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The Moon Pearl

The Moon Pearl

5.0 1
by Ruthanne Lum McCunn

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In the tradition of Thousand Pieces of Gold comes The Moon Pearl, the story of Rooster, Shadow, and Mei Ju, who become fast friends while members of a girls’ house, where young daughters are taught to become daughters-in-law. These girls, however, want neither to marry nor become nuns (the only options open to them at this time). They choose


In the tradition of Thousand Pieces of Gold comes The Moon Pearl, the story of Rooster, Shadow, and Mei Ju, who become fast friends while members of a girls’ house, where young daughters are taught to become daughters-in-law. These girls, however, want neither to marry nor become nuns (the only options open to them at this time). They choose instead to support themselves through their skills in embroidery and silk production. Though ostracized by their families, attacked, and barely able to find sustenance and shelter, these sze saw, or self-combers as they will come to be called, manage to create lives that they alone control. An amazing true-life story, The Moon Pearl offers an empowering vision of womanhood in China.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s new novel The Moon Pearl is filled with the heart and songs of old China. Wonderfully researched, it is the vivid and courageous tale of three Chinese girls, who struggle against all odds, to forge the beginnings of a powerful silk sisterhood in nineteenth-century China. It is a lovely addition to the growing stories of women who have found the strength to discover new lives.”
—Gail Tsukiyama, author of The Language of Threads
Inspirational and eye-opening.
Bust Magazine
If you want an easily digestible slice of another world that'll nourish you as you walk through these tough times, The Moon Pearl is a very good choice.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In China in the 1830s, three young girls pledge never to be wives or nuns, the conventional paths open to them, but to live independently. McCunn's colorful third novel (after Thousand Pieces of Gold) follows the adventures of Shadow, Rooster and Mei Ju, who meet in a traditional "girls' house," where female adolescents sleep and work together and are trained to become obedient wives. Shadow, the luckiest of the three, comes from a loving family. Under her mother's guidance, she learned to embroider, and her older brother secretly taught her to read, a skill forbidden to women. When Shadow then instructs her friends--sharp-tongued, rebellious Rooster, whose family is very poor, and Mei Ju, a timid girl with a talent for silk making--she changes their way of looking at the world. Together, the three vow to chart their own lives. Setting up house in the village rain shelter, they plait their hair rather than wear wifely buns and learn to bargain with wily peddlers. Though they are ostracized at first, various selfless acts and sacrifices finally win them grudging acceptance. Despite their privations, the example of Yun Yun, the mistreated wife of the most brutal man in the village, reminds them what their fate might have been. Though it's recounted with the artful simplicity of a folktale, the novel is anchored in fact: women in 19th-century China's Pearl River district, dubbed "self-combers" for their work in the silk industry, did struggle to achieve independence, living together in "spinster houses." McCunn does not present the trio's warm sisterhood as utopian; rather, she convincingly details the emotional suffering they experience in challenging custom. A somewhat pat happy ending gives the novel the ring of didactic literature, but McCunn's vivid, intimate portrait of early women's liberation in China is, above all, a good story, lovingly told. 6-city author tour. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
The Moon Pearl is the story of young women of the scenic Pearl River Delta, who make vows of spinsterhood and circumvent the usually harsh life of forced marriage in China. Mei Ju, Rooster, and Shadow are ostracized by their families and villagers, but their intelligence, creativity, and desire for recognition finally win a measure of respect and inspire other females to reach for their own moon pearl. The heartrending story of Yun Yun, who suffers from severe mari-tal abuse, counterbalances the sweetness of the spinsters' success. McCunn researched the silkworm industry as well as the girls' houses, where daughters learn mourning songs and subservience before marriage, and she met women who found their own spinster house. Adults or mature high school readers will long remember this beautifully crafted depiction of 19th-century China. Category: Paperback Fiction. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Beacon, Bluestream, 316p., Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Maureen K. Griffin; Researcher, Everett, MA
Library Journal
Pity a peasant girl born in 19th-century China. Although spared footbinding because her labor was a vital contribution to her birth family's and then her in-laws' well-being, she was kept illiterate and sold into an arranged marriage in her teens. McCunn (Thousand Pieces of Gold) contrasts the lot of Yun Yun, who obeys tradition only to suffer horribly at the hands of an abusive husband and in-laws, with that of three young women who pledge spinsterhood, daring to make lives for themselves outside of marriage. At first harassed and shunned for defying their families' expectations, the spinsters, through unflagging pluck and virtuousness, establish themselves in their hometown, inspiring other girls to resist marriage. This detail-rich fiction, based on historical records of marriage-resistance sisterhoods in China's Pearl River Delta, is hampered by its unnuanced characterizations and lack of psychological insight. However, it is a thoughtful reminder that "traditional family values," while providing stable families, usually come at the price of the brutal subjugation of women. Recommended particularly for women's studies collections and libraries serving large Chinese populations.--Ina Rimpau, Newark P.L., N.J. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-McCunn weaves a fascinating tale of three 19th-century Chinese girls who defy their culture by taking vows of chastity. Rooster, Shadow, and Mei Ju meet as young adolescents in their village's "Girls' House," a communal living center that prepares girls for marriage and subservience. In the Pearl River Delta, matchmakers arrange marriages to strangers, and brides become slaves to their mothers-in-law. Rooster, Shadow, and Mei Ju are not content, however, to accept this way of life. Since they make vows of spinsterhood before two deities, their families cannot force their hands. Nonetheless, all three young women become outcasts and are forced to earn a living and find shelter outside the village. They prove that they are intelligent, talented businesswomen; their devotion, determination, and industry eventually win them acceptance by both community and families. Using oral histories and extensive research about China's silkworm industry, McCunn creates historically accurate backgrounds for this engaging novel. Independent Delta spinsters really existed, and the author's acknowledgments include numerous sources for further reading. What is most impressive about this novel, however, is the touching insight into these gentle, strong young women who peacefully, yet powerfully, created an alternate lifestyle in an otherwise inflexible culture. An excellent piece of historical fiction about a time and culture little known in the West, this story also celebrates the individuality of anyone who reaches beyond the ordinary for the moon pearl in the sky.-Becky Ferrall, Stonewall Jackson High School, Manassas, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Publication date:
Bluestreak Series
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)

