Saturday, August 1, 2020

A Book Review that Struck a Chord

I've said this often enough: that one of the greatest rewards for a writer may be to discover resonating reviews of his/her books written by readers. It was so gratifying to stumble upon one such review yesterday on Goodreads, written by Joy. For my blog readers' convenience, I'm copying and pasting the whole review below. [Link to the full review]

"An engrossing historical fiction novel featuring three Ming Dynasty women bonded in sistership: Liu Rushi, Chen Yuanyuan and Li Xiangjun. In the form of a memoir and recollections to Jing Jing, Rushi's daughter, the lives of these three women are chronicled :- sold to thin horse breeders as young slave girls, trained in poetry, dancing, musical instruments, calligraphy, painting, singing for the purposes of pleasing men, shunned as jian min, falling in love but thwarted by strict societal mores, raped and abused.

Ms Poon brings to life the atmosphere of that era; the scholars and the Revival Society, pleasure boats, Lantern festival, banquets, performances, political discussions at tea houses, tang yuan dessert. Framing historical events like Chongzhen Emperor's execution of Yuan Chonghuan, the invasion of the Manchus, the hanging suicide of the last Ming Emperor help to situate us in the timeline. The recitation and/or performance of Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming poetry and opera were convincingly protrayed; I wished for more poetry competitions or parties where the poets are challenged to spar with matching quartrains or couplets. The inclusion of minute details such as the wedding rituals for a primary wife (yes, men in that time could have concubines galore) show the painstaking research invested in writing this book.

I like how Tales of Ming Courtesan depicts common folk living everyday life. Often tales and media concentrate on the power makers; the Emperor, government officials, generals, jiang hu people. The Emperor always talks expansively about 平民百姓 - the common folk, the peasantry, citizenry, his subjects. Yet stories rarely concentrate on telling their life stories, their triumphs and sadness. They're the ones helpless against the changing winds of power, suffer under the yoke of corrupt officials and heavy taxes, buffeted by natural disasters like drought and flooding, crop failure, famines, diseases, war. It's heartening to read about these three women battered by life circumstances forging a path for themselves, albeit a difficult one. At the same time, it was disturbing that these talented women had to seek the protection of men to even have the smallest foothold in this traditional conservative Confucian society. Cultural details like 'lotus feet,' referring to the practice of binding females feet when they are young so their feet become painfully deformed resulting in a swaying lotus gait thought to be alluring remind us that men's pleasure was built upon women's suffering. In addition, for Chen Yuan Yuan to be blamed in history for the defection of General Wu Sangui hastening the downfall of the Ming Dynasty is plainly unfair and ridiculous.

A little aside: eunuchs are viewed by most of the characters in the book as evil conniving 'unnatural creatures' manipulating the Emperor while it's also acknowledged they themselves are victims of circumstance, being poor village boys and brought to the palace to be castrated. This isn't a central part of the story at all but it piqued my interest. Especially since I happen to be watching a Chinese drama set in the Ming Dynasty where a powerful head eunuch (Wang Zhi) is depicted as loyal and dedicated.

I had recommended the library to acquire this book and to my delight, they did. Hopefully more people can enjoy reading this. The library also acquired The Green Phoenix at the same time so it's on my to be read list."

Thank you so much, Joy!

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