Ye Xian, nicknamed Chinese Cinderella or CC, is 12 when her father throws her out of the house for being disrespectful to her stepmother. She befriends three boys who live with their kung fu teacher, Grandma Wu, at the Martial Arts Academy. David is half American, half Chinese and a Christian; Sam is half German, half Chinese and Jewish; Marat is half Russian, Japanese and Muslim; Grandma Wu is Chinese and a Buddhist. The boys are orphans, very proficient in kung fu, and belong to The Dragon Society, a branch of the Shaolin Association of Wandering Knights, dedicated to helping the oppressed and downtrodden.
Pretty soon, CC has also joined them and becomes quite skillful at kung fu and wishes to join the society. China has been occupied by the Japanese since 1937 and it is now 1942. One night, Grandma Wu and her son, Master Wu, gather the children together and explain a secret plan to help American flyers who are planning to bomb Japan. They soon travel to southeast China, but the plan goes awry and the group end up rescuing 5 Americans who crash land on the Chinese island of Nan Tian. Now, they must get the badly injured Americans to mainland China where they can get medical help, but the sea around the island are patrolled by Japanese soldiers.
They finally do manage to board a sail boat called a Junk, but soon they are pursued by a Japanese gunboat. It looks like they will all be caught when the breeze dies down and the Junk comes to a standstill. But they are saved by Ling Ling, a dolphin that had been befriended and trained by David and her dolphin cousin Bumby.
Back in Shanghai, CC, whose family thinks she has been living with her beloved Big Aunt, is advised to move back home because her stepmother is threatening to accuse her aunt of kidnapping. But living at home doesn’t last long. When CC receives a package from Big Aunt, who has been temporarily living on Nan Tian Island, which incriminates both of them in the rescue of the Americans, her stepmother implies she is going to permanently end CC relationship with her aunt.
CC runs away to Grandma Wu, but they receive very bad news about a violent Japanese attack in Nan Tian, including the death of Big Aunt. CC naturally suspects her stepmother of having a hand in this unusually cruel behavior. At the same time, she comes up with a plan to rescue other Americans being held prisoner by the Japanese at Bridge House in Shanghai, the same prison Marat’s older brother is a prisoner. Can yet another exciting escape succeed?
I thought this was a very interesting tense story, full of adventure, though sometimes the writing was a little too pedantic. Nevertheless, Yen Mah writes compassionately about these children who are considered to be outcasts by society. The tone of the whole story is one of hope and resourcefulness even in the face of brutality, oppression and vindictiveness – by the Japanese occupiers and for CC, also by her stepmother. In the face of all that, friendship, overcoming, and even acceptance become important themes throughout the story.
Through CC’s initiation into The Dragon Society, Yen Mah is able to weave extensive explanations about important Chinese culture and beliefs into the story. At the heart of The Secret Dragon Society is the philosophy of Taoism, including the life force Qi (pronounced Chee), the Yi Jing (or I Ching), the concepts of yin yang, the principles of strength, power and control embedded in kung fu and the Chinese Zodiac. Sometimes this gets complicated. For instance, when CC is told to consult the Yi Jing by casting the yarrow sticks before joining the society, I was totally lost. I found the writing confusing here, though it did peak my interest in the Yi Jing and I will probably get more information on it. I am afraid younger readers might just skip over these parts, but hopefully not be discouraged from finishing CCs story.
The central story, the rescue of the Americans, is based on a true event. In April 1942, Jimmy Doolittle actually did lead a bombing raid on Japan, but the outcome was very different than the one in Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society.
This book is a historical novel and so there is a Historical Note at the end of the book, which I would recommend reading first. It gives a brief history of the author’s family and the Japanese occupation of China and the true events surrounding the bombing of Japan and its cruel aftermath unleashed by the Japanese against the Chinese. In that way, the reader knows what is factual and what has been fabricated by the author.
Despite some of the problems with this novel, I would still highly recommend it. Personally, I think it would be more beneficial for this novel to be read under the guidance of a teacher, given some of the content. There is an extensive teaching guide available on Adeline Yen Mah’s website that would be very useful for that. And it might be interesting to read this fantasy novel in tandem with its biographical counterpart, Chinese Cinderella: the True Story of an Unwanted Daughter.
This book is recommended for readers age 10-14.
This is book 2 of my East and SouthEast Asia Challenge hosted by Violet Crush