Elizabeth Reuter's Reviews > Golden Lilies: Letters by Kwei-Li

Golden Lilies by Eileen Goudge
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Apr 09, 12

Read in March, 2011

China changed a lot at the turn of the 20th century. Golden Lilies shows us one person caught in that change, a government official's wife named Kwei-Li.

Kwei-Li was traditional. She believed her place was indoors, that a son was better than a daughter, that divorce was shameful, that obeying one's elders was an unquestionable duty. She was also empathetic, funny, and thoughtful. Golden Lilies collects her letters, which read like poetry, to her traveling husband. Sure of the world and her place in it, she's almost saintly in the first half.

Then the book skips twenty-five years and switches to Kwei-Li's letters to her mother-in-law. China is in a state of upheaval. Kwei-Li's tone now is confused and frustrated, and here we see more human flaws: she views Westerners with distrust, her feminist daughter with shame, and China's changing morality with fear. Yet her compassion and intelligence remain. Instead of turning her back on the "new" China, Kwei-Li tries to work through her confusion in her writing.

It's a remarkable book. To accentuate it, an introduction by author Eileen Goudge explains the historical context, and illustrations by Zhang Ging give visual context to Kwei-Li's words. Cooper, who published the original book in 1914, apparently embellished the letters for Western readers, explaining things they were unlikely to know. She does it tastefully: for example, one of Kwei-Li's letters worries a friend is facing divorce, and a brief sentence explains that women are shamed by divorce. The result remains accessible to people who know nothing of Chinese history, but not dull to those who do.

I recommend Golden Lilies to anyone interested in beautiful language, unique people, great moments in history, and China. Illustration fans might want to check out Ging's amazing linework, too.

-Elizabeth Reuter
Author, Demon of Renaissance Drive
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