The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Book Jacket

Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden
Two Sisters Separated by China's Civil War
by Zhuqing Li
21 Jun 2022
368 pages
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Genre: Biography/Memoir
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BookBrowse members resident in the USA can request free review copies of books through our First Impressions program. Below are their opinions on one such book...

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Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Marganna K. (Edmonds, WA)

Two Sisters - Strong, Brave, Determined
China - often have I heard these names or caught a news bulletin about one of these countries? Many times, I reflect, but until I read this book about two sisters separated by events that lasted decades, I had no understanding on a heartfelt level.

This is a beautifully written non-fiction book that follows two sisters through years of separation. Author Li weaves a magnificent story line of each sister with the major backdrop of what is happening historically in China and Taiwan and the impart the political currents have on them & their family.

The book tells the story of real people surviving in harsh, unspeakable situations & enduring a lifetime of separation but never losing sight of what is important.
What would have greatly enhanced the book for me would have been the inclusion of 3 things: 1) a clear map of China & Taiwan, 2) a historical timeline with political data, leaders, 3) a family tree.

I'd love to see this historical/political timeline to help me learn more about China's ever-changing dynamic history. I made my own family tree when I started the book. I think it helped me "know" the family members better.

This is a book I will recommend to others & suggest for our book club.
Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Sharon P. (San Diego, CA)

Beautiful writing, beautiful story
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The writing was beautiful and rich in cultural flavor, emotion and detail. The two women highlighted were amazing women who work exceedingly hard through a very traumatic time in history.

Out of all the books I've read set in China, this one gave me the most abundant sense of what life was really like during China's Civil war and the behind the bamboo curtain.

Highly recommended!
Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Cassandra W. (Alameda, CA)

Absolutely Beautiful Prose
This beautifully written book spans continents and extends across a century. Set against the backdrop of a time of great political, social, and cultural change in China, the author tells the indelible story of her aunts, two sisters whose lives demonstrated courage, perseverance, and overarching love of family despite separation and loss. Written with an unforgettable poignancy and intimacy, I highly recommend this book.
Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Peggy K. (Frederick, CO)

Two Sisters and the Forces of History
Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden is a moving tale of sisters torn apart by the forces of history and an engaging exploration of mainland China and Taiwan during a time of upheaval. Zhuqing Li ties in the history of her family's home in the exotic Flower Fragrant Garden with the ending of WWII and the rise of the Communist Party under Mao Zedong. The tragedy begins when the author's aunt Jun is stranded on the island of Jinmen while visiting a friend and Communist forces seize her hometown…where her beloved sister, Hong, resides. Thus begins a 33-year parallel history of sisters separated by historical forces beyond their control. Blending the personal with the political, Li is a sensitive chronicler as she invites the reader into the pathos of her family's intriguing story. It is ultimately a story of two ambitious, intelligent, and talented women who make the best of their lives. Highly recommend!
Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Darlene G. (Allegany, NY)

Compelling, Kind, and Nuanced
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The juxtaposition of the two sisters' lives, separated as young women, provided a way of seeing the split Chinese experience (Taiwan and Mainland China; Nationalist and Communist) with appreciation for the gifts and limits of the political situations, the characters' development, and the ways in which family binds and disappoints. Zhuqing Li did an exceptional job conveying the nuances of full characters and historical facts. Her reflections were clear and kind. And best of all, perhaps because Zhuqing Li acknowledged her initial lack of skill in crafting creative nonfiction, she did the years of work necessary to create a narrative that makes you want to keep reading and an ending that satisfies.
Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Melissa S. (Rowland, NC)

History on a Personal Level
Coming from a background of zero knowledge of the history of China's civil war and subsequent horrors of the crimes against humanity, I found Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden both heart wrenching and fascinating. I found myself over and over again saying, "Is this true? Did this really happen? Am I reading historical fiction?"
To have a biographical story telling of two sisters who, by chance, find themselves on opposite sides (physically and literally) of a war that ripped families apart, killed millions, forced abortions and sterilization, and countless other atrocities, gives this major historical event a human touch that quite literally left me stunned and lost in thought after many "late night" readings.
Author, Zhuqing Li, skillfully tells the story of life (through the lens of two educated sisters) for millions during the Cultural Revolution. Reading the history of China's split and subsequent fallout can, like many other historical war reports, become very factual without the true human element. Not so in Li's account. Since she is a direct descendent of the main characters, she has very successfully conveyed the "humanness" of a cruel, humiliating, and gut-wrenching period of Chinese history.
Li's novel will definitely not disappoint and is worth every second spent lost in its pages.
Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Claire M. (Sarasota, FL)

China Separation
To read this book, one must reflect on human endurance, choices, failed government policies, women's search for their place in the world against odds everywhere and the consequences of it all.

