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Storyboard18 | Bookstrapping: Vanessa Hua’s Forbidden city

Storyboard18 | Bookstrapping: Vanessa Hua’s Forbidden city


The conversations in Hua’s book are antithetical and engaging. Immediately after the statement "women hold up half the sky" comes the downer — "by lying down". The character Mei Xiang’s harrowing journey raises questions about power, manipulation and the unacknowledged role of so many women. Bookstrapping Rating: 4 stars

Storyboard18 | Bookstrapping: Vanessa Hua’s Forbidden city
To be the flame that burns longer
There’s so little actually ‘known’ about China that the novel Forbidden City (an imperial palace complex of the Ming and Qing dynasties in Beijing, China), is both a promise and a revelation. The narrator is a 16-year-old village girl, Mei Xiang. And she’s eerily real. That’s pretty much the problem with historical fiction — your mind can trick you to believe what you read.
The youngest of three daughters, Xiang is quite resourceful. She uses a secret she knows about the village headman to find a way out of her ‘ordinary life’ and into the Beijing dance troupe. Chairman Mao dances with the girls of this troupe and beds many of them. “No man but my father had seen my hair unbraided. No man but my husband was supposed to touch my hair,” Xiang thinks when Mao first beds her.
The book is visualised on a grand scale and the fearlessness of the writing is evident on every page. Five noteworthy moments of the book include:
As Xiang leaves her village, her parting gift from her mother is dong quai — the tiny flowers and study roots that help to keep baby from taking hold. “Drink this every morning,” she says, fully knowing what she's sending her daughter into. The separation between the mother and the daughter is described with aching beauty, over four lyrically written pages.
2. Throughout the book, Xiang's position is disadvantaged and powerless, but she finds a way out by being resourceful and attentive. When she realises that the Chairman had chosen her to be an actor — "a shape-shifter, a fox-spirit turned young girl who beguiled travellers off the road”, she adapts by constantly finding ways to be useful and interesting. She knows that if Chairman Mao gets over her, she may never make it back to his good graces again.
3. Given the precarious position of these girls, who the Chairman beds in full view of his wife — the piece of advice in the book that comes from Teacher Fan (who grooms the girls) is brilliant: “You train yourself how to shut things out. The ones who didn’t, who got distracted, ended up dead.” Equally powerful is the advice she receives from Chairman Mao, "to keep her heart small" (xiao xin). Wisely, she encourages the Chairman to take other girls to bed from time to time, so that his wife does not shut her out.
4. From her humble origins to the Lake Palace, Xiang recognises that there are two types of hunger — one from the hollowness of her childhood and another when she "snacked idly to occupy her mouth". She sees how her life has shifted and reacts to news of her sister's death with a fearsome distance.
5. The conversations in the book are antithetical and engaging. Immediately after the statement, "women hold up half the sky", comes the downer — "by lying down".
Throughout the novel, Xiang sees that the Chairman's role keeps shifting — he is her lover in one moment, a demanding boss in another, and a distant giant portrait that all of China recognises, fears and loves in the third. The Chairman himself lives in constant fear that his power may go away and that his own President may betray him. Inexplicably, one day, Mao pushes Xiang into the deep end of the pool. Somehow, Xiang saves herself. Mao tells her, “You have to be prepared. You rescued yourself. Not your father. Not your mother. You.” Mei Xiang’s harrowing journey raises questions about power, manipulation and the unacknowledged role of so many women. Many years later, when she hears of Mao’s death, her mind travels to the brightness she felt, in the best of times with Mao.
And then, she realises that she deserves a longer lasting flame.
Don’t we all?
— The author, Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta, is a columnist, biographer and bibliophile. She is credited with the internationally acclaimed Red Dot Experiment, a decadal six-nation study on how ‘culture impacts communication.’ 
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