Stepping Outside Your Box: Writing about a culture different from your own

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by Parker J. Cole

My newest release is called A Bride for Wen Hui. It’s my take and understanding of Chinese culture in the last dynastic rule before the People’s Republic of China came to be. It is during a turbulent time in Chinese history as China began to lose itself to Western powers (U. S., Russia, France, U. K.) and to an old frenemy (Japan).  The dynastic rule of the Qing dynasty, during the 19th century, saw the rise of rebellions, particularly the horrible Taiping Rebellion, which took millions of lives. Natural disasters that destroyed the livelihood of the small farmer, urban overpopulation, wars with foreign powers, and much more upheaval.  

Thoughts about status were being challenged as what went on before could not continue.  

When I thought about writing this book, I didn’t really appreciate the effort it would take to come out of my own understanding of my culture and its worldview to look into another’s. Plus, China has long, and expansive recorded history, dating back thousands of years. Trying to narrow down the culture in a few pages would be extremely difficult but makes for some fascinating reading. 

I narrowed my focus on the women of ancient and imperial China and how their role was understood. My main character, the heroine Li Yuping, is the eldest daughter of a polygamous household. Her father is a man of means, an ambassador with three wives. 

My hero is Chen Wen Hui who is the second son of a silk merchant.  

Chinese cultural aspect of gender and family was heavily influenced by Confucius, a philosopher of ancient China who had the most lasting and devastating impact on China and on Asia itself, reaching over to Korea and Vietnam. As I read about some of his words and sayings, and then saw, through the lens of history, how it impacted an entire country, I thought, “Wow, this man screwed up a lot of people’s lives.” 

You may be surprised to hear me say that because most Westerns have a skewed view of China through media tropes – kung fu movies mostly, with stereotypical roles about Chinese throughout the years in the West. But the man really did. From I could tell, he focused a lot on virtue and his understanding of virtue. It sounds nice but Confucius probably (and let me be clear, I’m not saying I know for sure) had not grasped how sin makes mincemeat out of our own efforts of goodness.  

Confucius advocated familial piety—the idea of extreme loyalty to family. As it related to women, it came down to the Three Obediences: obedience to your father; obedience to your husband, obedience to your sons. Women in China were seen as nonentities. Their place only made better by the shadow of a man.  

I can’t help but think of how Christ said to one disciple, who wanted to follow him after his father died said, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.” (Matthew 8) A direct contradiction to familial piety. Even another time, Jesus said in Luke 12, “Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. 

Family is extremely important but Christ is more and who we are in Him. It’s no wonder that as the Chinese government of today tries to suppress religious freedom in China that Christianity in the underground church is exploding. I believe God is using the persecution of Chinese Christians to send them back here to the West to invigorate a numb church. We could certainly use it.  

I went off topic there as I do tend to ramble a bit. Reeling it back in. 

You can’t talk about China without discussing foot-binding so I explore that as well. Every time I looked at the pictures, I can’t fathom how someone could tell generations of women to do this in order to get married or have status or be beautiful. All three even. Yikes, right?  But even within the culture, there were protests against it as I saw in my research. 

Writing outside of your culture can be a bit unnerving. You hope you get it right or that you accurately depict it to the best of your ability. I had practical help from friends both Chinese and non who understood the culture and helped me out. Plus, hours of reading and looking up information.  So here I am, an African American writing about Chinese culture during a time where our countries are at odds…just as they were back in the 19th century. 

Yeah, that’s me all right. 

I encourage any author out there to step outside your box and write at least one book, one poem, one piece about a culture different from your own. It helps in so many ways If you make a mistake, as I am sure I did, at least I did the very best I could. 

Which is all any of us can do, I suppose. 

 Book blurb:

A Bride for Wen Hui

Chen Wen Hui has spent the last six years working hard to become a man of means in order to gain the one woman he has ever loved to be his wife. He is close to succeeding when his business partner charges him to become a proxy husband to the very woman he loves.  

Li Yuping grudgingly accepts her fate that she will marry by proxy a man she has never met until she sees that the proxy husband sent in his stead is none other than the childhood friend she once cared for.  

Will Wen Hui fulfill his duty? Or will he take matters into his own hands and claim the woman who he has always longed for himself? 

About the Author:

Parker J. ColeParker J. Cole is a writer and radio show host who spends most of her time reading, knitting, writing, cooking, and concocting new ideas for stories. Her first novel, Dark Cherub, won Best of Spring Reading 2013 from eMediaCampaigns. She lives in Michigan with her husband and beloved dog Sarah.

Visit her site at http://www.ParkerJCole.com

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1 Comment

  1. Very interesting. A daunting mission to write not only about a different culture but a different time.

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