With every misfortune there is a blessing and within every blessing, the seeds of misfortune, and so it goes, until the end of time.
It is 1938 in China, and the Japanese are advancing. A young mother, Meilin, is forced to flee her burning city with her four-year-old son, Renshu, and embark on an epic journey across China. For comfort, they turn to their most treasured possession – a beautifully illustrated hand scroll. Its ancient fables offer solace and wisdom as they travel through their ravaged country, seeking refuge.
Years later, Renshu has settled in America as Henry Dao. His daughter is desperate to understand her heritage, but he refuses to talk about his childhood. How can he keep his family safe in this new land when the weight of his history threatens to drag them down?
Spanning continents and generations, Peach Blossom Spring is a bold and moving look at the history of modern China, told through the story of one family. It’s about the power of our past, the hope for a better future, and the search for a place to call home.
As they are torn from the only home he has ever known, Renshu’s mother Meilin, tells him stories from a scroll she has carried with them as their most precious possession. One story she tells is that of Peach Blossom Spring, a fisherman passes through a cave that becomes so narrow he can only just squeeze to the other side. There he finds a kind of Eden, with flowering peach trees and the all the wonders of nature. It’s a peaceful place, but eventually there is a dilemma to solve. Once he leaves this place, he cannot return. If he stays, he can never return to his old life. Meilin tells him the fisherman stays and builds a life in this new place, leaving everything that came before. The book is divided into sections from WW2 to the latter part of the 20th Century, as we follow events from China when Renshu is a little boy, to his middle age and the life of his daughter Lily in the USA. This structure shows how his early experiences shape the man he becomes, but also the parent he becomes and the daughter he shapes along with his wife Rachel. The author weaves together themes of identity, women’s history, politics and conflict, as well as inter- generational trauma so beautifully, yet all the while framing Renshu’s life through this ancient Chinese story that’s still relevant today.
I think that reading this while watching the horrific images of war in Ukraine, really brought the plight of Meilin and her son more vividly to life for me. That fear, the desperation of grasping what you can, then running with only the things you carry. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. The trauma and displacement these characters, and the real people who inspired them, went through fleeing from city to city as the war crept closer and the only option was escape to Taiwan. The author’s descriptions of fire bombed cities, cramped underground shelters, and the terrifying trip down the white waters of a narrow river in a deep ravine conveyed the panic and desperation of Meilin and her family. I found the descriptions of sheltering underground so claustrophobic, with that many people crammed into the space the air becomes limited and the bombs above so loud you can’t even think. I could imagine being a child in that situation, totally powerless and trying to make sense of what you’re being told – that the dark, cramped space that scares you more than anything is the only thing that might keep you alive. Renshu’s panic is described so well I felt it, so it was no surprise when these panics resurfaced in middle age. Renshu (or Henry as he becomes known) is a curious, intelligent boy who loses his father before really knowing him and is reliant on his Mum for his very survival. We read these early turbulent experiences through Meilin’s eyes and what stayed with me so strongly was her quiet strength. There are situations where it is impossible to have a voice, where all she can do is endure. Through her section of the books what stayed with me is that the price of war is very different for women than it is for men.
Meilin does not even have time to process the loss of her husband, and has to live under the charity and protection of her brother- in -law. Even though he constantly tells her that they are family and it is his pleasure to look after them, she knows his wife does not feel the same way. She’s uncomfortable and thinks of returning to her own family, but in the chaos of conflict how does she know they’re even alive? The risks she takes to be independent from her husband’s family are huge and they don’t always pay off. I was particularly affected by the ordeal she endures while trying to sell their family scroll – the only thing of value they have left. Yet she’s resourceful, always looking for work and a roof over their heads, working hard to keep Renshu safe and financially provided for. All the sacrifices she is making for him, to go to a good school and university, are clouded by the painful realisation that every step of her effort will take him further away from her. She must be lonely, especially when the companionship and support she receives from other women is broken when their men slowly return. She learns to rely on herself instead of others, especially men who always want something in return and curtail her freedom. She only relies on her brother-in- law where she knows his government connections will help Renshu get to school in America. Yet she doesn’t take any of his offers for herself, of marriage and she never asks for anything from Renshu either. In the 1970s when President Carter wins the US election, then officially recognises the communist government of China, it’s Renshu who worries about bringing her to the US. In fact when they realise there’s a mix up in his own official paperwork, Meilin is quietly resigned to living out her days in Taiwan. She doesn’t seem angry at the ‘mistake’ made by her brother-in-law, even though I felt it was a deliberate ploy to keep her close by. All she asks is for Renshu to plant an orchard, but it will take several years for him to fully understand her meaning.
