Review: “Girls of the Fragrant Flower Garden”, Zhuqing Li
GIRLS OF THE FLOWER-SCENTED GARDEN: Two sisters separated by the Chinese Civil Warby Zhuqing Li
In the summer of 1949, young Chen Wenjun (“Jun”) got off a ferry in Jinmen, an island off the coast of southeastern China. She did not know that the communist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) occupied Fuzhou, her hometown, the night after she left. But in Jinmen, the anti-Communist nationalists held their ground. None of the 9,000 PLA soldiers who fought on the beaches of Jinmen have returned home. Neither was Jun, who now lived in a different country from his family. Jun’s short visit to a friend soon turned into a long exile.
“Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden,” written by Jun’s niece, Zhuqing Li, a professor of East Asian studies at Brown, tells the gripping story of Jun’s decades-long struggle to find his way home. Li begins in the Flower Fragrant Garden, a lavish complex in Fuzhou overlooking the Min River, where Jun lived happily with her father, a powerful salt commissioner, his two wives, and their children. One of these children was another of Li’s aunts, Hong (a pseudonym), whose story Li neatly braids with Jun’s. down to the family and plunges it into misery.
As Jun struggles to survive Jinmen, it is Hong who suffers the most, and it is his struggle that drives this gripping book. After the death of their father from tuberculosis, Hong, a skilled and passionate doctor, must support the large family on her salary alone. she is dismayed when her little brother and nephew are handed over to PLA officers, exchanged for sacks of rice. In the most gripping pages of the book, Li describes in excruciating detail how Hong is forced to stand full-time outside the hospital with a sign labeling her (incorrectly) a counter-revolutionary while passers-by spit on her. . Soon after, she is “re-educated” in a remote mountain village where she spends grueling days planting rice and sweet potatoes. (Her husband, China’s most famous cardiologist, becomes a hospital cleaner).
Li wisely fades into the background as she unfolds these stories, occasionally surfacing to provide personal context. But her love for her aunts warms every page. If this exceptional book has one flaw, it is this: Li presents the sisters as quasi-saints, often going to great lengths to justify any seemingly morally ambiguous choices they make.
But what choices! Li unpacks the decisions each made to survive and explains how those decisions pushed them towards the ideologies of their governments. Jun is drawn into the Nationalist cause, helping coordinate the Anti-Communist and Russian-Resistant Union, marrying a Nationalist officer, and eventually establishing a thriving import-export business in Taiwan. In contrast, Hong strives to clear his name, calls his son Jiyue, or “Keep Leaping”, in recognition of Mao’s Great Leap Forward campaign and becomes a member of the party. By placing the stories of her aunts side by side, Li asks the reader two equally compelling questions: Will the sisters ever be reunited? And if so, will they even know each other?
The very day I finished this book, President Biden was asked if the United States would defend Taiwan if China attacked. His answer ? “That’s the commitment we made.” “Girls of the Flower-Scented Garden” is not a history of Taiwan-China relations, but by telling this gripping tale of a family divided by the “bamboo curtain”, Li sheds light on the birth of Taiwan – and why China might one day risk it all for to take it.
Deirdre Mask is the author of “The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth and Power”.
GIRLS OF THE FLOWER-SCENTED GARDEN: two sisters separated by the Chinese Civil War, by Zhuqing Li | Illustrated | 368 pages | WW Norton & Company | $27.95