Juddith B. (Omaha, Nebraska) Visitor to China
Shanghai's Multiple Stories
In his author's insight, Jepson states that in writing this book he wanted "to explore Chinese attitudes toward motherhood, children, and family." It is a story with multiple intentions. It can be viewed as a book about hatred, an expose of the Chinese opinion that women and children are replaceable, or as a story of cowardice.
The city of Shanghai features as a dominate character. The storyline begins with a traditional Shanghai in 1932, and presents a diverse city with traditional Chinese values encountering European influences to the extent that locals cannot even take rooms in the luxury hotels. Shanghai moves from a city of elegance to a city busy with new hostilities after the Revolution.
Running through the plot is a unifying reference to flowers. Feng's story begins in a garden with her beloved grandfather teaching her the Latin names of flowers. Throughout the book we encounter phrases such as "First Wife's breath was like a stale flower."
As a debut novel Jepson does an admirable job of telling the story through the voice of a woman. Along with her story we get bits of wisdom suitable for framing, such as "You must live because someone wants you to live" and "Change becomes acceptable once you are accustomed to change itself."
Unlike so many descriptions of Mao's China that cover the punishments dealt to intellectuals, the focus here is on the poor peasants. In this case it is a group of older women who become a full production unit charged with sewing trousers and shirts for the new order. They are told that there must be more enthusiasm for scarves as they are a unifying symbol of the movement. They take Feng in when she flees Shanghai, and they must all unlearn everything they had ever known: traditions, supersititions, and old philosophies. They become consumed by productivity.
The book begins with Feng addressing someone. "I still know your face. I see it clearly as it was at the very beginning, not how it was left after I had hurt you." The reader does not get information about the identity of this face until the last third of the book.
All in all, it is a good read albeit a bit ambitious in its scope.