Read an Excerpt


Dragons can shrink small as silkworms or grow large as the sky; their breath can become cooling waters or fiery licks of flame; their roar is louder than that of a big wind; and they can make themselves visible or invisible. But no woman, man, or child has ever seen a dragon grasp the moon pearl. Nevertheless, people hope to succeed where powerful dragons fail.

    Look at Sun Duk. A district in the Pearl River Delta, it is laced with silver ribbons of water that rise and fall because of changing ocean tides. Jade-green rice paddies and shimmering fish ponds lie between windbreaks of bamboo, stands of fruit trees, fields with vegetables, mulberry shrubs, freshly ploughed furrows. Here and there, small hills rise. Some are rounded. Others slope steeply, with large outcroppings of rock. Most are wooded or terraced with plantings of tea. All are speckled with tombstones that look like fallen half-moons. Islands and small boats dot the rivers; and along the banks, rows of slate-gray houses with reddish tile roofs snake under weeping willows, banyans, and golden acacias like scaled dragons seeking shade.

    In the east, the silver ribbons of water are finer because gentry built embankments across these rivers, then threw large stones and iron pieces into the water around the embankments to block the current so that silt gradually piled up, making new land for growing more mulberry. In the west, most of the rivers still flow freely, and there is less land, fewer fields of mulberry, fewer silkworms that can be raised. But make no mistake, the inhabitants of Twin Hills Village in the westpursue the moon pearl as fervently as those of Strongworm Village in the east.

