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Girl from Purple Mountain

Girl from Purple Mountain

4.0 1
by May-lee Chai, Winberg Chai

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A family memoir set against the shifting tides of twentieth-century China, The Girl from Purple Mountain begins with a mystery: the Chai family matriarch, Ruth Mei-en Tsao Chai, dies unexpectedly and her grieving husband discovers that she had secretly arranged to be buried alone—rather than in the shared plots they had purchased together years ago.


A family memoir set against the shifting tides of twentieth-century China, The Girl from Purple Mountain begins with a mystery: the Chai family matriarch, Ruth Mei-en Tsao Chai, dies unexpectedly and her grieving husband discovers that she had secretly arranged to be buried alone—rather than in the shared plots they had purchased together years ago.

For many years, Ruth's family remained shocked by her decision and could not begin to fathom her motivations. Over time, they would fully understand her extraordinary story. Ruth was born in China at the beginning of the 20th century, during the reign of the last emperor. Educated by American missionaries, she was one of the first women admitted into a Chinese university, during an era when most Chinese women were illiterate and had bound feet. She would defy tradition and refuse to marry the man her family had chosen for her, instead choosing his younger brother as her husband. Later, as the Japanese Army advanced across China during World War II, her foresight and quick thinking kept her family alive as she, her husband, and their three sons were forced to flee from city to city. In war-torn Chungking, she was Lady Mountbatten's interpreter as the Allies struggled to help China. After the war, the Chais immigrated to the U.S. to what seemed, until Ruth's death, a happier and more peaceful life.

In this extraordinary family epic, Ruth's first-born son, Winberg, and his daughter May-lee explore family history to reconstruct her life as they seek to understand her fateful decision. As Winberg writes: "It is my duty to try to understand my mother, to seek answers. To ignore the past is too much like forgetting . . . I hope my memories are enough to fulfill a son's obligations."

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This is an intricately orchestrated cross-generational memoir, and one that is particularly successful in linking the world of China in the first half of the twentieth century to the opportunities and ambiguities of those Chinese who grew up as Americans. It is a subtle book that resonates in the mind as well as being a true family history that spans moods and generations.” —Jonathan Spence, author of The Search for Modern China and Sterling Professor of History, Yale University

“Absolutely mesmerizing. It captures not only the soul of a family, but the essence of twentieth-century China.” —Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking

“A beautiful piece of memory and history. The Girl from Purple Mountain presents the intimacies and secrets of the Chai family set against the broad canvas that is China in the twentieth century. This is an amazing story of survival and endurance, fierce love and bitter resentments, and the failures and triumphs of the human heart.” —Lisa See, author of On Gold Mountain

The Girl from Purple Mountain is a wonderful resource for teachers of modern China, appropriate for introductory courses in East Asian Civilizations or East Asian Religions, and advanced courses and seminars on Confucianism or the history of modern China. The story of an unusual and resourceful woman and her family coping in China in the 1930s, Girl from Purple Mountain provides both context and challenges to abstract ideas about Chinese culture in general and Confucianism in particular. I have used The Girl from Purple Mountain for an introductory undergraduate course 'Chinese and Japanese Religious Traditions' and for an upper level seminar entitled 'Confucianism and Its Critics.' My students were absorbed by the stories of Ruth and her family; they quickly saw the breakdown in the traditional, Confucian ideals of family. My students also developed a new sympathy for the difficulties of a time and place that can seem remote and disconnected from their own experience; I will use Girl from Purple Mountain for future sections of our introductory 'East Asian Civilizations' class.” —Jennifer Oldstone-Moore, Wittenberg University

“The fascinating story of a Chinese family, covering three generations and the entire 20th Century . . . To read this work is to understand the drama of China--and its people--in revolutionary times.” —Robert A. Scalapino, Robson Research Professor of Government Emeritus, Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley

“This stirring memoir . . . is graced with masterful writing and keen observations. The authors deftly move in and out of colorful anecdotes by means of flashbacks while never stalling the forward motion of their narrative. In telling a moving story of Chinese immigrants who suffer the hardships of war and political strife, the authors also give a succinct account on modern Chinese history. The Girl from Purple Mountain should be on the must-read list of anyone interested in Chinese culture and history.” —Tao-Tai Hsia, Chief of the Eastern Law Division, Library of Congress

