Navigation – Plan du site

“East is East”: Thematic and Textual Confluence in Jane Gardam’s “Chinese Funeral”

Helen E. Mundler
p. 149-163


“Chinese Funeral” (1990), est une nouvelle de Jane Gardam, prolifique écrivaine britannique qui choisit souvent pour sujet l’expérience des Britanniques dans des pays orientaux. Elle raconte le voyage d’une journée d’un groupe de touristes, pour la plupart Britanniques, de Hong Kong à la Chine continentale. De manière subtile et imbriquée, la nouvelle trace la déstabilisation des touristes à un moment où leurs certitudes coloniales deviennent des incertitudes postcoloniales. Les relations entre dominants et dominés, puissants et impuissants, commencent à se redessiner. Par le biais de la trans-fictionalité, “Chinese Funeral” est comparée à un passage semblable dans un roman postérieur de Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat (2009). Cet article cherche à démontrer comment la lecture de ce roman permet à l’altérité de l’« Oriental » telle qu’elle est présentée dans la nouvelle, d’être redécouverte sous un autre jour, et comment les deux textes explorent les dissonances entre le connu et l’inconnu, l’attendu et l’inattendu, alors que les Britanniques commencent à appréhender de nouvelles altérités qu’ils n’arrivent pas pleinement à saisir ou à comprendre.

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

Jane Gardam

Texte intégral

  • 1 Jane Gardam has twice won the Whitbread Prize for best novel of the year, and was awarded a Heywood (...)

1Born in 1928, Jane Gardam is a prolific and respected author of both short stories and novels, whose work has been rewarded with a number of prestigious prizes,1 but has received surprisingly little critical attention. The short story analysed in this article, “Chinese Funeral,” concerns a group of British characters visiting China and trying in one way or another to accommodate the strangeness of what they experience. This will constitute the first confluence which will be analysed here. A second confluence is to be found in the way “Chinese Funeral” engages both with the personal and with the political, absorbing the one into the other, so that they become part of the same continuum. The third confluence is textual: “Chinese Funeral” can be compared with a passage in Jane Gardam’s The Man in the Wooden Hat, which takes up the events of the short story and deploys them in a different way, an operation which can be approached through theories of transfictionality.

2First published in 1990, “Chinese Funeral” tells the story of a group of fourteen characters, defined as “English,” (except for one Nigerian, who is described as such, generically), and “all middle-aged to old, a rather heavy, thoughtful lot” (14), set out from Hong Kong for a day trip to the Chinese mainland. The focus is on a particular couple, Ann, and “her husband” (again, this is a generic—the husband is not named). The group are tourists rather than expatriates—they have only spent a week in Hong Kong (22). The story records their day, from leaving “Kowloon side” (17) early in the morning to getting stuck in a traffic jam, and so failing to get home in the evening (the narrative has an indeterminate ending, with the form echoed by one of the characters: “‘We don’t know what the end of this is going to be’” [23]). In the course of the day, the group first meet their Chinese guide, then travel around in a tour-bus at some length, watch a performance put on by schoolchildren, stop for lunch and visit a market.

3This story does not, overtly, have a strong narrative drive, and does not move towards any kind of obvious resolution. The narrative is introspective rather than eventful: the reactions of the characters to what they observe, rather than what happens, constitute the story, and what could be considered the main events are in a sense placed “off-stage,” so much so that it is not at first easy to put one’s finger on “what the story is about.” Catastrophe is suggested—but it is almost concealed, rather than explicitly evoked.

4The word “funeral” in the title in fact refers to various events, two of which are explicit: the ferry the group takes on the morning of their trip proves to be transporting a coffin, and later on, from the tour-bus, they see a funeral (21). The story begins with the wife, Ann’s, horrified reaction to the very un-English mourners who accompany the coffin as it is brought onto the ferry: “‘I can see the awful people’” (15). The mourners are described as “noisy men with excited eyes” (15), whom Ann suspects of “‘enjoying it’” (16), while she herself is uneasy at the prospect of travelling with a coffin.

