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Daughters of Shandong

by Eve J. Chung

Daughters of Shandong by Eve J. Chung X
Daughters of Shandong by Eve J. Chung
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  • Lee L. (Los Angeles, CA)
    Daughters of Shandong review
    This incredible debut by Taiwanese-American lawyer Eve J. Chung doesn't come out until May 2024, but I was able to get an advance copy and boy am I glad I did. Inspired by her family's history, Chung weaves the fictional story of Li-Hai, the eldest of four daughters from the Ang family, wealthy landowners in the small rural town of Zhucheng in Shandong, China. The year is 1948 and even though World War II has officially ended, China is caught up in its own civil war between the current ruling party, the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists led by Mao Zedong. In a country still steeped in the Confucian ideal of "zhong nan qing nu" ("value men, belittle women"), Hai's mother Chiang-Yue is treated worse than a servant in the Ang household due to her inability to produce a male heir (to say that Yue is "mistreated" is an understatement — in addition to suffering constant physical and verbal abuse at the hands of her mother-in-law, her husband also neglects her and never speaks up for her). In the eyes of the Ang elders, Hai and her sisters, being daughters, are considered "disappointments" and "useless mouths to feed" (their grandmother Nai Nai has no qualms about telling them to their faces that they are better off dead so the family doesn't have to waste money on them anymore) — which is why, when the Communist army invades the town and the family is forced to flee, they decide to leave mother and daughters behind. Abandoned and left to fend for themselves, Yue and her daughters become destitute and penniless after the Communists seize their home and kick them out. Worse yet, in the absence of any Ang family males, Hai, as the eldest daughter at 13 years old, is chosen to answer for her father's and grandfather's "crimes" and is subsequently tortured to near death. With the help of former workers whom Yue had always treated kindly, mother and daughters escape to the city of Qingdao, where they hoped to reunited with the rest of the family. They survive the arduous journey to Qingdao, only to find out that the family actually relocated to Taiwan (where Chiang Kai-shek re-established the Nationalist base after fleeing China). Abandoned once again, the Ang women figure out a way to overcome the many obstacles they face, including enduring a thousand mile journey to Hong Kong and eventually finding their family in Taiwan.

    The story is narrated in the first person from Hai's perspective, which was the perfect narrative structure in this case because it made the experience more immersive and personal. In her Author's Note (which is not to be missed), Chung explains the inspiration for the story, which was originally going to be a biography of sorts about her maternal grandmother, whom she had stayed with in Taiwan as a child. But after her grandmother died, she realized there were too many gaps in her grandmother's life that she knew nothing about and regrettably had never asked, so she pivoted to turning the family history she was planning to write into a fictional story using the notes and interviews that she and her mother had already gathered. Basing the character of Hai on her maternal grandmother, Chung was able to fill in the gaps of her own family history, but more than that, for us readers, she delivered a beautifully-written story about a family of women who survive devastating heartbreak and hardship to resiliently rise above the entrenched cultural norms that bind them to inferiority within their society.

    As a Chinese daughter myself, I resonated deeply with Hai and many of the struggles she went through in trying to reconcile her identity with her culture. While I didn't share all of the experiences she went through, I did grow up under the same Chinese culture, so I was familiar with many of the antiquated traditions as well as the historical context in the story. Even with this familiarity, I have to admit that many of the scenes involving Hai's POS (pardon my French) father and grandmother and their horrible treatment of the mothers and daughters in the family were hard to read. With that said though, this is actually where Chung's story stands out from many of the other historical novels that revolve around Chinese culture and tradition — I appreciated the way that she succinctly and clearly lays out the facts of how women were treated during that time without mincing words. More than any other novel I've read in recent years (specifically ones written in contemporary times), this one does a great job exploring the internal battle that many of the women who grow up in these restrictive cultures face — despite understanding the injustices they suffer, they've internalized what they've been taught to the extent that it not only becomes a "normal" part of who they are, they also oftentimes end up perpetuating these same injustices (whether intentionally or unintentionally) onto future generations. To this point, there were many thought-provoking quotes throughout the book (which I of course marked up), but the following excerpt stood out to me the most. In this scene, Hai (as an adult now) gets into an argument with her mother, who finally, after many years, gives birth to a son, Ming, to carry on the Ang family name (though ironically, this doesn't alleviate the poor treatment that the mother continues to endure because the mother-in-law is already used to abusing her); Hai sees her mother giving her baby brother Ming a bottle of milk while she only gives her other daughter Hua (who was born right before Ming) a bottle of rice water — Hai is livid that her mother would continue to perpetuate the "preferential treatment of boys over girls" tradition after everything they suffered the past couple years precisely because they weren't sons: "…Mom began to weep. "Hai, Ming is the only one who will support us when we are old. The only one who can care for us in the afterlife. I love Hua and all my other daughters, but I have a duty, as a wife, to make sure Ming grows up well. When you have your own son, you will understand." She cried because she thought I was judging her unfairly, without realizing that her words had cut me deep. Mom hadn't said it explicitly, but I heard it loud and clear: All of us girls were worth less than Ming. She loved us less than Ming. Yet Mom was confused by my anger, and oblivious to my pain. To her, the ancient traditions centering the son were our pillar, entwined in our religion, inseparable from our existence on this earth. Telling her I was hurt would be like saying I was offended by the typhoon that tore through Mount Davis. In her mind, these injustices were part of being a woman, and bearing them was simply our fate. Men made the rules in our society, but women often enforced them. Was there something about having a son that transformed us? Was that why Nai Nai was so wretched? Was that going to be me as a mother? I didn't want it to be. After what I had been through, how could I fall into that same pattern?" Arriving at this understanding becomes tremendously important for the characters in the story, which I won't get into here (you will need to read this one to find out more).

