The Concubine's Daughter: A Novel

The Concubine's Daughter: A Novel

by Pai Kit Fai

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An epic, heart-wrenching story of a mother and daughter's journey to their destiny.

Lotus Feet. He would give his daughter the dainty feet of a courtesan. This would enhance her beauty and her price, making her future shine like a new coin. He smiled to himself, pouring fresh tea. And it would stop her from running away…

When the young concubine of an old farmer in rural China gives birth to a daughter called Li-Xia, or "Beautiful One," the child seems destined to become a concubine herself. Li refuses to submit to her fate, outwitting her father's orders to bind her feet and escaping the silk farm with an English sea captain. Li takes her first steps toward fulfilling her mother's dreams of becoming a scholar—but her final triumph must be left to her daughter, Su Sing, "Little Star," in a journey that will take her from remote mountain refuges to the perils of Hong Kong on the eve of World War II.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312355210
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 09/29/2009
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 1,052,632
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Drawing on years of immersion in traditional Chinese culture, medicine, and martial arts, PAI KIT FAI, who worked as a merchant marine, a writer, and a creative director for an advertising agency before marrying into one of Hong Kong's founding Eurasian families, delivers a mesmerizing tale of passion and courage in this, his first novel.

Read an Excerpt

The Concubine's Daughter

By Pai Kit Fai

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2009 Pai Kit Fai
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-312-35521-0


The Fox Fairy

A year later, all thoughts of fox fairies had faded in the minds of Yik-Munn and his wives. He did not doubt that this was what had visited him in the mustard field. If the girl child had died, the fox would have entered its body and haunted those responsible to their graves and beyond.

But Yik-Munn had gone quickly to the temple and paid the abbot to exorcise bad spirits and to purify his house with due ceremony and with no expenses spared. The priests had come in scarlet robes and black caps to sprinkle chicken blood on the doorposts and hang the Pa-Kua mirror, so that unwanted spirits would be driven away by their own ghastly reflections.

The Lion of Purification had pranced from room to room with choking censers of burning ash, and much banging of drums and clashing of cymbals. Ropes of firecrackers exploded among the peppercorn trees and outside every door with a din that the deepest pits of the underworld could not ignore. The Lions had collected a generous lai-see, the fat red packets of lucky money offered with much ceremony to their gaping jaws, and the temple had accepted a donation to the deity that would cause the gods to smile as one.

All was well, the priests assured Yik-Munn. The fox had passed on too quickly to have entered the child's body, and the child had survived. The fox fairy lived only in sepulchers, graveyards, and untended tombs. They were no friend of the living, yet companions of the dead, with the power to become a woman of great beauty to seduce an unsuspecting man.

But the prosperous and lordly Yik-Munn, the fortune-teller announced for all to hear, was still young at heart with the strength of the wild horse — one with great face for whom prayers were regularly said at the temple. He was assured that the female he had sired would bring much to him in return for his compassion. If her hands were small enough and her fingers fast, the silk-weaving factory of Ten Willows might take her. If her hands were too large and her fingers short and strong, she could be sent north to the Yangtze Valley to pick oranges and peaches, apricots and jujube; or downriver to Canton, Macao, or Hong Kong, to be sold to a rich Chinese or Parsee merchant — even to the household of a foreign devil. The prospects of profit for such a girl, Yik-Munn told himself, were many and varied. He was greatly relieved by such propitious omens. He had told his women to feed the child and keep her in an outbuilding.

That Pai-Ling the concubine had accidentally fallen from the window and to her death upon the iron spikes of a harrow was certainly a misfortune, but could not be blamed upon the innocent. He had beaten Number Three for creating such a fuss about it. She also had to be locked away while his sons pulled the concubine's body from the rusty tines that had pierced her body. Waiting until nightfall to see her buried in the ginger field, he had left it to them to wrap her in a suitable shroud and choose a spot unknown to him, where the earth was soft and the grave could be deep. It would cause less trouble for his family if she were disposed of without great ceremony. Otherwise, the story that the House of Munn had been host to a fox fairy and that demons roamed the fields of Great Pine Farm would spread like locusts along the length and breadth of the river.

