Drawing on the Chinese classic novel, Dream of the Red Chamber, Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s debut novel is a beautifully-written if haunting story set in coastal Shandong province, San Francisco and Idaho. Eight years ago Jenny Tinghui Zhang learned from her father, after he traveled through Idaho, of the brutal murders of Chinese men in the 1880s who were falsely accused of killing a white shop owner in that state. These senseless killings inspired Zhang to write a fictional account of what may have occurred, after her father asked her to write it “in order to solve the mystery of what happened.” Zhang aptly earned an MFA at the University of Wyoming, a state that was also the place of Chinese lynchings back in the late 19th century.
Zhang’s Four Treasures of the Sky is very much in direct conversation with Dream of the Red Chamber. She uses the character of Lin Daiyu in the original classic as the sometimes alter ego and guiding spirit of the protagonist, also named Daiyu.
In Dream of the Red Chamber, Lin Daiyu dies from a broken heart after her cousin and true love is to marry another woman. Zhang’s protagonist is named Daiyu after this character, yet she rejects her namesake because she doesn’t want the same tragic destiny.
I have always hated my name. Lin Daiyu was weak. I would be nothing like her, I promised myself. I did not want to be melancholic or jealous or spiteful. And I would never let myself die of a broken heart. They named me after a tragedy, I would complain to my grandmother. No, dear Daiyu, they named you after a poet.
It would take Daiyu years to learn that her grandmother was correct. She spends her childhood trying to prove to herself that she is nothing like the character from the book, even as she faces disappointment after disappointment. First, her parents are arrested in China and taken away, then her grandmother sends her away, disguised as a boy so as to avoid being recognized by the people who arrested her parents. Daiyu apprentices under a master calligrapher who becomes a surrogate father until she is kidnapped and smuggled against her will to the United States. It is on the ship that Daiyu mentally summons her namesake.
I thought about Lin Daiyu, willing her to come. She could take me out of here and we would float above the world, our bodies as thin as paper, as light as the last day of winter. I wanted to pour myself into her mouth, to sleep inside her body for years and years. For her to grow me inside her.
In San Francisco and later Idaho, the spirit of Lin Daiyu allows teenaged Daiyu to emotionally detach from traumatic experiences, both as a girl and again disguised as a boy. Daiyu learns it is just as dangerous in the US for Chinese women as it is for Chinese men. She often finds it difficult to decide which identity will best help her survive. She finally falls in with a loyal group of Cantonese men in Pierce, Idaho, disguised as a boy named Jacob Li. By 1885, many of the previous Chinese residents of that town have left and Daiyu realizes Idaho is no safer than the lawless San Francisco.
I read in the paper—the fourth page, a tiny corner mention—about a mob ransacking a Chinatown and lynching its inhabitants. The bodies are poked and jeered at, castrated and decapitated. The journalist justifies it as Americans’ right of revolution.
While Zhang is not the first Chinese-American writer to tackle the United States’s shameful treatment of Chinese, her book certainly stands among the most memorable of these. With violence against Asian Americans at a recent all-time high, this lesson of the brutality inflicted on Chinese residents who were only trying to help build the United States into a more efficient and prosperous country could not be more timely.