Ten Years of Marriage

Su Qing

Illustration by Florinda Pamungkas

The gasoline lamps burned bright throughout the halls of the house. The banquet had been laid out in advance and scores of guests were streaming in and taking their places. It was quite a madhouse. The bride’s seat was in the main hall, where two square rosewood tables—trimmed with rhinestone-studded red skirting—had been pushed together. The rhinestones twinkled under the light. I’d changed into a red silk vestment—the traditional bridal garment—and the vermilion headpiece was perched on my head as I sat, south-facing, with decorum.

Before me were cups and chopsticks and four tall glass dishes filled with fruit. On the adjacent table were pastry offerings to the gods, brilliant and multihued. There was a pair of large prayer altars for Fortune, Success and Longevity. The icons of the gods were about shin-high, replete with goldfoil lettering above them and flanked by large red candles. On the table were two pairs of miniature candleholders encased in glass—these would burn throughout the night. On either side of the main hall were four large banquet tables. There were tables before the stairs as well, and both patios were sheltered by a brightly-colored awning so that they too could accommodate tables. When the night was over, by the estimation of Xian’s family, there had been a good hundred tables large and small, and a thousand or two thousand guests.

The main hall and patio held female guests exclusively. In the mezzo hall were male and female guests alike, whilst the mezzo hall’s patio and the anterior hall entertained only male guests. The libations and dishes served up in the mezzo hall patio and the anterior hall were better than those served in the main hall and patio. No female guest would resent this, for it was a tradition.

As the bride I was served the spread offered to the male guests, but I could not eat a thing: as the rule goes, a bride seated at her banquet was not to raise a pair of chopsticks. All I could do was watch slavishly, course after course, as warm tureens and platters of soup, fish, fowl and pastries were laid before me. The bridesmaids watched me like hawks—they were superintending me as much as they were waiting on me—for the food I left untouched would be theirs to feast on.

It was quite the racket, what with the anterior hall rowdy with boozy gambling and the operatic din from the band. Although the women were more collected, there were the children carousing and fussing about in the main hall and patio—one moment a fever, the next they’d bitten their tongues—so it was all a riot too. Amidst the pandemonium I held only one query close to my heart: Where was my groom?


He reappeared for the ceremonial imbibing of the so-called wine of consummation. We were seated in our bedchamber for this. The imbibing was purely symbolic in fact, for the wine barely even touched our lips; it was only an act of sorts we put on—as staged by the bridesmaids. When this little ceremony was over, the band started up from outside again, and there was the gifting of auspicious packets filled with money. As was standard practice in Ningbo, next up was the heckling of the bedchamber by select guests, typically male. There was a saying that went: “The more you heckle the newlyweds the more you prosper.” A chief heckler was presented. Apparently he was Xian’s second cousin and they all called him Pigsy Monk. They swarmed into the room like hornets, startling me. I looked at Xian for help but he just smiled at me and leaned against a window as those boors surrounded me with their preposterous requests:

We demand the bride sing us a foreign song!
Or do a little jig!
If you desist, you’ll have to give the groom a kiss!
Lady, just how many bowls of rice have you had today?
When will the kids be on the way?
A boy first, or a girl?

I stood unnerved in their midst, saved momentarily only by the bridesmaids who were negotiating for the custom of a gratuity fee paid to them by the hecklers before they would allow them to get at me. A gaggle of old ladies came by just then—now surely those philistines would behave—and I managed to wiggle away. The old ladies sat themselves down and asked a bridesmaid to get an extra chair. When the chair was brought they ordered for it to be placed in the middle of them and then they had me sit on it. I had no idea if the old ladies had tricks up their sleeves too. One of them asked for candles to be brought forth. She had silver-white hair and shriveled lips.

Pigsy Monk butted in: “We’re in no need of candles, granny, we have electric lamps!”

“Never you mind,” the old lady said to him, then turned to a manservant: “Get the candles!”

