Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang
Published by Flatiron Books
Publication date: April 5, 2022
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction, Cultural, Historical, Literary
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From the near-future in The Candy House I read my way through the distant past in Jenny Zhang’s Four Treasures of the Sky. The novel is the story of Daiyu, a young girl in China, kidnapped and smuggled to America in the early 1880s. A government law banning all Chinese from entering America had no impact on the market for beautiful young girls, a world Daiyu is forced into. Not content to accept her fate, she accepts and travels America in a desperate effort to get home.
Named after a beautiful, but tragic heroine who died for love, Daiyu was always determined to be in control of her own life. Unfortunately, she’s only 12 when her parents disappear from their village. Her grandmother fears she’s not safe, so shaves her head and sends her to the city. Starving, with no appreciable skills or references Daiyu, now going by Feng, finally finds work cleaning a small calligraphy school. The teacher Master Wang allows her to sleep there and even gives her a small meal every day. As she works, Daiyu finds herself entranced by the classes and Wang’s strict, solemn teaching of the art of writing. When he sees her passion, Wang begins tutoring her in this ancient art.
What her future might have held is unknown because during a trip to the market Daiyu is kidnapped by a man who locks her in a room for over a year before shipping her off to America hidden in a bucket of coal. From there she is immediately taken to a brothel run but the same Chinese gang that stole her. Now she is Peony, but later she sheds that identity. Living hidden as a man is the only way to safety so she becomes Jacob Li.
When will I be me again? And if I become me again, will I know who she is?
Four Treasures succeeds as fiction about an ugly period in American history with federally sanctioned racism (Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882). But what elevates the novel, gives it soul beyond a harsh story, is the through line of calligraphy. Even as Daiyu’s fervent desire for agency and control over her life is repeatedly thwarted she invokes Master Wang’s teachings as a philosophical touchstone to keep her grounded. In the same way, Zhang’s writing is as compact, delicate, and precise as Daiyu’s carefully executed lines. It gives Four Treasures of the Sky a solemn beauty that lingers long after the last page.
A resilient brush is one that, after depositing ink on paper, can spring back up in preparation for the next stroke. But resilience is not achieved by pressing harder. No, the artist must master the art of releasing the brush, giving it the space and freedom to find itself again. Resilience is simple, really. Know when to push and when to let go.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Flatiron in exchange for an honest review.*