* * *

Number One and Number Two hated the child. They did not believe the priest or the fortune-teller, thinking them liars who said what they were paid to say. From the moment she could stand, the daughter of Pai-Ling sought the open fields, leaving the house when eyes were turned the other way to hide among the mustard plants, straying ever farther to the edge of the ginger field, crouching silent as a toad on the rich earth while they shouted her name.

Number Three, the youngest of the wives by perhaps ten years, found it hard to forget the death of the unhappy concubine. She had watched the single lantern weaving like a firefly through the fields, to bury Pai-Ling in the ginger field, but she never spoke of it. Nor did she listen to the frightened jabber of those about her.

"She is beckoned by her demon mother," Number Two wailed, afraid of her own shadow. "She tries to lead us away from the house. She cavorts with imps and specters."

"Nonsense," grunted Number One, who feared old age and poverty far more than the presence of unfriendly ghosts. "She is no more than a stupid and willful child who needs to be taught her place. I will find her and beat her till she is afraid to open her eyes."

This she had done when the child went missing one day, dragging the girl from the ginger field through the tangled roots of the mustard field, and locking her in the rice shed. But fear of the fox fairy could not be denied. The child was fed because Yik-Munn demanded it, but the sniveling of Number Two could not be stopped, and the accusing silence of Number Three threatened his peace of mind. The harmony of his household was torn apart. He could not deny that his life had changed for the worse since the concubine had fallen from the window. His face was threatened in the tea house, where he could no longer boast of owning a concubine with lotus feet who was young enough to be his granddaughter.

When he could stand no more, he found respite in the warm embrace of the opium pipe prepared by his mistress in the village. But when his winter barley failed and disease broke out among his livestock, Number One went on her knees to her husband's sister, convincing her that this misfortune would ruin them all if the child remained beneath their roof. The great Goo-Mah was an expert on all things of the spirit world. She burned a large bundle of joss sticks to Chang-Hsien, the god of children, and spoke to him of the trouble that had befallen the House of Munn. The result, she claimed, was absolute. "The earthly chi, the life-force of the mother, has entered the child and sought revenge. The child must not spend another night beneath the roof of Great Pine Farm," Goo-Mah announced in a voice that caused Number Two to take to her bed and hide beneath the covers. "The child must be taken to the baby tower outside the village of Ten Willows before another sun has set and left for the wild dogs and the ravens. Chang-Hsien has spoken."

The women watched from the courtyard and the dowager from her window as Yik-Munn laid the sleeping child in a basket and onto the cart and led the donkey out through the paddies to the road. No one spoke of the baby tower that was a mile outside the silk-weaving community of Ten Willows. It was visited only in the dead of night, by those too desperately poor to raise an infant or cursed with an imperfect child.

An hour passed before Yik-Munn saw the ghastly shape of the tower etched against a restless sky, leaning into the night wind, its walls of barren stone harshly scraped by moonlight. The slow journey had given him time to think, to search the corners of his mind with each jolting moment. He stopped at the wayside shrine that marked a milestone to the baby tower, placed there for the offering of final prayers or, for those who may relent, a final chance to turn away. There he burned the painted effigy of a girl child riding the back of a white crane, to give it safe passage to oblivion. Flaming fragments were whisked away by the wind as he continued to the tower, stopping the cart outside the jagged stone gate.

He left the cart on the road and approached the baby tower on foot. It was not without fear that he walked toward this sad and lonely place. It was believed that the spirits of the tiny bodies left there were doomed to forever inhabit the hard stone ledges and alcoves, searching the night sky for their lost souls, the homes they never had, the lives they were denied, returning to the tower as owls return to their nests.

In his arms, the child slept soundly from the glob of opium paste he had fingered into her mouth. In a pot in his pocket he carried more, enough to make her sleep forever. Dark scuttling reached him, rats over fragile bones, a dry rustling of bat wings from a gaping roof open to the sky. Ragged shreds of cloud, driven by wind that moaned through the tower like a hymn, drew apart to reveal a cold, bright moon, round as a newly minted coin.

