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Talking Location With Yangsze Choo – CHINA

20th February 2024

#TalkingLocationWith… Yangsze Choo, author of The Fox Wife, set in CHINA (MANCHURIA) and JAPAN

When I started writing The Fox Wife, I was lucky enough to visit the famous historic gardens in Hangzhou and Suzhou, on which I based the garden villas described in the novel. China has a long history of courtyard gardens, with rooms that open up to miniature vistas of rocks arranged to look like mountains, and ponds filled with lotus flowers. The book is set in 1908, in the dying years of the Qing dynasty, the last Imperial dynasty. It was a time of uncertainty and change, after which China would be plunged into revolution and civil war.

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There is a Chinese belief that ghosts and foxes are particularly active during times of chaos, and I wanted to contrast the fact that political unrest, warlords, and plagues were gathering even as the wealthy literati dined and wrote poetry in their beautiful houses, many of which were doomed to destruction. In my novel, the protagonist, Snow, is a woman who claims to be a fox spirit. As a child, I read a lot of stories about these creatures, known in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean literature as shape-shifters who can turn themselves into attractive people, and I couldn’t resist putting one into my novel. Unsettling and independent, Snow embarks on her own quiet journey of revenge. As a woman with no connections or money, the only way she can infiltrate these houses is as a servant or a paid entertainer, which would give her a very different view of such mansions.

Yangsze Choo

A view from a corridor into part of a garden

The designers of these gardens did an amazing job at capturing and framing vistas. This was a covered corridor that ran alongside a wall, which was punctuated by open windows. You can see that there’s another fan-shaped window in another corridor which you can glimpse through the tree branches. The architecture and the trees were planted in such a way as to delight and surprise in relatively small spaces.

I imagined that whoever planned these mansions had to think long term, and the work of maintaining and pruning the gardens must have been both expensive and time-consuming, necessitating an army of servants!

Unlike the great houses of Europe, whose lawns, mazes, and avenues were often designed to be viewed from the distance, these Chinese houses, many of which belonged to wealthy merchants or officials, were often in denser areas, so the landscapes that they referenced were miniatures, such as ponds to represent lakes. I happened to visit in June and there were lotuses everywhere, many planted in pots and even exquisite miniatures in bowls. It was very charming and eye-opening, to enjoy these little water gardens and watch the blooms unfurl.

The women of these households were often confined to the upper floors. Bound feet meant that they couldn’t walk very far without assistance, and I couldn’t help thinking that these lovely gardens were also a kind of caged existence for the women.

Yangsze Choo

In The Fox Wife, I tried to write about the changing of the seasons as seen from such quarters, and how the small heralds of spring, such as budding leaves or narcissus, would have signified time passing in the inner quarters.

Moon gates, like the one pictured to the right, were very popular. It was thought to be good fortune to walk through one of them, and you can see the use of natural materials in building the bamboo fence and wisteria trellis. I inserted exactly such a wisteria trellis in my novel—I arrived too late to see the beautiful blooms, but could imagine that in spring, it must have been lovely.

What was also interesting was the mosaics or inlaid pebble paths. They had patterns with meanings, once again echoing themes of good luck or longevity.

As you can see in this close up (left), they were very old and there were clearly attempts to repair them with concrete. The original mosaics looked to me to be set tightly in earth, though it might have been another substrate. Some were made in the shape of round Chinese coins with a hole in the middle, and these I was told to specially step on, since they would increase your fortune.

The gardens of Suzhou and Hangzhou are very old, and many more have been destroyed. Apparently there were more than a hundred private gardens in the past, some dating back a thousand years with rare trees and plants. If you love gardens (and foxes!) I hope you’ll enjoy The Fox Wife.

Yangsze Choo

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Catch the author on Twitter X @yangszechooand on Insta @yangxsechoo

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