I have a genuine passion for learning about the history of the place of my ancestors’ origin: China. In my free time, I will engross myself in reading books that enable me to gain a deeper insight of China’s illustrious past - how it tumbled from a celestial empire to a country marred by foreign powers attacks and eventually re-ascend as a modern day smart nation.
However, I do acknowledge that some hard-core history books might be dry especially when one first begins to explore this field…it may feel as if the books are just bombarding one with a ton of historical facts. Therefore, for beginners especially, I find historical fictions or (auto) biographies a much easier genre of books to start out in. They are more relatable and enjoyable to read. Hence, in this post, I would like to share some wonderful books of such genres that I deeply enjoy.
Shanghai Girls is a story set in the timeframe of 1937 to 1957. It tells the story of two incredible sisters Pearl and May 👭 who were “Beautiful Girls” in 20th century Shanghai. The girls were born with a silver spoon in their mouths and enjoyed lavish lifestyles. They never had to worry about food and shelter, had countless beautiful cheongsams to wear and servants to attend their needs. Unfortunately, when their father fell into debt, the girls had to be married off to “Gold Mountain men” as payment. Pearl was to be married to the older son while May was to be married to the younger son of the same family. Just as how the celestial empire was crumbling under the hands of foreign barbarians and as threats of WWII loomed, their glitzy and glamourous lives in Shanghai quickly becomes torn apart. Pearl and May subsequently suffered losses of their parents (their mother dies from rape by the Japanese soldiers apes while their father goes missing) and unwillingly boards a ferry to the United States to meet their husbands.
In the journey to the United States, the sisters find that May is pregnant — though not with her legal husband in the United States. In a turn of events, they decide to disguise the baby to be Pearl’s baby. 👧The baby is named Joy and the sisters tricks their husbands’ family into believing that Pearl is the mother. In the new land, Pearl and May had to learn to put down their past grievances and adapt quickly. They were no longer “beautiful girls” and were expected to work to contribute to their family’s income. They lived together in a tiny shabby house of Chinatown, suffered under the strict rule of their father-in-law and dreamt of the day Joy grows up and attend college.
Joy grows up and eventually attends college. However, she becomes involved in a communism student organisation at college and her family is suspected by the American government to be communism sympathisers. They are then called in for questioning and their American citizenships are at risk. This series of events incurs a tremendous amount of stress for the family especially Sam, who is Pearl’s husband and Joy’s father, and ends with him committing suicide.
Joy blames herself for her father’s death and she later discovers from an argument between May and Pearl that her birth father is in China and that May is her real mother instead of Pearl. Joy becomes confused. The book ends with her deciding to return to China to find her birth father and to show her support for communism.
Dreams of Joy is a sequel to Shanghai Girls. It tells the story of how American-born Joy arrives in communist China. In China, Joy realises that life under communism was not how she envisioned. 👩🌾👨🌾 Her upbringing in America did not prepare her for the harsh life in Communist China and she ponders about whether her decision to return was right. Eventually though, Joy finds her birth father and confronts him to acknowledge her. As a mother, Pearl decides to return to China and convince Joy to come back to America while May took care of her ailing husband in the United States. They undergo a series of trials and the story eventually ends with them outsmarting the communist Chinese officials and sneaking out of China while hidden in a truck.
The central theme of two books would be the bond between the sisters. It shows the strengths of the sisters in overcoming challenges that came their way. Although they had disagreements at times, at the end of the day, their sisters bond were unbreakable. The book also gave me a glimpse of how China had transformed within a few decades from just before WWII to during the Mao Ze Dong’s rule. Through the first sequel, I gained an understanding of Chinese immigrants lives and their longing for their motherland. Whereas, in the second sequel, I was able to better understand more about the lives of individuals under Mao Ze Dong.
On Gold Mountain is a biography of Lisa See’s Chinese American Family. The book centers on the journey of Fong See, Lisa See’s great grandfather on how he left China for the United States.
California was nicknamed the Gold Mountain because of the California Gold Rush where thousands of Chinese from Guangdong traveled to America to mine for Gold. Fong See was one out of the many men who left China with the dream of breaking out of poverty and becoming rich one day. Eventually, he did succeed in becoming an influential businessman.🤑
The book succeeds in illustrating the struggles faced by Chinese men in America. It showcases the prejudice and discriminations exerted by the local Caucasians who deemed the Chinese to be an inferior race. Along the way, the strong spirit of the Chinese were demonstrated to be unbreakable as they fought to rise above the challenges and make a fortune for themselves. It is a great book for understanding the historical developments and struggles faced by the Chinese community in America.
I was first introduced to this book in my secondary 1/2 literature class where my teacher read a chapter of the book to us. Even though it was just a single short chapter of the book, I fell in love with it immediately. At the end of the class, I told myself that I had to get my hands on the entire book and read it from head to tail. Coming from a family where buying books was seen as a waste of money (instead I was encouraged to loan books from the library), I never got the chance to purchase the book. Nevertheless, I always kept this book at the back of my mind.
