One of the best known Western writers on China is a woman who grew up in China, the daughter of Christian missionaries: Pearl S. Buck, author of The Good Earth. In Pearl of China, Anchee Min creates Willow, child of a poor Chinese family and young Pearl’s best friend. By focusing on Willow instead of Pearl, Min allows the reader to experience not only the highs and lows of Pearl’s life, but also the realities of life in China; the choice of WIllow is crucial here, as there was a time when Pearl was denounced by Chairman Mao’s government and exiled from China. The true heart of Min’s story, however, comes from the fact that she herself was forced during the Cultural Revolution to denounce Pearl S. Buck. It was after she came to the United States and was published that she was gifted a copy of The Good Earth by a reader and she discovered the beauty of Buck’s work. From there, the idea of Pearl of China was born.
Set in mid-19th century China, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan focuses on Lily, a young girl from a farming family. Lily is recommended for a laotong relationship — essentially an emotional marriage between two women — with Snow Flower, a more cultured girl from town. The girls’ friendship lasts for years, throughout foot bindings, arranged marriage, and motherhood; communicated through messages written on fans and stories on handkerchiefs. Eventually, though, the two women are forced apart by a terrible misunderstanding. Can their strong foundation of friendship be saved, or will they be torn apart forever? See creates such memorable characters that readers will be hard-pressed not to become invested in the answer to this question.
“Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend” – Chairman Mao
In 1957, Chairman Mao declares a new openness in society; many intellectuals distrust his promise, but eventually some of them begin to enumerate how they think China could be improved. Mao is, as one might guess, less than thrilled with the dissent and many are taken to reeducation camps, including Sheng, a teacher, who leaves at home his wife, father, and 6-year-old son. A Hundred Flowers is the story of Sheng’s family as they attempt to hold their household together without him. A fascinating and intimate look at the Cultural Revolution, A Hundred Flowers is a highly worthwhile read.
Many young people decide to travel before settling down, but Susan Jane Gilman and her schoolmate Claire take the unusual step of traveling to the People’s Republic of China. In 1986. Three years before the Tiananmen Square protests. Still, the girls have a relatively easy time of it. Until, that is, Claire begins acting strangely. Claire grows increasingly secretive and warns Gilman that they may be followed by any one (or more) of a number of spy agencies, an obsession that is seemingly confirmed by her insistence that the young Israeli man she met on their trips was a member of Mossad. Gilman’s travel memoir is not only excellently written, but is an absolute page turner, as you try to figure out whether Claire is crazy, or whether she is truly involved in high-stakes espionage and, either way, how Gilman is going to survive her trip.
Wild Swans is at once a history and a family narrative. Jung Chang describes the evolution of 20th century China through the story of three generations of the women in her family. Between Chang, her mother, and her grandmother, they lived through foot binding, Japanese occupation, and the rise of Communism. While Chang’s prose is on the spare side, readers who take the time to truly delve into Wild Swans cannot help but be touched by the stories of these women.
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