Undress me in the temple of heaven by Susan Jane Gilman

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undress me in the temple of heavenTitle: Undress me in the temple of heaven
Author: Susan Jane Gilman
Genre: Travelogue, memoir
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing; 1 edition (February 8, 2010)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

When I read the words ‘China’ and ‘travelogue’ together, I instantly gravitate towards it. And the events in this book take place in 1986 when China was only recently open for travel to foreigners. I went to Shanghai and Beijing about a year back and even now, it’s very difficult to communicate because other than the hotel staff no one spoke English. We faced a bit of difficulty traveling as we had to write down the name of places in Chinese and also take the map along with us. Going anywhere impromptu was out of the question.

So when Susan and Claire decide to go travel the world for a year and choose China as their destination, I was equally fascinated and weary considering the state of the country back then.This travelogue is funny and raw and honest. Susan accepts that they both didn’t know what they were doing. They were in a land about which they knew nothing. They were afraid and lonely. I expected a typical self-absorbed backpacker travelogue where they hook up with other backpackers, have drunken nights, break the rules and finally get enlightened by the meaning of life and happiness.

We had assumed, of course, that traveling would elevate us to a higher level of consciousness, that by backpacking through china, we’d absorb great wisdom the way a chunk of bread might soak up a plate full of sauce-that our minds would dilate with insight-and wherever we went, we’d sprout razor-sharp cultural observations worthy of great philosophers. Instead, as we trudged around Shanghai the next few days, our thoughts became nearly per-verbal: can I eat that? This is itchy. I need to pee.


I was so wrong.

First off, traveling with a non-compatible traveler, that too around the world, can be taxing. And if you are naive, fresh out of college and not broad-minded enough, it can be a nightmare. When Susan and Claire reach Hong Kong, they are tired and frustrated by the lack of descent food, descent place to stay and lack of western amenities. Soon they venture into China and they start getting homesick and frustrated not only with China but also with each other. The book, in the beginning is funny and light and a pleasure to read. But as their whining and their frustration increases, I became increasingly irritated by the fact that they didn’t seem to realize what a great opportunity they had to set foot in a place where very few people had before. They look down upon everyone and everything and behave like spoiled princesses.

The story builds up slowly but steadily until the very end where it becomes supremely difficult to put the book down until you know what happened next. Both the girls fall into a spiral of confusion and frustration until a series of terrifying events force Susan to take action. Susan is from a poor family in New York and says she’s lived in difficult and dangerous situations back home, but to me she doesn’t seem prepared one bit. I could chalk it down to her not being able to understand the language and the people but she is plain and simply selfish. I felt like whacking her several times.

But one thing you cannot fault in Susan is her honesty. She could have easily turned this into a story of adventure where they came out unscathed to tell the story to the world. But at that point she had just given up. In hindsight, she realizes what she has seen and experienced was no less unique and a privilege. And the fact that they both came out of a terrifying situation which could have turned into a nightmare was no less than a miracle.

The authors writing is fluid and she brings to life the streets and people of China in 1986. Her observations are astute although influenced by the girl she was back then. Her hindsight 20 years later helps give more perspective and details than it might if she had written the book immediately after returning to America.

Despite all my frustrations with the book, or maybe because of it and how involved I became in their lives for that short time, ‘Undress me in the temple of heaven‘ will be one of my favorite travel memoirs ever.

Red Lotus by Pai Kit Fai

Red Lotus coverTitle: Read Lotus (UK version)
Author: Pai Kit Fai
Source: Library
Published by Sphere (first published January 5th 2010)
Rating:4 out of 5 stars

I had a reading block for the longest time;
hence the lack of posts. I haven’t blogged here for a while for the same reason and a book that bought an end to this block is worth mentioning. I literally devoured this book and considering it is 500 pages long, it says something.

Red Lotus
is a story of 2 women, mother and daughter, who were unlucky to be born in a time and place which was not very kind to women. The book begins in the year 1906 at the Great Pine Spice Farm on the Pearl river in Southern China. In a rich farmers family, a young girl is bought as a concubine. She was a girl from an influential family but was sold because the family had fallen into bad times. The concubine gives birth to a girl who is named Li-Xia. Li-xia survives against all odds and manages to escape her house when she is sent to work in a Silk weaving factory in Ten Willows. There she finds a family and some happiness. She finds her destiny with a foreigner called Ben. I wont tell you much but suffice to say Li-xia’s story is the first half of the book and Sing’s, her daughters story is the second half of the book.

