Four Treasures of the Sky

Jenny Tinghui Zhang

Four Treasures of the Sky
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Four Treasures of the Sky

Jenny Tinghui Zhang

Daiyu is the orphaned daughter of a once influential, now missing, family. Alone and on the streets, she must rely on her wit and quick thinking to discover what happened to her family.

But when Daiyu is kidnapped and smuggled across an ocean from China to America, she must relinquish the home and future she imagined for herself.

Over the years that follow, she is forced to reinvent herself to survive. From a calligraphy school, to a San Francisco brothel, to a shop tucked into the Idaho mountains, we follow Daiyu on a desperate quest to outrun the tragedy that chases her. As anti-Chinese sentiment sweeps across the country in a wave of unimaginable violence, Daiyu must draw on each of the selves she has been - including the ones she most wants to leave behind - in order to finally claim her own name and story.


The young female narrator of this debut novel set in China and America in the 1880s is kidnapped in its first sentence. Shocking as this act is, it proves to be merely another downwards step in a sequence of increasingly bad things which are going to happen to Daiyu, whose name, we soon learn, is a reference to a tragic figure from an ancient story. ‘Please don’t name her that!’ you want to yell at her parents, tapestry artists who choose not to break and bind their daughter’s feet in order to make her more marriageable, a physical transformation inflicted on many of her friends. But when Daiyu is 12, her parents disappear one night. This mystery, which haunts every page of this novel, derails Daiyu’s life. She finds herself orphaned and alone on the streets; to protect herself she takes on the identity of a boy. Her kidnapper sees through this pretence, drugging her, training her and trafficking her as a lucrative asset for a San Francisco Chinese-run brothel.

Four Treasures of the Sky is no advertisement for the sympathy on offer for an orphan girl in late 19th-century China or America. Bitter experiences teach Daiyu that when she’s not on her guard, bad things will happen. So she must dissemble to survive. The strength of this book is in the detail of the hyper- vigilant, always alert character of Daiyu, who starkly illuminates the lived effects of legislated racism: the Page Act of 1875 prohibited the immigration of Chinese women into the USA, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the immigration of all Chinese labourers, both more racially specific versions of Australia’s own Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, aka the White Australia Policy. Zhang writes her narrator intimately, and throughout this book Daiyu astonishes us with her bravery and ability to withstand suffering and humiliation. We barrack for her all the way through her difficult life.

Bernard Caleo is from Readings Carlton

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