“Dragon Springs Road” by Janie Chang is historical fiction about turbulent times in China right after the turn of the last century. Jialing, the main character, begins the story as a seven-year-old child whose mother leaves her in their home, a residence attached to a large home near Shanghai.
Jialing’s mother was the concubine of a man of failing finances, and as the reader comes to understand later in the novel, she refused to take Jialing with her to be sold into life at a brothel or worse. Jialing’s mother left her in the home at the mercy of the new owners. Throughout the book, Jialing struggles to understand why her mother would have abandoned her, and searches to find her mother.
The story is beautifully told from many perspectives. There is the story of China, and the world’s repugnance for and discrimination against mixed race people. In China, such people were referred to as zazhong, a derogatory word for a person of mixed race. They were seen as inferior, and it was difficult for them to get jobs or be accepted socially. The novel makes it clear that not only were the poor Eurasians discriminated against, but the wealthy Eurasians were banned from clubs and other activities.
The historical part of the story is also fascinating. It’s about the time in Chinese history when the child Emperor stepped down and transferred power to a provisional government in a failed first step to make China a republic. The book mentions succeeding power struggles for control of China. During this time, women were basically considered chattel in China. They could be bought and sold. Men could take many wives, and the only wives with any status or power in the household were those who produced sons. When men lost their money, they then were able to sell their wives and children to try to pay off their debts.
In one horrifying scene, Jialing learns about a woman who was sold to work in a factory. When she gave birth to a daughter during work hours, she gave birth in the alley, shoved the female baby in mud until the baby suffocated, and then left the body in the trash. Her hope was that her daughter would be reincarnated into a better life.
Throughout Jialing’s childhood, she has to worry about what will happen to her once she reaches the age of 18. Even being educated in a missionary school doesn’t help her when it’s time to look for a job. She is lucky to have the assistance of Fox, an ancient spirit who lives in the home where Jialing and her mother lived, and who has helped both Jialing and her mother through difficult times. Fox is certainly a character in the story, and the choice that she presents to Jialing at the end is a question that has been asked in literature throughout the ages. No spoilers here, though, about that.
The pages turn quickly as the story moves along. The readers becomes attached to Jialing and wants to know how her story ends. The cultural and historical aspects of Jialing’s life and life in China serve to add to the richness of the story. This would be a great choice for a book club although the questions at the end are fairly low-level questions. There are many more profound issues that beg for discussion in this story.
Please note: This review is based on the final, paperback book provided by the publisher, William Morrow, for review purposes.