    Needless to say, this is a book I highly recommend, but with the understanding that it definitely won't be an easy read. As with most stories about the travesties of war, this one has brutal scenes as it follows the harrowing journey of the Ang women through several generations, but the payoff at the end is well worth the read. This story (and its characters) is not one that I will forget anytime soon!

    Received ARC from Berkley / Penguin Random House via BookBrowse First Impressions program.
  • Marion M. (Mishawaka, IN)
    Revolution is not a Dinner Party (Mao)
    Two thematic strands run through this historical fiction novel partially based on the memories of the author's grandmother. The first theme is the communist revolution led by Mao following World War II which resulted in the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Army and the army's "exile" to Taiwan. Hai (aka the author's grandmother), Hai's mother and two sisters are left behind (abandoned) while the landowning males and elders in the Ang family flee first to Qingdao, then to Taiwan. Shortly after the People's Liberation Army seize the Ang home, the Ang females flee with only the items they can carry. The journey is not "a dinner party." Hai is tortured by the communist cadres, the family hides in a chicken coop and walk on bruised feet pushing their belongings in a dilapidated wheelbarrow until they reach Qingdao where they stay with a family member because the Ang males and elders have fled again. For almost two years the mother and daughters live hand to mouth by selling buns and calligraphy letters, folding match boxes and eating gruel provided at the refugee camps. By the time they reach Hong Kong via forged travel permits, Hong Kong is teeming with refugees. With the assistance of Uncle Ji, who has connections in the nationalist military, the girls receive permits to go to Taiwan. It's in Taiwan that the second theme of the novel is very evident, almost to the point of being preachy. That theme is connected to Confucianism and the role of women in that society–girls and women are secondary in the old Chinese society. Grandmother Ang is especially stuck in the past. While she was arrogant and evil when the family lived well in Shandong, she has become even nastier in Taiwan. Hai's mother births another daughter, then finally a son who receives all the privileges of a male in old Chinese society. There is a good deal of family angst between sisters, between daughters and parents, between younger generation and elders. Hai triumphs, passes arduous entry exams, becomes a teacher, marries, has a daughter who excels academically and studies in the U.S. Like many Chineses students, Hai's child is sent back to China to be reared by grandma. While purporting to be a historical fiction novel, the narrative reads like a memoir. The author definitely had a message she wanted to tell about the role or non-role of women in China.
  • Laurie S., Minneapolis, MN
    Daughters of Shandong
    One of the greatest joys of reading historical fiction is being transported to a dangerous and unfamiliar place in order to learn the lessons of history. Taken from author Eve J. Chung's own family history, Daughters of Shandong provided me a horrifying glimpse into China and Taiwan of the mid-twentieth century and educated me on its policies, geography, and its treatment of women and children within the family structure.

    The Ang family and its women and children experience the brutality of the advancing Communist Army enforcing Mao Ze-Dong's massive land reform policies that redistributed land from wealthy landowners. Hai, the eldest child and daughter of the Ang family, was left behind along with her mother and sisters to face the violent cadre of soldiers implementing the Communist ideologies. Escaping from their small village of Zhucheng in Shandong in order to reunite with family, they undergo a brutal journey that takes them all across China to Hong Kong and eventually Taiwan.

    I found the details of their journey fascinating. In many instances, I used maps to explore China and Taiwan in order to further understand the geographical context.

