Fenghuang has a male part, Feng (yang), and a female part, Huang (yin) in accordance with the Taoist philosophy of balance. These conceptual halves are deftly though subtly represented in John Sinclair’s first novel The Phoenix Song by the characters Lu Feng and Madame Huang. Other rich Fenghuang symbolism underpins the various important dualities explored in Sinclair’s novel – including the idea that the phoenix will only appear when goodness and nobility reign.
The Phoenix Song, was ‘conceived’ in 1995 in China. The resulting work is a dense and fascinating account of a selection of the main events surrounding the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949. The various historically factual events provide background and context for this story about the life and times of fictional Chinese violinist Xiao Magou. Xiao gains significance to the Chinese Communist Party as an example of artistic accomplishment. Then at the height of her abilities she defects to the West, settling in Wellington, New Zealand.
The narrative is based in Xiao’s early life (surnames come first in Chinese, but I’ll call her Xiao). She was born in the early 1940s at the time of the second Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945), and grew up during the Communist regime of Mao Zedong (1949-1976).
In the first few chapters it appears that Xiao’s father Lu Feng, aka ‘Iron Lu’, might be the protagonist; the story opens with Xiao discussing him and goes on in the next chapter to depict him as a young member of the communist underground in 1937 narrowly escaping the ‘agents of the (Japanese) puppet government’. Lu was responsible for control and order in the Northeastern city of Harbin during and after the war. He is paradoxical going off on his bike to sign death warrants by day, transforming into a gentle storytelling teacher of music theory to his daughter by night. The story advances through many other revelations about Lu Feng, narrated dispassionately by Xiao.
It also seems possible
The formative influences on Xiao are dualistic: there are her parents with whom she has a tender yet aloof relationship; and there are
Approximately the first half of The Phoenix Song is distinctly ‘Chinese’ in tone. Xiao is like a meticulous if subjugated recording device through which we see and hear her fascinating environment. But there are also some lovely early vignettes that provide hope for a wittier and more relational Xiao to eventually emerge, as per her description of her ‘aunt’ Piroshka: ‘What distinguished her was her face, severe and forbidding like an actor in heavy stage-makeup, a fortress atop the rounded escarpment of her bosom, with brows like a high parapet, dark eyes sunk into their orbits like gun emplacements, and an assembly of cheekbones, nose and chin like angled plates of welded metal.’ And the book gradually becomes more ‘Russian’ as the narrative device is turned on Xiao who eventually, thankfully, takes on a more distinct though always ephemeral flesh and blood character.
Sinclair has invested each of his characters with an ‘other’; (Feng and Huang, father and mother, teacher and student, East and West, Yin and Yang) This follows Communist Party ideals that indicate the simultaneity of harmony and disharmony: which is how the devoted purist Lu Feng can be both the murderous ‘Iron Lu’, and a dedicated parent to his daughter. There is also the conniving and bossy yet ‘motherly’ Madame Huang at the Conservatory. The names Feng and Huang would suggest that the author intends them to be archetypes, and necessarily ‘dual’.
Xiao is carried through her early life by the intensity of the China around her. She is shepherded by situation into a smothering but privileged life of very few options. It is important to note that the blankness of her character makes an essential narrative point about the nullifying effect of external pressures. It is also important to understand that, as Xiao ages, she discovers her voice and opinions in conjunction with becoming impressed by the expressive ways of the Russians — who have passion, individuality and the mental liberty to express fear and doubt. Xiao’s parents never even seemed to want those things…
At the Shanghai Conservatory Madame Huang orders Xiao to crawl nightly into the fire escape to eavesdrop on the political and other conversations of her Russian teachers. It is while lying there, smelling the strong Russian cigarettes and hearing their lovemaking that Xiao is exposed to a different way of living and thinking, and the seeds of change begin
The Conservatory is required to contribute to Mao’s Great Leap Forward by devising an enormous amount of ‘new’ Chinese music very quickly. “I suggest we take a mathematical approach”, says Xiao (sounding like her father’s daughter), whereupon she turns a Brahms score upside down and alters a few notes. J.S. Bach pioneered this technique, she claims… But we could safely assume that fiddling with great European scores for the purpose of generating a
And Xiao is sent around the world in a bid to promote Chinese excellence by outperforming Western musicians. She is entered in many international competitions, amongst which comes the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Xiao returns ‘home’ (compulsorily) to perform at the celebrations on September 30th 1959 in Beijing in the hallowed presence of both Mao Zedong and Nikita Khrushchev – recently returned from the USA and still smarting from having been barred from Disneyland! And in a bid to publically beat the west with their own stick, the Chinese perform Dmitri Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto backwards with some notes altered, claiming it is by a famous Chinese composer.
This ‘shafting’ reveals a great deal about the ruthless middle kingdom mentality in China at that time. It also indicates how confused Xiao was at a time so close to the moment of her defection. Shostakovich was a friend of Xiao’s dear friends Kasimir and Piroshka, and Xiao’s one-time tutor the esteemed violinist David Oistrakh (1908 – 1974) was friends with the composer too. Oistrakh gifted Xiao a violin that Shostakovich himself once owned. And Xiao was well acquainted with Shostakovich’s son Maxim, a violinist whom she met on the concert circuit. All this and yet she found herself tacitly condoning the aberration of European music, even the music of Shostakovich, to suit an agenda that was never her own.
Not only were the Chinese ‘sticking it’ to the Russians at a highly nationalistic time, they were mocking Shostakovich, who had been forced to keep writing ‘acceptable’ Russian music under Stalin’s regime while burying the true meaning of his music within the subtleties of its form. One might hope that when Xiao is ensconced at the Conservatory in Paris during the 1960s that she might find happiness, but after six years there, she is ordered to return home. She is told that this is because she ‘knows things’ and is ‘in deep’ with information of interest to the West and that the Chinese want to keep a closer eye on her. It is after a performance back in China that Xiao finally acts: at the end of the performance she simply walks out of the building and curiously, is not brought back. She defects shortly after and goes into exile in New Zealand of all places.
The Phoenix Song is a fascinating history lesson that neatly blends fact and fiction. It is a lucid and succinct depiction of mid-century China and its relationship to Russia and the ‘West’. It conveys ‘myriad’ pieces of fascinating information: amongst which are tidbits like the Greek word ‘myriad’, having Chinese etymology and equaling 10,000; and the awful facts about notorious Unit 731 where the Japanese tortured Chinese prisoners of war; and that Mao spoke in a broad dialect that many Chinese couldn’t understand; and the unsavoury news that he had halitosis—which is terrific whether true or not, as is the ridiculous ‘anti-Debussy’ campaign at the Shanghai Conservatory. ‘Khrushchev at Disneyland’ is a Googled fact. Confucius’ genius is apparently gospel…
Sinclair’s novel builds a connection with a committed reader by gradually revealing a richly convincing yet never judgmental point of view about artistic and human repression and overcoming. The chronology is not seamless, and the few mentions of New Zealand stand out incongruously but it is possible, even probable, that Xiao Magou’s flight from the Communist and crowded East down to this sparsely-populated out-post of the Capitalist West is yet another example of the theme of dualism that is so thoroughly explored in this elegant novel.
TASHA HAINES has a Master of Fine Arts in Fine Arts from Elam at the University of Auckland. Formerly a lecturer in fine arts and design in Melbourne, she is now a writer, reviewer and tutor living in Wellington.