By a stroke of luck, several years later, during an afternoon visit to a public regional library, I saw the book lying on the shelves of the book donation corner. I could not believe my eyes! I can still remember the adrenaline rush I felt as I marched my way towards the shelves and resolved to grab hold of the book before anyone else did so. Though it was a second hand copy with annotations made by the previous owner, i did not mind it at all. I was very happy and excited to be able to own a physical copy the book! Later on, I found out that there was a movie made in Hollywood by Wayne Wang and I watched the wonderful production on an airplane ride. Nowadays, from time to time, I would watch the pirated version of the movie on YouTube ;)
I enjoyed this book for its’ vivid description of the lives, beliefs and traditions of the Chinese in the past. It tells the story of four courageous women who had to face difficulties in their lives stemming from the political events that were ongoing in China and discriminations faced by females in a patriarchal dominated society. Regardless, they persevered, overcame all sort of challenges and found themselves in the “land of all dreams”: America. In their newfound homeland, they left behind their past burdens in China and sought to raise their daughters to the best of their abilities. In between, these four women who met each other in America, decided to form their own club, called the Joy Luck Club. It was a club for them to gather to play mahjong, feast on delicacies, buy stocks and most importantly, provide support to one another in a foreign land.
The four set of mothers in this club faced misunderstandings and “gaps” with their daughters. The book tells the hopes harboured by each Chinese mother for their daughters and the efforts made in expressing their concern and care for their children through their “Chinese ways” which, unfortunately were often misunderstood or scorned upon by their “Americanised” daughters. Their daughters could not understand those “Chinese ways” and often mocked their mothers for their “old-fashioned” and “superstitious” thinking. However, eventually the daughters soon realises that their mothers are stronger than they appear and they come to respect them for their bravery and wisdom. The daughters also starts to appreciate the love their mothers have for them.
The vivid descriptions of the individuals in the book fulfilled my personal fantasies of living in olden China. It also satisfied my curiosity about other people’s lives — how Chinese immigrants and their descendants lived in America. It was also a book which celebrated the strength of the Mother and Daughter bond. Therefore, I enjoyed it thoroughly.
The Kitchen God’s Wife is a book inspired by Amy Tan’s own mother. Similar to The Joy Luck Club, this book tells the story of a Chinese mother’s life and how she overcame all odds to arrive at America. The protagonist of this book is a Chinese lady named Winnie. Her life story is told through the pretext of Winnie telling her story to her American daughter, Pearl Louie.
Back in China, Winnie suffered from constant physical bullying from her abusive, sadist husband who often violated her physical rights. She had no choice but to be a meek and obedient wife and she lived in constant terror of her husband. A vivid picture of the male dominated society is evident in the book where the female protagonist is forced to obey against her will in line with tradition. Due to her husband’s soldier job, Winnie moves from one city to another and witnesses the political upheaval that her country faces by the Japanese occupation. Her story is one of struggle, fight against fate, mother’s love and triumph where in a twist of exciting events, Winnie eventually left her abusive husband and migrated to America with her new American-born Chinese husband. 👨👩👧👦
Once again, It is a book that is worth reading to understand more about the political scene as well as traditional beliefs of the people in China.
Adeline Yen Mah
The autobiography Falling Leaves , 落叶归根 🍂tells the story of the author’s real life. Adeline’s birth had led to the death of her birth mother and hence, she was considered by her family and outsiders to be bad luck. Her father later took on a second wife. Despite being part of an affluent family, she grew up as an “unwanted girl” where she did not enjoy the riches of her family. She was mistreated by her step mother and neglected by her birth father. The only two people she was close to were her aunt and grandfather. Due to the “divide and conquer” strategy employed by her step mother in the family, Adeline often found herself at opposite ends with her siblings where they banded against her. Despite all the misgivings, Adeline excelled in her studies and she eventually grew to become an accomplished medical doctor and writer.
While the book mainly told the story of Adeline’s life through the eyes of herself from a little girl, the writer made space in the book, whereby certain sections of the chapters were dedicated to give a detailed narration of the political events in China. It is a great book to understand about how the political events of China had affected the lives of the population (albeit the rich ones who could afford to migrate to other countries in time).
I was moved by this book. As i flipped through the pages, i could not help but empathise greatly with the author. Despite being mistreated by her family members, she stayed strong and bored no hate for them. I find it astonishing that, in fact, her greatest wish in life was to have a united and happy family.
I first came to know of these three sisters from the movie The Soong Sisters (1997). Prior to this, I had only heard of Sun Yat Sen and Chiang Kai Sheik but not much on these three sisters of which two were the wives of these two legendary men. The movie tells the stories of these three women’s lives and how they came to be known as the three most famous Chinese sisters in history.
