Family Stories and Folklore Inspire Janie Chang’s Dragon Springs Road
Set in Shanghai in the early decades of the 20th century, Dragon Springs Road is a captivating novel about a Eurasian girl’s journey for identity and self-acceptance in a society rooted in traditional values. In 1908 Jialing is seven years old when she is abandoned by her mother in a once-opulent estate near Shanghai. Relying on the new estate’s owners to employ her as a bondservant, Jialing befriends their daughter, Anjuin, as well as Fox, an animal spirit who has lived in the house for centuries.
Chang’s family stories inspired her to write about this period in Chinese history. ‘My parents used to tell me about their childhood, their lives as refugees during the Japanese occupation of China, and the dynamics within a traditional family. There’s so much material there, how can any historical novelist resist? The early years of the 20th century were so traumatic for China, and if fiction requires conflict, this era delivers by the ton.’
Jialing faces the triple discrimination of being a girl, an orphan and Eurasian. In pre-war China Shanghai was divided into foreign concessions and Chang’s research brought to light the intolerance Eurasians faced in both Chinese and foreign circles. ‘The plight of Eurasian orphans was the most difficult part to research. I was able to find documentation about wealthy Chinese Eurasians, but practically nothing about the poor and the orphaned. The lower-class Eurasians were unacknowledged and unwanted, swept under the historical carpet so to speak. Then a friend suggested looking at the memoirs and journals of missionary women – the ones who ran orphanages and schools. That helped a lot, but even then, it was just snippets of information you had to piece together and the picture was not very pretty.’
The details of Chang’s family stories add intimacy and insight to the characters but what makes her novel unique is the inclusion of a supernatural element—the folklore of the Fox spirit—to guide Jialing along her journey. Fox, like Jialing, is different, ‘being neither fully animal, human or deity.’ Chang initially chose Fox for this reason and as she dug into the research she became even more convinced that a Fox spirit belonged in the story.
‘3,000 years ago, Chinese considered Fox spirits wise sages. Legends spoke of them as counselors to ancient rulers. But somewhere along the centuries Fox spirits were demoted, considered suitable for worship only by the marginalized – meaning women, the poor, prostitutes and actors, the abandoned. Thus even more perfect as a guardian for my little Eurasian orphan. But I also wanted to return some of that original dignity to Fox. In Dragon Springs Road she’s loyal, she keeps her promises, and she also has her own agenda, which is motivated by love.’
Chang’s narrative deftly weaves the world of pre-war Shanghai with that of fox spirits. She likes fictionalizing real events from the period. ‘The assassination of a businessman, which takes place in the background of the novel, but which has repercussions for Jialing, is based on the assassination of a young politician of the time, whose popularity threatened the opposition.’ And she says what gave her ‘permission to write Fox so integrally into the story was a biography called Four Sisters of Hofei, where the sisters’ aunt remarks about living next door to a family of Fox spirits, and that one of the Foxes became quite a good friend. It was all so matter-of-fact and quotidian. Plus, when you’re Chinese you grow up with Fox tales, the way the Irish know about leprechauns.’
The novel’s lyrical descriptions of the courtyards and gardens where Jialing and Fox spend much of their time are a joy to read and provide the reader with another angle into the characters. ‘Courtyards and their gardens were where most upper-class Chinese women lived out their days. Such were the limitations imposed on them by tradition. The courtyard was as restrictive for them as life’s options were for Jialing. Chinese gardens are designed to evoke nature, but in a very representative and tame way. An interesting rock stands in for a mountain range, or a few bamboos for an entire forest. To create the illusion of space, paths wind between shrubs or an ornamental moon gate blocks a view, so that you never see the entire garden all at once. It really is the art of ‘the unreal in the real, and the real in the unreal’. For me this is Fox’s domain.’
Readers who enjoy Dragon Springs Road and would like to spend more time with one of these characters can turn to Chang’s first novel, Three Souls, where Anjuin appears as Stepmother. ‘Stepmother in Three Souls was very popular with readers. I got so much feedback about her character. When I mapped out those pesky timelines for Dragon Springs Road and found it was quite feasible to write in a young Anjuin, I did it. I wanted to offer some clues about her early life – why she was so astute about politics, family finances, and also open-minded for a woman in her position.’
Chang’s current work-in-progress is also set in pre-war China. ‘There’s still a lot of material to mine from family stories and I’m very excited about this one, which features an episode in Chinese history that’s not very well-known outside of China. Or even within China, unless a family member lived the experience. And yes, there’s a supernatural twist to the story. I can’t help it.’
About the contributor: Cynthia Anderson is writing a novel, Beyond the Steppes, based on the extraordinary life of the Mongol princess who becomes the power behind the throne of the first three emperors of the Qing dynasty. You can find out more about her here.