January 11th, 2011

Takarazuka Romeo and Juliet

Book review: Golden Lilies by Kwei-Li, Elizabeth Cooper (translator)

China changed a lot at the turn of the 20th century. Golden Lilies shows us one person caught in that change, a government official's wife named Kwei-Li.

Kwei-Li was traditional. She believed her place was indoors, that men were higher than women and a son better than a daughter, that divorce was shameful, that obeying one's elders was an unquestionable duty. She's also empathetic, funny, forgiving, and thoughtful. Golden Lilies collects her letters, which read like poetry in evocative and beautiful language. First, she writes to her traveling husband. Sure of the world and her place in it, she's almost saintly in this half, dealing with life's challenges with laughter, kindness, and perseverance; rescuing silly people from punishment; aiding other women in their growth and development.

Then the book skips to a collection of letters to Kwei-Li's mother-in-law twenty-five years later as China is in a state of upheaval. Kwei-Li's tone now is confused and frustrated, and here we see more human flaws: she views Westerners with distrust, her feminist daughter with shame, and China's changing morality as frightening. Yet her compassion and intelligence remain. Instead of turning her back on the "new" China or giving in to prejudice, Kwei-Li tries to work through her confusion as she writes.

It's a remarkable book by a remarkable woman. To accentuate it, an introduction by author Eileen Goudge explains the historical context, and illustrations by Zhang Ging give visual context to Kwei-Li's words. Cooper, who published the original book in 1914, apparently embellished the letters a bit for Western readers, explaining things they were unlikely to know. She does it tastefully: for example, one of Kwei-Li's letters worries a friend is facing divorce, and a brief expositional sentence explains that women are shamed by divorce. The result is that Golden Lilies remains accessible to people who know nothing of Chinese history today, but not dull to those who do.

I recommend Golden Lilies to anyone interested in beautiful language as well as the stories of unique people, great moments in history, and China. Illustration fans might want to check out Ging's amazing linework, too.


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