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A Hundred Flowers: A Novel
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A Hundred Flowers: A Novel

3.6 9
by Gail Tsukiyama

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A powerful new novel about an ordinary family facing extraordinary times at the start of the Chinese Cultural Revolution

China, 1957. Chairman Mao has declared a new openness in society: "Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend." Many intellectuals fear it is only a trick, and Kai Ying's husband, Sheng, a teacher, has


A powerful new novel about an ordinary family facing extraordinary times at the start of the Chinese Cultural Revolution

China, 1957. Chairman Mao has declared a new openness in society: "Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend." Many intellectuals fear it is only a trick, and Kai Ying's husband, Sheng, a teacher, has promised not to jeopardize their safety or that of their young son, Tao. But one July morning, just before his sixth birthday, Tao watches helplessly as Sheng is dragged away for writing a letter criticizing the Communist Party and sent to a labor camp for "reeducation."

A year later, still missing his father desperately, Tao climbs to the top of the hundred-year-old kapok tree in front of their home, wanting to see the mountain peaks in the distance. But Tao slips and tumbles thirty feet to the courtyard below, badly breaking his leg.

As Kai Ying struggles to hold her small family together in the face of this shattering reminder of her husband's absence, other members of the household must face their own guilty secrets and strive to find peace in a world where the old sense of order is falling. Once again, Tsukiyama brings us a powerfully moving story of ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances with grace and courage.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“I was following this family almost as though it were my own and stayed all the way to the end of their story.” —All Things Considered, NPR

“The tenderness [Tsukiyama] shows for her characters creates a sympathetic portrait of intellectuals trying to live honestly in the shadow of oppression.” —Publishers Weekly

“Tsukiyama's close attention to detail and descriptive language paint a vivid picture of the daily life of Kai Ying and her family. Tsukiyama gently envelops the reader into the quiet sadness that permeates the entire household while weaving in the multiple hardships the family faces under communism. Strength of community; support and love of family, both natural and adopted; and the ability to heal and overcome loss are major themes within the moving novel.” —Booklist

“Best-selling author Gail Tsukiyama, recipient of PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, takes us back to those times not by painting a panorama but in her thoughtful and forthright way by showing the consequences for one family.” —Library Journal

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A Hundred Flowers

By Gail Tsukiyama

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Gail Tsukiyama
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-6169-1


The Kapok Tree

July 1958


The courtyard was still quiet so early in the morning, the neighborhood just waking as Neighbor Lau's rooster began to crow. The air was already warm, a taste of the heat and humidity that would be unbearable by midday. Seven-year-old Tao knew he had little time to climb the kapok tree before he'd be discovered. He glanced down at the gnarled roots of the tree and felt strangely comforted, a reminder of the crooked ginger roots his ma ma sliced and boiled into strong teas for her headaches, or when his ba ba complained of indigestion.

Tao wasn't afraid as he shimmied up the kapok tree's slender trunk toward the broad branches, avoiding thorns on the spiny offshoots of the same tree his father had climbed as a boy, his heart thumping in excitement at the idea of seeing White Cloud Mountain from up so high. From the time he was two, his father would lift him up to look out his bedroom window, or from the second-floor balcony, as they searched for the mountain in the far distance. His ba ba always told him that if he looked hard enough, he could see all of Guangzhou and as far away as White Cloud Mountain on a clear day. With its thirty peaks, the mountain was a magical place for him, and his eyes watered with an effort to glimpse just a shadow of an elusive peak.

Tao could still feel the rough stubble of his father's cheek against his, like the scratchy military blankets they used at school during naptime when he was younger. But last July, just before his sixth birthday, everything changed. Angry voices filled the courtyard early one morning, his father's voice rising above them all, followed by the sound of scuffling. He looked out the window to see his ba ba's hands bound behind his back as he was dragged away by two unsmiling policemen in drab green uniforms. He saw his grandfather trying to push closer to his father, only to be roughly shoved back by one of the policemen. "Where are you taking him?" his mother's lone voice cried out from the gate. But all he heard was a roar of the Jeep, and then they were gone.

After his father was taken away, when his mother and grandfather thought he was still asleep, Tao heard their low whispers, but when he made his way downstairs, the whispering had stopped. He saw his mother crying and his grandfather sitting in the shadows as still as stone. He wanted them to answer all his questions. "Where did ba ba go? Why did those men take him away? When will he come home again?"

