This is the story of Sai Jinhua, a legendary figure in China. The author admits that she has taken great liberty in this re-creation of her life, as many contradictory stories have been written and passed on about her. In this story, Jinhua herself often creates the legends about herself by spinning yarns about her past life, a past she wished she had had. She lived during a time of great turmoil and the author presents a picture of the history of China from 1891 until 1905 that places her squarely in the time frame.
Jinhua was the child of Lao Mangzi’s second wife, his concubine. His first wife, Timu, stopped speaking from the time he brought her home until his death, so jealous and angry was she of her intrusion into their life. When the second wife died during childbirth, the first wife resented the child that was born. That child was Jinhua. Lao Mangzi adored her, however, as he had adored her mother, which made matters worse for the child.
Lao Mangzi was the executioner in The Forbidden City. He did what the Emperor commanded. He had no other choice. Jinhua had beseeched him to disobey the Emperor and remain at home with her. She adored him and the stories he told her. One day, he did not return. The Emperor had accused Lao Mangzi of a crime for which the punishment was death. Soon, he was no longer the executioner, but instead was executed himself. Jinhua blamed herself for his death since she had asked him to question the Emperor's command. She wore the mark of that guilt around her neck for the rest of her life.
Without her father, Jinhua’s happy life was suddenly in chaos and at an end. She was at the mercy of his first wife who had hated her since her birth, and as punishment for her existence, she sold her to a “go-between” who quickly sold her to a brothel. She was to be trained as a courtesan, although she was merely 7 years old at the time. Taught all of the skills of “bed business”, she became a “money tree” as soon as she was mature enough to bed the men. This occurred, according to Lao Mama, the owner of the brothel, shortly before her 13th birthday, before she actually “became a woman”. As far as the owner of the brothel was concerned, she was old enough. It was time for her to earn her keep. The men were allowed to do whatever they wished to the girls in the brothel, and they suffered from their brutality, without complaint, for they had no other choice. In the brothel, Jinhua made a very close “sister” friend. Her name was Suyin. Suyin guided her through the years, helping her to learn what was necessary.
When Wenqing, a wealthy gentleman, took an interest in Jinhua, she was purchased, and like her mother, she became a concubine. She was parted from Suyin whom she dearly missed. With her husband she traveled to Vienna, a land of barbarians, according to him. He explained that these people thought the Chinese were heathens, they were not Christians. He said, however, that they held the moral high ground respecting virtuous behavior and the foreign devils did not. She was naïve because of her lack of experience, but her curiosity continued to grow as she watched this new world that existed outside her window in the Palais Kinsky, and she began to question what Wenqing told her. One day, she decided to see for herself, and she left the house and mixed with the barbarians, becoming quite enamored with a Count from the Austrian Court. When her husband discovered her indiscretion, defying the very rules of decorum he had set down, she became a prisoner, locked within the confines of the house, permitted only one visitor, a woman he approved of, and she was forced to submit to his desires since he wanted a child, a son, an heir, and it was her duty to her husband to satisfy and please him.
Eventually, she escaped and returned to Suzhou where she found Suyin. Together they moved to Peking and set up a brothel. They treated their girls well, allowing them the freedom to come and go. In the meanwhile, foreign invaders were continuing to conquer Chinese lands and the Boxer Rebellion cane to a head with the full force of the destruction and death that they left in their wake. They created chaos and fear as they rampaged throughout the country, burning, beheading and dismembering the bodies of their victims. They showed no mercy, but rather they taunted and tortured their victims with the approval of the Empress and the Emperor. When the foreign powers finally regained control, they too pillaged and abused the population.
When Jinhua finally recognized the damage her own behavior and selfishness had caused, she returned to Suzhou and fulfilled the dream of her beloved “sister” friend, Suyin, by opening a bakery and living a quiet life with the sound of flowing water nearby.
The Chinese believed that the rest of the world was made up of barbarians while they, the Chinese, were far superior, morally and culturally. They believed the rumors about the sadistic, depraved and disrespectful behavior of the “barbarians”. There were stories about the way the foreign devils abused their women and children. Yet, it was actually the Chinese that sold their children, often into a lifetime of cruel bondage or servitude in brothels, it was the Chinese that had more than one wife, and the Chinese who basically imprisoned their women and used them as objects of pleasure.
The author presented a picture of the history of China that was quite illuminating, putting the reader right in the midst of the confusion after Lao Mangzi’s death, as Timu signs the contract for Jinhua’s sale to the “go-between”, followed by her sale and abuse at the hands of Lao Mama in the brothel. We experience Vienna with Jinhua and her reunion with Suyin when she prevails upon her to move to Peking to open a brothel where they will treat the girls well. She does not reveal to Suyin, her reasons for wanting to resettle there, but Suyin is devoted to her. We experience their fear as the Boxer Rebellion reaches them, and we watch as Jinhua returns to her home town of Suzhou, finally fulfilling Suyin’s dream.
The book exposes the true meaning of love and freedom as it exposes the prejudice, propaganda, and ignorance of the era.