Sai Jinhua's father was beheaded by order if the Emperor for telling him the truth. With the death of her beloved father, Sai Jinhua became an outcast. She was the daughter of her father's concubine and was bitterly resented by his first wife. With his death, Timu, his first wife, wants to be rid of the burden of the child. When the opportunity presents, she sells the girl to a brothel keeper.
The first third of the book is devoted to Sai Jinhua's childhood and is relatively horrific.The training to become a prostitute is presented in detail, and the foot binding is given in excruciating detail. She was rescued from this existence and married to Hong Jun, a high ranking official of the Qing Dynasty. She traveled with him and met many famous Europeans. After his death she returned to China and was caught up in the Boxer Rebellion.
The book is a fascinating look at China during the last days of the Qing Dynasty. I particularly enjoyed the first third about her childhood. When she marries and moves to Europe, the book becomes more fanciful. The author admits it is unlikely Sai Jinhua had all the encounters described in the novel. I would have liked a more extensive treatment of the Boxer Rebellion, but it was interesting to see the interaction between the Chinese and the Europeans, particularly her friend, Edmund Backhouse.
Although the author has taken liberties with the history of Sai Jinhua's life, the novel gives a good view of China and to some extent Europe during that time period. I did find that the novel dragged in the middle sections, but it's worth reading for the historical interest.
I received this book from Penguin Random House for this review.