Candlestick in hand now the granny came towards me, holding the flame close to my face, the better to inspect my face. Her focus seemed to centre on my eyebrows. Passing the candlestick back to the bridesmaid she declared: “Good child! Your eyebrows are knitted fine and tight together—no doubt the silk purse of a scholarly household!”

“Her facial features are congruous enough too,” a matron chimed in generously, “A visage of good fortune! With such an agreeable granddaughter-in-law, you’ll be cradling grandchildren in no time!”

“Well really now,” Granny ground her wrinkly mouth into a smile, “I have high hopes that you and Xian will get along to fulfilling Great Aunt’s rosy pronouncement very soon—give your in-laws a chubby little tot to fuss over next year!”

“It’s in the bag,” the drunken hecklers were tripping over themselves to answer on my behalf. “No doubt about it!”

The old ladies made some idle talk amongst themselves and left the room one by one. Xian’s grandmother was the last to leave. “Don’t get too rowdy with the newlyweds,” she said to Pigsy Monk and the hecklers as she got up to leave, “Their skin is tender and they can’t stand up to your roughhousing. It’s been a long day for them—let them get an early night!”

A handful of young women entered the room, as if hot on the tails of the party. Bringing up the rear was the woman in the silver dress. Her face was freshly powdered, that red chestnut mouth thickly rouged. Granny seemed displeased that she had entered the room. She blinked at her: “Come, Ruixian, you’ll escort me out!” The woman looked disgruntled but she dared not disobey. She went to support Granny’s arm, but her eyes remained on Xian.

“Granny, let sister-in-law dawdle here if she wants, I’ll escort you out,” Xian said.

“No,” Granny said a little too forcefully, “You’ll be putting up the luck talisman in your new bedchamber soon, and she’s a—” A change came over the woman’s face. She crossed the room brusquely and took Granny’s arm to escort her out, looking back no more.

So the hecklers resumed their game. They wanted me to kiss Xian. I paid them no heed but they managed to keep up their goading till past midnight. The bridesmaids implored them: “Honourable gents, the hour is late! Missy and Master ought to take their rest soon. Could the honourable gents be so kind as to begin taking their leave?”

“Want us to leave? Easy—just get your Missy to kiss the groom on the mouth!”

A young bridesmaid piped up: “How could our Missy accede before all your eyes? Kissing is an act of the bedchamber, I think—”

“What do you think?” the one called Ah Tang said. “If your Missy isn’t up to the task, we’ll have you kiss Xian as a substitute.” To this his friends applauded and hooted.

“I think—I was saying—I think perhaps you should just request Missy and Master touch hands!” The poor bridesmaid was blushing deeply.

The hecklers would not back down. Only when it was five minutes past one did they relent. Yawning, they agreed to leave after I held Xian’s hand.

After the guests dispersed the bridesmaids removed my make-up, took the wax candles and electric lamps out and cleaned the room. There was only a single red candle left burning on the dresser. When they were done tidying up, they left the room with bowed heads, each muttering that stockphrase so beloved by the elders—“May you soon be blessed with a son”—as they bade goodnight and filed out of the room. Off they went to get their auspicious packets of money from whoever was keeping the books. Xian and I were left alone in the darkened room. It was quiet. The candle flickered. I felt a vague dread.

Neither of us dared speak first. I had been standing by the dresser. Now I faced the mirror, picking stupidly at my nails. Xian lit a cigarette. He took only two drags on it before placing it back down on the table. He began whistling. After awhile it sounded like there was someone outside the window, trying to listen in. Xian went forward to have a look. He pulled the curtains together tighter, before going to the door to check the corridor, and then coming around behind me. I watched his long silhouette in the mirror before me. I came up only to his chest. He hesitated for a moment before saying stiffly if softly: “Dear Sister, we should turn in early.”

It was two. Talk about early.

Heart jumping in my chest, I could not answer, merely lowering my head.

