Organized chronologically in chapters written from the perspective of one or the other of the protagonists, the book covers a period of Chinese history made familiar to many readers in the United States and Great Britain through popular memoirs by Chinese émigré writers. In contrast to Jung Chang’s bestseller Wild Swans and most similar works, however, it incorporates the viewpoint of someone who adapted to life in the People’s Republic. The book also resonates with a different set of works of nonfiction (most available only in Chinese and published outside of the People’s Republic) about ordinary people displaced from the mainland to Taiwan and Hong Kong in the aftermath of the Communist victory. By interweaving the perspectives of its two protagonists, Li emphasizes the persistence of family ties in the face of political and geographical distance, and the disappointment and culture shock that can accompany a long-anticipated reunion. Such stories of separation and longing are prevalent in many immigrant communities. While the author describes her aunts as embodying a divided China, they are in many respects also representative of larger patterns of displacement, separation, and nostalgia in the 20th century.
The Flower Fragrant Garden occupies the book’s emotional heart, even though relatively few pages are dedicated to its description and the brief time the sisters spent within it. The Garden was one of the most luxurious residences in the southeastern city of Fuzhou. Purchased by the author’s grandfather, Chen Daodi — an up-and-coming graduate of a new-style military academy whose ancestors had enjoyed generations of success in civil service examinations, and who himself had prospered through his powerful connections — the property adorned a hilltop in the suburbs south of the walled city. Like many elite families, his had weathered transition from China’s last imperial dynasty to the Republic in 1912 with their political and economic capital intact. His acquisition and loss of the Garden (and along with it his loss of status and health), and his daughters’ respective remembering and forgetting of it, symbolizes the fate of an elite family and their lifeways over the course of the 20th century.
The chapters set in the Garden are narrated from the perspective of the older sister, Jun, for whom its memory served as a talisman of the world she, by a twist of fate, left behind as a young woman. In her memory, the Garden, inhabited by Chen Daodi’s mother, wife, and concubine, as well as his siblings, their wives, and their many children, was a luminous space marked by harmonious affection and material abundance. It followed the seasonal calendar of holidays, birthdays, and ritual observance. The illiterate but brilliant Popo (Chen’s mother) insisted that her two eldest granddaughters, Jun and Hong, receive their education at the city’s best missionary schools. Inside the Garden, Jun was a treasured eldest daughter, comforting her father in his study through conversations about classical literature, family life, and current events. Here, too, even as Popo worshiped the Buddha and the whole family honored the Chen ancestors, Chen’s wife and concubine (the author’s “Upstairs and Downstairs Grandmas”) converted to Christianity and forged a close bond that outlived their shared husband. Quotations from Christian scripture and iconic Chinese literary texts appear in the book as sources of comfort and guidance, and as a legacy rooted in the Garden.
Politics and war gradually intruded into the Garden with the intensification of Japan’s invasion of China: disillusioned and frustrated with the Nationalist Party government then ruling the mainland, Jun and Hong’s father returned home from his job in Shanghai in 1937. As bombs began to fall, servants dug a shelter in the center of the Garden, and as the Japanese moved closer, the family fled their Edenic home, thus beginning their fall from wealth and influence. For Jun, separated from the family as an adult in Nationalist Party–ruled Taiwan, the Garden remained a vital site to which she often returned in her imagination. The Garden signified the family ties she longed to renew and the China to which she longed to return. In this regard, the Garden occupied the very center of her identity as a mainlander in Taiwan. For Hong and the rest of the family, however, the past was a source of pain and danger best forgotten. To them, the Garden symbolized their “bad” class background, a father who had served in the Nationalist government, and a sister married to a Nationalist officer. Because of these ties, Hong was subject to persecution as a suspected counterrevolutionary, despite her impeccable professional credentials and her evident commitment to the Communist Party and its agenda. The factors that impelled Jun to remember from Taiwan were the mirror image of those that compelled Hong to forget in Fuzhou.
Li’s book explores the momentous impact of momentary decisions on people’s lives in the context of massively disruptive historical events. Displaced from Fuzhou and too sick to take the high school entrance examinations, the ambitious Jun had to settle for a less prestigious teacher-training program and several years as a teacher in a boarding school for rural students in the town where her family had sought refuge. After Japan’s defeat in 1945, Jun belatedly entered Fujian Normal University. Against the raging backdrop of civil war in late summer 1949, Jun traveled to the island of Jinmen to visit her best friend. Anticipating a restorative beach vacation before starting a job at a prestigious high school in the seaside city of Xiamen, Jun instead found herself stranded outside the newly founded People’s Republic of China. Although Jinmen is just a few miles from the coast, she literally had no way to go home; the ferry to the mainland was no longer in service.