5The second funeral occurs as the party leave the restaurant where they stop to have lunch. The group’s attention is inevitably called to it when the guide makes the following request:

“May I ask you, now at this moment not to look out to the left of the bus, please? Look only straight ahead, please, or to the right.”
Everyone at once looked out to the left.
“To the right. To the right,” called the guide, “the
right. (21)

6What they see, on the left-hand side of the tour bus, is a funeral procession. While the guide tells them it is “‘not civilised to watch a Chinese funeral’” (21), one of the party, a “big old Englishman” who has spent twenty years in Hong Kong or China, explains, “‘It is bad luck to watch a Chinese funeral [...] He is being kind to us’” (21). The traffic jam with which the story ends allows the funeral cortège to catch up with the tour bus, and Ann’s husband hopes that she will not see the funeral party for a second time:

He hoped that she had not seen that the funeral party of an hour ago had caught up with them and was jogging along the side of the bus between it and the oily ditch of lotuses [...] The crazed tall hats bobbed up and down as they passed by, and out of sight. (23)

7Thus three episodes involving two different Chinese funerals occur within the space of the eight pages covered by the story, but the narrative centres on an episode which is not overtly described. In the tour bus, Ann is subject to an unpleasant vision:

The driver had a long, unsmiling face. [...] His white hands for the moment lay loose on the wheel. The hands of Moiseiwitsch. [...] The guide was jolly, square-faced, amiable, with shaggy, fetching hair [...] Ann suddenly saw the driver’s hands running with blood, and the guide with upflung arms, facing the dark. She cried out. (18)

8The blood in this vision connects to the “bloodstained bandages” Ann believes she saw during the first funeral. While in that case, the bloodstains turned out to be “vermilion paint” (16), the bloodshed Ann imagines in fact connects to real, political events, external to the narrative, but which function as a sort of metatext which informs and alters the reader’s reception of the short story. The fact that this story was first published in 1990 is significant in that the Tiananmen Square massacre had taken place in 1989. Events may be briefly recapitulated as follows: the predominantly young freedom protesters, many of whom were students like the group’s guide, had been holding a “peaceful pro-democracy protest” for some days; eventually, the Communist party sent in 200,000 soldiers in armoured tanks to put down what it saw as an uprising and a threat to the regime (Jian 2014). Many of the protesters were killed—the death toll is variously estimated at hundreds or thousands—while others were imprisoned or exiled.

9These real events, which are not directly referenced in the narrative, provide a specific framework within which the guide’s politically-charged speech to the group towards the end of the day must be interpreted. Having first assured himself that the driver “‘does not speak English and is in any case asleep’” (the bus being by this time stuck in a traffic jam), and that none of the party “will stay in China more for more than a day,” he makes the following announcement:

“It is safe to tell you this then. China now looks forward with hope and joy. There is to be a great and glorious transformation. Blood will flow, but we stand to overthrow evil men and we shall win liberty [...] You will remember me and what I say.” (23)

10Ann’s bloody vision—although it does not take into account the guide’s distinction between himself, the revolutionary, and the driver, who must not hear him speak of such things—can, indeed must, be, read within this particular historical context. “Chinese Funeral” is thus intimately concerned with geo-political, and the signifier, funeral, is expanded to take in not only the individual deaths of the protesters, but also the dark, terrible, funereal business of a country murdering its own youth, of whom the guide is representative. A sense of threat thus colours the husband’s words to his wife as they find themselves stuck in the traffic jam, and so unable to leave: “‘Better sleep, Ann. We don’t know what the end of this is going to be’” (23). “This” takes on wider significance than the day out itself: in the light of the guide’s last speech in the story, it takes in the future of China and the safety of its youth.

11It is possible to read a sort of reversal here, in which the (mainly-) English party, the observers, become the observed, since they represent democracy, a political system to which the Chinese guide aspires. In this sense, this story suggests, to some extent, a quasi-colonial sense of British “superiority,” but shifts it into a different register: the focus is not on supposed cultural superiority, but on the benefits of a particular politico-economic system. However, this is a short story which allows for several different layers of interpretation, of which the geo-political is only one. The reactions of the English characters combine the specifically political and the intensely personal, and the characters have other, less easily explained, reactions to China. In fact, it is arguable that the story foregrounds above all the inassimilable strangeness of what Ann, in particular, experiences, since much is seen through her eyes.

