Families separate for many reasons, but when war rips them apart, their longing for one another can be especially acute. Sometimes family members completely lose contact with each other, never knowing if the other is living or dead. In her riveting Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden, Zhuqing Li narrates the dual biographies of her aunts, who were separated by the Chinese Civil War.
At the center of Li’s story is the Flower Fragrant Garden, the idyllic setting where sisters Jun and Hong grew up in relative security in the early 20th century. Li writes that the compound was “one of Fuzhou’s biggest and richest homes. . . . The main building was a grand, two-story red-brick Western-style house rising from the lush greenery of the rolling grounds. A winding path dipped under the canopy of green, linking smaller buildings like beads on a necklace.”
In 1937, during Japan’s war with China, the sisters were forced into exile and left their garden behind. Then, in the political turmoil that followed the war with Japan, Jun and Hong followed different paths, separated by the Nationalist-Communist divide that erupted after the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949. Jun moved to the Nationalist stronghold of Taiwan, where she became a successful teacher and later a businesswoman whose acumen brought her to America. Hong became a prominent physician on China’s mainland, “famous as a pioneer in bringing medical care to China’s remote countryside, and later the Ôgrandma of IVF babies,’ in vitro fertilization, in Fujian Province.”
Hong left her family behind completely as she embraced her life in the new People’s Republic of China, but Jun longed to reunite with her sister. In 1982, the two met again for the first time in 33 years, and through their conversations, Jun began to understand the reasons Hong had to pledge her unwavering support to the Communist party in order to survive. After that, the two sisters never met again. Jun died at 92 in 2014 in her home in Maryland, and in 2020, where the book ends, Hong was still seeing patients in China at the age of 95.
In Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden, Li eloquently tells a moving story of her aunts and their resilience throughout one of China’s most fraught centuries.