Li-yan lives a secluded life in the mountains of southern China. A member of the Akha ethnic minority, the upheavals of the Communist Revolution have left her isolated community relatively untouched, and her people still adhere to the ancient spirits and rituals that have been practiced for generations. But as the modern world begins to encroach on their lives, Li-yan and her family are all affected by the changes that begin sweeping into their quiet village.
I’ve been a big fan of Lisa See’s work since I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan almost ten years ago. Her novels tend to focus on the lives of Chinese women and the struggles that they undergo, and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is no exception. It is a powerful story of the bonds between women and how even under the oppressive thumb of a strictly patriarchal society, women will always find a way to express themselves independently.
I had never heard of the Akha tribe before reading this novel, and I highly recommend that you do a little bit of research into this fascinating minority culture. The Akha managed to remain almost completely ignored by society until the 1990’s. Their belief system is a mixture of ancestor worship and animism, the idea that everything on Earth has its own spirit. Their lives are dominated by religion, omen, and tradition, and can seem incredibly backward to our “modern” sensibilities. During one horrific sequence early in the novel, we find out what happens when “human rejects” are born into the Akha community.
The protagonist of the novel, Li-yan, has been raised to believe the same things that her ancestors have believed for thousands of years. But then something happens that opens her eyes to the possibilities of the outside world. Li-yan goes to school. She learns to speak Mandarin Chinese, which makes her the designated translator when a stranger shows up in their village one day. The stranger is in search of a special kind of tea that can only be found in these isolated mountains, and according to him it is worth a fortune. This one event changes the course of Li-yan’s life. I won’t say anything further, but suffice to say that the repercussions of the tea-buyer reverberate down the years and even across the oceans.
It’s difficult to place a theme to this novel. It’s about the bonds of mothers to their daughters. It’s about the inevitable march of progress and how powerless we are to stop it. It’s about trying to find a sense of belonging in a world that is changing too quickly. One of the reasons I loved this novel so much was that it asked so many different questions, and offered a thousand possible answers in return.
This was yet another knock-out story by Lisa See. I highly recommend it.
My rating: 4.5/5
Happy reading everyone!