The Concubine’s Daughter – Pai Kit Fai
Ahh, this book. It was longer than I realised – downside of my Kindle, but the title was not misleading. Briefly, it is the story of, surprise, the Concubine’s daughter and then her granddaughter, set in China in the early part of the 20th century up until shortly prior to WW2.
The book was quite dark immediately, within the first few pages there was rape and infanticide, so, not a cheery opening. However, there are some really interesting descriptions and explanations of how the society in China worked at this time, particularly the hierarchical structures. As to whether the descriptions were accurate or not, I couldn’t really answer, mostly because I can’t be bothered to do any research, but I suspect there are some. This is because at the end there was a quick Q & A with the author. Firstly, he comes across as a complete arse, and secondly, when they ask him about the historical accuracy he gives a very vague, wishy washy answer. So probably best not to reference it in a dissertation. He does mention that one of the reasons he wrote this book was his interest on woman’s rights at this time, or more specifically, the lack of.
It discusses the lotus feet of the Concubine, and that they want her daughter to have the same – even though by this point I believe, historically, it had been outlawed, but this isn’t adhered to much in the rural area where the book is set. This then led me to do research on lotus feet – read Wikipedia – and that was a disturbing read, including the upsetting pictures. I then did some research using Bing, my suggestion is don’t make the same mistake I did. My feet were tingling in sympathy, and while I do have a thing about how tiny the bones are in my hands and feet and have a genuine concern about damage to them, this did absolutely nothing to help me deal with that. In fact I think it made it worse…anyway, onwards!
The daughter – Li-Xia, managed to escape the bindings and the fate of Lotus feet and then proceeds to show us just how determined she is to escape her fate and become a scholar. This is one of those books that teaches us that much is down to chance, and in a way gives you false hope, in that, while yes, sometimes good things just happen to people, there are the exception rather than the rule, and make me think that maybe one day something will happen to me that will change my life completely. However, if the book was about someone that ordinary things happened to, rather than one that extraordinary things happened to, it wouldn’t really be worth reading, would it? The author does, however, also focus on the fact that the much of the things that happen to the characters are down to choice and quick thinking. So I may be being a bit unfair – but not really. Much of it does just seem to be down to chance.
The characters are also inconsistent, much of their actions do not lead on from what happened before and there seem to be big information gaps, sometimes things are mentioned and you don’t know what they are referring to, or suddenly things just appear with no time of background to allow for it, for example when the Mung Cha Cha girls that Lia-Xia worked with gave her intricate gifts they had made by hand. At that point Li-Xia hadn’t seen them in years, they didn’t know that they were going to see her again, so why did they have gifts to give her when she returned and paid their Sung-Tips? How did they know? When did they get the time to make them. It was ridiculous. These were incredibly annoying and in addition to this sometimes the time line in the book just seemed to be implausible, which wasn’t aided by holes in the plot, usually linked to the information gaps referred to above. Despite these flaws though, you really start to admire Li-Xia in particular, if I had been her, I would have been raging all the time.
She goes through so much, is abused so much that you wonder how she is even still standing. Oddly enough though, she still seems very innocent and ignorant, which to me seems at odds with all she has gone through prior to this. Surely she would have a hard edge at least, or struggle to come to terms with all she has gone through, but no, it just disappears when her perfect life is given to her, along with her too perfect husband Ben. You don’t resent this though, because every time something else bad happens to her, you just think, How? How could more bad shit happen to her? Oh wait, and then it does and in comes her daughter. Which we will come back to.
The description in the book is very flowery, but it seems to suit it well. The author really sells the beauty of China to you, makes it the kind of place you want to go and explore, to see for yourself, and it isn’t somewhere I have ever really fancied visiting, now I am desperate to go. Don’t see it ever happening though, le sigh.
In addition, I have this bad habit of starting to talk like the characters in books I am reading. So for example, when I read Pride and Prejudice I go all proper spoken English on you, when I read this I become racist. So for example, I was drinking Desperados with Boyf and we were waxing lyrical about how it is one of our favourite beers when I just announce “Maybe we should send letter of many, many thanks to them?” Yup well done, excellent racism there. Sometimes I wish I couldn’t hear my own thoughts.
Ok, that was a nice detour that allows everyone to judge me harshly, we shall move rapidly back towards the second half of the book. The second half deals with Li-Xia’s daughter. The difference here is that at least she has a nice childhood which is then rather abruptly brought to an end and we go through more tragedy and misuse and female exploitation and you just wonder, will this ever fucking end? The good news is, it does end and it is the usual cliché happy ending you would expect, by this point though, you totally deserve it after all of the misery.
Overall, and I know I slagged it quite heavily above, I actually really enjoyed this book, it was a long engrossing read which I love and can be very difficult to find. Yes there are inconsistencies and problems, and yes, the authors questions at the end make him seem a bit of a dick, e.g. “Well I married into a rich family in China and when you move to China they give you a Chinese name so you can have both on your business card, so I use this name all the time now”, that may be slightly paraphrased, but is the basic gist of it. This doesn’t detract from the fact that it is a really enjoyable read and I would thoroughly recommend.