Sui Sin Far, Mrs. Spring Fragrance
Study Guides on Works and Writers
(Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1912)
The Asian American author Sui Sin Far was named Edith Maude Eaton at birth in England in 1865. Her father was an English merchant who had met her mother in Shanghai. Edith Eaton was the second of fourteen children. Her family immigrated to the United States, where they lived briefly, before moving to Montreal, Quebec. She left school at the age of ten to work and help support her family. Eaton wrote articles for newspapers in Canada about the Chinese before moving first to Jamaica and then to San Francisco and Seattle, where she lived in the Chinatowns. She later wrote fiction about the experience of the Chinese who had settled in North America during the period of the so-called “Yellow Peril.” Her short-story cycle Mrs. Spring Fragrance, a seminal text in the history of Asian American writing, appeared in 1912, and she died from heart disease two years later.
Other Asian American writers had published before Sui Sin Far, a pseudonym referring to the narcissus flower popular in Chinese culture. The earlier writers, however, set their tales in Asia or wrote in Asian languages. Sui Sin Far’s fiction is the first to explore the Chinese experience in North America and in English. The writer’s mixed-blood perspective and international experience allowed for a range of insights into the struggle between East and West at a time China was the target of colonization by European, North American, and Japanese interests.
Mrs. Spring Fragrance begins with the introduction of the title character as she arrives in Seattle. She speaks no English. Within five years, however, she has a complete knowledge of “American” vocabulary. One of her friends, so thoroughly Americanized that her parents call her Laura, is in love with a young native-born American of Chinese descent, Kai Tzu, whose assimilation is represented by his skill at baseball. Laura’s parents live in an American house and dress in American fashion, but they adhere to some Chinese customs and honor the ideals of their Chinese ancestors. As a result, they have arranged a marriage between their fifteen-year-old daughter and the son of a Chinese Government teacher in San Francisco. As Laura’s confidante, Mrs. Spring Fragrance is the only person who knows of the young woman’s relationship with her American-born beau. She comforts Laura with the words of the “American” poet, Alfred Tennyson: “’ Tis better to have loved and lost, / Than never to have loved at all.” Mrs. Spring Fragrance’s mistake—Tennyson was English, not American—underscores her assimilation into American society.
Mrs. Spring Fragrance chats with Laura for a long time, and when the conversation ends Laura is much happier. The story shifts at this point to a visit Mrs. Spring Fragrance makes to her family and friends in San Francisco. From there she writes to Laura to say that the man she had expected to marry but did not love will in fact marry Ah Oi, whose name is clearly Chinese and who is given no “American” name. The son of the government teacher will marry according to tradition, leaving Laura free to marry with Kai Tzu.
In the next section Mr. Spring Fragrance reads two letters: one from his wife, the other from a cousin in San Francisco. The latter reports his wife’s frequent company with the government teacher’s son, adding an admonition that women who are allowed to stray from under their husbands’ mulberry roofs become butterflies. Although Mr. Spring Fragrance concludes that his cousin is old and cynical and in America men and women might converse without an evil purpose, he harbors a small kernel of doubt. That kernel takes root as he considers compliments he and his wife have received for her assimilation into American society, leading him to worry that his wife might decide “to love as an American woman—a man to whom she was not married.” He decides not to give her the jade pendant he has purchased for their fifth anniversary. His worry grows as he thinks of the Tennyson lines again; he telegraphs his wife that she may stay the additional time in California that she desires, but adds the Tennyson quote as a kind of cryptic warning. Mrs. Spring Fragrance is delighted to think her husband had been reading her American poetry books in her absence, musing that it was necessary that she be discreet in helping Laura, given her husband’s “old-fashioned notions concerning marriage.” She remembers how they had fallen in love with one another simply by seeing the other’s photograph.
Part 4 opens with Mr. Spring Fragrance speaking with Mr. Chin Yuen, Laura’s father, who observes that as the old order passes away a new one is taking its place, even with the Chinese. His consent to his daughter’s wish to marry Kai Tzu, a man of her own choosing, surprises Mr. Spring Fragrance, and Chin Yuen’s explanation further nourishes the doubt growing in his mind. When his wife returns, she is delighted to be back in Seattle, but her husband is unresponsive, orders the servant boy to make her comfortable, then leaves, ostensibly to attend to business at the store. However, he returns quickly, to his wife’s surprise. She never learns of her husband’s doubt. When she says she suspects he has been reading her poetry books, he dismisses the notion “fiercely,” saying that “American poetry is detestable, abhorrable! [sic].” She exclaims “Why! why!” Her husband’s reply is simply to give her the jade pendant he had purchased for the anniversary that had passed.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. Sui Sin Far’s stories focus on the issues of immigration and assimilation. How do they handle notions of cultural transplantation? What is the purpose of Sui Sin Far’s floral imagery? How does the author treat the idea of romantic love? How does she contrast arranged Asian marriages with marriages based on courtship and romance? How does Sui Sin Far portray Asian femininity and Asian masculinity transplanted to the New World?
- 2. Much as Henry James is well known for his treatment of the “international theme,” Sui Sin Far contrasts the social codes of the Asians and Asian Americans with the customs of Euro-Americans in the New World. Why does Mr. Spring Fragrance finger a “li-chi” in his pocket and touch the little box containing the jade pendant he has purchased as a fifth-anniversary gift? Do Mrs. and Mr. Spring Fragrance express nostalgia for their homeland? Why does Mr. Spring Fragrance denounce the sentiment expressed in the Tennyson poem? How do the repeated references in the story to “American” language, in which the Chinese characters conflate the dialects of America and England, critique Western caricatures and stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans?
- 3. Asians have often been the target of racial prejudice in the West, as in the Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882, which was renewed in 1892 and again in 1902. In what ways does Sui Sin Far satirize Western bias against the Chinese? Why does Mrs. Spring Fragrance describe the “magniloquent” lecture she attended with an American friend and why is the description ironic? In what ways does Mrs. Spring Fragrance contrast the customs of East and West in the lives of Chinese immigrants in America? How do these stories present Westerners as different or “Other,” their ways mysterious and strange to the Chinese who sometimes mimic them?
Annette White-Parks, Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton: A Literary Biography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995).
A useful introduction to the life and work of the author.
Mary Chapman, “A ‘Revolution in Ink’: Sui Sin Far and Chinese Reform Discourse,” American Quarterly, 60 (December 2008): 975-1001.
Examines the work of Sui Sin Far as a response to contemporary suffragists. Contends that Sui Sin Far’s writing was not “anti-progressive” or “anti-suffragist,” claims made by some recent scholars, but rather transnational and modern.
Xiao-Huang Yin, “Between the East and West: Sui Sin Far, the First Chinese-American Woman Writer,” Arizona Quarterly, 47 (Winter 1991): 49-84.
Notes that Sui Sin Far was nearly alone among immigrant writers of Chinese descent in writing imaginative literature. Reviewing her favorable contemporary reception, this important essay places it in context as part of an effort to improve the image of Asian Americans in the West.