The Wedding Party, by Liu Xinwu

Wherever you are, weddings are a big deal. Families pull out all the stops to keep up appearances (and mostly within the constraints of their budget). The bride and groom are feted with good food and gifts. Guests, too, partake in the bounty so that they can spread the word about what a good time was had by all. And I imagine that, once it’s all over, the hosts breathe out a huge sigh of relief. Given the cultural importance of such an event, it’s not surprising that Liu Xinwu uses a wedding in a cramped siheyuan in Beijing to not only explore the push and pull of wedding traditions in The Wedding Party, but also the tangled relationships of the siheyuan‘s inhabitants, friends, relatives, and coworkers. This brilliant novel—excellently translated by Jeremy Tiang—is a whole world in 400 pages.

In a siheyuan shared by (as far as I can tell) at least six families located near the landmark Drum and Bell Towers, Auntie Xue and her husband are hosting the wedding of their youngest son. They’ve hired a promising young chef to prepare a series of dishes for the wedding banquet. (The food in this novel is briskly described in a way that, nonetheless, made my mouth water.) They invite several of the neighbors, a manager or two, and the bride’s Seventh Aunt (there to make sure that the bride will be treated well in the Xue household). Over the course of one day, Auntie Xue sweats bullets trying to make sure that everything goes according to plan and that Seventh Aunt can bring a good report back to the bride’s family. This means that she has to downplay the drunken boisterousness of a family acquaintance, content with Seventh Aunt’s nitpicking, assuage the bride’s materialism, explain away the chef’s secrets—until it all blows up near the end of The Wedding Party.

From this event, plots spiral out as the narrator’s perspective introduces us to a huge cast of characters. Nearly every chapter is like a novel itself in that Liu gives us character studies, backstories, and a lot of post-Liberation* Chinese history up through 1982 (when the novel is set). I had to take my time with this book because it is dense. This is not a complaint. I was absolutely fascinated by Liu’s history and character studies. The Wedding Party is a slice-of-life novel that definitely lives up to the metaphor. As each chapter spotlights a different character, we get to see what motivates them and how they intersect with the Xue wedding. We also see how many of them live in their rooms at the siheyuan: whether they have to stretch every coin until it screams or if they’re well off, whether they long for the old days or if they’ve embraced Western fashions, their struggles at work or in their love lives, their hobbies, and so much more.

I’ve read a few books about life in China, past and present, but many of them are set during the deadliest times in the country’s history. These stories need to be told, of course, but The Wedding Party—set almost a decade after the end of the Cultural Revolution—takes place during a relatively peaceful time and the plot can therefore focus on daily life without the threat of death or denunciation. I highly recommend this book to readers who like fiction with heavy dollops of history and culture, or who want to see a day in the life of ordinary Chinese people.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

*I’m using the language used by the characters. Others might have a different name for the end of the Chinese Civil War.

The entrance to a siheyuan, off of a hutong in Beijing (Image via Wikicommons)

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