Before he could say a word, his mother pulled him toward her and hugged him. "Ba ba had to go away for a little while," she told him. He smelled the mix of sweat and the scent of boiled herbs in her hair and on her clothes and he blurted out, "Why didn't ba ba tell me he had to go away?" But she held tightly on to him and a strange sound came from her throat. Only then did he understand his father was really gone and his questions would remain unanswered. He squeezed his eyes shut so he couldn't see her crying.

From that day on, his father was no longer there to tell him about White Cloud Mountain. At first Tao was scared and confused, wanting only to feel his ba ba's warmth beside him and to hear his laughter coming from the courtyard. Tao searched for his father in all the places they had gone together: down by the tree-lined canal, through the alleyways that separated the redbrick apartment buildings, in and out of the crowded, narrow streets lined with restaurants, and in the small shop where his father always bought him sweets filled with red bean and rolled in sesame seeds on their way to Dongshan Park. It was as if they were playing a game of hide-and-seek; he thought his ba ba would have to come out of hiding sooner or later. But he never did.

Mr. Lam, the shopkeeper, brought Tao safely back home, but not before he reached up to the shelves and took down a glass jar and slipped him a piece of candy, the same sugar candy that his mother's patients often sucked on after drinking an especially bitter tea.

"Don't worry, your ba ba will be back soon," he said reassuringly.

Tao nodded, but all he tasted as he sucked on the hard candy was grief.

* * *

For a whole year, his ba ba returned to him only in dreams. Tao felt his presence in the shadows, the calm of his voice, the safe, solid grasp as he lifted him up and into the air, and the sweet scent of his cologne. The idea of climbing the tree had come to him in a dream just that morning: he was perched at the top of the kapok tree and could finally see all the way to White Cloud Mountain and there on one of the peaks stood his father waiting for him.

Tao suddenly heard the slow whine of a door opening and peered anxiously at the balcony. He held his breath and waited, but no one emerged as the air seeped slowly back out from between his lips. Sometimes his mother stepped out in the mornings to check the weather, or to see if she had any patients waiting. On this particular morning, he was relieved to see that the neighborhood was slow to wake.

His mother, Kai Ying, was something of a well-known herbalist and healer in their Dongshan neighborhood, where the quiet streets were lined with once-stately red and gray brick villas that surrounded their courtyard. She was known for her restorative teas and soups that cured many of the neighbors' ailments. People came and went through the courtyard all day long, wanting her advice to treat some pressing malady. On any given morning there would likely be a patient or two already waiting anxiously at the gate to see her. But only after his mother fed him and his grandfather breakfast did she walk out to unlock the gate and let the first patient in. And it wasn't until she ministered to the last person waiting that she locked the gate again at night.

According to Tao's grandfather, it was his great-grandfather, a wealthy businessman, who built one of the first villas in the Dongshan area, once a remote and isolated part of Guangzhou where mostly military families lived. By the 1920s, there were hundreds of villas in the area. Most were two or three stories, designed in the European style with high ceilings and columned balconies. Tao's family still lived in the same brick villa that was built by his great-grandfather, whose portrait hung on their living room wall. And though his great-grandfather had died long before Tao was born, he felt as if he knew the white-haired, stern-looking man wearing a dark blue silk changshan, standing tall in his long mandarin gown as he gazed down at him. He always thought of his great-grandfather as an intrinsic part of the house, just like the faded redbrick walls, the sweeping stairway and square-paned windows, the second-story balcony, and the wide-open courtyard that was specifically built around the kapok tree. Dongshan was the only district in Guangzhou that had houses with large, open courtyards.

After the Communists came into power in 1949, the two-story redbrick villa had been divided among three families. Tao's now lived on the top floor that opened up to the second-floor balcony. Auntie Song lived in a smaller apartment facing the backyard, and Mr. and Mrs. Chang, an older couple who were currently away visiting their daughter in Nanjing, lived in the rooms downstairs. They all shared the kitchen, though the Changs kept to themselves and usually took their meals in their room. Auntie Song occasionally ate with them, but preferred to cook the vegetables she grew in her backyard garden on a small hot plate in her apartment. Tao's grandfather often told him that when he was a boy, the entire house belonged exclusively to his family. Tao couldn't imagine what it must be like to have so many rooms to run through.

