China, 1908. Seven year old Jialing is abandoned by her mother in their run-down residence on Dragon Springs Road. Because she is zazhong, mixed race, Jialing is met with scorn and derision from her neighbors. She must rely on the residence’s new owners, the Yangs, to take her in and save her from a life of destitution.
I recently finished reading a fantastic historical novel about China during the Communist Revolution, so I went into this book very excited to explore a slightly earlier time, the China during the fall of Imperialism. However, Dragon Springs Road focuses primarily on the relationships between its characters than it does on the historical context. A major theme of the novel is the isolation and restriction of women in Imperial China. Jialing and the other main female characters are utterly powerless to control their fates. They are bought and sold like cattle in order to settle gambling debts or to fuel an opium addiction. Chang does a wonderful job of making the reader feel the futility and claustrophobia that would accompany this kind of subjugation. We feel Jialing’s desperation as she tries to seize control of her own life. We feel her hopelessness when her efforts are repulsed time and again. Chang’s novel is at its best when it focuses on the trials and triumphs of the women living in these difficult circumstances.
Where this book fell flat for me was its lack of historical context. The reader is given glimpses into what day to day life was like during this time period, but we are never really submerged in the era. I was left wanting more. For example, Jialing observes that one of the Yang women has bound feet. This detail is mentioned once, and then never brought up again. Tell me more! I want to hear about the limitations that such a deliberate disfigurement would have on a person’s life. Another example is the abdication of the last Qing emperor. The reader is given virtually no background information on this ruler or why he chose to abandon his lands. Nor does the fact that China just lost its leader carry with it any sense of urgency. It’s simply acknowledged, like a weather report.
Dragon Springs Road is an insightful glimpse into the lives of women in pre-war China. I enjoyed Chang’s depiction of the characters and their struggle to assert their own destinies. I also loved that she painted the entire novel with the softest brush of magic realism. But the novel was crying out for a greater explanation of the historical circumstances, which ultimately left me unsatisfied.
My Rating: 3/5
Happy reading everyone!