“More than a good story . . . it reveals the conflict between a daughter's desire to know her heritage and her father's desire not to be reminded how much distance the passage of time and the vicissitudes of history have placed between him and his origins.” —The Washington Post Book World

The Girl from Purple Mountain was one of the most popular texts in my American Women's Auto/Biography course. The students found Ruth Tsao Chai's story, and the father-daughter dynamic of the Chai's dual-narration, to be fascinating. The photographs at the beginning of each chapter also provided another opportunity for textual analysis and discussion in the course. I recommend it, enthusiastically.” —Dr. Lori Askeland, English Department, Wittenberg University

“A multilayered memoir that successfully weaves historical detail with familial emotions of different generations.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Adept and bold-spirited, savvy in its perspective on history, unflinching in its revelation. The authors' compelling rendering of our human proclivity for both tenderness and cruelty distinguishes them as ardent laborers in the fields of the word. This is a work which smolders and sings.” —Marilyn Krysl, author of Warscape With Lovers

“A poignant and delightful memoir.” —Henry Luce III, former publisher of Time magazine

“This remarkable and beautifully written memoir is indeed a love story, on many levels, set against the backdrop of modern China's turbulent history. The mix of generations and cultures, told engagingly by two separate narrators, makes The Girl from Purple Mountain a unique and fascinating read.” —Howard Goldblatt, translator of Red Sorghum and The Republic of Wine

The Girl from Purple Mountain is an eloquent and searching story of mystery and revelation, a rich deep, multilayered saga destined to be compared with Wild Swans and other masterpieces of familial exploration. Filled with finely wrought historical detail, the book is both a powerful personal narrative and an illuminating look at China, complete with irony and grace.” —Karin Evans, author of The Lost Daughters of China: Abandoned Girls, Their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing Past

“This 20th-century odyssey of an elite Chinese Christian family from Nanjing focuses on Tsao Mei-en, mother and grandmother, respectively, to the father and daughter coauthors of this remarkable narrative. The authors' individual voices weave throughout this compelling story of one of China's first female college graduates. A woman of indomitable will and passionate conviction, Tsao Mei-en dominated her husband, a professor of law, and her three sons, including the eldest, Winberg. Her strength of character, resourcefulness, and intelligence held the family together through turbulent decades of civil and foreign wars, revolution, and upheaval. Tragic, funny, lyrical, and respectful, this intimate and unforgettable family chronicle is also a history of modern China. In the Chinese tradition, it is a filial act of reverence by a father and daughter who cherish their roots and understand how the past shapes our lives.” —Steven I. Levine, University of Montana, Missoula, Library Journal

Winberg Chai was born in Shanghai in 1932 when his American-educated parents returned to China for his birth. May-Lee Chai, his American-born daughter, grew up in the U.S. not knowing or understanding her father's story. Together, but in separate voices, they retell the saga of Winberg's parents, Ruth and Charles Chai, and how they struggled, first to be educated in a China opening to the West and then to survive in a China torn by invasion and civil war. Purple Mountain, a pine-filled park on the city limits of Nanjing, China, was the favorite recreation spot of university students and, in 1920, Ruth Chai was one of the first eight women admitted to China's National Central University in Nanjing. Ruth, who had chosen her Christian name with much care, went on to study in the U.S., married there, and returned to China not realizing the turmoil that had overtaken her country by the mid-thirties. The Girl from Purple Mountain tells the story of how this family, the parents and their three children, survived both the Japanese invasion and the political turmoil that engulfed China after WW II, fleeing finally to Taiwan and then to the States. What makes the tale absorbing is the duet of voices, the now elderly Winberg who in many ways does not want to remember his childhood, and the young American May-Lee who has a lifetime's worth of questions about her family's story. This memoir is haunting both in the sadness of its story and the dynamism of its individuals. KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2001, St. Martin's, Griffin, 306p. illus., Moore

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.72(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Girl from Purple Mountain

Love, Honor, War, and One Family's Journey from China to America
By May-Lee Chai

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2002 May-Lee Chai
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0312302703


The Betrayal

My mother was buried alone, surrounded by strangers, the way she wished, in a New York mausoleum auspiciously bearing the name of her college dorm. Ferncliff. She had changed her burial plans secretly, with the help of my youngest brother. A decade earlier, my parents had bought side-by-side plots. My father had thought the matter was all settled.

