Saturday, August 1, 2009

China on the Mind

Almost back to back, I've been reading through two different historical fiction novels located in China. Both of them were highly intriguing, seemingly well-researched, and, I felt, worth mentioning here.

The first one that I read was Forbidden City by Muriel Molland Jernigan. Set in the late 19th/early 20th century, this particular novel deals with the fate of a young woman raised in a prestigious household in China and how she becomes the famous Empress Dowager Cixi. While it's obviously historical fiction, the lady who wrote it was a missionary kid who actually lived in China during the Boxer Rebellion and who is very familiar with details of that time, culture, and people.

I found it to be an intriguing story, well written, with enough details to paint a vivid picture of that world but enough story to round out the characters. The story and character of the Empress is fascinating, and I always love to see portrays of the Western world by those from the East. Her opinion of Queen Victoria, in particular, struck me as rather amusing.

The second novel I read right at the beginning of where Forbidden City starts. This novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, is gorgeous. Unlike the other novel, this one deals with the lifestyle of those from poor to middle class Chinese households. Lisa See talks about the research that went into the novel, and all the details that are given from foot binding to the intriguing secret women's writing nu shu are obviously pretty accurate (in the case of the foot binding, disturbingly accurate) and paint an detailed picture of the women's culture of that time period for China.

However, one of the things I really enjoyed about this novel was that even though it is historical fiction, a major part of the story-line is one that most women will relate to, and that is the difficult ins and outs of female relationships. I'm not sure if its because the author, although she is Chinese by heritage, grew up in the USA, and so has, however consciously or unconsciously, merged bits and pieces of her western world with this eastern story, but I enjoyed some of the character portrayals that connected women from any culture and any time to one another. After all, most women have at least one friend they consider extremely close, and most women have to deal with good and bad times in such relationships.

This particular novel was so good, I want to read some novels more by Lisa See and find out if I enjoy her writing in those as well.

So if you're looking for some good historical, ficiton with a nice Chinese-slant to it, pick up both or either of these novels. Well worth the time, I think.

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