This novel truly illuminates the archaic nature of the hill tribes of Yunnan Province and their Chinese tea culture, beginning in the late 1980’s, when most of the rest of the world has advanced into advanced technology and modernity. Much of China’s tea raising communities still existed in the past, without creature comforts, and in the absence of any kind of women’s rights or modern laws about the sanctity of life. It was a male dominated society, largely governed by superstition, tradition and spirits. In the hill villages they still practiced backward rituals to cure disease, rid the community of evil influences, enhance a woman’s fertility, and made group decisions which governed everyone’s behavior.
Li-yan (later, sometimes called Tina Chang), was born in Spring Well, in Yunnan. She belonged to an ethnic minority called Akha. The majority were Han. The Cultural Revolution had only recently ended. Her story begins when she was ten years old, in 1988. It was at that time that she was considered old enough to learn how to be a midwife like her mother. Before they left for the birthing, she was asked by her mother what she had dreamed the night before. To prevent despair, Li-yan lied about its content, which predicted misfortune. Instead, she altered the dream to make it more propitious. Did her dream portend disaster? Could it be prevented if the truth went unspoken? Could evil spirits pass through the Spirit Gate?
The birth, she later witnessed, educated her into the ritual, cruel superstitious ways of the Akha, ways she must follow and obey, even though they were not to her liking. When the mother gave birth to twins, they had to be put to death. Twins were considered human rejects; they were an evil omen requiring a special ceremony, after which, the parents were to be banished from the community to prevent the spread of evil. Learning of this heinous action, still believed in so recently, was particularly horrifying to me, since I am one half of a fraternal twin! Li-yan’s mother explained that this practice must be adhered to in order to keep the community safe and prevent the spread of the human rejects. If one was allowed to live, they would soon multiply and infect the entire community, bringing evil spirits down upon them, along with misfortune. They were following a “Hitlerian” practice of eugenics!
Shortly after this incident, Li-yan was brought to see her secret dowry. It was considered to be a worthless piece of land, but it was her mother’s treasure, handed down to a woman in the family, generation after generation. It was a secret tea mountain with ancient trees. Although all possessions were supposed to be transferred to the husband, according to tradition, her mother had not done so with this land; men were forbidden from entering there. The tea leaves on those trees seemed to have unique medicinal qualities that her mother used to brew a tea to help heal the sick. No one knew the location of the trees producing these special leaves, except Li=yan and her mother, although there were some who were driven to discover them.
When Li-yan was taken to the tea market, for the sale of their tea, she met a young boy, San-pa, a member of the same ethnic minority, the Akha. He was headstrong with a wild reputation. She spied him hiding and eating a pancake she coveted, however, unbeknownst to her, he had stolen it. He offered her a bite and she accepted. Like the biting of Eve’s apple, by Adam, this sin of biting the pancake was soon discovered. Because her mouth was greasy from the pancake, she was considered complicit, and she too was chastised and punished. Her behavior brought disgrace upon her family requiring a payment they could little afford and a cleansing ritual performed by the village shamans in front of everyone.
When Mr. Huang, a supposed tea connoisseur came to the community to search for tea, he was at first rebuffed, but soon he was embraced and the community began to harvest tea only for him. He had a son with him who soon became beloved by Li-Yan and her mother, although each was unaware of the friendship each had developed with him. Mr. Huang was very influential in the lives of Li-yan and her community over the next several decades.
When school began, Li-yan discovered San-pa again. As the years passed, their relationship deepened, but her family refused to allow them to marry. He went off to make his fortune and promised to return for her. When she found herself with child, she was forced to conceal her pregnancy because he had not returned. As with twins, a child born out of wedlock was a human reject; it brought evil into the community and disgrace to the family. That child must be killed, but Li-yan refused to kill her child, Yan-yeh. With the help of her mother, defying her own culture, Yan-yeh was left near an orphanage. In the child’s swaddling, the grandmother placed a special tea cake to take her safely on her way, and one day, hopefully, to help her return.
