Review by Kris
Note: As this tale is very short, any analysis requires spoilers. Therefore, this will contain spoilers for all parts of the novella
This is a story that is so brilliant I have severe worries about the limits of my abilities to fully review it. One paragraph contains more depth and thought and insight than many books contain in a thousand pages. At the same time I also have to acknowledge my own privileges as a westernised Christian white man. Not only does it cast doubt on my ability to truly analyse the work but the text directly criticises the Western understanding of death. However, I have tried my best as this novella is a work that deserves much discussion.
In many ways the story resembles the traditional Golem or Robot tales. The titular bride starts out with no name or ideas, simply being brought to life by a script in her head. Designed simply to be an offering for the husband (Junsheng) she moves beyond this: getting a name; learning poetry and music; making her own decisions. In the end, it appears she has found a way to become human but this itself is a false assumption. She was always been as alive as everyone else.
“What passes to the next life is the inexorable force of kamma. Someone like you has no more soul than the terracotta woman did.”
Whilst this central idea is a well-worn one it is a very powerful one: the quest to be human. This story also goes in very interesting directions with the concept.
At one point it is stated:
“We’re dead and things are different”
However, from what we see, Hell is very much the same. This is because of the people that inhabit it. We see corruption, violence, abuse, boredom and annoyance that the young are not as attentive of the old as they believe they should be. People keep trying to stay in hell in order to avoid being reincarnated, they are so determined to avoid the fate they believe may await them. The story is much like The Allegory of the Long Spoons. Jusheng is only trying to feed himself, whilst Siew-Tsin and Ling’En feed each other.
The idea of a terracotta bride is considered to be objectionable to many as it makes the idea of reincarnation obsolete, it allows people to become Buddhas without putting in the work. This is very much harping back to Frankenstein:
"Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs."
In fact it goes even further with these parallels, claiming these are corrupting European ideas, who put dead people into automatas to do their work and worship at the altar of science. The implication is there this mode of thought is the kind that leads to delusions of grandeur and to horrors like slavery. Just as in Frankenstein, this story brings up the same idea, humans believing themselves to be gods will result in their fall.
Given its original appearance in Steam-Powered II: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories it would be remiss of me not to devote more time to the relationship between Siew-Tsin and Ling’En. The best way I would find to describe it would be sweet. A meeting of minds more than one of intense passion. The description of it is a red thread which extends beyond this life. It is a heartwarning tale that is subtle but utterly believable.
Zen Cho continues to show herself as one of the most interesting contemporary fantasy writers with this enthralling novella. In here she mashes together such a dazzling array of ideas in such a small space it is dazzling and rewards multiple readings. Ideas of robotics and Chinese history. Reincarnation and feminism. And so much more. A true delight.