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'Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden' tells the story of sisters divided by China's civil war

Here & Now’s Robin Young speaks with Brown University professor Zhuqing Li about her new book “Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden,” which tells the story of her two half- aunts, who were separated for three decades when one was stranded on an island that was claimed by China’s Nationalists, while the other remained in mainland China.

Brown University professor and author Zhuqing Li. (Courtesy)

Book excerpt: ‘Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden’

By Zhuqing Li

To be separated of course means having been together once, and Jun and Hong started out from the same place, a home named the Flower Fragrant Garden, a spacious, verdant family compound, one of Fuzhou’s biggest and richest homes. It crowned what was called the Cangqian Hill across the Min River from the main part of Fuzhou, like a tiara encircled by a low stone wall. The main building was a grand, two-​story red-​brick Western-​style house rising from the lush greenery of the rolling grounds. A winding path dipped under the canopy of green, linking smaller buildings like beads on a necklace.

Growing up, I knew of the Garden the way one might know of a big old house in town, no more than a noteworthy part of the scenery. My parents returned from their political exile in the countryside when I was ten, and they took up posts at the Teachers College next door to the Garden. They weren’t senior enough to be assigned housing there, in the exclusive compound for the leaders of the university, so we lived instead in a more modest faculty apartment building not far away.

From there I used to go often to visit my maternal grandmothers who lived at the foot of the Cangqian Hill. Yes, I had two maternal grandmothers, a relic of the Old China, where wealthy men like my grandfather could, and often did, have more than one wife. There was Upstairs Grandma, who was Jun and Hong’s biological mother; and there was Downstairs Grandma, my mother’s mother. The front door of my Grandmas’ home had a large hibiscus tree, and through its checker-​work of leaves we could see pieces of the Garden on the peak of the hill.

The Garden looked down on us like something from a fairy tale, forbidding and aloof, off limits to ordinary people. Guards were posted at its main gate. I didn’t know that in times past––when the Chen family, my mother’s side of the family, was one of the wealthiest and most prominent in Fuzhou—​it had owned the whole compound. Or that several branches of my extended family lived there under the same roof, where they raised many children, worshipped their ancestors, and celebrated the festivals in lavish style. During my girlhood, nobody in my family spoke of the place. But the trail that took me to school ran along the outside of the stone wall that encircled the Garden. I’d walk past a ditch that overflowed in every heavy rain, skirt an abandoned graveyard that always sped me up, and at the last turn, look out on a spectacular view of the Min River below where I’d pause to catch my breath.

So I knew of a hole in the otherwise impregnable wall, and one day when I was seven I went through it, pursuing a runaway ball. I lingered: the cicadas’ buzz was especially intense there, so was the mélange of floral and fruity fragrances.

There was nobody inside the wall, only me and my ball. What captivated me was the gigantic and massive front door of the main building, fortified with a rich layer of red lacquer and two fierce lion-​face bronze knockers too high for me to reach. It stood tauntingly ajar. My heart beating, I leaned all my weight on it, and it gave way a few inches, emitting a deep, throaty, scary growl. I flinched reflexively even as I peered within. The cavernous hall inside sent out a gush of cool air seeming to threaten to suck me into the vacuum of the house. I pulled away and ran for my life, but not until I paused for a glimpse of the porcelain toilet behind a half-​closed door in a small outhouse before making my way back to the hole in the wall.

Nobody spoke of my Aunt Jun either, and this was perhaps even stranger. She was my Aunt Hong’s older sister. The two of them had been nearly inseparable when they were girls, especially during the eight years of war with Japan when the Chen family was forced into an internal exile. But their lives were disrupted again by China’s Civil War, and then they were abruptly separated when the bamboo curtain fell between Communist and non-​Communist regions of China. Hong never mentioned to anyone in my generation that she even had a sister, much less a sister whose own life and associations had caused both emotional anguish and political trouble for the family in Communist China. By the time I came along, Hong had become a prominent physician in Fuzhou, famous as a pioneer in bringing medical care to China’s remote countryside, and later the “grandma of IVF babies,” in vitro fertilization, in Fujian Province. She was an important, unsentimental person, too busy perhaps to recount tales of days bygone. But none of my other aunts and uncles ever breathed a word either, about Jun or the Garden, to me or to my cousins. Not my own mother, not even Jun’s own mother, my Upstairs Grandma, ever told me or my cousins that we had an aunt named Jun.

It was only when I was finished with college in China and my application to graduate school was blocked by my new employer that Jun appeared in my life, suddenly, and out of the blue. My mother told me that I had an aunt I’d never met, and that for the first time in thirty years, she was there in Fuzhou, visiting her family—​something made possible when China and the U.S. established diplomatic relations in 1979.

“Maybe you should meet her,” my mother said. Maybe with her foreign connections she would be able to help me go to graduate school, and in America.

And so I did meet her—​and she did help me. She was a slender, elegant woman, with a confident manner and an amiable smile, somehow different from the other women I knew, even while wearing the Maoist outfit that she must have picked up from some local store in order to fit in. It was she who talked to me about the Garden. Then, shocked and saddened by my complete ignorance, she started to paint me a picture of the place that she once called home. As she reminisced, I felt as if she were holding my hand and walking me through the gate, pushing open that door that I’d been too scared to go through as a seven-​year-​old, and unlocking other doors to the past that the rest of the family had preferred to keep tightly shut. As Jun started to tell me her own and her sister’s remarkable childhood and young adulthood, questions about Hong came to my mind for the first time: What was Hong doing and thinking at the time? What did she see and hear, and what was it like for her? I reached out to Hong for the other half of the story, and for the first time, learned from her far more than she’d ever seemed willing to tell me before. These two remarkable and pioneering women—​sisters from the same family who lived their adult lives on the two sides of the bamboo curtain—​had fought and won against adversities that might have crushed less powerful, determined figures. Their separation and gritty determination to succeed, which embodied the traumatic split of China itself as a nation, are what prompted me to write this book.

Excerpted from ‘Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden: Two Sisters Separated by China’s Civil War.’ Copyright (c) 2022 by Zhuqing Li. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

"Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden," by Zhuqing Li. (Courtesy)
"Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden," by Zhuqing Li. (Courtesy)