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Little Hut of Leaping Fishes

by Chiew-Siah Tei

Compare Chiew to a nightingale! Let us hope that as the dawn breaks over China after the dark night of the Cultural Revolution the lesser singers will join her and create a cacophony of joy in celebration. Chiew is a virtuoso, a coloratura, and, like the nightingale, a matchless master of her Art.

This wonderful novel is, in its nineteenth century setting, a deeply knowledgeable history of the China of its time. The hero, Mingzhi, is the first grandson of an illiterate but formidably autocratic feudal landlord, Master Chai. The shared family manor house derives its privilege and its considerable wealth from its thousands of acres of opium poppies, obligingly farmed by several small villages of peasants, the more promising of whose children aspire to become Chai domestic servants.

Inevitably corruption seeps into the darker corners of the house, tainting it with treachery, rivalry and adultery.

But Mingzhi is taught to read by Old Scholar, Yan, and is encouraged by his mother as she balances her lean body on her bound feet. Mingzhi teaches his sisters to read and to practice calligraphy with delicate brush strokes on rice paper. Together they read the poetry of Qingai, best loved of the ancient Chinese poets. Mingzhi's learning enables him to become a mandarin, and he escapes the high walls and closed courtyards of the Chai mansion. He establishes primitive village schools in his district and is fair in all his judgments at a time when mandarins lived on red envelopes of money from the plaintiffs on all sides. He brings prosperity to his district through the manufacture and marketing of porcelain.

By way of a Shanghai second-hand bookshop and help with his English from a Christian clergyman, Mingzhi discovers China's place in relation to the other countries in the world. He meets another Englishman who ships and sells his porcelain in England, and greatly affects Mingzhi's own future, and his life. All this happens at the time of the Boxer Rebellion and the death of the old Empress. Japan invades Taiwan, and England, Russia and America fence areas of China off for their own use. But it is Mingzhi's first taste of freedom. At dusk he sits in the pavilion by his garden pond, listening to the tiny movements of the red carp stirring the water and blowing bubbles - his little hut of leaping fishes. And his thoughts are of a girl in a blue silk gown. Jasmine.

Today the Chinese government remains a dictatorship, but gone is the Gang of Four and the Beijing leadership is slowly learning the lessons of history.

Understanding of China will dawn slowly in the West. Pray our enlightenment is sweetened by Chiew's transcendent song of love.


I was completely enchanted by the story and the style. The author successfully painted a character so vivid that I was almost living with Mingzhi through his life in 19th century China: the rilvary between him and his brother, his romantic fantasy for the girl in a blue dress, his friendship with an interesting young British man, and the Boxing Revolution he encounters. The prose is so beautiful, like the exotic background of China described in the book, and because of that, despite its historical setting, it is easy to read - I finished it in a day. Just couldn't put it down! Highly recommended.

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