Tuesday, May 26, 2009

San Mao Translation - The Child Bride

This blog is on the wrong side of the Great Firewall of China, which prevents me from doing my normal updates. While I can't post pictures, I have set things up to allow me to send text-only updates. So let me take the opportunity to turn this blog into a text-based one, until either I set up a new server or blogspot is unblocked...

This is a translation I made a few weeks ago, just for fun. It's a short story by San Mao, from her autobiographical collection Tales of the Sahara. San Mao was a Taiwanese author and remains one of the most popular authors in China, but hasn't been translated into English. I think this story is interesting, although as fair warning it's a straightforward discussion of the story title, and can get ugly. Some more information on the author can be found at Wikipedia:


Additionally, San Mao's nom de plum was taken from a pre-Communist comic that I've blogged about before:


The Child Bride
By: San Mao
Translation by: Jeff Rutsch, jeff oaktowncrack com

I first met Guka around this time last year, she and her family lived in a big house near my small apartment. She's the oldest daughter of Fudi, a police officer. At the time, Guka was combing her thick hair, and wearing a long flowing African dress. She was barefoot, without a veil or burka. Outside of my room she'd often call out to her goats, with her clear and lively voice. She seemed like a happy little girl.

Later she would come to study with me. When I asked her how old she was, she told me "You have to ask Fudi, us Desert Women don't know how old we are." She and her brothers and sisters never called Fudi 'father,' they simply called him by name. Fudi told me she was ten, asking me at the same time "You're also ten-something years old? You and Guka get along so well." I couldn't answer this absurd question, I just forced myself to smile.

Over the next six months I became close friends with Fudi's family, and nearly every day we'd drink tea together. One day I was drinking tea with Fudi and his wife, Gebai. Fudi suddenly declared: "Our daughter will get married soon. Please tell her, when you can spare the time." I swallowed my tea, and with difficulty asked, "You mean Guka?" He said "Yes, ten day after Ramadan she'll get married." Ramadan is Islam's Holy Month, and it was just about to begin.

I drank some tea silently, and then couldn't help but ask "Don't you think Guka is still too young? She's only ten." Fudi very casually said "Too young? My wife was married to me when she was only eight." I remembered that this was Saharan Desert custom, I shouldn't be too judgmental and criticize this sort of thing, so I didn't say anything. "Please tell this to Guka, she still doesn't know," Guka's mother requested of me. "Why don't you tell her?" I asked them, amazed. "This sort of thing shouldn't be too direct," Fudi condescendingly answered me. I think the two of them can be very pedantic.

The next day after math class, I told Guka to stay behind, and to light a charcoal fire to boil some tea. "Guka, this time it's your turn," I told her, at the same time as I handed her some tea. "What?" she asked. She didn't understand me. "Silly girl, you're getting married," I told her, directly. She was obviously surprised, her face flashed red, and with a small voice she asked "When?" I told her "Ten days after Ramadan, do you know with whom it might be?" She shook her head, put down her teacup, and said nothing. That was the first time I had ever seen her look worried.

A few days passed, and as I was buying a few things in town, I ran into Guka's older brother and another youth. He introduced me, "Abudi is a policeman, working under Fudi. He's my friend, and he's also going to be Guka's husband." When I heard that this was Guka's future husband, I looked him over. Abudi wasn't too dark, he was very tall and handsome, he spoke politely, his gaze was gentle, and he gave a very good first impression. When I got back I searched out Guka, and told her "Don't worry! Your future husband is Abudi, he's very young and attractive, not rough or crude. Fudi chose well for you." Guka heard what I said and lowered her head shyly, but from the look in her eyes, it seemed she had already accepted that the marriage was going to happen.

According to Saharan Desert custom, the dowry when a daughter married was a huge transaction. Before there was no coinage in the desert, so the bride's family expected flocks of sheep, camels, rolls of cloth, slaves, flour, sugar, tea, and those sorts of things. Now it's civilized some, and while they still maintain the same basic concept, money has become the replacement. The day Guka's dowry came, my husband Hexi was invited to go out and drink tea - I'm a woman, so I stayed at home. In less than an hour, Hexi came back and told me "Abudi gave Fudi two hundred thousand Spanish pesos. I didn't think Guka was worth so much money!" (Two hundred thousand pesos was worth more than one hundred thirty thousand Taiwan Dollars.) "That's simply human trafficking!" I stated flatly, at the same time in my heart I was a little jealous of Guka - when I got married, my parents didn't receive a single lamb.

During this month, Guka's clothing changed. Fudi bought many new clothes for her, not in black but a drab blue. Because the clothes were dyed so poorly, the color all came off onto her skin. Guka used these deep blue clothes to wrap herself entirely in blue, it had an other-worldly atmosphere. Although she was still barefoot, she had a pair of gold and silver anklets. She started to do up her hair, and she used a pungent home-made perfume, to muddle the scent from not bathing throughout the year – it all made her seem like a Woman of the Sahara Desert.

