Mulberry as a Cultural Archetype for the Chinese People During the Era of the Cultural Revolution

Mulberry and Peach is a groundbreaking work of literature that details revolutionary moments in Chinese history. The author of this novel, Hualing Nieh, has crafted an extraordinary account of the transitional phase that China experienced during the 20th century. Nieh tells this story in four parts, each of which corresponds to a crucial time period of modern China. These moments are relayed to the reader through the firsthand accounts of Mulberry, the protagonist of the novel, who experiences a turbulent era of uncertainty. Throughout Mulberry’s diaries, Nieh uses symbolism and allegories to tell the story of a nation and its people. Mulberry plays a vital role in this process; beyond simply serving as a storytelling vehicle, Mulberry represents the Chinese people and their culture. In this way, Mulberry functions as a cultural archetype for the Chinese people during the era of the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, evident through her reactions to her past, her experiences with cultural assimilation, and the symbolic references in various aspects of her character.

On September 2nd, 1966, Mulberry receives her passport to America (Nieh 161). In the same year, the Cultural Revolution began in China. This connection underlines Mulberry’s time in America as a representation of the Chinese people during this transitional period. Mulberry, along with her Chinese contemporaries, experiences traumatic events that shape the future of China, like the Rape of Nanking, the Japanese occupation of China, the Chinese Civil War, and the Great Leap Forward. These events left lasting impressions on the Chinese people and Nieh offers a glimpse into the gravity of the situation by detailing the impact that Mulberry’s past has on her. Mulberry develops a severe case of Dissociative Identity Disorder. Although her mental illness begins to assert itself while she is living in Taiwan, the full split between her two personalities occurs in the United States. Peach, her alternate personality, is born during this time and announces her permanent presence with the statement, “It was my joke. You’re dead, Mulberry. I have come to life” (183). Peach’s declaration signifies the breakdown in Mulberry’s sanity that has been a long time in the making.

Forming a new personality is Mulberry’s reaction to the horrific events that she has experienced. Specifically, the Rape of Nanking left a lasting impact on Mulberry. Mulberry was born in Nanking and most likely lived there during the attack on the city by Japanese forces, which occurred on December 13th, 1937. Mulberry does not directly reference the attack, but Nieh makes allusions to the profound impact it had on China throughout the novel. One of these allusions is presented while Mulberry is living in an attic in Taiwan with her family. Mulberry’s husband, Chia-kang becomes fascinated with repairing a broken clock whose hands are stuck on the time twelve thirteen (121). Twelve thirteen is equivalent to December 13th, the date of the Rape of Nanking. It seems as though Nieh is trying to convey that Mulberry, or China as a whole, is still fixated on that event. The Rape of Nanking left mental and emotional scars on the people that experienced it–Mulberry being no exception. Mulberry’s mental illness in the last part of the novel can be traced back to her time in the attic. While living there, Mulberry begins to show signs of schizophrenia, experiencing delusions and writing in her diary about, “[Rats] gnawing overhead from my toes to my forehead, then back down again” (116). It is not a coincidence that her mental deterioration is occurring in the same space that the clock is stuck on twelve thirteen. This is an intentional choice employed by Nieh to present Mulberry as a cultural archetype for the Chinese people. The events that the Chinese experienced left lasting impacts on their mental health and commonly, as in the case of Mulberry, these mental scars did not manifest themselves until later time periods.

Beyond her connection to dramatic events in Chinese history, Mulberry is also presented as an archetype through her typical experiences with cultural adaptation in the United States. The culture shock following her immigration to the United States is a reaction that many Chinese immigrants experienced during this time period. Chinese diaspora was the displacement of the Chinese people following the nation’s dramatic political upheavals. During the Cultural Revolution many Chinese fled their country in a mass exodus from the atrocities in their homeland (Kuhn). In the United States, the Chinese faced new cultural challenges and Mulberry exemplifies this struggle to fit into a new cultural atmosphere. Mulberry’s increased awareness of her sexual identity in the United States is one illustration of this. Mulberry has always been more sexually promiscuous than the traditional Chinese woman. She loses her virginity out of wedlock at a young age, which goes against traditional Chinese customs. But in America, her sexual freedom reaches a new height. Mulberry’s sexual encounters become increasingly explicit in the last part of the novel, as seen through her relationship with Chiang I-po. In the scenes between the two of them, there is more detail than in any other sexual scene in the novel. The explicit nature of these scenes can be effectively summed up in the sentence, “I wash him, touch him, kiss him, lick him” (169). Nieh is actually describing the sexual acts, rather than simply stating that they happened as seen in the vague description of Mulberry’s first time having sex, “I lie down on top of him. We don’t say anything. My virgin blood trickles down his legs” (45). The culture of America in the 1970’s was radically because of the Sexual Revolution (“People & Events”). The fact that Mulberry is also experiencing a type of “sexual revolution” proves that she is assimilating into her new home. She is losing some of her conservative Chinese values, which is typical for an uprooted person faced with a new culture.

The impact of American culture on the diasporic Chinese did more than simply change their opinions on traditions. It also victimized the Chinese and they were discriminated against. Mulberry is subjected to this victimization by the immigration officer who is investigating her case. She is being investigated, just like all Chinese immigrants would have been, for any traces of connection to the Communist Party. Throughout the investigation, it is clear that the immigration officer does not respect neither her nor her privacy. Mulberry views the immigration officer’s actions towards her as aggressive, she states that, “The two black lenses [of his sunglasses] moved toward me threateningly” (164). The officer insists on calling her “Helen”, stripping her of her cultural identity. This proves Mulberry as an archetype because the Chinese were discriminated against in the United States due to the fear of communism abroad during the Cold War.

Finally Mulberry can be examined as a cultural archetype through the symbolic references to China presented in her character. Her name is one clear indication of the culture that she represents. “Mulberry is a holy tree, Chinese people consider it the chief of the tree family, it can feed silkworms, silkworms can produce milk…” (178). This passage displays the importance of the mulberry tree in Chinese tradition. The fact that Mulberry is named after a symbol of Chinese culture helps to show that she is meant to be an archetype for the Chinese people. Mulberry is also attached to China by a crucial symbol in the novel, the jade griffin. Mulberry’s griffin represents not only the split in Mulberry’s personalities, but also the split between Mulberry’s traditional Chinese values and her newfound cultural identity as she conforms to the modern era. The jade aspect of the griffin is the connecting factor to Mulberry’s Chinese heritage. Jade is the “gold of China” and is seen as a heavenly object. It has been venerated throughout history as not only a material of monetary value, but of moral importance. Jade is said to have five virtues that all humans should strive to possess, accentuating the value of jade to Chinese society (Chinese Jade). The cultural significance of jade underlines the connection of Mulberry to her culture.

After a critical analysis of the novel, it can be surmised that Mulberry functions as a cultural archetype throughout the novel Mulberry and Peach. This idea is particularly drawn from Mulberry’s typical reactions to her past, her struggles with cultural accommodation, and the symbols of China tied to her character. Hualing Nieh intentionally uses allusions and archetypes to convey the rich cultural tradition of the Chinese people. Specifically, the usage of Mulberry as an archetype creates a connection between the audience and the culture that her novel reflects. Nieh is bridging the gap between her readership and the complex society she paints a picture of, a truly remarkable feat.