12When Ann gives her appalled reaction to the first funeral (15-16), her husband tries to rationalise the scene, by pointing out cultural differences: “‘The afterlife for them is horrible, you know. ‘The sleep of oblivion’. Desolate. Frightening,’” and adding a little later, “‘Don’t forget they’re surrounded by spirits’” (16). The husband’s reaction sets the tone for the whole story: the couple, as they leave British territory behind them and move into a foreign land, will attempt to analyse, to understand, to assimilate—in other words to create a confluence between their own culture and consciousness, and the alienating strangeness of the people they encounter, and what they see around them. In this they will, however, to a great extent, fail.

13The Chinese people the group encounter are presented in various ways, spanning the clichés of the shady, dishonest Oriental, through the surprise of the new, westernised youth, to the inscrutable “other.” When she has the apples she has packed for the journey seized at customs, Ann remarks, “‘I suppose they’ll eat them the minute we’re out of sight’” (17). The first words of the Chinese guide who will be in charge of the group are spoken in answer to this remark: “‘That we do not enquire’” (17). Thus the opening remark of this representative of the Chinese people is in a high register of language, and constitutes a joke. The Chinese guide is the first person in the story to use such language (Ann and her husband speak in a much more familiar register), which is as telling as the description of him as “brilliant-eyed, happy, young. He ran about laughing and shaking hands with the British group” (17). However, while the guide is smiling and hospitable, the Chinese people encountered on the day-trip will elude Ann’s attempts to in some way connect with them: the show put on by the Kindergarten children reveals “a fixed smile on each blank-eyed face” (19), so that Ann longs to see “‘some of the ordinary children,’” but this request cannot be met. Similarly, an attempt to take a photograph of an old Chinese peasant “sowing seeds on the plain” is cut off by that peasant’s complete indifference: “One ancient leather face looked up into Ann’s camera. Looked away” (20).

14Even the Chinese guide, as the story goes on, seems to become less easy to connect with, less familiar: “They noticed under the high electric bulbs of the echoing restaurant that he was rather older than they had thought and that some of the earlier insouciance was gone. Some of the acting” (20). His image begins to disintegrate, and a dissonance develops between what the host country wants to show, the impression it wishes to create, and what might be termed the “leakage” from behind that impression, as the observers are faced with a reality more complex and contradictory, and in some cases simply less pleasant, than first impressions allow. This dissonance is acknowledged by the guide, in a passage which verges on the comic, through an effect of bathos, as he describes the restaurant where they will be making their midday stop:

“We are going to a beautiful place for lunch. Well, it is the only place. Here it comes. It is perfectly hygienic. Do not judge by its surroundings.” They picked their way through filth to the one new building in a sad town. ” (20)

15This passage, with its short and disappointing journey from “a beautiful place” to “filth,” is an overt illustration of a sense of disappointment generally more covert and subtle in this text.

16Both the landscape and Chinese people other than the guide are experienced in this story as strange and disconcerting. For Ann, the destabilising newness of the morning’s experiences leads her to have “‘a sort of day-mare’” (19), in which she sees “‘Something coming. Rolling like a sea’” (18). Her husband’s reaction to her “‘shivering’” state (18) is to hope for tea—“‘There’s always tea’” (19)—a superficial point of intersection, or indeed confluence, between Chinese and British cultures, which perhaps serves to highlight more profound differences. The landscape at which Ann looks out in an attempt to feel better is also a locus of strangeness, of something which is banal, but at the same time disconcerting in its unfamiliarity, and thus uncanny. There is an incongruity here between the homely, even child-like, idea of “pencilled,” “matchstick” motifs, and the drag of the double adjective, “endless, endless:” a drag so heavy that it leads Ann to make the obscure remark, “‘Time is over’” (19).

