Book Review: “Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden” by Zhuqing Li (@ZhuqingLi1 @wwnorton @EasternRegional)

Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden (W.W, Norton & Company, August 2022) by Zhuqing Li

As its subtitle suggests, Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden tells the life stories of two sisters separated by China’s Civil War. Written by Zhuqing Li, a professor in East Asian Studies at Brown University, the book illustrates how individual experiences and perspectives can be inevitably and irrevocably shaped by their times.

Jun and Hong are the author’s aunts. On August 17, 1949, when the People’s Liberation Army entered their hometown Fuzhou City on China’s southeastern coast, Jun happened to be visiting Jinmen (or Kinmen), a tiny island only 10 kilometres offshore. Overnight, the sisters found themselves in two different countries

Jinmen became part of the Republic of China (ROC) controlled by Nationalist forces on Taiwan, while the Communists ruled the mainland as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since then, both sides have claimed to be the only legitimate government of China, but each is unable to take back the territory that they deem stolen by the other.

The two women did what they could to forge careers and families in the midst of political and social upheaval. Separated by the “bamboo curtain”, both had made decisions that pulled them towards the ideologies of their governments. While the following paragraph is about Hong in China, it can also be applied to Jun in Taiwan:

“She chose a different path. Then and for the rest of her life, she opted to live a public life submitting to the Party’s authority and accepting it as necessary for herself, her family, and her country. Nestled inside this public façade like a Fabergé egg was her true self that would never be allowed to come to light. She chose to survive, and survival for her demanded a strict separation of the public image and the private self.”

Indeed, on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, different and often opposite versions of modern Chinese history were made, often by deliberately focusing on some facts while keeping the others hidden and by prioritising some words over the others. Both governments proceeded to establish, standardise and circulate the versions that best suited their political, economic, societal and cultural agendas.

The result is different and often opposite types of Chinese identity that frequently cause discussions and even plain descriptions of China-related events to be ideological rather than practical. Identity, as the product of a long process of sense-making, becomes an increasingly rigid “site”, leading those subscribing to it to defend its imagined boundaries in the same forceful way that citizens guard against the breaching of their country’s geopolitical borders.

Luckily, the writing in Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden is relatively neutral and focuses on individual stories rather than the history of China-Taiwan relations. While the book is highly personal, the author manages to strike a balance between sentimental and critical regarding the paths chosen by her aunts to meet the relentlessly cruel demands of their times. Those readers enjoying Jung Chang’s Wild Swans (2004) and Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister (2019) shall love this book.

Note: This book review was originally published under the title “A product of their time” by Ranges Trader Star Mail, February 14, 2023, P.14.


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