On the last day of Ramadan, Fudi took two of his sons to get circumcised, and of course I ran over to see what was happening - Guka was very rarely leaving the house. I went inside to have a look, but the carpets were still dirty, and the only things new were Guka's clothes. I asked her "After you get married, what will you take with you? There's no pan and there's no oven!" She said: "I won't leave, Fudi will still have me live here." I was surprised, and asked her "What about your husband?" She told me, "He'll also come to live here." I really was jealous of her. "How long can you live here?" I asked her. "The custom is, up to six years." No wonder Fudi wanted such a large dowry, the son-in-law would be living at their house!

The day before Guka was to get married, the bridegroom's side of the family came. I gave an imitation-jade bracelet to Guka as a gift, it was something she had always wanted from me. The evening before she was to get married, Guka's auntie came. She was a very old Saharan Desert Person, Guka sat before her and was made up for the wedding. Her hair was twisted into thirty or forty small braids, and on the top of her head was placed a small wig, a little similar to traditional Chinese palace maids. A small colored bead was attached to every braid, but there was no make-up for her face. When her hair was finished, Guka's mother brought in some new clothes. After putting the clothes on there were many fold and creases, and her mother just used a black cloth to tie it up. It made Guka's fat figure look even fatter. "So fat!" I gasped out loud. Her auntie answered me "Fat is beautiful, that's what we want." Wearing many clothes,
Guka quietly sat down. Her face was very beautiful, and the beads in her hair gave a brilliant color to the dark room.

"All right then, let's go!" Guka's auntie and other relatives took her outside. She would stay at her auntie's house for the night, and then return the next day. I suddenly thought of something - wow, Guka didn't take a bath, even for her wedding she still wouldn't bathe?

The date of the wedding, Fudi's house was a little different. The filthy grass mats were nowhere to be seen, the goats had been chased out, and there was a slaughtered camel by the front entrance. In the main hall was spread out a number of red Arabic carpets, and most interesting was that in the corner of the room was a big sheepskin drum, it looked like it was at least a hundred years old.

As dusk came, and the sun set below the horizon, the vast Saharan desert was dyed blood-red. The sound from the drum started. It sounded mysterious but monotonous, droning on loudly. Unless one knew in advance about this wedding ceremony, the mysterious rhythm would actually be somewhat scary. I put on my sweater as I walked over to Fudi's house, fantasizing that I was entering into 'A Tale of Arabian Nights.'

When I entered the house the ambience was terrible, inside the main hall sat a group of Saharan Desert People, all of them smoking. The air was disgusting. Abudi was pressed inside this group, if I hadn't seen him before I would have never known he was the bridegroom. In the corner of the room sat a woman who was as black as charcoal, she was the only woman to sit with the men. She didn't have a head covering, and over her shoulders was draped a black cloth. Her head was facing upwards, and she was absorbed in beating on the drum. She would often stand up and rock her body, and scream out in a high-pitched, primitive voice. It was reminiscent of an American Indian. She was the most remarkable person in the room. "Who is she?" I asked Guka's older brother. "She's a slave my grandmother borrowed from a village neighbor, she's famous for playing the drums." "She's really an amazing slave," I cried out in admiration.

At this time three old women came in to have a seat, and sang along to the beat. Their singing was in a drone and the melody sounded like crying. All the men started to clap along. Because I'm a woman, I could only look at this all from outside the window, all the younger women were pressed outside the window. Their faces were covered up, and only their beautiful eyes could be seen. Two hours quickly passed, the sky was already black, the sound of the drums was still the same, and the clapping was still to the same melody. I asked Guka's mother, "How long will this go on for?" She told me "It's still early. You should go get some sleep." I asked Guka's younger sister to come wake me before the bride was to be given away.

At three in the morning the desert is calm, but the cold makes people shiver. Guka's older brother and Hexi were in the alleyway outside, talking about cameras. I pulled on an overcoat and came outside, Guka's brother casually asked, "Oh, will she go too?" I immediately demanded I be allowed to go, and was finally allowed. Women never have any pull in these kind of situations.

The street that we lived on was covered in Jeeps, both new and old. Because we had some prestige amongst Fudi's friends and family, we were allowed in the car that went to go fetch the bride. This long line of cars drove around honking their horns, and the men would all yell out towards Guka's auntie's house.

It's said that in the past the custom was to ride a camel and fire a gun, then go into the tent to fetch the bride. In modern times, the Jeep has replaced the camel, and honking the horn has replaced firing off blanks, but all the loud noise and commotion is the same. The most infuriating thing about the custom was that as soon as Abudi got out of his car, a group of young people burst into Guka's room, and without even a greeting, seized her arm and dragged her outside. Everybody laughed, but Guka kept her head down and struggled against them. She's quite fat, so Abudi's friends also helped to pull her out. This made her start to cry. I didn't know if the tears were real or not, but looking at this rough gang of youth forcing her outside upset me greatly. I bit into my lip to look at this farce, it all made me so upset.

