A historical epic set in 19th Century Imperial China might sound like a difficult read, but Chiew-Siah Tei’s Little Hut of Leaping Fishes is an easy, flowing story and an accessible introduction to learning more about a small segment of China’s colourful history.
The story centres on Mingzhi Chai, the First Born Grandson of the great Master Chai, landlord of Plum Blossom Village (how charming are all the place names?!)
The story follows the trials and triumphs of Mingzhi’s life, and reflects this with the darker life of Mingyuan, Mingzhi’s half brother, and the Second Born Grandson of Master Chai. The characters are rigid, and feel somewhat distant from the reader. I feel this is an intentional technique, which illustrates the rigid life the characters must live by, in Master Chai’s orderly and constrained Mansion, and by living by the rules of Confucianism.
Mingzhi’s character really starts coming to life when he moves away from Plum Blossom Village, and to his own little home , Little Hut of Leaping Fishes, in order to study for exams to become a Mandarin, a lynch pin of Imperial China’s bureaucracy.
Minghzhi comes of age during a tumultuous time for China, when foreign forces arrive to take a share in its riches, whilst the population is weakened as a nationwide addiction to opium takes hold. Mingzhi truly breaks free from the constraints and plans of his grandfather when he begins to adopt modern and open views to foreigners and the cultures they bring with them but at the same time teaches us a lot about Chinese culture and how this can still stand the test of time amidst the changes.
I really enjoyed this book. The prose is very different to what I am used to, and although it was written in English, almost feels like it is a translated copy. That level of being one step detached from its reader, slightly distant and exotic, really helps to play up the differences of that time and culture, making for a really fascinating and educational read.