Author: Jenny Tinghui Zhang
Age Category: Adult
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publish Date: April 5, 2022
Print Length: 336
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A dazzling debut novel set against the backdrop of the Chinese Exclusion Act, about a Chinese girl fighting to claim her place in the 1880s American West.
Daiyu never wanted to be like the tragic heroine for whom she was named, revered for her beauty and cursed with heartbreak. But when she is kidnapped and smuggled across an ocean from China to America, Daiyu must relinquish the home and future she imagined for herself. Over the years that follow, she is forced to keep reinventing herself to survive.
From a calligraphy school, to a San Francisco brothel, to a shop tucked into the Idaho mountains, we follow Daiyu on a desperate quest to outrun the tragedy that chases her. As anti-Chinese sentiment sweeps across the country in a wave of unimaginable violence, Daiyu must draw on each of the selves she has been–including the ones she most wants to leave behind–in order to finally claim her own name and story.
At once a literary tour de force and a groundbreaking work of historical fiction, Four Treasures of the Sky announces Jenny Tinghui Zhang as an indelible new voice. Steeped in untold history and Chinese folklore, this novel is a spellbinding feat.
I received a free, digital, advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. My review is my own and reflects my honest opinion about this book. However, I did purchase my own copy of this book.
FOUR TREASURES OF THE SKY is a poetic tribute to the sordid side of humanity set against the backdrop of anti-Chinese attitudes in the U.S. in the 1880s. Although the events in this novel are far from beautiful, the story flows across the pages with tragic grace. It feels odd to say I enjoyed this book given its somber content. But I enjoyed it in the sense that I am in awe of Zhang’s lyrical arrangement of language to tell Daiyu’s story.
“In calligraphy, as in life, we do not retouch strokes, Master Wang often said. We must accept that what is done is done.”p. 43
The four treasures refer to the “Four Treasures of the Study” of calligraphy: the brush, inkstick, paper, and inkstone. Before Daiyu is kidnapped she finds work at a calligraphy school in exchange for food and a place to stay. She also begins to learn calligraphy and the philosophy of the art. Throughout the trauma she experiences she grounds herself in this philosophy, using calligraphy as a means to set intention in her life.
“I am beginning to realize that everyone has two faces to them: the face they show to the world and the one on the inside, that keeps all its secrets.”p. 82
What was left of Daiyu’s naivete and trust while playing the part of a young boy in the streets dissipates after she is kidnapped and smuggled to the U.S. She must quickly learn the duplicitous nature of humanity, particularly the sector that thrives on others’ vulnerability. And so Daiyu comes to explore the meaning of identity, which is an overarching theme throughout, as she reinvents herself survive.
When she comes face to face with anti-Chinese sentiment in Idaho, she again experiences this dual sidedness of personalities. Someone’s actions may not necessarily bely their true feelings or opinions on a particular issue. Daiyu realizes this when she sees familiar faces in a rowdy crowd protesting the presence of Chinese immigrants in their town. On the other hand, sometimes those actions speak louder than words. She sees this in authority figures whose position stands for justice but whose lack of action speaks for itself. These situations also flirt with the issue of crowd behavior. That is, someone may not necessarily agree with the loudest opinion, but does nothing to voice this opposition. This could be either because of fear of retribution, ostracization, or both.
“What does it mean to be a man? My experiences then told me everything: It was a matter of believing oneself invincible and strong, and owed everything…As a man, I could look at other men without fear of being seen. But as a man, I could see, too.”p. 152-153
The examination of identity also intersects with that of gender and the weaknesses and strengths assigned to those roles. Even before Daiyu found herself in America she realized it was safer to play the role of a boy after her grandmother sent her away. Once thrust in the setting of a brothel the inequality between genders is vastly evident. These men can take and use and abuse because ingrained within them after generations of misogyny is their right to do what they want when they want with whomever they want. Zhang writes this realization much more eloquently than I can relay it, but Daiyu observes, recognizes, and internalizes it. Thus when she escapes the brothel she assumes the identity of an adolescent man. There is a level of safety that automatically comes with a male persona.
The most important part of this book, arguably, is the inclusion of racism against Chinese immigrants in the U.S. Zhang expresses in her author’s note that her “hope is that this book brings the United States’ history of anti-Chinese violence out of scholarship and research and into our collective memory” (p. 321). Like many aspects of history taught in U.S. classrooms, instruction generally skims over the unsavory aspects of U.S. history. The general exception to this is Black enslavement and the Civil Rights movement. In my opinion Zhang succeeds in raising awareness of anti-Chinese violence in FOUR TREASURES OF THE SKY.
Although this story is far from heartwarming, it brings to the surface a time in history that is woefully under presented. Spurred by a true event in Idaho, FOUR TREASURES OF THE SKY carves a niche into our collective memory of the anti-Chinese sentiment that spread across the U.S. in the 19th century. Zhang delivers a poignant story of survival and identity under the oppressiveness of racism and misogyny.
Content warnings: kidnapping, prostitution, sexual assault/rape, murder, racism, xenophobia
Reading format: Kindle e-book