17In fact, the remarks of the characters are often obscure, and there is a sense in the story that something going beyond what is actually said must be understood, or at least understood to exist. The conversation between unnamed husband and wife often consists of remarks with a slightly odd syntax suggestive of a great intimacy (this is typical of the rhythms of speech in Gardam’s work in general). Thus when the husband tells Ann that the coffin will be taken off the ferry at Lamma Island, going into some detail about the route of the ferry and where the dead man died, Ann asks, “‘How do you know it all?’” rather than “How do you know?” or “How do you know all this?” (15), and the husband answers, “‘Oh. I do,’” rather than “I just do.” Husband and wife also communicate through a sort of shorthand: “‘No two ways.’” “‘Glib. Silly’” (15). This private, intimate world in which so much is known that speech is either cut off, or can be interpreted to arrive at the meaning which is intended rather than spoken, makes the characters, finally, not at all generic, and provides a homely contrast to the inexpressible strangeness with which they are surrounded on the trip to China.

  • 2 As Ania Loomba observes, “The construction of vast numbers of people as inferior, or ‘other’, was c (...)

18The version of China presented in Jane Gardam’s story ultimately remains mysterious. While the guide promises, with emphasis, to “‘answer everything. Everything’” (18), finally it proves that, for Ann, the questions to which answers are required cannot even be formulated. To be a guide to this country finally proves an impossible thing, just as it is to be guided in it, and the overriding sense that will emerge is one of alienation. The phrase “crazed tall hats” seems to place the funeral party in the realm of witches and wizards, which could be dismissed as fanciful and not to be believed in, or indeed culturally inferior,2 and the husband, at the end of the story, discards not only the funeral party, but the whole day, even the whole country, telling his wife, “‘Don’t look so doom-laden [...] It’s all education. After all, it’s not our country. It has nothing to do with us’” (23).

19The short story may be considered to be by its nature fragmentary, and the inconclusive ending is arguably appropriate to the form. Moreover, Maggie Awadalla and Paul March-Russell see the postcolonial short story, in particular, as providing a happy confluence of form and content: according to them, “the restless fragmentation of the short story,” which is often considered only “of marginal interest,” has a role to play in drawing attention to “the postcolonial critique of centres and margins that underwrites the hierarchical practice of Empire” (8). However, interestingly, Jane Gardam revisits this story in her 2009 novel The Man in the Wooden Hat, the second novel in her Old Filth Trilogy, and thus makes it a part of a much longer narrative—the short story flows into the novel, and the novel takes its place between two other novels (Wooden Hat 156-58).

20A brief description of the trilogy is necessary at this point, in order to explain the new context for this passage. These three novels, Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, and Last Friends, trace the lives of Old Filth (the name is an acronym for “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong”—a joke, considering that Filth, aka Edward Feathers, came joint top in the bar exams for his year) and his wife, Elisabeth (Betty), as they journey between the UK and the Far East. Filth spends most of his legal career in Hong Kong, but a fairly large proportion of the trilogy also focuses on the couple’s retirement in the south of England. The theme of the “Raj orphans”—the children of Empire who were sent back to the UK to be brought up by paid foster parents, and educated at boarding schools—is dominant: motherless, and taken from his Malay nanny at the age of four and a half before being sent to board with an unknown and unsuitable couple in Wales from the age of five, Filth claims that he was never loved from this point on, and the experience emotionally colours his entire life. His wife is also affected: when tempted by Filth’s rival, Veneering, she cannot bring herself to abandon her already-abandoned husband. Relations between East and West, specifically between England and Hong Kong and, to an extent, China, are very central to the Old Filth trilogy, and geo-political questions and historical movements in these novels are intricately knitted into the emotional experience of the characters.

  • 3 The Man in the Wooden Hat: 156; cf. “Chinese Funeral:” “‘The Russians flogged to us that factory [. (...)
  • 4 The Man in the Wooden Hat: 156: cf. the “matchstick” figures in “Chinese Funeral” (19).

