Genre of The Poison of Polygamy by Qiuping Lu

Genre of The Poison of Polygamy by Qiuping Lu
The Poison of Polygamy (Chinese title Duo qi du, shortened as PoP in the following) is a novel published in serial form in the Chinese newspaper The Chinese Times from 5th June 1909 to 10th December 1910. Kuo states that its publication date is between 8 June 1909 and 16 December 1910 (222), but my research indicates the first episode was published on 18 April 1909, and the last on 9 November 1910 (Chinese lunar year). Their corresponding Gregorian calendar dates are 5th June and 10th December. And instead of being published in 52 instalments as mentioned in previous studies (Ommundsen 4), there were actually 53 instalments. There are two episodes with the same number, 25, dated 6 November and 2 December 1909 in the Chinese lunar calendar; the corresponding dates in the Gregorian calendar are 18 December 1910 and 2 January 1911. The author uses an alias, Jiangxia Erlang.

Considered the first novel about Chinese-Australians to be published in a Chinese language newspaper (Kuo 223), Duo qi du has gained the attention of critics and translators. Huang and Ommundsen first translated its title from Chinese into English as PoP, and have considered the limited perspective of its writer (533–5444). Kuo has noted the novel’s emphasis on the value of kinship and brotherhood for Chinese immigrants, as well as its criticism of traditional Chinese values and manners. PoP is now being translated by Ely Finch, and the English version will be published by Sydney University Press next year. 

The novel is set in China and Australia, beginning between 1850 and 1860, during the Taiping Rebellion, an internal revolt that ran from 1850–64, and which posed a major threat to the Qing dynasty (Dillon 663), and ending between 1880 and 1890. The story is told by an omniscient narrator who interrupts the narrative from time to time, commenting on an event, criticizing a social problem, or initiating a dialogue with the reader. As the title suggests, the novel’s focus is on the harmfulness of polygamy. The central character, Shangkang, is described as having a pointed head like a falcon, indicating his crafty, treacherous character, and foreshadowing the evil he’ll engage in.

At the start of the novel, Shangkang lives in a village of Guangdong and is addicted to opium. He and his wife Ma have been married for three years and are childless. They’re very poor, and when his mother falls ill they’ve no money for a doctor. Ma pawns her clothes and personal possessions to pay for witches and wizards to perform rituals to cure the old lady. When these have no effect, she asks Shangkang to pawn her new padded cotton coat and send for a doctor. However, after taking the formula concocted by the doctor, Shangkang’s mother worsens and dies.

After the burial, life becomes harder for husband and wife. Despite the threat of starvation, Shangkang pawns everything he can get for opium, while Ma forages for wild plants to use as food. One day she stops him from trying to pawn a broken pot; she tells him her cousin has just come back from Australia with a lot of money. Her cousin, she explains, is kind and generous, and she asks Shangkang to seek his help. Shangkang goes and sure enough the cousin, Mr. Ma, gives him money; however Shangkang spends it on opium, leaving little to buy food. He lies to Ma, telling her the money was given him by an old friend. The next day, when Mr. Ma visits, Shangkang’s lie is revealed. Ma tells her cousin it’s difficult for Shangkang to make a living in the village as everybody knows he is dishonest and untrustworthy. Mr. Ma agrees to pay for Shangkang to go to Australia, on the condition he give up smoking opium, and becomes diligent and thrifty. Shangkang agrees, and receives enough money to prepare for his trip and buy food; he asks for, and is given, additional funds to buy medicine to quit smoking. But predictably, Shangkang immediately goes to the opium den.

Mr. Ma arranges Shangkang’s departure, and when the time arrives, Shangkang is ready. Ma is reluctant to let him go, afraid he’ll spend the money on concubines. Shangkang promises he won’t forget her hard work and the hardships they’ve endured. They bid a tearful farewell.

On the voyage, Shangkang experiences seasickness. Fortunately, his co-passenger — whose formal name is Huang Peng, though is better known in the text for his style name, Chengnan — is very kind and nurses Shangkang carefully. Another passenger named Binnan is from the same town as Chengnan. The three men bear the family name Huang, so are referred to as clansmen.

There are over seventy Chinese workers on the ship; it takes seventy six days to reach Australia. When they finally dock, one of them offers to be their guide as he knows the rough direction of the mine where they’ll seek work. They climb mountains and wade across fords, trekking through vast wilderness. They quickly run out of food, and suffer from hunger and thirst. Many die. Some are bitten by venomous insects; and they have to contend with wild animals, heavy rains, lack of shelter, and homesickness.

Resting one day in a wood, they’re attacked by four Aboriginal people. A white hunter named George appears and defends them, though one man is captured and taken away by the ‘savages’ (referred to as Heiman in the text). The men learn they’ve taken the wrong way to the mine, and are now very far from their destination. George leads them to a Chinese farmer nearby who owns a vegetable garden. The gardener, Chen Liang, provides them with sumptuous meals and a place to rest. He helps the men find jobs and settle into the community. 

