126. Stephanie Gou reviews “Dragonfly Eyes” by Cao Wenxuan

In June 2017, children’s book-reviewer Stephanie Gou 勾尧 told us how Cao Wenxuan’s novel Bronze and Sunflower opened a door to her memories. So, when Cao’s novel Dragonfly Eyes was published in January this year, we hoped she would review it and give us her perspective on this book too. Thank you, Stephanie, for such an eye-opening review!

Dragonfly Eyes, by Cao Wenxuan, tr. Helen Wang (Walker Books, 2021). ISBN 978-1406378252

Cao Wenxuan has a Disney-like magic. With his lyrical writing, he can turn suffering and tears into soap bubbles that float away in the sky.  His main characters are like the bright sun shining on those bubbles, giving them an iridescence, and creating such a beautiful scene that the reader almost forgets that the soapy water is inherently bitter. In the same way, I was captivated as I watched Queen Elsa in her floaty silk dress, dancing in the blizzard, completely forgetting the pain of the winter wind that used to slash my face in my hometown near Siberia.

Written in that same beautiful style, and focussing on the close relationship between Nainai and her grand-daughter Ah Mei, Dragonfly Eyes tells the bitter-sweet story of one family from the 1930s to the 1960s. Particularly poignant are the two red umbrellas that run through the story, symbols of joy and strength: from Nainai’s beautiful memories of being a young woman; to Ah Mei’s blissful childhood, to their resilience when everyone in the family is bowing under pressure; and as the final gift to Nainai. These bright red umbrellas are like two beating hearts. Although the story darkens with the passage of time, the umbrellas do not fade, but reflect the life force and dignity of the main characters. The purity and kindness of human nature permeates through the elegant writing, bringing readers a beautiful reading experience.

Cao Wenxuan has made a very bold move with this book, taking his readers with him as he moves beyond the comfort zone of his other works, away from the Jiangnan wetlands he knows so well, and into the city, and not just any Chinese city, but the rich life of the Bund in Shanghai. For China, indeed for the world, Shanghai is a unique city. I love the humorous comment by American columnist Patricia Mars that “New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Shanghai doesn’t even sit down, and not just because there is no room.” If the characters in Cao’s earlier books face hardship brought by nature, the threats to daily life in this book are more indirect. For example, while the villagers in Bronze and Sunflower have to deal with horrendous floods and skies full of locusts, those in the city see a shortage of food in the shops, or are forced by soaring inflation to pawn their favourite possessions. The only thing that a city never worries about is a shortage of people, and the different kinds of issues and troubles caused by people. The uniqueness of this period in history only makes the challenge greater. Cao is used to writing about natural disasters, and he does not shy away from the man-made problems in Dragonfly Eyes: the last-minute cancellation of Ah Mei’s place in the piano competition; the prejudice against her cousin on account of his appearance; the mutilation of the apricot tree that Yeye planted specially for Nainai; the premeditated snatching of the “dragonfly eye” beads that are Nainai’s treasured heirlooms.

As in Snow White, where the handsome prince undoes the damage of the evil stepmother’s poisoned apple and brings Snow White back to life with a single kiss, Cao Wenxuan writes with a magic wand that enables the power of love for home and family to reduce all man-made disasters to insignificance. Yeye and Nainai’s home, “The Blue House”, is a three-storey villa, designed by a German architect – “the roof tiles, doors and windows were blue, the colour of the sea” – with the aroma of freshly made coffee inside, and the apricot tree full of blossom outside, and the happy sound of laughter mixing and mingling with music from the piano and the gramophone.

Pages from Ed Young’s The House Baba Built showing how the children of the family had a lot of fun playing in their house in Shanghai

I was glad, before reading Dragonfly Eyes, to have read the picture book The House Baba Built, in which Chinese-American illustrator Ed Young 杨志成 uses photographs and collage to show his own happy childhood in a western-style house in Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s. This helped me to visualise The Blue House, and to understand that a house in the cramped city could still be beautiful and have warmth and charm. The Blue House was not just a building to shelter the family against wind and rain, it was the home created by the wonderfully elegant and kind Frenchwoman Océane. Creating a mixed race household was the second challenge the author set himself.