When Guka had been pulled past the door, she stretched out her hand at Abudi's face to scratch at it, leaving long lines of red blood. Abudi didn't back down, he grabbed her hand and twisted it away. Suddenly everything was silent, and only Guka's occasional gasps of tears unsettled the silence of the night.

As they fought, Guka was still being dragged to the side of the Jeep. I was so worried, I yelled at Guka in a loud voice: "Silly girl, get in the car, don't fight it!" Guka's older brother smiled and told me: "Don't worry, this is just the local custom. If there's no struggle, other people would laugh. This sort of scene is the mark of a good woman. If she didn't struggle, it would be like they weren't really getting married." I sighed. He continued.

"Later in the bridal chamber she'll have to cry out and scream. You'll see, it's remarkable." It really is remarkable, but I don't like this traditional style of marriage.

We finally returned to Guka's house, it was already five in the morning. Fudi had slinked off, but Guka's mother, siblings, and friends still hadn't gone to sleep yet. I sat with Guka's and Abudi's friends in the big hall, and started drinking tea and eating the camel meat. Guka had previously been sent to the small room off to the side, and was sitting there by herself.

After eating a little, the sound of the drum came again, and the male guests started clapping. I hadn't slept all night and was very tired, but I couldn't bring myself to leave. "San Mao, you go back home and sleep, later I'll come and get you," Hexi told me. I thought about it, but the wedding ceremony hadn't reached its peak yet, so I didn't go.

There was singing and clapping until the break of day. Then I saw Abudi stand up, and as soon as he got up, the drumming suddenly stopped. Everybody looked at him, and his friends started teasing him.

As we waited for Abudi to go to Guka's room, I started to worry and feel extremely uncomfortable. I thought back towards what Guka's brother had said, "In the bridal chamber she'll have to cry out and scream." I thought that all of us waiting outside, including me, were the worst sort of people, all letting this happen just because of the excuse of local customs.

Long after Abudi had pulled back the cloth covering to the door and entered her room, I was sitting and daydreaming, thinking we were in a different century. I then heard Guka yell "Ah!" and cry out in pain, afterward there was no sound at all. Although the custom is for the woman to shout out, this shout sounded painful, sounded real, sounded hopeless and sad. I sat quietly, and my eyes started to moisten. "Think about it, how is it possible for a ten year old girl to go through this, it's so cruel!" I told Hexi, angrily. He raised his head towards the ceiling, and didn't say anything. We were the only Spanish-speaking foreigners there.

When Abudi brought out the blood-stained sheets, his friends all started to yell out and celebrate, the sound was hard for me to reconcile. From their point of view, it was expected to violently take a woman's virginity by force, on the night of the marriage. I thought this perspective was sad and ridiculous, I stood up and walked out without even looking at them.

The marriage celebrations went on for six days, and every night starting at five guests would come to Fudi's house to eat and drink. People would sing and play the drums until past midnight.

Because every day was all the same, I didn't come again. On the final day, Fudi's other daughter came to speak to me, she asked me "Guka is looking for you, why haven't you visited?" I changed my clothes and went to see Guka.

For the celebrations, Guka was kept apart from the others, in the small room. Guests weren't allowed to see her, without exceptions, and only her husband could enter. But I was a foreigner, so when I went to Guka's house I ignored the custom, pulled back the curtain, and entered her room.

Inside, the room was very dark, and the air smelled rancid. Guka sat in the corner on a pile of mats. She was very glad to see me, she climbed up to me and kissed me on my cheeks, and told me "San Mao, you can't leave me." "I won't go" I told her, "Let me just go get some things for you to eat." I ran out and brought back some meat for her to chew on. "San Mao, do you think I'll have a child soon?" she asked me, in her clear voice.

I didn't know how to answer her, I saw that her previously plump face had become thin over these past five days, and her eyes had sunk. My heart shuddered, and I just looked at her stupidly.

"Can you give me some medicine? That sort of medicine where you won't have children?" She requested it in a hurried, quiet voice. I looked at her, and she was still that ten year old girl to me, with a ten year old girl's face.

"Yes, I'll give you some, don't worry, this will be a secret just between the two of us." I slapped the back of her hand. "Now go get some sleep, your wedding is over already."


gregarious monk said...

Been following your blog for a while, hope the Great Firewall of China doesn't prove to be a permanent obstacle.

Can you post your pics to Picasa and then write the links to them in the HTML editor?

avabelle said...

Thank you so much for posting this story. I cannot speak/read cantonese or mandarin, and I cannot find any translations of these stories anywhere. I've wanted to read them for a while, so thanks very much!

avabelle said...

Thank you so much for posting this story. I cannot speak/read cantonese or mandarin, and I cannot find any translations of these stories anywhere. I've wanted to read them for a while, so thanks very much!

Lorenxo said...

What a gripping story - thank you so much for translating it. My Chinese girlfriend has read all of San Mao and got me interested as well. This is the first time I've gotten the flavor of her writing. Do you plan to translate any more San Mao?