Chen Liang invites the three Huangs to participate in a mining venture. Initially, he is reluctant to cooperate with Shangkang as he finds him wicked and unreliable; but Chengnan refuses to abandon Shangkang due to the bond that’s grown between them. For a time, their venture is prosperous; however a collapse in the mine results in the loss of their profit. They move to another mine and are prosperous again. Once they’ve earned a considerable amount of money, they plan to return home.

During Shangkang’s absence, Ma lives a miserable life of poverty and loneliness. Her mother attempts to persuade her to remarry as there’s been no message from Shangkang who might have died. Ma refuses, saying she would rather die if Shangkang has died, rather than marry another man.

When Shangkang returns to his wife after a separation of six years and sees how her youth and beauty has faded, he despises her. He considers buying a young and beautiful concubine; his indifference to Ma causes her deep pain. Shangkang resumes his opium habit and squanders his earnings, leaving no money for a concubine. They adopt a one year old baby son and name him Jinniu. Chengnan attends the celebration feast in Shangkang’s home and talks with Shangkang about going back to Australia. Shangkang immediately consents.

In Australia, Chengnan’s business prospers and he establishes several stores. He lets Shangkang manage one of his successful furniture manufacturing businesses, and Shangkang thinks again of getting a concubine. He learns that an eighteen year old slave girl named Qiaoxi has come to Australia for an arranged marriage, but refused to marry the man who she thinks is too old and ugly for her. Shangkang comes for a visit and is infatuated at the sight of Qiaoxi. He proposes through her chaperone Ma’am Lian. Qiaoxi agrees, not for his money, but because she believes she can take advantage of his seeming obtuseness and honesty.

After they are married, Qiaoxi meets often with her lover Shuangde while Shangkang works.  One day, when the two are having a tryst at home, Ma’am Lian drops by and the two lovers’ adultery is exposed. Shangkang is furious at being cuckolded, but uxorious and entirely under Qiaoxi’s sway, does nothing. Qiaoxi gives birth to two daughters and the four live extravagantly. Chengliang’s business is almost entirely ruined by Shangkang’s neglect. Shangkang and Chengliang return to China. Before they leave, Shangkang asks another clansman Rongguang to run the business, and instructs him to abscond afterwards with the remaining profits.

In China, Qiaoxi asks Shangkang to build a villa away from the neighbours and relatives with the embezzled money. Though Ma is heartbroken to see Shangkang break his promise and dote on Qiaoxi, she succumbs to her fate and to the feudal rules. She is tolerant of Qiaoxi. The latter is jealous, nevertheless, when Ma becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son. Out of malice, she poisons Ma and smothers the baby. When Shangkang learns of the deaths, he grieves and is sorry for Ma and the baby. When he questions Qiaoxi, she grabs him by the throat, strangling him. He dies soon after.

After Shangkang’s death, Qiaoxi becomes more unscrupulous and lives a lecherous life in the villa. One of her lovers is Jing. Jinniu is now twenty and married to a young woman, Li. Jing nearly rapes Li when Jinniu is out one night. Li tells Jinniu, and he avows to avenge her. Qiaoxi overhears this and plots with Jing to kill Jinniu. Their plan fails when Jinniu’s cries for help are heard by nearby villagers; and the townsfolk, as well as people in Jinniu’s old village, decide to aid him by getting rid of Qiaoxi. They finally decide the best way is by lynching, and throwing her into muddy water. They believe the officials who are only interested in accumulating wealth and amenable to bribes, are incapable of carrying out justice. In the end, Qiaoxi is cornered and jumps into a deep pool and is drowned, while Jing and his gangsters are at large.

The novel is eloquently written in classical Chinese. The language is beautiful; the descriptions of the natural world embody and enact the inner life of the characters. The historical and literary allusions are  pregnant with meaning. The plot is well-constructed; its social criticism is obvious — and this is related to its genre.

For Western readers and readers unfamiliar with Chinese literary history, PoP might be read as a picaresque novel, but its genre is ‘new fiction’, which has its origins in the magazine New Fictionestablished by Liang Qichao in Yokohama of Japan in 1902 (Zhang 86). This genre was made known to the Chinese-Australian literary circle after Liang’s visit to Australia in October 1900 and April 1901 (Kuo 96), followed by the circulation of his New Fiction. During Liang’s visit, the Tung Wah News (former name of the Tung Wah Times) published Liang’s collection of speeches and thoughts, and circulated it widely in the Chinese-Australian community (99). The Tung Wah Times was an agent for Liang’s literary journal New Fiction and shared his opinion of the social value of the novel, and argued that the novel and other new forms of literature had the power to reform society (157). The Chinese Times carried on the reformist ideas of the Tung Wah Times. It sympathized with Chinese revolutionaries and shared their anti-Manchu notions, which is reflected in the novel PoP, consistent with Liang’s ideas.  