The settings are so incredibly full of life and it was fascinating to compare Renshu’s surroundings in China and Taiwan with his new home in America. I experience synaesthesia and I found the settings of Shanghai and Taiwan an overload on the senses. In fact when Renshu reached his lodgings in America it felt like a sudden silence as if I’d gone deaf. Renshu himself has to go outside and marvel at the quiet of his empty street with everyone inside their homes. Compared to Meilin’s visit to market, filled with people, vendors shouting, the colour and variety of produce, it seems to lack colour and life. I saw one place in colour and one in black and white. I wondered if the noise and bustle had simply followed on from the noises of war for Renshu, but in his first months in the US it is simply the sound of home. He might have experienced less culture shock in a bustling city like New York or Chicago, but in the mid-west it must have felt like the colour and music had been drained from the world. However, quiet doesn’t necessarily mean safe and there are insidious dangers in an anti-communist America of the 1950’s with McCarthyism in the air. Renshu’s Uncle has given him a contact in America who warns him of the dangers of seeming too sympathetic to his home country and it’s politics. He suggests he stick to Henry, the Western name that Renshu chose on a friend’s advice, but also to avoid gatherings with other Chinese students. Anything anti-Communist could see him in trouble with the government at home, whereas anything pro-Communist might mark him out as trouble to the American authorities. So, even as Henry, he is walking a tightrope, constantly on alert and perhaps missing out on friendships that might have made him less alone. His regular listening to Chopin in the university library is an expression of his emotions, he feels an affinity with the music as if it articulates something he can’t as yet.
In this epic story the author has beautifully portrayed inter-generational trauma, something that can’t be escaped no matter how many oceans you put between you and your past. There is a psychological theory that society’s seemingly expanding mental health issues are caused by trauma from as far back as the early Twentieth Century and is a legacy of two world wars. Men who went to war became distant and emotionally closed off fathers, a problem that then passes to another generation who don’t know how to be affectionate, emotional and available. The effect of that stiff upper lip mentality of the 1940s can be seen in a generation’s rebellion of the 1960’s. Just as the author describes the giant destructive force of the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, trauma creates a shockwave that rapidly spreads outward affecting everyone in its path. It takes a strong person to stand up and say I will not pass this trauma on to my children. Renshu is traumatised by war. His existence started with minute to minute thinking, the mind fully occupied with the basic needs of food, shelter and safety. Never in one place for long, Meilin and Renshu are powerless and can never really stop to enjoy any period of good fortune, because they know it can be taken away from them again in a click of the fingers. Meilin understands this. She sees that her boy has struggled to move fully away from that short term thinking – he has been able to have some aspirations though and the relative luxury of safety, a constant income and roof over his head, a long and happy marriage. Yet she sees that he still struggles to trust it all. This is why Meilin tells him to plant an orchard, because a man who plants an orchard knows there will be a tomorrow and that he will still be in the same place, watching them grow.
Meet The Author
Melissa Fu grew up in Northern New Mexico and now lives near Cambridge, UK, with her husband and children.With academic backgrounds in physics and English, she has worked in education as a teacher, curriculum developer, and consultant.
Melissa was the regional winner of the Words and Women 2016 Prose Competition and was a 2017 Apprentice with the London-based Word Factory. Her work appears in several publications including The Lonely Crowd, International Literature Showcase, Bare Fiction, Wasafiri Online, and The Willowherb Review. In 2019, her debut poetry pamphlet, Falling Outside Eden, was published by the Hedgehog Poetry Press. In 2018/2019, Melissa received an Arts Council England, Developing Your Creative Practice grant and was the David TK Wong Fellow at the University of East Anglia.