Wednesday, June 1, 2011

From the Archives #11: Sons of the Dragon by Phyllis Ayer Sowers

Like Pearl S. Buck, Phyllis Ayer Sowers spent much of her life living in China and other Asian countries and has written several books for children set in these countries. Sons of the Dragon was written in 1942. It is basically about how the Second Sino-Japanese War, began in 1937, affected lives of two families, but actual story begins in a few years earlier.

The novel follows two mains characters who come from similar backgrounds, but who experience the Second Sino-Japanese War in different but intertwined ways. Moonflower, 14, lives in the walled ancestral home of the Ching family and Wu Liang, 18, who is the son of the family Wu, the rival of the Ching’s in Chun-ko, in central China. Liang no longer lives at home after joining the Chinese army of General Chiang Kai-shek.

Though the book begins with a happy occasion, the marriage of Moonflower’s older sister Lotus, talk of war has already filtered into the isolated lives of the Ching family, yet they choose to ignore it and continue their quiet lives behind the walls of their estate.

After Lotus leaves to live with her husband and his family, as custom dictates, word comes that Eddie Ching, Moonflower’s older brother, will be returning home from his studies in Shanghai for a visit. Eddie, now quite Westernized, is also full of talk of war and criticism of General Chiang’s pre-1937 policy of co-operation with the Japanese.

Three more quiet years pass in Chun-ko, and Lotus comes to visit, to tell the family that she is moving to Nanking because of her husband’s high position in the Central Government of Chiang Kai-Shek there. Soon after, Moonflower travels to Shanghai with her family to meet a possible husband. They stay in the International Quarter of Shanghai, but the trip is cut short when the Battle of Shanghai begins in August 1937. The Ching family return to Chun-ko, only to discover that there has also been bombing there. By now, Eddie Ching has left school and joined the Chinese Army. He eventually is shot by a Japanese soldier and dies. His family doesn't receive this devasting news until much later.
Wu Liang is also in the Chinese army and, like Eddie Ching, he is angry and impatient with General Chiang’s attitude towards the Japanese, but becomes even angrier when he learns that Peiping (now Beijing) is being bombed by them. In the army, he is engaged in committing act of sabotage against the advancing Japanese whenever possible. While carrying secret documents by plane to the government in Nanking, Liang finds himself near home when the plane crashes. He discoveres that the Wu ancestral home has been burned to the ground by the Japanese, with no survivors. He runs into Moonflower and there is an instant attraction, but he must leave to deliver the documents he is carrying to Chiang Kai-Shek in Nanking.

As the war progresses, more bad news arrives from Lotus, who writes that she and her family are being evacuated to Hankow, since the Japanese have threatened to destroy Nanking after taking it over and in December 1937, this threat does result in the massacre of Nanking.

As the fortunes of the Ching family begin to diminish and the Japanese move closer, they are forced to flee Chun-ko in a small boat with the help of Liang. They end up living outside the walls of a city with Moonflower’s selfish, sneaky sister in law, Silver Breeze, who appears to be working for the Japanese (yes, I know, who is Silver Breeze?  She apparently was married to an older Ching brother who died before the novel began.)

This can be a complicated novel, particularly for those of us not as familiar with the Second Sino-Japanese War as we probably should be. It certainly isn’t quite as interesting as Lisa See’s more recent Shanghai Girls, in which much of the action also occurs in 1930s China.  I found the timeline in the beginning of Sons of the Dragon somewhat confusing and the flowery, often metaphorical language seemed unnatural. At one point, for example, Liang is asked the time, looks at his western-style watch and replies “Nearly the Hour of the Rat. That train is as slow as a lame donkey” (pg 39) I thought the language was a stereotypical portrayal of the way Chinese people spoke based on Western expectations. 

Prior to World War II, China was a very patrilineal society and the names of the characters indicate this. Grown male characters names were simply Romanized versions of their Chinese name, like Wu Lliang or Ching Li, Moonflower’s father. The female character names and any young boys were direct translations of the character with no Romanization, so you names like Moonflower, Lotus, Small Perfection (the son of Lotus), or Little Worthless. One would never call an adult male Big Perfection.

The novel is illustrated throughout with both black and white pen and ink drawings and a few color illustrations.  They were done by the author's sister Margaret Ayer, a writer and illustrator in her own right. 
This is from the inside cover of Sons of the Dragon.

For today’s reader, historically, it is an interesting look at this part of China’s past. Culturally, however, I am afraid there may be many inaccuracies in the portrayal of Chinese society.

See Chiang Kai-Shek for more information on his life.
See Second Sino-Japanese War 1937 for a more historical perspective on this war, including a very helpful map.

This book is recommended for readers 13 and up.
This book was purchased for my personal library.

This is book 1 of my East and SouthEast Asia Challenge hosted by Violet Crush
This is book 8 of my Forgotten Treasures Challenge hosted by Retroreduxs Reviews

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