Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s spirited first novel, Four Treasures of the Sky, follows a girl’s epic three-year journey from her provincial home in northern China to San Francisco’s Chinatown and then to the mountains of Idaho.
Born in the late 19th century, Daiyu is named for a mythological beauty who dies tragically when her lover is forced to marry another. Throughout her story, Daiyu struggles to overcome her namesake’s fatalism and discover a more purposeful, loving self. She must also cope with the poverty and prejudice that shape her daily existence.
After her parents abruptly disappear and her doting grandmother can no longer support her, 13-year-old Daiyu is sent to the city to fend for herself. She assumes the identity of a young boy, naming herself Feng, and scavenges for food and odd jobs. Eventually she is taken in by a calligraphy master, who teaches her the discipline of ink brush, ink stick, paper and inkstone—the Four Treasures of the Study, which are mirrored in the novel’s four main sections. The practice of calligraphy continues to inform Daiyu throughout her perilous journey, and a recurring pleasure of the novel is Daiyu’s meditations on the shape and meaning of Chinese ideograms as they apply to circumstances in her life.
Author Jenny Tinghui Zhang shares how her father’s spirit of exploration inspired this artfully crafted first novel.
In a food market one day, Daiyu is kidnapped. When the kidnapper discovers Daiyu’s female identity, he hides her in a barrel and ships her to a brothel in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The descriptions of this trip are terrifying. Equally as visceral are Zhang’s depictions of brothel life: the food, the feel of the rooms, the rivalries and friendships of the prostitutes, the subterfuges and cruel economics that make these places possible. In these moments, the author’s skill for sensory detail shines.
The brothel is the first place Daiyu comes face-to-face with American anti-immigrant racism. Recent laws have forbidden Chinese women from being admitted to the country, while male laborers are still allowed in, so a secret trade of trafficking young girls has emerged. Daiyu is eventually able to escape and, disguised as a boy once again, travels to Pierce, Idaho, where a coal-mining boom has attracted Chinese miners. There the novel comes to its startling conclusion.
Though Daiyu’s story is shaped by true historical inequities, Four Treasures of the Sky comes to life through her journey to self-discovery and self-acceptance.