Lately, he noticed his grandfather was repeating the same old boyhood stories, many of which took place in the courtyard, where the tall, spiny-armed kapok tree stood guard. He knew his grandfather was an only son, though he had five much older half sisters. Tao imagined the kapok tree had provided his grandfather with company, just as it did for him. "The tree has been here for a very long time," his ye ye repeated, just yesterday. "Think of all it has seen over the years, all that it has heard," he added. His grandfather gazed up at the tree as if he could see the past in each of its limbs.

"A tree can't see or hear," Tao said.

His grandfather looked down at him and smiled. "How do you know? It's a living thing. Just because it doesn't have eyes and ears the way we do, how can we know it doesn't feel things in other ways?"

Tao thought about it for a moment. "Just like we can't see how water and sunlight make it grow?" he asked. His grandfather, Wei, and his father, Sheng, were both teachers. Ever since Tao was a very little boy, he felt their joy every time he asked questions and was eager to learn something new.

"Yes," his grandfather said, and clapped his hands once. "Exactly like that! So many things happen around us without our seeing or knowing."

"How old is the tree?"

His ye ye stroked the gray hairs on his chin. "Let's see," he said, "I would say it was planted during the Ch'ing Dynasty, the last great Chinese dynasty, so well over a hundred years ago."

Tao nodded and counted in his head. His grandfather was seventy-one and he was going to be seven. The tree was older than both of their ages combined.

His ye ye and his parents constantly reminded him of how thankful he should be to be surrounded by nature, and how lucky they were to share it with their neighbors. Just four months earlier in the heart of March, his grandfather had marveled at the kapok's red blossoms that were in full bloom, bold and unafraid. Known as Guangzhou's city flower, it was a splendid sight. Now its branches looked like a completely different tree, the nut-size pods replaced by lance-shaped green leaves that wavered and blurred in the heat of summer.

* * *

Tao climbed upward now, quick and agile, careful not to look down at the stone pavement below. He grabbed hold of another branch and pulled himself up and onto it, then paused for a moment to look over the concrete wall of their courtyard, which was topped with the same weather-beaten red tiles as many of the other old villas in their neighborhood. His grandfather had told him that each villa's design was based on the courtyard and garden it contained. Theirs was a remnant of the old Ming Garden architecture, with tiles lining the top of their stone wall. Other gardens in the neighborhood, those without tiles, followed different designs called the Chun or Kui or Jian. Mostly, Tao thought they looked all the same once you were through the gates.

Looking down, the tiles reminded him of his grandfather's worn mah-jongg tiles all lined up in a row. He heard the rooster crow again and smiled, thinking of Auntie Song, who constantly threatened to quiet the bird once and for all by wringing its neck. "Too tough to eat," she told his mother. "But boil it long enough and you might have a decent soup!"

Tao climbed higher. His mother and grandfather would be up soon and he knew the scolding he'd get if he were caught. He could hear his ma ma's raised voice, and see her no-nonsense glare, which stole away all her beauty and made her forehead wrinkle and her dark eyes narrow. He always looked away from her eyes when she was angry at him, and focused on her hands instead, her fingers dancing in front of him. And he could already feel the warmth of his grandfather standing quietly behind him. Then finally, after his tears and apologies, would come the comfort and forgiveness he'd feel when his ye ye's large, wrinkled hands rested lightly on his shoulders.

Tao looked up through the branches to see an immense hazy sky. The morning air was already growing heavier, the warm humidity filtering through the leaves. His shirt clung to his back and he knew the clouds and rain would return by afternoon. He heard the creaks and yawns of the awakening street rise up to where he was perched. His arms and legs were getting tired. He had almost reached the top of the tree and he couldn't wait to see all thirty peaks of White Cloud Mountain, regardless of his punishment. Tao grabbed hold of another branch, but quickly let go when the sharp sting of a thorn caught the fleshy part of his palm. He cried out once just as his foot slipped into air. He felt the strange sensation of floating just above his falling body, watching the branches snap and scrape against his skin, followed by the dull thud of hitting the hard surface thirty feet below. Only then did he reenter his body, consumed by an excruciating pain that traveled from his leg all the way up to his head before everything went dark.