Chapter One



Yun Yun's good friend, Lucky, had started passing her nights at one of the many girls' houses in Twin Hills. And, listening to Lucky's excited chatter about the games they played before going to sleep, Yun Yun was eager to join in the fun. But Yun Yun's father had taught her, "Overcrowding is not good for silkworms or people." He'd also shown her what happened to worms heaped in a space too small: the strong fed at the expense of the weak; then the strong and the weak became heated and perspired, fell sick, and often died. So Yun Yun was afraid. As she told her parents, "The girls' house that Lucky belongs to already has thirteen members. Yet it isn't any bigger than our house. There are just two sleeping rooms." She counted off the people in their family on her fingers: her father and mother and the new baby brother she was nursing; the two little brothers playing in the courtyard under their grandparents' watchful eyes; herself. "We're only eight. Maybe I should stay at home."

    "You silly melon," her mother said over the baby's loud sucking. "Men don't go into girls' houses, so the members can set up beds everywhere—in the common room as well as the sleeping rooms."

    Yun Yun's father set down the basket he was weaving, rested his hands lightly on her shoulders, ducked his head so they were eye-to-eye. "Don't worry. I'm sure there's plenty of space for you."

    "Anyway, you're nine," her mother continued. "It's time you went to a girls' house."

    Yun Yun's father squeezed her shoulders reassuringly. "Otherwise you might see or hear things you shouldn't."

    Frowning, her mother plucked her father's sleeve, and he dropped his arms, fell silent.

    Yun Yun leaned against her father. "What things?"

    He raised his eyebrows, quizzing her mother.

    "Things that are of no concern to girls," her mother answered firmly.

    Once her mother's voice turned hard, she was like iron. Even Yun Yun's brothers couldn't move her. So Yun Yun ran next door to ask Lucky. Of course Lucky, although a year older, might not know either, but she had two easygoing sisters-in-law that they could consult if necessary.

    Lucky cocked her head at the odorous honey bucket kept indoors for the family's convenience and to prevent theft. "You might see your father or grandfather taking a piss."

    Yun Yun laughed. "I see my brothers piss all the time. I even have to help them!"

    "Your brothers are babies. I'm talking about men. And not just about their pissing either." Lucky dropped her voice to a whisper. "Men take pleasure in their wives at night, and if you continue to sleep at home, you might see or hear your father or grandfather taking pleasure in your mother and grandmother."

    "What do you mean?"

    "You'll understand after you've had a few lessons from Old Granny. She comes five, six times a month to the girls' house to teach us."

Except for the three large four-poster beds crowded into the common room, the inside of the girls' house initially seemed the same to Yun Yun as any other house in Twin Hills Village. The slate-gray brick walls were unpainted, and at the far end of the common room, there was a small altar. Then Yun Yun realized there were no spirit tablets for dead ancestors on the altar, and the statue on it wasn't Gwan Gung, the red-faced God of War, but Gwoon Yum, the smiling Goddess of Mercy, seated on a pink lotus. Furthermore, when she and Lucky joined in a game of hide-and-seek, Yun Yun suddenly noticed there was no stone mortar embedded into the earth floor, no farm tools propped against the walls.

    "Where can we hide?" she asked Lucky.

    "Under the bed."

    They'd not crawled in very far when someone called out, "Old Granny's here," setting off a chorus of greetings.

    "Game's over," Lucky said, backing out.

    Yun Yun, coughing from the dust their hands and knees were scuffing up, scurried after Lucky. Emerging, they hurriedly scrambled to their feet, brushed off their palms and pants, straightened their side-fastened tunics' wide sleeves and high collars, picked bits of dirt from each other's pigtails and bangs.

    Across the room, the rest of the members—their pigtails, loose-fitting pants, and knee-length tunics similarly tidied —waited. The older girls were spread out on the two beds pushed against the wall, most of them sitting cross-legged on the straw bedmats, a few perched on the edge. The younger girls were settled on low stools in front of them. Dashing over, Yun Yun and Lucky dropped onto the last empty stools.

