All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson did not fail in making me teary-eyed while I was reading this moving story set in the 1930s in Shanghai about a 17 year-old girl named Feng, and her struggles with living a life that was forced upon her by her parents after the death of her older sister.
Forced into a loveless marriage to her dead sister’s fiance by her parents, Feng quickly develops bitterness and resentment towards her parents, her husband Xiong Fa and his family, especially towards her father-in-law and his two wives.
Feng must produce a son in order to maintain her status as the First Wife of Xiong Fa in the Sang household, and to ensure the continuation of the Sang family line. Faced with this unhappy task and blinded by her anger towards the people who have forced her into this unhappy life, she schemes to take revenge on her parents, her parents-in-law, and her husband.
She makes a vow that if she gives birth to a boy she will gladly raise him in the “Sang manner, as their perfect heir,” and do whatever they ask of her. But if she gives birth to a girl, she will treat her in the same manner as she has been treated, and worse, for she will give her daughter away to a peasant, so that she will live a life as “a servant to peasants.” Feng enacts her plan for revenge when she gives birth to a girl, but it did not satisfy her anger, for it only increased her bitterness. Then one faithful day, a young girl enters into her household to become her son’s personal maid, which forces her to re-examine the mistakes she’s made in order to take revenge on the people who have hurt her.
Duncan Jepson says in the “Author Insights, Extras & More . . .” section of All the Flowers in Shanghai that he “wanted to explore the Chinese attitudes towards motherhood, children, and family,” and to draw attention to the victimization of daughters by their mothers in many Asian cultures because of their “favoritism of sons over daughters, and often eldest over youngest . . . as though providing and raising a son, guarding the family name, must be done regardless of the cost to those around them.” Jepson definitely succeeds in drawing the reader’s attention to the role mothers play in this practice of favouritism, and I couldn’t help but think about all the unwanted baby girls in China that are up for adoption because their parents favoured having sons over daughters.
If you’re looking to read a book that will make you question cultural traditions, and why people carry on with traditions that they themselves have been the victims of, then you will enjoy reading All the Flowers in Shanghai as much as I have.
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