21The Man in the Wooden Hat contains an incident in which a group of tourists, in this case expatriate Britons, take a day trip to Canton by bus. Various elements of “Chinese Funeral” reappear in this passage: the guide complains that the Chinese were cheated by the Russians who sold them factories;3 the thinness of the peasants is emphasised;4 there is lunch in a restaurant—and then a warning by the guide: “‘On no account look left. Do not look left,’” followed by “Everybody looked to the left,” as the funeral procession passes the bus (Wooden Hat 157). The cortège is described in similar terms as in “Chinese Funeral”: “a ragged column of men in white robes and pointed hats jogged along the side of a field” (Wooden Hat 157). The relatively uncommon verb, “jog along” is used in both passages, and it is suggested in both that seeing a Chinese Funeral is bad luck. The later version also stresses the unknowable, alien nature of the Chinese through the eyes of the British, and the fundamental opposition between East and West is highlighted by witnessing the strange funeral rites of the Chinese, as the following fragment of dialogue shows:

“Do they dream of Hong Kong?” said Elisabeth.
“We don’t know what they dream of.”
(Wooden Hat 157)

22This repetition allows for a hypertextual (see Genette 13), specifically transfictional reading in the mode of expansion, as defined by Lubomir Doležel, who comments as follows:

  • 5 Here, Doležel is specifically discussing postmodernist rewritings of classic works, but the term “e (...)

Expansion extends the scope of the protoworld by filling its gaps, constructing a prehistory or posthistory, and so on. The protoworld and the successor world are complementary. The protoworld is put into a new co-text, and the established structure is thus shifted. (206) 5

23The transfer of “Chinese Funeral,” or a version of it, into The Man in the Wooden Hat certainly fulfils these criteria: the episode does indeed acquire a “before” and an “after” (the reader finds out what leads up to it, and what happens after it), and is set in a whole new structure. Approaching the issue from a different angle, Richard Saint-Gelais sees expansion as bringing into question, particularly, the “limits” of a piece of fiction:

Donner à un récit un prolongement, c’est remettre en question les limites qui se fixaient à l’oeuvre originale. Un tel geste ne saurait être innocent dans une culture qui fonde sur l’idée de la clôture sa conception de l’œuvre comme totalité autonome, possédant une « forme » déterminée, instaurant son propre « code » et déployant un « réseau de sens » spécifique. (71)

  • 6 For the categorisation of the way in which “blanks” in the original are “filled in” by such techniq (...)

24It should be noted that Jane Gardam often revisits the same scene in two novels, or in a short story and a novel: there are many “overlaps” between the three novels which make up the Old Filth trilogy, and also between it and the short story, “The People on Privilege Hill,” which “fills in” an episode which could have occurred in the trilogy6—but how can this particular “transfictional expansion” be read?

25In reframing the events of “Chinese Funeral” in The Man in the Wooden Hat, Jane Gardam certainly does rework the “limits” fixed by the short story in a way which corresponds to one of the criteria Saint-Gelais lays down to justify identifying a transfictional relationship between two passages:

Par ‘transfictionnalité’, j’entends le phénomène par lequel au moins deux textes, du même auteur ou non, se rapportent conjointement à une même fiction, que ce soit par reprise de personnages, prolongement d’une intrigue préalable ou partage d’un univers fictionnel. (12)

26However, Gardam’s rewriting also, importantly, allows the one passage to be read in the light of the other, and the interpretation of each passage to be revisited. This fulfils a further, fundamental, criterion laid down by Saint-Gelais for the definition of transfictions: “Le regard transfictionnel consiste surtout à s’interroger sur les répercussions de ces contacts et de ces déplacements diégétiques” (12). What, then, are the differences between the original short story and its reprise in the novel?

