Sisters Divided by China’s Divisions

DAUGHTERS OF THE FLOWER FRAGRANT GARDEN: Two Sisters Separated by China’s Civil Warby Zhuqing Li

In the summer of 1949, young Chen Wenjun (“Jun”) stepped off a ferry in Jinmen, an island off the coast of southeastern China. She did not know that the Communists’ People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.) had occupied Fuzhou, her home city, the night after she left. But in Jinmen, the anti-Communist Nationalists held their territory. None of the 9,000 P.L.A. soldiers who fought on Jinmen’s beaches made it back home. Neither did Jun, who now effectively lived in a different country from her family. Jun’s short visit to a friend quickly became a long exile.

“Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden,” written by Jun’s niece, Zhuqing Li, a professor of East Asian studies at Brown, tells the riveting story of Jun’s decades-long struggle to find her way home. Li begins in the Flower Fragrant Garden, a lavish compound in Fuzhou overlooking the Min River, where Jun lived happily with her father, a powerful salt commissioner, his two wives and their children. One of those children was another of Li’s aunts, Hong (a pseudonym), whose story Li skillfully braids with that of Jun. Li does not linger on the Chens’ peaceful “hilltop aerie,” as the turmoil of 20th-century China soon catches up to the family and plunges it into poverty.

While Jun scrambles to survive in Jinmen, it is Hong who suffers the most, and it is her struggle that drives this absorbing book. After their father dies of tuberculosis, Hong, a skilled and passionate doctor, is left to support the large family on her salary alone; she is appalled when her infant brother and nephew are handed over to P.L.A. officers, exchanged for bags of rice. In the book’s most engrossing pages, Li describes in agonizing detail how Hong is forced to stand full time in front of the hospital with a placard (wrongly) labeling her a counterrevolutionary while passers-by spit on her. Soon after, she is “re-educated” in an isolated mountain village where she spends grueling days planting rice and sweet potatoes. (Her husband, China’s best-known cardiologist, becomes a hospital cleaner.) And yet Hong later rises to the highest ranks of medicine, never forgetting the plight of those she met along the way.

Li wisely fades into the background as she unspools these stories, surfacing occasionally to provide personal context. But her love for her aunts warms every page. If this exceptional book has any flaw, it is this: Li presents the sisters as near-saints, often taking pains to justify any seemingly morally ambiguous choice they make.

But what choices! Li unpacks the decisions each made to survive, and explains how those decisions pulled them toward the ideologies of their governments. Jun is lured into the Nationalist cause, helping coordinate the Anti-Communist and Resist Russia Union, marrying a Nationalist officer and eventually building a thriving import-export business in Taiwan. In contrast, Hong labors to clear her name, calls her son Jiyue, or “Continue the Leap,” in recognition of Mao’s Great Leap Forward campaign and becomes a party member. In placing her aunts’ stories side by side, Li presents the reader with two equally compelling questions: Will the sisters ever be reunited? And if so, will they even know each other?

On the very day I finished this book, President Biden was asked whether the United States would defend Taiwan if China attacked. His answer? “That’s the commitment we made.” “Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden” is not a history of Taiwan-China relations, but in telling this gripping narrative of one family divided by the “bamboo curtain,” Li sheds light on how Taiwan came to be — and why China might one day risk everything to take it.

Deirdre Mask is the author of “The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power.”

DAUGHTERS OF THE FLOWER FRAGRANT GARDEN: Two Sisters Separated by China’s Civil War, by Zhuqing Li | Illustrated | 368 pp. | W.W. Norton & Company | $27.95

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