Li-yan missed the exams for college, because of the work for Mr. Huang during the tea season, but she was invited to attend a trade school and from there to attend a newly instituted college of tea study. She became and expert and a successful entrepreneur with her own tea shop. One day, she met an interesting woman in the park. Soon she married the woman’s son, Jin, a member of the ethnic majority, the Han, and she could never have imagined his great wealth. She was a Cinderella figure! From the time she abandoned her child, she was determined to find her again. However, she was unsuccessful, and soon, she had another child, a son, Paul.
Meanwhile, another story develops alongside Li-yan’s. The child she abandoned was adopted and sent to the United States. She was brought up in California, as Haley Davis, by white parents; she went through all of the traumas adoptees suffer, in addition to being ridiculed, sometimes, because she did not look like her parents. She developed an interest in the tea industry, perhaps because she had always treasured the tea cake left in her swaddling, and she followed a career in that direction, like her birth mother. Through her letters and her psychological and medical evaluations, we learned about her life and how it would one day come full circle allowing her to return to her roots.
As you must realize by now, the story was like a fairy tale. All of the characters eventually interconnected. The story was often contrived, but for the most part, it was an interesting novel. I enjoyed learning about the Chinese culture, and I found the descriptions of tea production eye-opening. I learned a great deal about a special brew of tea that is called Puerr*** and is known for its medicinal and calming qualities. I also learned some very unusual expressions used by the Akha.
The book really illuminated the rise of the tea industry and the rise of prosperity in the tea producing communities. It even introduced the production of coffee there, as well. It explored the problems of immigrant adoption, with all of its ramifications for the families, the adoptees and those that had to abandon their own because of archaic, barbaric laws and superstitions. It illustrated the effect of the cultural revolution from 1966-1976, on Chinese society to some degree, as well. The book examined family ties and superstitions, the psychological issues faced by children adopted into families that were not of their own race, the lack of a woman’s right to make her own choices, human trafficking, to some degree, the often hopeless search for birth parents, and the clash of cultures. The history of Li-yan‘s life began in 1988 and Haley’s began in 1995. As their two lives paralleled, the reader learned of their experiences up until the current day, in 2016. They could not help but be struck by the two completely different worlds they lived in and enjoyed. Learning about the traditions, spirits, legends and incantations that guided them was very interesting.
On the negative side, I felt Haley was the stereotypical Asian child, with a love of violin and learning. She was obedient and eager to please, upwardly mobile and ambitious. Her adopted parents were over protective. They feared what all adoptive parents fear, that the child will reject them. The child feared being returned. The aphorisms, proverbs and actual history were truly interesting, but the tale itself, while it rolled out smoothly lacked credibility. Both Li-yan and Haley were alternately too naïve or too worldly. Li-yan had the Midas touch; Haley was at the top of all her classes. Both succeeded beyond their expectations with all things in their lives seeming to fall into place serendipitously, although there was no development of the relationship between Li-yan and Haley when the book ended. Perhaps there will be a sequel.
***For more information on Puerr tea, the following sites are helpful:http://www.seriouseats.com/2015/08/what-is-puerh-tea-where-to-buy.html
For a tea to be called pu-erh, it must be made from the large-leaf subspecies Camellia sinensis var. assamica and grown in Yunnan Province in China’s southwest, where Han Chinese as well as many ethnic minorities share borders with Burma and Laos. It’s one of the few teas to be designated a protected origin product by the Chinese government, a rarity in an industry run wild with loose, unregulated terms and limited oversight”
Pu-erh tea is sometimes called the diet tea. Pu Erh teas (or Pu’er teas) are aged for 15 years and known for their rich earthy flavor and medicinal qualities.
Green tea is not fermented, oolong tea is partially fermented, black tea is fully fermented, and Pu-erh tea is post-fermented. … Pu-erh tea is used as medicine. … Pu-erh tea contains caffeine, although not as much caffeine as other teas.