Big Sister is called Soong Ei Ling, Red Sister is named Soong Ching Ling while Little Sister is named Soong Mei Ling. The latter two were the wives of Sun Yat Sen and Chiang Kai Sheik respectively. On the other hand, big sister Soong Ei Ling was married to a businessman who dabbled in finance.
The book details the family background of the three girls, their schooling years in the United States as well as how they came to meet their life partners and the roles in which they contributed to the success of their husbands and China. Eventually, owing to the different political allegiance shared by the sisters, their relationships were strained. Red sister remained in China during Chairman Mao’s communist rule while the other two sisters lived in exile overseas.
Out of the three sisters, Little Sister who is also known as Madame Chiang Kai Sheik is the most popular and well known public figure. She was well known for her passionate and convincing speeches towards both overseas Chinese and westerners in persuading them to donate to the China cause in resisting the Japanese who were attacking China as well as the communist forces.
Red sister, being the wife of Dr Sun Yat Sen who is perceived as the father of republic China, is viewed as a national treasure. Due to her marital status, she is accorded high respect as she is seen as a Chinese patriot and someone who has great love for her motherland. Despite having family links who are opposed to the Communism ideology, Ching Ling is spared from mistreatment during the cultural revolution. In fact, she was even given the position of Vice Chairman of the People’s Republic of China during Mao Ze Dong’s rule (although most of the time, she stayed out of political matters and was not consulted).
Big sister played a very important role behind the scene, in terms of providing financial support as well as being an advisor to Chiang Kai Sheik. She is credited as the smartest sister out of them and had a knack for business and finance. It is thanks to her that the Soong family accumulated a huge amount of wealth which were then used to support Chiang Kai Sheik’s political causes and the family’s lavish lifestyles.
Overall, this book was informational in allowing me to understand more about the lives of these three famous sisters. It was also a refreshing change from the usual historical biographies centering on males.
This is by far one of the best novel I have ever read. I found it to be so good that I feel that I am unable to give a good review of this book with my limited vocabulary and writing skills. Nevertheless, I will try to pen my thoughts down.
The novel is set to begin in the year of 1900 which coincides with the period of the Boxing Rebellion that China was then engulfed in. The main protagonist is a 10 year old girl Mulan. Mulan and her family are fleeing Peking (Beijing) to Hangzhou, which is located in the South of China, to escape from the violence and danger that threatened the peace and harmony of Peking. As a result, the family have to bring with them their belongings, pack up and evacuate. A day before their departure, the head of the family, Mulan’s father, decides to bury the family’s valuable curios underground so that they stay hidden should their house be invaded in the family’s absence. In view of it, Mulan expresses her concerns to her father about whether it was a safe-proof measure. To which, he replies:
“Everything has its destined owner. How many hundred owners do you think those Chou bronzes have had in the last three thousand years? No one ever permanently owns a thing in this world. For the time being, I am their owner. A hundred years from now, who will be their owner?”
From this answer, we can see that Mulan’s father is imparting to Mulan the wisdom of “Time and Impermanence”, which is a concept put forth strongly by Taoism. By nature, Mulan’s father is a wise man, educated in the Chinese classics and a Taoist at heart. While he is Chinese in his beliefs, he is also a modern man in many ways as demonstrated in many instances within the book where he is quick to voice his support for new ideas that are thought to be good for the betterment of society. Mulan, the protagonist of the novel, looks up to her father and takes after him in many ways. Throughout the novel, many of Mulan’s thinking and actions can traced back to her father’s teachings and beliefs. Her father’s wisdom is akin to the lighthouse by the sea, guiding her through her life. As a result, she herself is a capable, intelligent and quick-witted girl, commonly praised by many whom she interacts with through her life.
Through the eyes of Mulan growing up as a girl to a married mature woman with her own family, this novel exposes readers to the daily lives, happenings, habits and thinking of the Chinese people living in the era of 1900 till roughly 1940s. Although it is a fiction book, the events that happens in Mulan’s life are shaped by real world happenings and the author makes the effort to describe sufficiently of the historical backdrop so that readers can understand the contents with ease. It is a story filled with exciting happenings and beautifully detailed enough for readers to appreciate the beauty of the Chinese culture.
Throughout the novel, it is evident that Taoism thinking is an important theme of the story as the characters behaves and thinks accordingly to the Taoism teachings. Another key theme of this novel would be family. In the novel, we can see that Mulan is close to both members (servants included) of her immediate family members as well as in-laws. She takes great pain and effort to extend her helping hand whenever anyone she knows of is in need of one. As she evolves from a little girl to a mature woman, it is her who steps up to shoulder the responsibilities of her family.
The book is truly a delight to read and it offers readers a feast for the eyes. After reading this book, one new thought that came to my mind was that the people from 100 years ago are so much different from the people in present-day. They seem to be more cultivated and cultured in terms of their manners, thinking, behaviour and dressing. It’s such a pity that these days, due to globalisation, our behaviours (regardless of ethnicity) are somewhat homogeneous and shallow, no doubt highly influenced by the Western influence.