Kneading his hands together he returned to his position by the table. Noticing the cigarette still smoldering on the table he picked it up. After a few puffs he stubbed it out. He yawned twice in quick succession then addressed me once more: “I’m off to bed, Dear Sister. Do turn in soon too?” He paused. “You’ve had a long day.”

I mustered a small grunt but I was too shy to move from the dresser. He minded his own business, stripping off his clothes and laying himself down on the bed. I began to regret my bashful hesitation in joining him—if he fell asleep and did not entreat me once more, would I spend the night upright where I was? The mirror showed me my worn reflection. My eyes looked lackluster, already there were dark circles under them, and my cheeks were flushed. If I did not head to bed soon I would likely lose sleep for the rest of the night.

Xian called to me again from the bed, without lifting the mosquito net. I dared not miss the opportunity to retire again, so I removed my outer robe, though keeping my fleece gown and slacks and even my socks on, instead of changing into sleepwear. When I got to the edge of the bed I froze again. My exhaustion made me eager to clamber into bed, but I hadn’t the gumption to raise the mosquito net on my own. I stood there motionless for some two or three minutes. On the other side of the net, in bed, Xian seemed to not have noticed me. Perhaps he’d already drifted off into sound sleep, I thought, and thus emboldened, lifted the net, but heavens! There he lay with eyes wide open, face turned towards me as he smiled and acknowledged me.

There was only one duvet on the bed—red charmeuse embroidered with the likeness of plump, puckish children—and he was already under it. There was just the one pillow too for the night, embroidered with a set of mandarin ducks, some “couple pillow” of sorts, horrors! If I’d come to bed first, I could have snagged these essentials, but as of now he held court over them. What was I to do; it seemed too unbecoming to join him on that one pillow, yet it would be awkward if I slept away from him or by his feet.

His body was sheathed in the duvet, surely it would not do for me to pare it from him and insert myself into the warmth of the bedding alongside him? Why had I not lain myself down first and obtained the duvet? Watching him comfortable and snug in the bedding in spite of my exhaustion reminded me of my hunger at the banquet as everyone else feasted themselves silly on an array of dishes, and an angry bile rose inside of me. I flipped the net and crawled out of bed, back to my perch by the dresser, where I started tearing up.

After what seemed like a long time Xian pushed back the net. When he saw my face, he was surprised. He looked at me intently and asked in a low tone: “Are you feeling unwell?”

I made no answer.

“Do you miss your mother?”

Still I made no answer.

“Or could it be that you don’t find me to your liking?” He joked, thinking I surely would give at least a coy shake of the head to disavow his statement, but I did no such thing.

That seemed to displease him, and he said would-be lightly, “Sleep over it,” then he went back to bed.

I could not help but cry a little harder now.

“Dear Sister, what’s this now? Don’t make us out to be a disgrace. After all, we’re matchmade and we don’t know each other from before—what would people think if they’re listening in from outside our walls? Come on to bed!”

At the thought that there might be sneaking eyes or ears outside, all I could do was go back to the bed joylessly.

“Come sleep?”

“No.” I sat stubbornly at the edge of the bed.

I thought that Xian should have pulled me to him right then, but he made no movement whatsoever, wouldn’t even lift a finger, merely parroting “Come sleep, come sleep.” For some reason I held this against him. Much later when I asked him about this, he said he’d not made a move on me because he’d once read a novel where there was a young bride who so feared contact with her new husband, the sight of her husband advancing upon her on their wedding night afflicted her with a mental breakdown, no less.

But how could I have read his gesture as one of care then? I thought only that he was going out of his way to be cold to me, so I went on sitting by the edge of the bed. He in turn thought I was fearful of him and so did not impel me to come to him any further. I sat on the edge of the bed till he fell asleep, fumed for some time, then soon after must have drifted off to sleep too.

The next morning when the bridesmaids stood outside our room and shouted for us to wake, I woke on the border of the blanket, chilled to the bone.

translated from the Chinese by Amanda Lee Koe