Sunday, January 31, 2010

Page 11: The Concubine's Daughter

China has been in the news recently for many reasons.  It is the holder of much of our debt, most of our products are manufactured in China, the Chinese Government (according to many in the tech industry) recently "hacked" into Google files looking for information on dissidents, and is in the process of becoming the economic engine of the Far East.  Anyone who has studied the history of China will not be surprised by any of this.

China was one of the earliest civilizations in the world co-existing with Egypt and Babylon.  The Chinese referred to themselves as the "Middle Kingdom" which confirmed their world centrist view.  They were ethnocentric and thought of themselves as the most civilized people on the face of the earth.  For many hundreds and thousands of years they were probably right.  When Marco Polo made his journeys to China in the 13th Century from Venice, he found an extraordinary civilization.  This was the beginning of the spice trade, importing of silk, and many other items never seen before in Europe.  When Portuguese sailors tried to find a water route to the Far East, this eventually led to the discovery of the Americas by Columbus and others.  Many subsequent explorers found their way to China by water.  In fact, the "China Trade" made many New England families very wealthy.  The Chinese viewed all of them as barbarians.

This Chinese government's foreign policy has not changed that much in spite of the years of Empire and Communism.  Yes, they are eager to trade with the West, but are still centrist in their world view.  In The Concubine's Daughter, Pai Kit Fai gives us a story that begins in the early part of the 20th Century and ends on the eve of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941.  The main characters of the book are three generations of Chinese women (grandmother, daughter, granddaughter) whose interactions with their own people and foreigners is presented against a backdrop of Chinese culture. If you are unfamiliar with Chinese culture or want to learn more than you currently know, this is an excellent book.  The bonus is the story itself.

The three women in the story, Pai-Ling, Li-Xia, and Siu-Sing all face the historical reality of the treatment of women in China.  Fathers wanted only sons.  Of course, if there were no daughters, there would be no sons.  Daughters were considered so unwanted they were ofter killed immediately after birth.  Those that did survive were treated like slaves.  They were the personal property of their father or husband and could be beaten, mistreated, and sold like slaves.

Pai-Ling, Li-Xia, and Siu-Sing all try to break the centuries old traditions and practices regarding women in China.  This book is about their courage in fighting the system, managing to survive setbacks, and using their intelligence to become more than any woman could ever hope for in China.  The terrible prejudice and hatred they suffer from their own people is a large part of this story.

The author uses water as a major theme.  The Pearl River Delta, Macao, Hong Kong, Kowloon, and Shanghai are all included as locations.  In addition, the interior of China plays an important role as well.  These rural and urban landscapes provide colorful and rich background for this book.

If you have any interest in the lives of women living in the male-dominated, centuries old culture of China in the early 20th Century, you should read this book.

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