When she inquired into the mausoleum, price was not an issue, nor the "neighborhood"--the race and religion of the occupants of the surrounding tombs. My mother was concerned with only one thing: she wanted a single spot for her coffin, a space where all the surrounding plots had been taken. She wanted a spot where she would be encircled by strangers, where my father could not be buried beside her.

After her sudden and unexpected death, after the discovery of her change of heart and my youngest brother's complicity, my father went to the mausoleum and argued with the overseer. Couldn't something be done? A neighboring space bought from its owner? His wife's body moved? But the forms she had signed, forms that my youngest brother had cosigned; were legal and binding. It had been my mother's wish to be buried in this manner; there was nothing my father could do.

My father eventually bought a plot on the grounds outside the mausoleum. "I will be her guardian. I will stand outside for eternity and guard her body."

He convinced himself that this new setup was just what my mother had anticipated. She had sent him a secret message from the grave. He could prove his devotion and his love in this final way. Just as he had proven his devotion and love while she was alive, now his bones would lie in respect and devotion for eternity.

In classical Chinese, the writer leaves a space before a name to show respect. Every time my father wrote of my mother in a letter, he left a space before her name. He saw this physical separation of their coffins as his last sign of respect for my mother.

In one of his last letters to me, my father wrote of his continuing sadness at the absence of my mother, his inability to go through her things. They lay as she had left them throughout their tiny apartment in Manhattan. Chinese dresses made decades earlier in Taiwan and Shanghai. Jewelry hidden in McDonald's Styrofoam boxes. A box of mildewed Life magazines, dollar bills rotting between the pages, where she had glued them. She'd been saving these magazines for nearly a decade, a memento of her failed attempt to send money to her brothers in China. During the Cultural Revolution, they had been sent down to the countryside by Mao, two German-educated surgeons, to "learn from the peasants." They did not know how to plant rice. The peasants didn't know how they would feed all these useless intellectuals sent from the cities. Scholars now estimate more than 30 million Chinese died of starvation or illness stemming from deprivation and exposure during Mao's experiments with restructuring society.

My mother began receiving letters that looked like chessboards they were so heavily edited by censors, entire lines blackened, every other character blotted out. But she understood that her brothers were now living in the countryside, in poverty. And she remembered from her refugee days how the people in the countryside had liked to hang on their walls as decor the glossy pictures from Shanghai movie star magazines and especially exotic Western-style advertisements. She had this idea, how to help her brothers. She would send them a box of Life magazines. She would enclose a cheerful letter, telling her brothers that they should give out the pictures to their "farmer friends"; she would not let on that she had understood their complaints, that she had understood exactly what kind of hell they had fallen into; it would be the kind of generic family letter a censor could read and pass on, thinking nothing was there. But her brothers would understand. Then the censors would open the box and see an innocent pile of old magazines, they could flip through a few she would put on the top which would have no money, and the rest would then be passed to her brothers. Her brothers would understand that their sister would not be so foolish as to send them magazines when they were starving, and they would carefully search through the Lifes until they realized she had carefully, cleverly glued together x-number of pages per issue and there they would find the dollar bills. The dollars would help them to bribe officials, to bribe the farmers, to get something to eat.

Using such cunning, my mother had survived the Japanese invasion of China, the era of the warlords, and the Chinese civil war.

Unfortunately, my mother had not anticipated that the Communist customs officials did not allow Western bourgeois propaganda to enter their socialist paradise. The first box of Life magazines was returned to her, unopened. They stayed in a corner of her bedroom then near the radiator, first baking, then mildewing after the pipes above the ceiling sprang a leak. By the time she died, my father had forgotten about the dollar bills and threw away the box of magazines.

I remember the morning of her death. It was still early. My children had not yet left for school. My wife was making breakfast, the kitchen sizzled with eggs and bacon. I had a headache. I wasn't hungry. I may have fussed at my wife, saying: "Why go to all this bother? Cereal's good enough. I'm not even hungry."

The phone rang. I remember thinking that it was odd to have a call early in the morning. It was my father.

"Winberg, Mother is gone!" he shouted into the receiver. "She's gone! She's gone!"