Kai Ying

Kai Ying would never forget the sight of her pale little boy lying on the courtyard pavement, his leg twisted beneath him. A broken branch, she thought, a crushed leaf. He wasn't moving. At that moment, she realized he might never move again and a feeling of terror overwhelmed her, stopping her abruptly and rooting her in place. Wei, her father-in-law, rushed past her and knelt over Tao. She stood there while her heart raced so fast her whole body shook. He can't be, she thought, he can't. And try as she might, Kai Ying couldn't think of one tea or soup that could bring the dead back to life. Her father-in-law, who was usually calm and in control, turned back to her, his eyes wide and frantic, his hands waving wildly in the air as he yelled for her to get help from Neighbor Lau, who had the only flatbed pedicab in the neighborhood.

* * *

For two hours, Kai Ying sat with her father-in-law in the crowded waiting room of the noisy hospital. She couldn't imagine how anyone could get well in such a frantic place. The air reeked of disinfectant mixed with camphor and menthol, the sharp medicinal odor of tiger balm ointment. With all the hurried comings and goings, it felt more like a train station. Some people crouched or huddled silently, forming a long line down the hallway, their faces pale from distress and illness. Others found ways to pass the time as they waited for their loved ones. She was amazed by how so many people had simply made themselves at home; the woman next to her was peeling an orange, a man who sat across the aisle from them smoked one cigarette after another and talked nonstop to a woman who continued to pick her teeth with a sliver of wood as she listened. Another woman, sitting against the wall, sang softly to herself as she darned a hole in an old black sock. A child's cry floated above the hum of voices. It was a chorus of sounds and movements, and in the middle of it all Kai Ying felt completely paralyzed. She avoided direct eye contact with anyone for fear she'd have to make conversation. As it was, her throat felt so dry she could barely swallow.

She gazed quickly around the room, the air as warm as breath. They had been waiting for so long and there was still no doctor in sight. Across the crowded room hung a large portrait of Chairman Mao glaring down at her, his thin lips pressed tightly together accusingly. Where were you? How could you have let your only son fall from a tree?

Asleep, she thought. I was asleep.

* * *

It was no wonder most of the neighborhood came to her for herbal remedies. Kai Ying wasn't a doctor, but she prided herself on being an observant and efficient herbalist who provided daily maintenance. She took nothing for granted and spent time with each patient; she looked for any signs of illness in the sound of the voice, the pallor of the face or eyes or tongue. She even noted whether particular odors arose from them. Then she reached for their wrists and placed her fingers on their pulse, a small shared intimacy before she discussed the history of their ailments with them. She knew that illnesses could stem from both emotional and physical pain, which then affected different areas of the body and caused an imbalance. Afterward, she would smile reassuringly and select herbs from the rows of jars that lined her kitchen shelves to find the right combination to restore balance, curing everything from insomnia and headaches to constipation and indigestion.


Excerpted from A Hundred Flowers by Gail Tsukiyama. Copyright © 2012 Gail Tsukiyama. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Gail Tsukiyama is the bestselling author of six previous novels, including The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, Women of the Silk and The Samurai's Garden, as well as the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Award and the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award. She lives in El Cerrito, California.

Born to a Chinese mother and a Japanese father in San Francisco, Gail Tsukiyama now lives in El Cerrito, California. Her novels include Dreaming Water, The Language of Threads, The Samurai's Garden, and Night of Many Dreams.

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A Hundred Flowers: A Novel 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Isn't this book being released August 7th? It's rather difficult to review something that hasn't been published. I would say, however, that I've read all of Gail Tsukiyama's books and am eagerly awaiting this one. If a reader likes reading about the Far East, written in a highly readable and lyrical manner, this author is for you.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Gail Tsukiyama is one of my favorite authors and her latest book does not disappoint at all. Her writing has such a lovely flow that it is difficult to put down and her stories are just excellent from beginning to end. I'll be waiting for the next one for sure.
bongie More than 1 year ago
What a wonderful story and Gail Tsukiyama is great at drawing in your interest so you can't put her books done. I have read all her books and am waiting for her next one. Love the Far East themes and the characters become a part of you. I am a big fan of hers and the way her writing just draws you into the story. Gail Tsukiyama is terrific.
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PeggyBrooks More than 1 year ago
Since I am drawn to reading books revealing the culture and history of China, I was naturally attracted to this book. Ms. Tsukiyama is an unknown author to me, but the review attracted me, and I felt I should become acquainted with her books. I am terribly disappointed. The story did not hold my interest, and I felt that it would appeal more to a younger reader - adolescent.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not one of her best.It was just o.k.