Four Treasures of the Sky: A Novel
A multilayered story with a narrative driven by fate and a passionate search for identity and survival in the face of meaningless trauma, Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang is historical fiction at its most compelling and memorable.
Told in the voice of a well-considered memoir and lyrical as a poem, the novel is further enhanced by the presence of one character who embodies a ghost, Lin Daiyu, for whom Daiyu has been named and who accompanies her throughout.
On the first page of this generous, brutal, and heartbreaking novel, 13-year-old Daiyu, named after a beauty who has been cursed with a tragic fate, is kidnapped. It’s the first day of spring. Her parents have already disappeared, vanished in the middle of the night from their small fishing village. Her grandmother has already shaved her head, put her in boys’ clothes, and sent her to the nearby city of Zhifu.
“’Do not write me letters,’ she said, putting a cap over my bald head. ‘Letters will be interpreted. Instead, let us speak to each other when it rains.’”
In the wake of this devastating end of her childhood, Daiyu survives for a time in the seaside city disguised as a boy named Feng, while she waits for rain and searches for work.
“I looked no different form the urchins who roamed the streets, the ones who looked like hunger was the only thing keeping them alive.”
Feng now finds some shelter and consolation from Master Wang’s calligraphy school and the Chinese characters of the language. While sweeping the sidewalk outside the school, Feng’s child’s heart listens to Wang’s lessons, clinging to some order in her universe. His voice floats out above the courtyard, telling how the practice of good handwriting can make you a good human. The orphan listens to this philosophy of hope and discipline, begins to draw the characters with her broom into the tiles under her feet. The longing and innocence is irresistible, and the reader is seduced into her reality. The pages melt easily, and then Daiyu is tricked into the company of a man who keeps her prisoner while she is taught to learn English. Then he stuffs her into a barrel, ties a rope around her neck, and smuggles her onto a ship.
And through her experience, the details of the trip, the characters in the San Francisco brothel spring to life in this important historical remembrance: the brutality, the greed, the profound disrespect for women; the reality of slavery. Here, Daiyu is called Peony. As she waits to be “chosen” by a customer of the brothel, she adds up her growing awareness:
“’Now I am beginning to understand that tragedy makes things beautiful,’ Daiyu says, looking at her captivity through the lens of calligraphy. ‘I trace the character for man in my palm. Man: a field and a plow, the plow a symbol of power. . . . Whoever this man is will be the one entering me, and he will also be the one who takes everything away. I could mourn the loss of my girlhood now, but I do not let myself. Mourning it would be giving power to whoever takes it.
“’Man, without power, he is just a piece of arable land.’”
And here, the reader is comforted by Peony who endures the suffering of her fate. Daiyu/Feng/Peony/Jacob’s determination, her philosophical view of her experience softens the relentless brutality of it. It’s the only way, once you love her, and you do, that you could endure the rest of the story.
There are so many layers to Four Treasures of the Sky, threads of fabric that create a tapestry of a life in the mind of this young person who has lost everything. In the many roles she must assume to survive, Daiyu somehow retains her optimism and kindness. She falls in love even though she can never express the depth of her feelings to anyone. Although the reader can sense the futility of her impossible dream to reunite with her parents, to find her grandmother, Daiyu uses this as her strength and meaning behind her every effort and decision. She is like all of us—holding our plans in front of ourselves until the last possible moment—in the face of impossible odds.
One of the layers of conflict and meaning in this interior journey is Daiyu’s determination to live a life beyond the tragic character she’s been named after. Lin Daiyu, who is the ghost of her namesake, appears at pivotal moments in the narrative, fighting, arguing, advising, acting as the sounding board for Daiyu’s decisions.
Finally, hidden under wrapping and loose clothing and again posing as a skinny young man, Jacob finds a clan to belong to, three Chinese men, the only ones in a white community in Pierce, Idaho, who look like her. As she sweeps the floor of their store, as she sleeps in a skinny bed in a cramped room behind the shop, as she unpacks boxes of inventory, finally, finally the sense of being in danger softens and Daiyu/Jacob begins to expand her being toward a guarded trust and even love.
But the danger she’s sharpened herself against is right outside the door to the shop, threatening Lum, Nam, and Nelson, who have become her family. And they are all up against the unstoppable forces of racism, stoked by laws passed at the time to disenfranchise all Chinese immigrants.
But as a reader, you are in the hands of a gifted storyteller who will show you the merciless details, the unavoidable suffering, the cruelty we are all capable of and the desperation of human beings clinging to life and meaning.
And you should trust her because now you understand that she will find a place for you to go, where you can unravel and celebrate the humanity we share. You will go with her in this important witnessing, and you know she will lead you, in spite of profound tragedy, toward the four treasures of the sky.