A prototypal novel of new fiction is Liang’s The Future of New China (1902). Liang was the founder and initiator of this genre; he aimed to improve the old genres, which he felt had failed to help ameliorate social problems. New fiction was to undertake the important task of enlightening the people and promulgating new knowledge and learning (Wang 14). However, what Liang and the other innovators of this genre in Chinese literary history stress, is that new fiction is not the outward form of fiction, but involves a specific method of narration, and specific subject matter. It still preserves the serial or chapter form of traditional novels, and many novels of the new genre still adopt an omniscient narrator, but the narrative pivots around the revelation of social darkness, emphasising social reformation and praising innovation (Xia 11). As PoP does, it venerates the rationality of monogamy, and embodies the progressive ideas of the time. Here ‘chapter’ and ‘serial’ do not mean the same as our understanding of them today. The genre ‘chapter/serial novel’ comes from the story-telling script of the Song and Yuan dynasties. In Chinese serial/chapter novels, the chapter/serial is marked by a number, just as PoP is. ‘Serial’ or ‘chapter’ means ‘scene’, or ‘time’. In Song and Yuan, the stories were told by a story-teller instead of being read, as many common Chinese people were illiterate at that time. The script of a story was too long for the story-tellers to finish in one sitting, so they often ended one fragment with ‘if you want to know what happens afterwards, please listen to me next time’ to attract the attention of the engrossed audience (‘Serial/Chapter’ 10).  The length of each scene is nearly the same. Many chapter or serial novels have a title beside each number to summarize the main idea of a chapter, or rather, fragment. According to the contents, new fiction is divided into political fiction, social fiction, and historical fiction. PoP belongs to social fiction, that is, it criticises many social problems prevalent at the time.

Apart from its attack on the evil of polygamy (Serial 1 and Serial 37, the actual serial number of the latter should be 38), Pop is punctuated by the narrator’s criticism of superstition and opium-taking (Serial 1), of charlatanism (unqualified doctors) (Serial 3), the misogynous practice of foot binding (Serial 20) and lack of women’s right to an education (Serial 21). It follows the lead-in of Liang’s The Future of New China on the destructive force of polygamy, in which the narrator tells the tragic story of a man who practices polygamy, is bereaved of his wife and son, and then deprived of his own life — the concubine, in the end, receiving her due punishment. Ommundsen writes that ‘Horrible Poison’, a short story published in the Tung Wah Times, reflects the agenda of the Chinese Empire Reform Association, a movement dedicated to reforming the outdated and corrupt practices of China under Qing Dynasty (Ommundsen 4).  In this respect PoP resonates with ‘Horrible Poison’. The editor of the Chinese Times, Chang Luke was a former editor of the Tung Wah Times, and embraced the idea of the newspaper promoting social reform. Early issues covered the reform of education, feminism, and the anti-opium movement (Kuo 84). The Chinese Times shared the Tung Wah Timess purpose to increase revolutionary and anti-Manchu attitudes (118). The novel bristles with feminist ideas, and criticism of misogynous ideas and practices. At the same time, it is studded with the belittlement of women, the preference for submissive wives, and descriptions of female characters in pejorative terms, which warrants further study.

I am indebted to my supervisor and associate supervisor, Professor Wenche Ommundsen and Anne Collett, who have been very helpful in the proofreading of this paper. Professor Ommundsen  has offered advice on its revision. I also appreciate my Chinese supervisor Binzhong Zhu and Zhong Huang, my academic brother, as is called in China, for their help. I also want to express my heartfelt thanks to the librarian staff of UOW for obtaining the microfilm of The Chinese Times for me.

Chinese Times, The. 1909–1910. Melbourne: State Library of Victoria (microfilm).
Dillon, Michael. Encyclopedia of Chinese History. New York, NY: Routledge. 2016.
He, Manzi. ‘Serial/Chapter Novel and the National Style of Narrative Literature (zhanghuixiaoshuo he xushiwenxue de minzufengge)’. Knowledge about Literature and History. 1982(3).
Kuo, Mei-Fen. Making Chinese Australia: Urban Elites, Newspapers and the Formation of Chinese-Australian Identity, 1892–1912. Clayton, Victoria: Monash University Press, 2013.
Ommundsen, Wenche. ‘The Literatures of Chinese Australia’. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, 2017. (
Wang, Zuxian. ‘Diversity of Fictional Genres and Subjects in Foreign Fiction and in Fiction of the Late Qing and Beginning of Republic China (waiguoxiaoshuo yu qingmomingchu xiaoshuo ticai de duoyanghua)’. Academic Journal of Anhui University (Philosophy and Social Science Version). 1993(3).
Xia, Xiaohong. ‘Discriminating the Meaning of ‘New Fiction’ of the late Qing (wanqing ‘xinxiaoshuo’ bianyi)’. Literary Review. 2017(6).
Zhang, Lei. ‘New Fiction and Old Genre: Review of Creative Wring and Translations of New Fiction (xinxiaoshuo yu jiuticai: xinxiaoshuo zhuyi zuopin lun)’. Collection of Modern Chinese Literary Research. 2015(4).
Zhong, Huang and Ommundsen, Wenche. ‘Poison, polygamy and postcolonial politics: The first Chinese Australian novel’. Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 2016 Vol. 52, No. 5.

QIUPING LU is a Joint PhD candidate of Wuhan University, China, and University of Wollongong, Australia, Associate professor of Wuhan University of Science and Technology