"What do you mean?" For a few seconds, I thought my mother had left him, gone off in a pique of anger, the way she had when I was a child.

"The paramedics came. I thought she was sleeping late. I got up. I always get up at the same time. I went to the kitchen to make breakfast for Mother and she wasn't up yet. She always gets up early, before me, she was never lazy. She wasn't in the living room watching television. She always likes to watch the television in the morning. So I went to see what she wanted for breakfast. I opened the door to her bedroom and called to her, 'You're not up yet! It's morning! What do you want for breakfast?' And she didn't respond. I couldn't wake her." My father said he went to get my younger brother, who lived in an apartment in the same building, and my brother came up and couldn't wake her either. They called the paramedics who then came and told them she was dead. My brother, hysterical, had refused to let the paramedics take her body. She was still there.

"I'll come as soon as I can." My father was still crying when I hung up.

It didn't seem real yet. I told my wife and she looked shocked, then sad, but I couldn't share her emotions. I couldn't feel anything. Not until my mother's funeral, when I had to reach out and touch her pale, cold corpse with one finger, because I still couldn't imagine her dead even though she lay before me in an open casket, her face done up in ghost-white powder and rouge from the Chinatown mortuary, her steel-gray hair braided and piled like a pagoda on the top of her head. It was a traditional hairstyle for a woman of her generation, but she had never worn her hair like that, never worn makeup like that. I looked at her corpse and could not imagine that this had been my mother. But when I touched her, I knew.

"She had a premonition," my father said. "She knew. But I wouldn't listen."

He was sitting in the near-dark of his room in my youngest brother's house, where he had moved after my mother's death a week earlier. He could not bear the Manhattan apartment they had shared for twenty-six years. In his bedroom in the suburbs of New Jersey, my father had constructed a makeshift shrine for my mother, in the Buddhist tradition, although he had converted to Christianity long ago in order to marry her. He had framed a picture of her. It was black-and-white. In it, she wears a shiny black satin dress with embroidery of flowers and leaves in a diagonal across her shoulder, a white silk shawl and tiny dangling earrings. She is looking directly into the camera, smiling with her lips pursed as if she had just finished speaking when someone took the picture. She is still in her fifties in the photograph, and I know that my father had chosen this picture because she is still young enough to look healthy and vigorous, as though she will never die. My father had plugged in two large red and yellow plastic Christmas candles, the kind people in the suburbs like to put on their front porches for the holiday, one on either side of the photograph, which was set on a small nightstand. My father must have found them somewhere, in my youngest brother's garage perhaps, because it was April. There was also a bowl of strawberries that he had placed as an offering in front of the picture, but in the semidarkness of his room I didn't see the bowl at first. I didn't notice them for days, until the strawberries had already begun to rot, and I turned on the light to see what that smell was and found the bowl of moldy fruit.

He was kneeling before his shrine and he was still crying.

"She came to me in the middle of the night. The light woke me up. She tried to tell me but I wouldn't listen."

This is how I imagine my parents' final exchange:

Light like old yellowed newspapers fell across the room from the slightly open door of the bathroom, over the mountain range of rumpled blankets, brushing against the high cheekbones and flat nose of my father before falling onto the cluttered bureau top. The bulb of the night-light in the bathroom flickered once then glowed tremulously. It was an old bulb and needed to be changed. Surely it would go out soon.

My father stirred in his sleep.

My mother stood in the doorway of the bathroom. She may or may not have been looking at him. It had been years since they slept in the same room, much less the same bed. It was more comfortable alone. All the aches and pains that had settled in her body. And besides, my father snored.

The light did not fall upon the glass holding my father's false teeth. They floated in the dark corner of the bureau behind his heavy digital watch--a Christmas gift from one of my brothers--and a once-white handkerchief. There were plastic photo cubes on the dresser. The face with the three of us, his sons, lined up in a row in front of my parents' house in Taiwan was partially illuminated. We are smiling. The neighboring face also caught the light--a picture of my parents at their forty-fifth wedding anniversary party. A big cake with the blue and silver candle shaped like a "45" is clearly visible on the table. My father is wearing his dark gray pin-striped suit and my mother wears a royal blue embroidered silk dress. Her white arms are at her sides. Her jade bracelet has slipped down to her wrist and cannot be seen in the photograph because of the table edge. She is wearing her black curly wig and is not smiling because she did not like her false teeth. My father is smiling, even though she had said his false teeth looked like the teeth of a laughing horse. He is holding her hand, but the picture does not show that either--the cake blocks their hands.