Two sisters, separated by the most unimagined of circumstances live through the cultural revolution in China on opposing lands. The ideological differences are made clear and through all the years of separation when the chance to see one another and have the family unite are finally mastered by the sister who was never able to return to mainland China figures the way to do it and takes massive steps to gain the documents to accomplish it. They unite as family, but the years of living through different political systems remain.

What do we do to achieve our goals and make that more important than the greater good? What do we do caught on the other side wanting to see our families but having to make another way to live?
Essentially, we must acknowledge the failures of both ideological systems and how a family separated by accidental forces of governmental policy manages their separate ways to survive.
Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Carol N. (San Jose, CA)

A celebration of life. . .
In "Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden," Zhuqing Li shares a deeply human story about her aunts, Jun and Hong, who lived through the consequences of the notorious mainland China/Taiwan's historic split, a time of traumatic change and unmatched resilience in Asia.

The sisters were the offspring of a southern Chinese family, each other's best friend, and grew up in the 1930s days of Old China prior to the political revolution that changed China forever. By chance, both ladies found themselves separated. June in Taiwan is married to a National general and living among fellow exiles at odds with the new regime. On the mainland, Hong is forced to disavow her family's background and her sister's decision, in order to continue her career as a doctor. She is forced to tolerate several waves of re-education by working in exile in very remote areas of the backcountry.

Both ladies were faced with tense decisions as they go forth and forge careers and families midst this upheaval. With determination and ambition on the part of both women, Jun established several important trading companies while Hong becomes one of the celebrated Chinese doctors.

This riveting and deeply personal account is a celebration of these remarkable ladies' legacies.
Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Jean F

Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden
This is a heartfelt family saga of determination, dedication, and resilience. Sisters Jun and Hong, from a formerly wealthy Chinese family, end up on two sides of the political divide and physically separated by the waters between mainland China and the island of Jinmen (now Quemoy). Their career ambitions (medicine and teaching) and their personal lives are impacted by the civil war and later, the hardships of the Cultural Revolution. Through extensive family conversations and research, author Li has crafted a marvelous account of how these two very different women, her aunts, accommodated themselves to their respective political climates, raised children, and still managed to forge a path ahead. Li’s perceptive rendering of their different approaches to life provides added depth. I was immersed in this book from the moment I began reading!
Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Carol S. (Mt. Juliet, TN)

Daughter of the Fragrant Flower Garden
Daughters of the Fragrant Flower Garden is a riveting memoir written by Zhuqing Li, niece of sisters Jun and Hong. The sisters lived in Nationalist China of the 1930s in the family compound called Fragrant Flower Garden, where they were surrounded by wealth and privilege.

Jun, two years older than her sister, trained to be a teacher. While visiting a friend on an island under Nationalist control, she became accidentally separated from her sister and entire family living on the mainland during the upheaval caused by the Chinese Civil War. Understanding she could not return home, she was forced to forge a new path for herself, ultimately living with her husband and children inTaiwan and then in the USA.

Hong, Jun's younger sister, became a doctor on mainland China and was uprooted from the path of her career after the Communist Chinese takeover. Twice she faced incredible physical and emotional hardship and isolation from her husband, children and career to endure reeducation in distant impoverished areas of China. There, she was forced to pay dearly for her association with those the Party deemed disloyal, including her sister and family, and was required to prove her loyalty to the Party.

The two sisters went their separate ways but were equally determined to find happiness and success despite unimaginable obstacles.

I highly recommend this compelling historical account of those living in China during a time of political upheaval. One cannot fail to see the parallels in the story between China and Taiwan then and tensions now in the forefront of current events.
Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Sylvia F. (Lincoln, CA)

Daughters of The Flower Fragrant Garden
This book is about two remarkable sisters who lived in China during the Japan conflict and then during the Chinese Civil War. It was both informative and interesting to follow how Jun's life was under the Nationalist control and how Hung's life was during the political upheaval of the Mao's communist government.

