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Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden

Two Sisters Separated by China's Civil War

by Zhuqing Li

Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden by Zhuqing Li X
Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden by Zhuqing Li
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2022, 368 pages

    Jun 20, 2023, 368 pages


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  • Gloria
    Strong, wise women
    In “Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden,” Zhuqing Li tells the story of her two aunts, sisters whose lives are irrevocably changed by China’s political revolution in the 20th century.
    Hong, a skilled surgeon, uses her talents to improve the lives of Chinese peasant women. But she is caught up in Mao’s Cultural Revolution and must leave her family and career to spend years in a reeducation camp in the countryside. Her sister, Jun, a teacher, finds herself stranded on the island of Tawian and unable to return to her family on the mainland. She must make herself a new family in her new country. Li’s excellent writing makes reading “Fragrant Garden” a very pleasurable history lesson. And the woman’s stories are truly inspirational.
  • Patricia C. (Naples, FL)
    A Fascinating Portrait of Courage
    This non fiction book reads like a novel--it literally is a page turner as the reader is eager to see what happens to these two sisters whose lives were shaped by the political turmoil of the Communist Revolution in China in the 1940's.

    Jun and Hong Chen were two years apart, living as privileged and educated women in Nationalist China due to their father's position in the government. They were surrounded by a large family including two mothers--an Upstairs Mother (the first wife) and a Downstairs Mother (the second wife) The author of this fascinating book is actually the granddaughter of the Downstairs Mother. The family lived in a spectacular house with gardens, maids, gardeners and all the trappings of wealth and power in the China of the '30's.

    All that changed when the Communists defeated the Nationalists in the Civil War.

    The sisters through sheer accident were separated and would not see each other again until they were well into their '80's.

    Jun ended up in Taiwan married to a general in the Nationalist army and becoming an entrepreneur. Hong lived her entire life in Communist China as a doctor. As each sister pursued the life they were thrown into, one can see the pain of separation each suffered. Each eventually succeeded in their chosen paths but the pain of separation was always there.

    As I was reading this well written story of the sisters, I could not decide which one was the bravest as each lived their long lives. The important part however was obvious--the love each had for each other even though their lives and political views were so different. Of all the cultural and social mores Mao attempted to erase in Chinese society, the love of family was still very strong for the Chen sisters.

    I highly recommend this book.
  • Dianne Y. (Stuart, FL)
    Non-fiction that reads like a Novel
    Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden: Two Sisters Separated by China's Civil War by Zhuqing Li is a non-fiction book that reads like a novel. It is a real page-turner. The author uses alternating chapters to tell the stories of her two aunts, who are sisters. Li describes her aunts' experiences, trials & tribulations, ambitions and accomplishment as they lived in two very different Chinas. One lived in Mainland China, known as the Peoples Republic of China or Communist China and the other lived in Taiwan, known as The Republic of China or Traditional China.

    I truly enjoyed the book. In addition to being a great story, I gained a much better understanding of the contrast between life in Mainland China and on the Island of Taiwan after the communist came to power in 1949.

    I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking for an engaging, character-driven story and is also interested in history. For me, I found answers to many questions westerns have about the conflict between the communist and the nationalist in China. The story spans decades including the Japanese invasion, WWII, the rise of Communist China and the two Chinas, culture revolution and re-education. The story also describes how things changed after the visit of Richard Nixon, the death of Mao, the Tiananmen Square protests, and China's economic reforms moving it toward a capitalist economy and global power.

    Zhuqing Li did an excellent job of telling her aunts' stories, while enlightening the reader about the two Chinas.
  • Lee L. (Los Angeles, CA)
    Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden
    ?I'm quite picky when it comes to reading nonfiction books. I tend to gravitate toward biographies and memoirs as well as essay collections, though I do also read general nonfiction when the occasion calls for it (i.e.: book club pick). In these instances, subject matter is pretty important, especially since it takes more focus and concentration on my part to get through a nonfiction book. In this sense, when I read the premise for linguist and East Asian scholar Zhuqing Li's Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden, and saw that it fell perfectly into these two categories (biography nonfiction subject matter I'm interested in), I knew this was a book I would want to read.