    Old Granny, as befitted a respected elder, was in the seat of honor, a carved blackwood chair that faced everyone. And since Old Granny was a friendly neighbor Yun Yun had known all her life, she smiled up at the face ploughed with wrinkles, half-expecting the gnarled hands to reach out, as they usually did, with a gift of rock sugar or roasted peanuts. Instead, they gripped the arms of the chair, and beneath her black headband, Old Granny's shaggy eyebrows crossed in a frown so stern that Yun Yun, although seated beside Lucky, shrank within herself, bewildered and afraid.

    Hawking loudly into the spittoon by her feet, Old Granny began, "No bride goes to her husband willingly. That is why she weeps and why she must be shut up in the attic for three days and nights before her wedding—to keep her from running away."

    One by one she spelled out the losses that a bride suffered. "She has to leave her family, her friends, all those who cherish her, every familiar person and place and thing, to go and live among strangers."

    At each new loss, Yun Yun shuddered. Her skin prickled as eerily as if she were listening to a ghost story, and she sought comfort in the statue of Gwoon Yum. But fragrant smoke from the incense and candles on the altar wreathed the Goddess so that she, too, seemed distant and strange, a ghost. Sucking in her breath, Yun Yun turned back to Old Granny.

    "Do you understand?" Old Granny demanded, impaling Yun Yun, every one of the six younger girls, with a fierce stare. Even after Old Granny fixed her gaze on the eight older girls, Yun Yun felt its sting.

    "A bride is like a dead person about to cross the Yellow River into Hell," Old Granny continued. "Her coffin is the sedan chair that carries her to her husband and her father-in-law, the King of Hell. If she couldn't unleash her feelings in weeping songs, how could she bear it?"

    As if in answer, the older girls leaped to their feet. Beating their chests with their fists like mourners at a funeral, they cried:

"My matchmaker,
My death maker,
I am dying."

    Yun Yun swallowed hard. She had, of course, heard many a bride lament. Since they'd been in their houses or wedding sedans, however, Yun Yun had never seen their faces, never paid any mind to the words they chanted. Now, clutching Lucky's arm, she gaped at the singers, listened closely.

"My foot steps into the Yellow River,
My heart beats sore at each further step ..."

    "Louder," Old Granny ordered. "Don't hold back."

    Immediately the girls shrilled higher. They not only beat their chests but raked their fingers through their hair, pulling loose their tightly bound pigtails. Yun Yun, caught up in their terrible keening, felt her nose and throat close as if she were being sucked into the dreaded Yellow River. Desperately she gulped air. She reminded herself that Lucky had earned her nickname because she had fallen into the river that wound through Twin Hills Village but had been saved from drowning by her father. Still Yun Yun could not breathe.

    Shutting out the girls by squeezing her eyes closed and clamping her hands over her ears, Yun Yun told herself that her father would also come to her rescue. But thinking of her father only made Yun Yun wish she were home with him, her mother and grandparents and little brothers, and she let loose a wail, a rush of tears.

    Beside her, Lucky began to sob. Long before the song's end, all the girls were openly weeping.


Meet the Author

Ruthanne Lum McCunn is the critically acclaimed author of Sole Survivor, which the Dallas Times hailed as “a book of major interest and importance by an American-Chinese author of remarkable talent,” Wooden Fish Songs, Thousand Pieces of Gold, and Chinese American Portraits, as well as the children‘s book Pie-Biter, which won the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages, published in sixteen countries, and adapted for the stage and film.

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The Moon Pearl 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked out this book as I thought my book club might enjoy it. I will be recommending enthusiastically for their list next year. I truly enjoyed the novel and in the process learned a lot about a what it was like to live in the mid-1800s in a region of rural China. There are quite a few issues presented while doing so in an easy to read story. I don't normally enjoy these types of books, and was really surprised at how much I enjoyed this book.