The novel starts with Yeye and Nainai’s romantic encounter in a café in Marseille, and traces, from Ah Mei’s perspective, the young Frenchwoman’s fate with China. One by one, the other members of the family and household are brought in: the little girl’s nanny, her aunt, her cousin, her parents, her other grandfather, all have a soft spot for this remarkable little girl, the princess in this fairy tale. Family relationships are to Chinese people what love is to Hollywood, a theme that will never go out of date. The care and dedication for family members is just so important. When O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi 欧·亨利 : 麦琪的礼物 appeared in Chinese school textbooks in the 20th century, teachers would focus on the virtues of the man and wife and their dedication to family. In junior high school, I was moved to tears by their sacrificial gifts of love to each other, and it was only as a grown-up that I wondered if the story might have other implications. Similarly, there are many sacrificial gifts in Dragonfly Eyes: in order to knit new jumpers for their ten grandchildren, Nainai unravels her own, and Yeye’s, beautiful jumpers; in order to soothe Nainai’s homesickness, Yeye swaps his Rolex for a French apricot tree; in order to pay for Nainai’s medical treatment, Ah Mei’s parents pawn her special piano; in order to redeem the piano, Nainai does not quibble about cashing in the diamond ring her mother gave her; Yeye risks being arrested, and offers up his beloved piece of jade, in order to get a bottle of perfume from an unfamiliar foreign woman; Ah Mei’s other grandfather hands over six of his favourite paintings to recover the priceless dragonfly eye beads from the greedy thief that had snatched them. With scenes such as these, the story unfolds with a warmth and harmony resonates with Chinese readers.

We know that when Disney fans love China’s Mulan or Polynesia’s Moana, it is really the Disney princess series as a whole that they like, rather than the specificity of each princess. I believe that while the production team thinks respectfully about each princess- or girl-story, its aim is to work with the diverse examples to make more positive role models for children. In this regard, Cao Wenxuan’s Dragonfly Eyes is different: it is a work of children’s literature that introduces political movements, giving young readers a completely new perspective on diversity, one that demands more of them than the Disney team’s productions. That this book could be published at all shows the greatest respect and confidence in young readers. And the writing itself is impeccable.

If this book review was like Ice Bucket Challenge, and I could nominate two people to add their thoughts, I would choose Anaïs Martane 安娜伊思.马田 and Mei Sifan 梅思繁. Both are women knowing children well and have unique life experiences in France and China. Like Océane, Ana (as she is known in China) is French, and lives and works in Beijing with her Chinese husband, the celebrity and actor Liu Ye 刘烨, and their children. Her son and husband attended a reality show, which brought the family to the spotlight.  Mei Sifan, the daughter of the acclaimed children’s book author, Professor Mei Zihan 梅子涵, grew up in Shanghai, and now lives in France, where she is a children’s book author and translator. Her father’s award-winning picture book Sparrows 麻雀, illustrated by Man Tao 满涛, is set in his childhood in the lanes of Shanghai during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962). It is another excellent and thought-provoking work.

Of course, I should clarify that I write this review as an adult who has never lived in Shanghai, and as someone who is interested in knowing more about the background of those times and is curious about the relationships between the characters. I believe that young readers will not only enjoy Dragonfly Eyes as a beautiful story, like a fairy tale, but will also have the courage to seek for truth and to learn about reality. Perhaps this is the primary aim of all writers of children’s books, and their gift to the next generation.

Read Stephanie’s review in Chinese on Weixin 曹文轩《蜻蜓眼》:用爱打败苦难 — here

Follow Stephanie’s blog: www.stephaniegou.uk

Come to an online event organised by Guanghwa Bookshop on Saturday 27 March with Stephanie Gou, Helen Wang and moderator Vivian Ni – free – register here: Cao Wenxuan: The Chinese Hans Christian Andersen and His Literature World Tickets, Sat 27 Mar 2021 at 11:00 GMT

5 thoughts on “126. Stephanie Gou reviews “Dragonfly Eyes” by Cao Wenxuan

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