On Jinmen and then in Taipei, Jun became a teacher, a journalist, the wife of a Nationalist general, a mother (and stepmother to two traumatized teens, her husband’s sons from a previous marriage who arrived in the 1950s as refugees from the mainland), and eventually a successful businesswoman who made her fortune importing street-sweeping equipment. The Garden symbolized everything that she left behind, and everything that she longed for: her father, her family, her younger sister, and the pre-Communist past. These memories eventually propelled her from Taiwan to the United States; from America, she rekindled her relationships in China, and to America she brought her children, nieces, and nephews. Jun’s experiences of rupture and heartache, her hard work, and even her emigration to the United States were in many respects typical of her generation of mainlanders, as historian Domenic Meng-Hsuan Yang’s book, The Great Exodus from China: Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Modern Taiwan (Cambridge University Press, 2020), demonstrates. They were also, as Jun herself noted about her trip to Berlin in 1975, part of a global pattern of national and familial division and separation characteristic of the second half of the 20th century. Li presents Jun as an emotionally authentic, industrious, and spiritually developed Christian, committed to values that she holds in common with both the author and (presumably) her American readers. The book naturalizes and validates Jun’s memory of the Garden, her love of family, and her intense affective commitment to China’s prerevolutionary past in ways that many American readers will likely find relatable and worthy. Additionally, the book affirms Jun’s mainlander-centered view of Taiwan’s post-1949 politics and obscures uncomfortable issues including the United States’ role in the Cold War in East Asia, and the experiences of the Taiwanese during the long period of martial law and one-party rule that preceded the island’s more recent democratization.
By contrast more singular of purpose and slightly younger, and thus by coincidence less disrupted in her educational trajectory than Jun, the author’s other aunt, Hong, managed to realize her dream of becoming a doctor while adapting to life in Revolutionary China. In the author’s words, Hong “fought, scrapped, labored, and suffered to make a life for herself” and to protect and sustain her extended family amid the wreckage caused by civil war and revolution. Hong appears as a devoted daughter, caring wife and mother, and tireless clinician in sincere service to the Party and the people, even when dedication to the Party came at considerable personal cost. In Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden, as in Hong’s own brief memoir documenting her professional achievements, Hong manifests an optimistic faith, aligning herself with the Party’s stated commitment to women’s liberation and national construction through her efforts to improve rural women’s health and to compensate for her own political failings through self-criticism and reflection.
Recognizing that Jun’s position on the other side of the Taiwan Strait directly threatened her family’s safety in the People’s Republic, Hong decisively severed all contact with her sister. She aligned herself with the Party (even when her political reliability came under suspicion) and carried on with her work as a doctor. During the Cultural Revolution, Hong and her cardiologist husband were deprived of their medical licenses and forced to do humiliating labor while less-capable doctors with better class backgrounds botched surgeries in front of them. The sentence to reeducation in a distant village came as a relief: she adapted to the hard life of a farmer, learned the local dialect, and earned the respect of the villagers by providing them with basic medical care. In this context, she sought to serve the people in ways that she found personally satisfying, a mission she continued into the Reform era, and indeed into old age. The author celebrates Hong’s achievement as a moderating influence on the one-child policy in Fujian and the pioneer who brought in-vitro fertilization to China. Presented by the author as willfully blind to the government’s excesses, Hong navigated the challenges of life in Revolutionary China through a combination of hard work and sincere commitment to public service. Responsible for the material well-being of a large (and growing) extended family burdened with a politically toxic past, the Garden and the memories it held represented a heavy liability. Their collective survival, she ascertained, depended on collective forgetting.
As Li notes in the prologue, by the time of her own childhood, the Flower Fragrant Garden had long since been lost to the family. She recalls that when she was a girl in Fuzhou, the Garden had been captured into a government-run institution and was thus off-limits to her. Moreover, its connection to the family remained unspoken, unspeakable, even among relatives. Similarly, her relatives had never told her that she had an Aunt Jun. When Jun finally returned to China in the early 1980s, she could neither enter the Garden, nor could she understand her siblings’ aversion to it. Jun’s longed-for visit proved an awkward disappointment; her first encounters with the family were austere, staged, and surveilled. Three decades of divergent experiences vexed her efforts to reconnect. As the author explains, “The world that Jun had fought all her life to return to had slipped into a new reality,” one from which she had strategically been erased.
Jun’s return to Fuzhou revealed to the author an alternative vision of the family’s past: one of apparent sophistication, elegance, and abundance. It was thanks to Jun’s generosity that the author and her cousins from both sides of the Strait were able to emigrate to the United States. Jun’s captivating vision of the Garden and the past that it symbolized inspired the author to write the book, which is animated, in many ways, by Jun’s sentimental attachment to the China of her childhood. It is also informed by the experiences of her siblings and their children, whose prosperity in the Reform era continued to require the erasure of the prerevolutionary past. The author might also have noted that nostalgia for the mainland past had, by the turn of the 21st century, lost much of its allure in Taiwan. The Flower Fragrant Garden was leveled to make way for apartment buildings, leaving only the surrounding wall. In the end, the author seems to suggest, the values and sentimental attachments of China’s prerevolutionary past, as embodied for Jun by the Flower Fragrant Garden, survived in memory only outside of China, perhaps best and most vividly among the relatives who made their way from both China and Taiwan to the United States.
Tobie Meyer-Fong is professor and chair of history at Johns Hopkins University. Her research and writing emphasize the intimate and emotional effects of large-scale events at the individual and communal level.