Some people might say this book is rambling and very detailed. But for someone like me it was the main reason why I loved this book. Miss Fai’s writing is brilliant and she manages to bring the Chinese countryside, the Silk Farm and Macau to life. It was fun to read about what Macau was like a few years back. I marked a lot of pages but for the sake of this review, I’ll post one here

Gold can be found everywhere you look for it…sprinkled by sunlight on clear water…in the evening sky and the coming of each new dawn. It falls like scattered coins on the forest floor and gilds the leaf of every tree; glitters on every blade of grass after the rain and turns each dewdrop into a precious jewel. You will find gold in kindness; it can be found in the seeking of happiness and in helping others. Try to find your fortune among these things, collect what you can of these real gold, and one day you will be qian-jin.
(*qian-jin: means being compared to thousand pieces of gold).

There are some drawbacks of course, but they are mainly with the scenes towards the end of the book which I’ll refrain from mentioning here.

I loved both Li-xia and Sing but I have to admit I have a special affinity for Sing just because of her trying childhood and the way she overcame all odds and still remained strong and pure.

It’s a book worth reading if you enjoy oriental books, love reading about the countryside, love reading epic stories and finally, love reading about strong women. This ones definitely going on my ‘one of the best reads‘ of 2013.

1. The summary on Goodreads spoils the plot. Miss it if you can.
2. The cover is gorgeous but unfortunately its the most mismatch cover ever. The story is about Chinese women set in China. However the girl on the cover is definitely not Chinese, neither is the farm picture at the bottom. It’s a clear case of designing for the sake of beauty and not as a reflection of the actual book. Since I’m a designer myself now, I find this very disappointing.
3. This book is also published with the name ‘The Concubines Daughter’ in the US.

Teaser Tuesdays!

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

I havent been reading much lately, hence the lack of posts. But this one books has me reading again. Inspite of being 500 pages long, I’m more than halfway through and loving it. The writing is wonderful. Here’s a teaser.

Gold can be found everywhere if you look for it… sprinkled by sunlight on clear water… in the evening sky and the coming of each new dawn. It falls like scattered coins on the forest floor and gilds the leaf of every tree; glitters on every blade of grass after the rain and turns each dewdrop into a precious jewel. You will find gold in kindness; it can be found in the seeking of happiness and in helping others. Try to find your fortune among these things, collect what you can of this real gold, and one day you will be quan-jin. 

DragonKeeper by Carole Wilkinson

Title: DragonKeeper
Author: Carole Wilkinson
Genre: Fantasy
Set in: China
Reading level: Ages 9-12
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Hyperion Book CH; 1 edition (April 2, 2005)
Rating: 4 out of 5

My Thoughts:
Dragonkeeper is a story set in Ancient China in the Han Dynasty. Ping is a 5-year-old slave girl in one of the forgotten castles of the Emperor. She does all the cooking and cleaning for the Imperial Dragon caretaker who is very lazy and mean to her. When the Emperor comes to the castle with his entourage to kill the dragon, she has no choice but to flee.

Since the slave girl is all she has been all her short life, she wants to go back, but the dragon takes her on a journey to the ocean where he can gain her strength back. On the way, Ping and the dragon have many adventures and I loved every minute of it.

I loved journeying through ancient China with Ping; be it visiting the Garden of secluded harmony or sailing on the yellow river. The author Carole Wilkinson weaves a fascinating and enchanting tale. Her writing can enthrall a child and an adult into ancient China and into Ping’s world. She creates characters that are both strong and vulnerable at the same time, be it the little girl or the dragon Danzi.

I cannot recommend this book enough for all the adults, kids and teens out there. I’m only too eager to read the sequel Garden of the Purple Dragon.

Book of the year: younger readers-> The children’s book council of Australia.
Aurealis Award winner
2004 Winner: Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards
2004 shortlisted: NSW Premier’s literary Awards

The last Empress

The first book Empress Orchid is about how a young village girl of 17 called Orchid becomes the Empress of China. The book ends with her husband’s death and with her taking the reins of the kingdom. All I can say is please read Empress Orchid. Here is my review from last year.

The next book ‘The last Empress’ is about her rule as an Empress.

It was the time when the foreign powers like Austria, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, and Russia were trying to rip china to pieces and trying to establish their own trade in the country. It was the time of tremendous turmoil when the missionaries came to preach Christianity and set up churches in the country. It was also the time of the Boxers Rebellion which the shook the entire country and the Forbidden palace as well.

When her son, the Emperor of China died of a disease she had to take over the reigns of the country and also train a new emperor. She chose her sisters son Gong and adopted him. But Gong was basically a weak child and was plagued by depression in his twenties. At the age when she wanted to retire and let her adopted son manage the kingdom, she realized her son was unable to take the right decisions for the benefit of her country. He embraced the wrong people and the Empress was unable to do anything about it.