    Overall, a magnificent read. I highly recommend this novel in order to further understand Chinese policies, geography, and most importantly female agency in Chinese culture.
  • Patricia G. (Washington, DC)
    A gripping novel of mid-twentieth century China
    Daughters of Shandong is a gripping, and at times heartbreaking debut novel, based on the true story of author Eve Chung's grandmother during the years of the Chinese civil war. While readers may be aware of Chinese culture's historical misogyny, Chung brings to life the daily horrors of being a girl—"just another mouth to feed'—in a society that overwhelming favored male children. The book begins in 1948, just after the end of World War Two, as the Communist Revolution sweeps through the country.

    Hai is the eldest child of the eldest male son in a prosperous family, and unfortunately, she is a girl. She lives with her parents and three younger sisters in her paternal grandparent's home, ruled with emotional cruelty by her vicious grandmother, who blames Hai's mother for failing to produce a male heir. The Angs have been landowners for several generations, and as the Communists move in, the family flees, leaving behind Hai's mother and the four girls. As the only representative of the Ang family they can find, the Communists publicly beat the eleven-year-old Hai to within an inch of her life. As soon as they are able, Hai's mother takes the girls, and everything they can carry, to try to reunite with the rest of the family. The bulk of the novel describes in crushing detail the two years they spent crossing the country, impoverished and starving, along with hundreds of thousands of refugees like themselves.

    What shines through in this book is the resilience of Hai, her mother, and her sisters. No spoilers here, but there is a happier ending in store for the women of this family. I highly recommend Daughters of Shandong to all readers, not just those who love historical fiction.
  • Betty T. (Warner Robins, GA)
    Beautiful story of women coping
    Eve J. Chung's debut novel, Daughters of Shandong, offers a poignant and compelling narrative of a mother and her daughters' courageous escape to Taiwan during the turbulent times of the Communist revolution in China. Set against the backdrop of civil war and political upheavals in 1948, the Ang family, particularly the four daughters, becomes the focal point of the story.

    The novel delves into the lives of the Ang family, focusing on Hai, the eldest daughter, and her three sisters. In a society where sons are highly valued, the lack of a male heir becomes a cause of concern for the wealthy Angs. The Communist army's advance forces the prosperous household to flee, leaving the daughters and their abused mother behind as they are deemed burdensome.

    Chung weaves a gripping tale as Hai, selected for trial due to her position as the eldest, faces the brutality of the land-seizing cadres. The narrative unfolds as the women, driven by resilience and resourcefulness, embark on a harrowing journey from the countryside to the bustling city of Qingdao, British Hong Kong, and eventually Taiwan. Their odyssey is marked by the changing tide of a nation and the challenges faced by those caught in the wake of revolution.

    The author's prose is assured and evocative, bringing to life impeccably drawn characters. The Ang daughters emerge as unforgettable and complex figures, each with a unique story to tell. The novel captures the enduring love between mothers, daughters, and sisters, portraying the sacrifices made to secure a better future for generations to come.

    Chung's skillful storytelling navigates through the political upheavals of mid-century China, providing readers with a spellbinding and transportive experience. The Ang daughters' will to survive resonates on every page, offering a glimpse into a world of despair and hope. The novel not only entertains but also educates and inspires, making it a rare work of fiction that lingers in the minds of readers long after the last page.

    Daughters of Shandong stands out as a powerful exploration of the resilience of women in times of war, offering a hopeful narrative that emphasizes the strength found in the bonds of family. Eve J. Chung's debut is a noteworthy addition to historical fiction, promising to illuminate various facets of humanity through its compelling storytelling.
  • Becky H. (Manassas, VA)
    "Worthless" girls are powerful
    "Girls are nothing more than wives for other people's sons." And so begins the story of Hai, her mother and her sisters. When the communist revolution comes to their area, the girls and their mom are left behind by their wealthy landowning family with only a vague promise to return for them.
    Enemies of the communists because of the family's wealth and importance, the girls and their mother are evicted with no money or food as enemies of the people. Hai, the eldest daughter not yet a teen, narrates this compelling, barely fictionalized account of the journey by foot through China toward Taiwan. The girls come alive on the pages as their harrowing tale is told.
    Chung relates the story of her grandmother with deftness and empathy. Although filled with danger, poverty, and continuing disasters, the story offers hope, resilience, love and the power of faith and kindness. Readers will learn much about the Communist takeover of China and the ravages war brings to a peasant population. Book groups will have many topics for discussion from foot binding to the importance of education. I highly recommend this book.
  • Cindy B. (Waukee, IA)
    Daughters of Shandong
    A fast paced historical fiction novel that keeps the reader turning pages until the end. The reader follows the Ang women as they flee from their home in Shandong, China to Taiwan during the Chinese Communist Party's overthrow of the Nationalist Party. A story of the power of resourcefulness, resilience, and love prevailing over cultural beliefs, poverty and cruelty. The best historical fiction I've read this year.

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