She now lives in Vancouver with her husband. Three Souls, her debut novel, was based on her grandmother's life in 1930s China. Find out more on her website.

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