    While there is some anecdotal information interspersed throughout, majority of Li's book is actually about her two aunts Jun and Hong, who came of age during one of the most tumultuous times in China's history. Born 2 years apart into the prominent and wealthy Chen family, the sisters grew up in a beautiful villa in Fuzhou built by their father — a home they came to know as the Flower Fragrant Garden. When the onset of World War II and Japan's invasion of various parts of China forces the Chen family to flee their home, Jun especially finds her hard-won right to further her education through attending college completely upended. Hong also experiences hardship during this period, but she is ultimately able to finish her studies and fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor. At the end of the war, with China and the Allies victorious, the family thought they would be able to return to their former lives as well as their beloved villa in the mountains, but it was not to be. Civil war breaks out between the ruling Nationalist Party and the Communists, with everything coming to a head when Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek flees to Taiwan and the Communist Party comes to power under Mao Zedong. During this time, the sisters' lives are changed forever when Jun ends up stuck on an island under Nationalist control and, unable to return to the Mainland, eventually moves to Taiwan and marries a Nationalist general, which results in estrangement from her family for decades. Hong meanwhile endures the many hardships brought about by the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, and many of the other disastrous "initiatives" implemented in China during that time. It is not until 1982, after decades apart, with both sisters having survived various hardships, that Jun and Hong are finally able to reunite.

    In this chronicle of her two aunts' extraordinary lives, Zhuqing Li tells the story of her family line set against the backdrop of China's turbulent post-WWII sociopolitical history and the evolution of the country's fraught relationship with Taiwan. I actually started this book last week and finished it on Saturday (June 4th), which happened to be the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre (a coincidence that only dawned on me after I finished reading the book). Though this particular story isn't about Tiananmen Square (despite that event still being mentioned in the book, albeit briefly), its significance in terms of China's political history is, of course, not lost on me Even though I was only 11 years old when the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred and of course, having already immigrated to the U.S. years before that, I was thousands of miles away, but that didn't make it any less impactful, especially as a Chinese girl coming of age during that time. In that context, this was, without a doubt, not an easy read by any means — hearing Jun's and Hong's stories, with the unflinching descriptions of harrowing experiences they had to endure, the political undercurrents that dominated their entire lives, it was hard not to be moved by the resilience and endurance of these two remarkable women.

    Regardless of background, this will undoubtedly be a difficult read for those who decide to pick this one up, but it is well worth the effort. On the surface, this may seem like simply a story of two sisters separated by war, but much deeper than that, it is also an insightful look into Chinese history, culture, politics, and much more.

    Received ARC from W. W. Norton via Bookbrowse First Impressions program.
  • Laura D. (Newmarket, NH)
    Jaw Dropping Details
    I don't read a lot of non-fiction books. However, I was immediately drawn to this book because it was the story of two sisters, with very similar childhood backgrounds, yet vastly different adult lives due to the Chinese Civil War. I was eager to learn about a part of history I knew little about through different lenses. Part I of IV was a bit fragmented because it dealt with childhood memories and experiences, which are in bits and pieces most people's minds. However, the remainder of the book flowed well. I was amazed at the perseverance of both sisters, and their ability to adapt and overcome difficulties. As the author wrote, "It was the tremendous force of will they had in common that … powered them." There were so many fascinating details included! Often, what I read was literally jaw dropping! This is a remarkable book about two remarkable women. Readers of both fiction and non-fiction books will be taken in by their stories.
  • Patricia S. (Chicago, IL)
    Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden
    This was a very interesting book, showing the daily lives of two members of an old Chinese family just before and after the Chinese Civil War in 1949. As the Communists take hold of their power, two sisters are separated for about 40 years, one on the Communist mainland and one on the Nationalist Islands and in Taiwan. Neither sister is very political, and each makes life choices based on her immediate circumstances. Alternately following the story of one sister, then the other, this book shows bits of Chinese history, showing vignettes of the Cultural Revolution and the relocation of intellectuals to rural areas for "reeducation" and how the actions of the sister in Nationalist China is aware of how her actions affect her family on the mainland. Lots of personal details about life in the countryside, or in the Taiwan society. I enjoyed it and did learn a bit about this era so often ignored in modern textbooks. I was a bit confused with the timeline because each section would follow one sister's life and then jump back to an earlier time to follow her sister's life. Dates at the beginning of each chapter would have helped. I also disliked the maps as they were too small and faint to be useful. I would have liked maps of the broader area, not just the cities on the Mainland so I could see where the locations in the story were. I am not familiar with much of China and I don't imagine many other readers are either. Overall, enjoyed it but a better sense of time and better maps would have made it much better.
  • Catharine L. (Petoskey, MI)
    Fascinating true story of two sisters and best friends separated at the end of the Chinese Civil War. Jun ends up in Taiwan and sister Hong on the mainland -forced to denounce her sister and her family background. This is a personal account of the author's aunts which makes the book so insightful. I've read about Mao, the rise of communism, and the death of millions. But this book made it real describing the effect on one family. Highly recommend.

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