27Clearly, a short story and a passage in a novel cannot be regarded as “equivalent,” since the former stands alone and the latter is framed in various ways by the surrounding narrative. However, there is also an important difference between the two passages in terms of content. Obviously, this episode within The Man in the Wooden Hat serves to drive the narrative onwards, rather than constituting a world in itself, as the short story allows. In order to do so, it adds an episode which is absent from “Chinese Funeral.” In the novel, Betty’s vision concerns the lamps on display in the shop the group are taken to visit (“Chinese Funeral” does not contain a comparable episode: a visit to a market is mentioned [18], but not developed):

Filth asked Betty if she wanted a new table lamp.
“No,” she said, “Not these,” and was astonished to find that an image had appeared among the chinoiserie of a heavy brass oil lamp with a globe and chimney, and a thick white cotton wick. As she looked, the misty globe cleared and a flat blue flame appeared along the wick. It bounced up violet, then yellow, becoming steady and clear. A wisp of blue rising from the chimney. Betty stretched towards it and her hand passed through nothing. (
Wooden Hat 157)

28When asked by her husband what she is doing, Betty answers, “‘Nothing. Having a vision or something. Some sort of memory thing.’” The lamp in Betty’s vision is a reference to the one which she broke, many years earlier, while staying at Dexters, the house in the Donheads, in the south of England, which then belonged to friends, and in which she and her husband later live (Wooden Hat 147). The breaking of the lamp is associated with the hysterectomy from which Betty was recovering at the time she first stayed in the house, following an illness which made the operation necessary, in spite of the fact that she expressly claimed to want children. The lamp is thus not an arbitrary vision, but highly symbolic in Betty’s development: the containing globe of light represents the uterus as vessel of life, while the wisp of smoke in the chimney can be read as the extinction of hope for perpetuating the cycle of life. Betty’s vision thus also brings a confluence of time and space into the episode of the Chinese funeral, a sense of unfolding personal history. This is not available to “Chinese Funeral,” which barely glimpses into the lives of Ann and her husband outside the few hours in which they are captured, and contains no backstory to complement or explain Ann’s “vision.”

  • 7 They are also being written out of the trilogy—in Last Friends, although much referred to, Filth an (...)

29In The Man in the Wooden Hat, having been such a part of the great movements and moments of history, the couple are being “written out”: hence, arguably, the subtitle of the last part of the novel, “Life After Death.”7 For Betty, this experience is mediated through her regret for not having had children, for not participating in the ongoing flow of time in that respect. However, for both husband and wife, being “written out” is accompanied by great uncertainty as to their place in the world in these last years of their lives. In a sense this narrative too is cut off, cut short: Betty and Filth are stranded in time—as the party in the bus in “Chinese Funeral” are stranded in space. While fragmentary, “Chinese Funeral” allows certain aspects of The Man in the Wooden Hat to resonate when read in the light of it, particularly the sense of ambivalence and alienation the characters periodically experience, as they seek for a confluence which is not always available.

  • 8 The “Handover” (the transfer of sovereignty from the British to the Chinese) took place in 1997.

30The “Chinese funeral” episode in the novel is surrounded by a dialogue in which Betty and Filth’s questions are made explicit: what are they, and where should they be? Up until this point, the two have been “lifetime expats,” and so there is much more at stake for them than for tourists taking their day trip in “Chinese Funeral.” The Feathers’ lives have been involved with the Empire, and how they define themselves is also very much bound up with huge moments and movements in history: the loss of Hong Kong is now on the horizon;8 China—to them, inexplicably—will be assuming the role hitherto played by the United Kingdom with respect to that region; the old order is gone, and with it the old deference, as Betty complains in the following passage: “Elisabeth: […] Respect is fading. Well, I don’t know if it was ever there. In the jewellers’, the girls hardly bother to lift their heads when I go in. They just go on threading the jade. They used to get me the best stones” (Wooden Hat 155). It is in these senses, rather than “merely” geographically, that they become “‘displaced people.’”

31Interestingly, prior to the funeral episode, the conversation between husband and wife is actually presented as a dialogue, as in a film or a play, with instructions for the setting of the scene (Wooden Hat 153-56). The dialogue ends as follows:

Elisabeth: Filth, we do need to live out here, don’t we? We’re lifetime expats. Aren’t we?
(after a long, long pause): I don’t know. (156).

