Dragon Springs Road
My experience with books set in China has not been stellar – I’ve read too many authors who seem only interested in transplanting characters with western attitudes to a more exotic setting. Janie Chang’s Dragon Springs Road, I am happy to say, does not fall in this category. If anything, by adhering so strictly to the attitudes and social mores of the era, the author is unable to craft a compelling story about a young woman rising above the circumstances of her birth while also staying true to the time period. The result is a book that feels historically authentic but narratively inert and less than satisfying.
Jialing, a young Eurasian girl, lives with her mother in the Western Residence of a big estate on Dragon Springs Road. Theirs is a solitary existence, with only the occasional visit by Noble Uncle to disrupt their daily routines. Content in the company of her mother, it never occurs to seven-year-old Jialing to wonder about the nature of Noble Uncle’s relationship with them, or to ask why they are never allowed to talk to Noble Uncle’s family who lives just next door in the Central Residence. Then one day, Jialing’s mother tucks her back into bed after breakfast, leaves on a trip with Noble Uncle and his family, and doesn’t come back.
A couple of days later, a new family moves onto the property and finds Jialing in the abandoned house, alone and hungry. The matriarch of the family, Grandmother Yang, takes one look at Jialing and utters the word that will dog Jialing for the rest of her life: zazhong (mongrel). Nevertheless, Grandmother Yang agrees to let Jialing stay on as the family’s bond servant and over time, a deep and abiding friendship develops between Jialing and Anjuin, the daughter of the house. Another potentially life changing event for Jialing happens when Miss Morris, the headmistress of the Unity Mission School, moves next door to the Yangs. After taking a liking to Jialing, Miss Morris convinces Grandmother Yang to let Jialing attend her mission school, hoping that a formal education will allow Jialing to pursue a career once she has satisfied the terms of her contract with the Yangs.
I really liked the first half of Dragon Spring Road. The early 20th century was a tumultuous time for China, and the author does a great job of portraying a country on the cusp of change even as it tries desperately to cling to the old traditions. For Jialing, this cultural shift means she gets to have a modern education – one whose curriculum includes reading and writing in English – even though she is just a lowly bond servant. By contrast, Anjuin, who is considered Jialing’s superior by birth, is denied the same opportunity because Grandmother Yang deems Anjuin’s ability to read and use an abacus more than adequate for someone of her station. As the fortune of the Yangs ebbs and flows with the fledgling republic, Grandmother Yang’s insistence that they stick to the old ways will have serious and unforeseen ramifications for Anjuin’s and her family’s future.
Given how much I enjoyed the first 150 pages, I found it especially disappointing that the second half of the book didn’t live up to my expectations. As a child, Jialing is inquisitive and intelligent; and one can’t help but root for her as she navigates through adolescence while being ostracized by both the Chinese and Europeans because of her mixed blood. It was also interesting watching events in history – the Xinhai revolution, the rise and fall of the Republic of China – unfold through the unfiltered lens of a child. But then Jialing grows up, and the eighteen-year-old Jialing is not nearly as interesting her younger self. Perhaps that is because it is also at this point that the book turns from a nuanced coming-of-age story into a soap opera. There is one subplot involving Jialing’s search for her mother and another of her stumbling upon a murder that is supposed to generate some suspense but is really too far-fetched to be believable. And through it all, we get to witness Jialing suffer stoically as fate repeatedly dumps on her, only to have some benefactor pop up at the most opportune moment to save the day each time.
Towards the end of the book, Jialing finally makes a decision that will allow her to take her future into her own hands. It is a decision that makes sense, given the time and place, but one that will not leave the readers with the warm and fuzzies. The ending also feels rushed and completely undermines the central narrative of a young woman trying to forge her own identity in a post-revolutionary war China. Then, there is the story of the 300-year-old fox spirit that is interwoven throughout the book. A magical being only Jialing can see, the fox spirit often uses her power to bail Jialing out of difficult situations. Try as I might, I can’t see any purpose for this plot device other than to conveniently give the narrative a push when one is needed.
As I write this review, I am struggling with giving Dragon Springs Road a letter grade. The writing is good and brings the turn-of-the-century Shanghai vividly to life – I can practically see the rickshaws and automobiles vying for space in the teeming streets. But a weak second half and a too pat ending makes this an average read at best. Readers interested in getting a glimpse of a bygone era in Chinese history may be interested in giving this book a chance. Those who prefer strong heroines capable of taking control of their own destinies might want to look elsewhere.