Tuesday, 22 November 2011

"My Father and Maugham": On a Chinese Screen

Soong, Stephen C. "My Father and Maugham". Tran. Diana Yu. Renditions  3 (1974): 81-90.


This article, published a hundred years after Maugham's birth and several years after his death, is a call for understanding of one of Maugham's "unfairly" portrayed subjects, the receiving end of the urbane author's sarcastic darts.

The person concerned occupies one of the chapters "A Student of the Drama" in On a Chinese Screen (1922) [see note], a collection of scenes that Maugham recorded during his travel in China. Maugham records an interview with a young Chinese scholar who approaches him for advice/comments on the art of drama. In this case, Maugham is merciless and the scholar is left at the end looking ridiculous: a young Chinese influenced by Western culture without understanding it and has forgotten the richness of his own.

The scholar (nameless in the chapter) is identified as Soong Tzun Fong. The article is penned by the scholar's son, Stephen Soong (professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong), who feels that his father was unjustly portrayed, due to Maugham's misunderstanding of the Chinese culture and society at that time. He explains in the article the background of his father's education and achievements, of the Chinese society at the time of the meeting between his father and Maugham.

Curiously, while Stephen Soong sets out to restore his father's image and rejects the one that Maugham created as a laughing stock so as to reclaim respect for his father, the reader cannot help but read something more, namely the father and son relationship. One sees the portrait of a waning, well-respected, hard working and conscientious scholar (and like so many others, forgotten), whom his son loves devotedly and passionately, a model for his own life, but there is a distance between the two that cannot be bridged, words left unsaid, stories untold, lives unshared.

It is an interesting article to see how Maugham transforms his living material to fit his own purpose and ideas. While the character remains nameless in Maugham's text, ironically Stephen Soong, who sets out to restore his father's reputation, has forever given name to the young ridiculous Chinese scholar, which otherwise would have been forgotten (untainted) and the portrait would have remained a trope of how the West sees the East.

§ The first edition of On a Chinese Screen is available digitally, please visit the eBooks page. For paper editions, please use the search engines on the right.

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