Both sisters were are intelligent resouceful and determined to live their lives in spite of numerous hardships. Jun started out as a teacher then became a very sucessful business woman in Taiwain. Her younger sister Hung was a doctor who after saving numerous lives was "re-educated" by the communist government.

I found the facts about Jin nem island a mile from the mainland very interesting. That island became the frontline defense of Taiwain.

A well written book full of historical facts and kept the reasders interest. A book I will recommend to my book club.
Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Doris K. (Mountain Iron, MN)

Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden
This is an interesting memoir of two sisters separated by the communist takeover of China and the separation of Nationalists to Taiwan. The true story is narrated by a niece. The book is a descriptive analysis of women growing up in the thirties. Their stories are significant today due to the current interest in China.

I found it fascinating to actually read the details of people who lived during this time. The writing is excellent, even though this is true history it almost reads like a novel.

I will definitely recommend this book to my book club and other friends.
Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Ellen H. (Leonia, NJ)

A great book club choice!
Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden is the beautifully told story of two very close sisters from a respected Chinese family who found themselves geographically separated at the beginning of the Chinese Civil War – a separation that lasted for over 30 years. On their very different paths, these two smart, resilient, hard-working women were committed to being the best that they could be in the face of extreme challenges. One remained loyal to Taiwan and the Nationalist cause, while the other embraced the goals and ideas of the Communist Party to protect herself and her family. The author, Zhuqing Li who is their niece, places their stories and her family history in the context of the Chinese Civil War and the many cultural and economic changes that took place in China in the 20th Century. I think this would be a great book club choice. The themes of war, endurance and strong family ties could spark an interesting discussion.
Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Jean B. (Naples, FL)

Two aunts/two Chinas
Zhuqing Li writes about the lives of her two remarkable aunts. She also gives us a picture of two Chinas: communist on the main land and democracy on Taiwan. Her aunts were close during their childhood, living in their beautiful home, the Flower Flagrant Garden. They were separated during their adult lives. Hong became a famous and revered doctor in mainland communist China and Jun became a successful entrepreneur in Taiwan.

The author brings these two women to life in her well-researched book. She is currently a professor of East Asian Studies at Brown University. Readers of her book will have a better understanding of both Chinas and a real admiration for the author and her aunts,
Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by 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.
Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by 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.
Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by 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.
Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by 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.
Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by 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.
Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by 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.
Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by 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.
Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Darrell W. (Hillsboro, OR)

Separated By War
Can two sisters close in childhood but separated by civil war sustain a warm bond and be reunited after decades living miles apart? Zhuqing Li's novelesque writing style and thoroughly researched history provides the answer. Li portrays the careers of two powerful intelligent Chinese sisters, one in Nationalistic Taiwan, the other in the developing Communistic mainland of China. Opposing political ideologies and family values are compared and contrasted through the lives of the sisters. A scholarly political narrative becomes an engrossing story. A search for family unity lives in hopes and dreams. Author Li skillfully weaves the sisters' individual strengths within the political realities. She highlights their constant confrontations with chauvinistic systems. I am humbled by the sisters' battle with societal forces when compared to my comfortable life contemporary with their lives. Readers will be treated to a profound lesson in history and a compelling story of family love and loyalty.
Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Lynne B. (Newmarket, NH)

Two Sisters of China
This enthralling story of two sisters Jun and Hong reads like a novel but is a true story of the Chen family over 40 years of Chinese history. The author Zhuqing Li relates the events in the lives of primarily her two aunts and the disastrous turn their lives take during the Chinese Civil War which left one sister choosing a future in the medical field and supporting the Communist Chinese while the other sister becomes an educator and supporter of the Nationalists on Taiwan. The family remaining in mainland China soon found that their survival would depend on disowning the sister on Taiwan. If you enjoy a story of women who survive against dire oppression and rise up to provide strength to others then this book will appeal. I also found that I was learning a great deal about a time and place in history that I have not seen covered in memoirs such as this. This is an important personal recounting of the Chinese history that brought about the splitting of China and Taiwan and will certainly provide understanding as we face the uncertainties of that situation in our present time.


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