Tuesday 22 October 2013

Somerset Maugham’s China: The Painted Veil

Shanghai's French Concession in the '30s. A clash of West and East.
The regularity of my posts on this blog has been a little out of whack in recent months. I have an excuse, and it’s a fairly good one.

After 26 years of living in the British Isles, travelling around intermittently but always impelled back to the UK by that centrifugal force of home, I decided to up sticks and move away. A long way away, it turns out; to China.

But this blog is not about me, it is about literature, and so I will shut up about myself and get to the point. Finding myself in China with limited reading material, I decided to re-read a novel that had had a profound effect on me when I initially read it last year: "The Painted Veil" by W. Somerset Maugham.

Maugham’s novel, published in 1925, deals with the events and repercussions of socialite Kitty Fane’s affair with colonial administrator Charles Townsend. When Kitty’s husband – Walter, an eminent bacteriologist – discovers the affair, the acrimonious couple leave the comparative safety of the European enclave of Hong Kong for the Chinese interior, moving right into the heart of a cholera epidemic in the fictitious village of Mei-tan Fu.

On reading the novel back in England, I found that it posed some interesting questions about nationhood and race, two themes that I covered to an extent in an earlier post. Maugham paints a picture of Hong Kong at the tail end of the colonial era as a sort of transplanted European city, full of the sorts of functions, social activities and airs and graces that would not be out of place in Tolstoy’s imperial ballrooms, or Austen’s Netherfield Park.

However it becomes a sort of community in limbo, existing neither truly in China or in Europe, and is held together by arbitrary associations such as geographical origin and class. This is highlighted by an assumption at the heart of the book’s narrative; the assumption that Walter will never bring a scandal upon himself by confronting the socially superior Charles over the affair.

This anachronistic social naivety backfires on Charles and Kitty, when the relatively lowly Walter plays the hand that he is dealt. As Maugham was putting pen to paper, the Chinese Communist Party, recently formed by Li Dazhao and Chen Duxio in Shanghai, was entering into an uneasy alliance with the ruling Kuomintang party. The red flag was already flying high in parts of China following bloody strikes in Beijing and Hunan, and the stage was being set for the bitter struggle between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao’s Communists.

Intentional or not, Maugham’s foreshadowing of the political tumult unfolding across China is one of the things that makes the work so compelling. Charles and Kitty make their moves in a feudal chess game of class-posturing and chivalric-maneuvering. It backfires and they fail. Karl Marx would have been proud. If only Walter had been a brickie.    

The awkward nature of Hong Kong in the 1920s is highlighted when the narrative shifts beyond the walls of the citadel to the beleaguered village of Mei-tan Fu on the Chinese mainland. Maugham paints Hong Kong’s decadent grandeur as archaic and inflexible, an anachronism in a world that is rapidly consigning its colonial past to history. However, once we slip outside these walls, the voice changes.

Here Maugham shows his readers a China in transition, displaying the effects of the political unease and turmoil that was gripping the country at that time, and would continue to do so for much of the 20th Century.

While Maugham put the finishing touches on “The Painted Veil”, Sun Yat Sen, the father of modern China was gradually succumbing to the cancer that would kill him shortly before the book’s publication in the UK. Meanwhile, his successor – China’s future Generallissimo, Chiang Kai Shek – was waiting in the wings, preparing to remodel the Kuomintang around his own ideas.

Nationalist fervour was rising in China at that time, largely unbeknownst to the Western Emigres in the ivory tower of Hong Kong. The violent scenes depicted later in the book illustrate this, helping to contextualise the position of the Fanes as two people in isolation, adrift in a world that seems all too ready to reject or harm them.

However, the book is far more than mere period drama concerned with intrigue at court. The themes of isolation, of nationhood, of moral and political ideology, and of sacrificing oneself for ones beliefs still ring true today. I sat down to re-read "The Painted Veil" out of necessity; I finished it for different reasons.

Wherever you find yourself, however far you are from home, Maugham’s 1925 work is certainly worth delving into.

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