32The transformation of prose fiction into drama occurs to some extent in all three novels in the trilogy, and serves to foreground certain key points in the development of the characters, and to emphasise a number of particular moments of tension or doubt. This device can in itself be considered a small degree of “transfiction,” in which the characters from the novels are transposed into a play or screenplay, even if the latter is only momentary and fragmentary. At the end of the Chinese funeral episode, the narrative reverts to the standard format of the novel, but the questioning continues: “‘Filth—have we made up our minds? Will we be retiring here?’” (158).

33When questioned by her husband about her experience with the lamp, Betty attributes her vision to “‘those old expats finding their own country’” (Wooden Hat 157). The “old expats” in question, or a couple very like them, also figure in “Chinese Funeral”: “The old Englishman” says “‘We lived here for twenty years and we left twenty years ago’” (20). In the novel, the exchange between Betty and the characters who fill this role runs as follows:

A very old English couple held hands, without looking at each other. “We were born here,” they said. “We’ve been away a long time.”
“I was born in Tiensin [...] I grew up in Shanghai.” They looked at her and nodded acknowledgement. “We are displaced people,” said the old woman. (
Wooden Hat 157)

34The certainty the old couple feel serves to throw into relief the uncertainty experienced by Betty and Filth, as they discuss their future: the only certainty Betty feels is “‘there’s absolutely nothing for us here [in China]’” (Wooden Hat 158), the third term serving to throw up the shifting values of the other two. While both the short story and the passage in the novel end with a sense of absolute disaffection expressed in very similar terms (cf. “‘It’s not our country—it has nothing to do with us’” (23), this last statement is allowed a much greater resonance in the novel by the expansion of the context in which it is set.

35The sense of homecoming that the old couple feel runs counter to the alienation of Ann and her husband in “Chinese Funeral,” while in The Man in the Wooden Hat, which, as a novel, allows room for much more development, Betty is in both positions, and feels a profound sense of belonging to both England and Hong Kong. She shares the sense of “displacement” the old woman expresses, being displaced both in East and West, since she cannot be in both at once. For Filth, too, the situation is perhaps more complex, rather than simply binary: he has an inability to see England as “home,” even though this has been encouraged, even required, throughout his life, but Hong Kong is not home to him either. It is when Filth arrives in Malaysia, just before his death, that his last thought is, “[H]e was Home” (Old Filth 156), the capitalisation of the “H” adding a particular emphasis to the idea. This reworking of the short story allows for disruption of the binaries of East/West, home/away, strange/familiar, and strays into the territory of what Jenni Ramone terms “a multiple and uncertain categorisation” (91).

  • 9 “I have always preferred writing short stories to writing novels. I have had to learn over thirty y (...)

36The insertion of the “Chinese funeral” episode into the novel can be read as a “pretext” for the much more complex discussion, allowed by the novelistic form, of the characters’ experiences of East and West, and their attempts to bring the flow of these experiences into a coherent confluence of identity, in order to resolve the series of paradoxes and contradictions with which—indeed, almost “in” which—they live. Clearly, the transfictional expansion of short story into novel gives greater opportunities for characterisation, development, and a sense of the sweep of history. However, this does not by any means imply that “Chinese Funeral” should be dismissed as nothing more than a sketch for a vignette in a later novel. It may be noted that Jane Gardam claims, in an interview, to prefer the short story, seeing in it a potential for “completeness” which is unavailable to the novelistic form.9 The “completeness” of “Chinese Funeral” is certainly paradoxical, in that the story is marked by indeterminacy and absence of information. However, these very qualities allow the text to retain an unexplained strangeness—arguably a self-referentially “oriental” strangeness—which is to an extent “argued out” of The Man in the Wooden Hat by virtue of its greater scope.


Awadalla, Maggie, and Paul March-Russell, eds. The Postcolonial Short Story: Contemporary Essays. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.

Doležel, Lubomir. Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1998. Print.

Gardam, Jane. “Chinese Funeral.” Going into a Dark House. London: Abacus, 1997. Print.

---. Old Filth. London: Abacus, 2004. Print.

---. The People on Privilege Hill. New York: Europa Editions, 2008. 1-22. Print.