My mother stood in the bathroom, a glass of water in one hand. She surveyed my father now. She called out to him. Loudly.

He stirred in his sleep. His puffy eyelids fluttered.


He was awake now. He squinted without his glasses. His wife was standing in the doorway of the bathroom, splashing light all over his face. "Go back to bed, Mother," he mumbled. He was hard to understand without his teeth. "It's night."

She stood there annoyed for another minute, then took her medicine and shuffled back to her bed.

When my father woke up the next morning, my mother was already dead. He would spend the rest of his life wondering what she had wanted to tell him.

"She was trying to tell me. She knew!" he moans, kneeling before her shrine. The red glow of the Christmas candles makes his face appear to flicker. His mouth gapes open, a toothless black hole. He is howling.

My youngest brother thinks she took too much medicine and killed herself. Forgot how much she took and died.

We don't talk about the change in the burial arrangements. She'd asked him to do it and so he did. He'd done it many, many years before she died. Maybe he thought she'd change her mind in time. None of us expected her to die when she did.

My parents believed in eternity, in heaven and hell, God and Jesus. It is quite possible this affair with the mausoleum, the secret pact with my youngest brother to change her grave site, all this was an elaborate plan to give my father one more chance to show his love. A message for him to decode. And if he succeeded, she would be more than happy to spend eternity with him, husband and wife, in heaven forever and ever. This is what my father believed.

But it's also possible that my mother was not leaving a message for him at all. After a lifetime of betrayals and tragedies and heartbreak, perhaps she could not imagine anything but more betrayal and tragedy and heartache, and this plot was her way of heading off more disappointment.

My father never remarried after my mother died and instead devoted the last years of his life trying to understand what her death and burial meant, how he could continue to prove his love to her now that she had departed from their earthly existence, and how he could continue to understand the messages she sent to him when he dreamed.

For many years, I acted as though none of this mattered. Because I did not understand how my parents' lives could end this way, I simply ignored what I did not like and cared only to remember their life together. In my mind's eye, my parents were neither young nor old, they were neither sickly nor in pain, they had their worries but nothing seemed insurmountable. They were forever the way they had been when we first immigrated to New York in the 1950s. They were my parents, immortal. And I was their son, beloved.

Now that nearly twenty years have passed since my mother's death, fifteen since my father's, I have had time to reflect upon their actions and my own. I see now that I was wrong. It is my duty to try to understand my mother, to seek answers. To ignore the past is too much like forgetting. And to forget the past would be to dishonor my parents.

I owe my entire life as a man to my parents. I owe my life as an American, with a good education, a good career, a free life, to my mother. Without her foresight, her sacrifices, I would not have had anything. I know this now, even though when I was a young man--a bold, even arrogant man--I would never have admitted as much.

I must now try to remember what I can, what I have tried to forget about my family, about our lives in China during the wars and our life in America afterward. I will recall the fights and the storms as well as the moments of peace and calm when we could laugh together as a family and dream about the future.

I hope my memories are enough to fulfill a son's obligations.


Excerpted from The Girl from Purple Mountain by May-Lee Chai Copyright © 2002 by May-Lee Chai. Excerpted by permission.
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

Winberg Chai was born in Shanghai. He received his Ph.D. from New York University, and later became the first Asian American vice president of a state university. The author of more than twenty books on China, he is currently a political science professor at the University of Wyoming.

Daughter of Winberg Chai, May-Lee Chai is the author of the novel My Lucky Face. Her short stories have been published in various publications, including Seventeen, the North American Review, and the Missouri Review. A former reporter for the Associated Press, she has also taught creative writing at San Francisco State University and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Chai has Master's degrees from Yale University and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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Girl from Purple Mountain 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My mother picked this book up at a thrift store for under a dollar. She enjoyed it so much she passed it on to me. It's been several years since I've read it, but while writing other reviews I thought the book was worthy of some praise. It is a fast read that tells about a very endearing family while also touching on Chinese history. It's worth reading and passing on.