It’s amazing and sometimes shocking to see how foreigners exploited China on its own land. They came to China under some pretext or another and when there was no reason for them to be there, they refused to leave. When there were uprisings because of the foreign invasions, they had the audacity to demand more money and acquire more land in China. Even the missionaries were used for this purpose. When the Chinese rebelled against the missionaries and their agenda to convert as many people to Christianity as possible, the people rebelled. Some of the missionaries were killed. Again the foreigners had the audacity to ask compensation for it.

China was eroding slowly and there was nothing anyone could do about it. The people of China blamed the foreign invasions and in turn the government for not getting them under control.  On top of all this were the natural calamities like floods and draughts.

And caught between the midsts of all this was the Empress of China. Her husband failed her, her son failed her too and the adopted son was very easily disheartened. She was the only hope of the Chinese people. At the age of 61, instead of watching her son take over the throne and give her some rest, she had to endure her son’s illness, his depression and finally his death. She took over the reins because of her love for China and its people. In spite of all this she was always held responsible for her husbands and sons death and many other wrong doings all because people thought she wanted to stay in power.

Anchee Min described the Empresses possible state of mind very well. She brought to life one of the strongest and most famous personalities of Chinese history. She gave a human touch to her that was far different from what the historians and the foreign reporters put forward. She showed her daily struggle with the court members, training an heir for China and repressing her inner feelings and cravings for love. Just reading about what she faced exhausted me.

After reading the first book Empress Orchid, I was fascinated by a woman called Orchid or the Last empress of China, but after reading this book I feel honored for knowing this woman even if it’s just through a fictionalized account.

Essentially there are 2 different viewpoints to what the Dowager Empress of China was. One that she was an evil mastermind who wanted only power and the other that she was a result of circumstances and did her best for China and it’s people. I am ready to believe the later.

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Empress Orchid (The last Empress of China)

Generally after I finish reading a book, usually on the very day itself, I open a blank word document and start writing my review. But the page for this book stayed blank for a very long time. I didn’t know what to write, from where to start. There were so many details, so many parallel stories and so many emotions in this book; I almost did not write this review for the fear of not getting it right.

Okay let’s give it a try.
This is the story of the last Empress of China called Yehonala or Orchid. She was born in Rural China to a low ranking government officer. At age 17 she auditioned to become one of the Emperors concubines or wives. Unlike what we think, this was actually a very prestigious position in china. She was chosen as one of the 7 wives of Emperor Hsien Feng, a lower ranking concubine and was to live in The Forbidden city.

Considering the emperor had hundreds of wives and concubines, she decided to create a place for herself rather than living anonymously like so many of the Emperor’s concubines. With the help of her loyal eunuch servant an-te-hai, she found a way into the emperor’s bed and then gradually his heart. She was the only one to give the Emperor a son, an heir to china.

Before his death, the Emperor named his 5 year old son, tung chih, as the emperor and Orchid and his first wife Nuharoo as the court members along with the very powerful Su shun, to run China on behalf of his son.
Orchid survived a coup by the ambitious Su Shun and with the help of the Emperor’s cousin Prince Kung, passed a decree which sentenced him and his loyalists to death. Thus began her 50 year rule in China. This book ends where Su Shun is beheaded and she along with Prince Kung start working together to get China running smoothly. The sequel of the book is ‘The last Empress’, which is all about her reign as an Empress.

This is the plot in very very very short. The novel is full of details and the plot is rich with vivid descriptions of the Forbidden city palaces and gardens.
I found the book very sad at places. Orchid’s struggle to not fade into obscurity, the Emperors struggle to save China from the various internal uprisings and the attacks from the west, the sad and lonely lives that hundreds of the Emperors concubines had to live.

The book is also very interesting at places where she describes the various traditions and festivals and Operas of China, the passages where she describes the auditions, the marriage, her son’s entry into royalty and the constant struggle between her and Nuharoo.

I loved Orchid. She was a very intelligent woman. I loved how she tried to gain the Emperors attention by learning the art of seduction from a prostitute house. I loved how in spite of being royalty she did not lose her original self, did not get lost in the grandeur and beauty of The forbidden city. I loved how she wanted to make her son an Emperor in the true sense of the word, someone who really understood the Chinese and the Chinese culture and history and the workings of the court. She was brave and she knew her mind.

In an odd way I sympathized with the Emperor too. He was called the Son of heaven and was told that nothing he did was wrong. He was a weak man, someone who wished well for his people and his country, but was unable to take the right decisions. He was weighed down by the constant struggle of trying to save China from the various foreign invasions and internal uprisings. In the end, this very struggle made him sick and took his life.

The book is like a roller costar ride. Read it. I am sure you won’t be disappointed.

I’ll leave you with some pictures of the Empress Orchid, who was also known as The Dowager Empress or Cixi to the western world. Also are the pictures of the Forbidden City.

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