---. The Man in the Wooden Hat. London: Chatto and Windus, 2009. Print.

---. Last Friends. New York: Europa Editions, 2013. Print.

---. “Write everything. Write about the linoneum.” The Guardian 22nd Sept. 2015. Web. 1 May 2017.

Genette, Gérard. Palimpsestes : La Littérature au second degré. Paris: Seuil, 1982. Print.

Jian, Ma. “Tiananmen Square 25 years on: ‘Every person in the crowd was a victim of the massacre’.” The Guardian 1st June 2014. Web. 1 May 2017.

Kipling, Rudyard. “The Ballad of East and West”. Web. 1 May 2017.

Loomba, Ania. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. London and New York: Routledge, “The New Critical Idiom,” 2015. Print.

Ramone, Jenni. Postcolonial Theories. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.

Saint-Gelais, Richard. Fictions Transfuges: La Transfictionalité et ses enjeux. Paris: Seuil, 2011. Print.


1 Jane Gardam has twice won the Whitbread Prize for best novel of the year, and was awarded a Heywood Hill Literary Prize for a lifetime’s contribution to the enjoyment of literature.

2 As Ania Loomba observes, “The construction of vast numbers of people as inferior, or ‘other’, was crucial for contructing a European ‘self’ and justifying colonialist practices” (112).

3 The Man in the Wooden Hat: 156; cf. “Chinese Funeral:” “‘The Russians flogged to us that factory [...]. The Russians made mugs of us’” (21).

4 The Man in the Wooden Hat: 156: cf. the “matchstick” figures in “Chinese Funeral” (19).

5 Here, Doležel is specifically discussing postmodernist rewritings of classic works, but the term “expansion” has since been reused and developed: Richard Saint-Gelais defines expansion as follows, without reference to the type of text in question: “La relation transfictionnelle la plus simple, et à coup sûr la plus courante, consiste à proposer une expansion d’une fiction préalable, à travers une transfiction qui la prolonge sur le plan temporel, ou, plus largement, diégétique” (71).

6 For the categorisation of the way in which “blanks” in the original are “filled in” by such techniques of expansion, see Saint-Gelais 77.

7 They are also being written out of the trilogy—in Last Friends, although much referred to, Filth and Betty are both dead.

8 The “Handover” (the transfer of sovereignty from the British to the Chinese) took place in 1997.

9 “I have always preferred writing short stories to writing novels. I have had to learn over thirty years how to attack and survive a novel. A novel is a trek home from the desert, sometimes a journey you wish you had never started. Exhausting and humbling, just occasionally wonderful. But a short story can come from a deeper part of the cave. In a novel you make preparations. You lay in for a siege, carrying a flickering lantern. For a short story you need to carry a blow-lamp for a building site. James Joyce’s Dubliners were the first short stories I read that showed me a completeness that a novel never can have” (Gardam, “Write”).

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Helen E. Mundler, « “East is East”: Thematic and Textual Confluence in Jane Gardam’s “Chinese Funeral” », Journal of the Short Story in English, 69 | 2017, 149-163.

Référence électronique

Helen E. Mundler, « “East is East”: Thematic and Textual Confluence in Jane Gardam’s “Chinese Funeral” », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 69 | Autumn 2017, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2019, consulté le 26 janvier 2020. URL :


Helen E. Mundler

Dr. Helen E. Mundler studied at Durham and Strathclyde before obtaining her PhD in 1998 at the University of Strasbourg, with a thesis on Byatt’s work. The published version is entitled Intertextualité dans l’oeuvre d’A.S. Byatt (Paris, Harmattan, 2003). She has been Associate Professor at the University of Paris-Est Créteil since the year 2000, with a research affiliation at the University of Nanterre-La Défense, where she defended her Habilitation à diriger des recherches in 2014. Helen E. Mundler has written widely on the novels and short stories of a range of British women writers, and has also published a novel and short stories. Another book, The Otherworlds of Liz Jensen: a Critical Reading (New York, Camden House) was published in September 2016.

Articles du même auteur

Droits d’auteur

© All rights reserved

  • OpenEdition Journals