In 1881, a Chinese mandarin is beheaded for speaking the truth to the Emperor, leaving his 7 year old daughter, Jinhua, orphaned, as her mother died giving birth to her. His First Wife promptly sells her, and she, the pampered child who has unbound feet and the ability to read, ends up in a low class brothel and forced into being a ‘money tree’ at just shy of twelve years old. The only person who is kind to her through this is the brothel maid, Suyin. Her career is cut mercifully short, however, when a high government official, Subchancellor Hong, visits and decides she is the reincarnation of his old love. Jinhua’s life takes her not just to the upper class again, but to Vienna, and to Peking during the Boxer Rebellion.
Sai Jinhua was a real woman, and through the years much of the detail of her life has been lost, altered, and made legendary. The author has done her research, not just into Jinhua’s life but the lives of those who knew (or might have known) her, and into the conditions in China during the period, but of course, given all the varying ‘histories’ she has had to make choices about which ones to use and breathe life into the story. The story comes off as (mostly) real feeling, but drags at times. The last part of the book drags- which is odd, considering what violent events take place in it. I came away with great sympathy for Jinhua- and even more of Suyin. In this book, Jinhua is totally human, with both good and bad aspects to her character. Not the best example of this type of novel, but this is a first effort and the author has great promise.
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