Rotting tentacles of death reached out to meet Yik-Munn and then, in the sudden blaze of moonlight, a ghostly apparition of the fox, pale and silent, emerged to watch him, its glowing eyes searching the hollow of his heart.

Begging forgiveness in a quailing voice he didn't recognize as his own, Yik-Munn stumbled back to the cart, mumbling prayers for deliverance. He placed the sleeping child under the seat and whipped the donkey into a lather to reach his home alive. There he beat his wives mercilessly, turning a deaf ear to the ranting of his sister, and, with hands that trembled, made himself a pipe, seeking urgent sanctuary in the fragrant realms of paradise.

At sunrise he was at the temple gates with a generous donation. Many times the bamboo slivers were spilled before the altar, and the great table of stars was scrutinized minutely for many hours. That Yik-Munn had again chosen wisely was confirmed by Kuan-Yin herself, who had blessed him and his household.

The girl child was probably possessed by a vixen spirit, but a benevolent one, which would bring great prosperity to the House of Munn. She would grow to be even more beautiful than her mother and would fetch a high price from a rich taipan when sold at the age of eight years. Yik-Munn did not mention the prophesy of Chang-Hsein, knowing full well that his sister frequently spoke to patron saints who said exactly what she wanted them to say.

So it was settled. Having heard everything he could have wished to hear, Yik-Munn gave the little fox fairy the name of Li-Xia (Lee Sheeah), "Beautiful One." As soon as she was old enough, his wives would give her work so that she could earn her rice. With his confidence restored, he gained a new vigor to his step and his splendid teeth gleamed all the brighter among those who envied Yik-Munn, the merchant of fine spices.

* * *

The rice shed Li-Xia was allowed to occupy was close to the kitchen. It was home to many spiders, their webs thick in every corner. But it was quiet and she was alone, making a place that was her own beneath the single window, sweeping it clean. She rubbed the dirty glass until it let in a stream of light that fell upon the rice bins and sacks of dried mushrooms.

Only two things frightened her, and she tried not to look at them: two glass jars, big as washtubs, set high on a shelf, reflecting the light from the window. They contained Yik-Munn's special wine, the wives had told her, and must not be touched. One was Hundred Snake Wine: Coiled inside the jar, in a tangle of yellow, black, and green, were one hundred deadly snakes, steeped in clear liquor, the black beads of their eyes still angry. The other jar held Hundred Mice Wine: in a mass of palest pink, floating in the liquid they were drowned in, were one hundred unborn mice, their eyes unopened.

Each week, Number-One Wife came to the rice shed with a ladle and a pitcher, which she filled with the clear fluid. This was the wife Li-Xia feared the most, always quick to slap her. Each time Number One filled the pitcher, she made the same threat: "Do not touch this wine and do not make me angry, or you shall be put in a jar — we will call it Fox Fairy Wine." She would laugh at her cleverness and leave Li-Xia alone to think about it.

When the door had closed with a rattle of the latch and the mutterings of Number One were lost to the carping of ducks, Li-Xia would lie down and watch the diamond specks of dust that floated in the patch of light from the window. She had stuck bunches of wildflowers and leafy twigs into tin cups and containers of every kind to form a screen to block the hideous wine jars from her sight. But she imagined she could hear the rustle of a hundred snakes winding their way across the floor, and the squeaking of a hundred mice scampering toward her. She dreamed that she too was stuffed into a jar, Number One pressing her head down into the bittersweet liquid, laughing at her through the thick glass wall of her tiny prison.

Then Li-Xia found the treasure that would one day change her life. In a dark corner, hidden beneath a pile of empty sacks, she uncovered a broken wooden box filled with scrolls and wads of musty paper of all shapes and sizes, each covered with strokes and squiggles, lines and curves of the calligrapher's hand. She had taken each piece and smoothed it flat, blowing away the dust and scraping off the marks of cockroaches with her fingernail. By the silver light of a moon that sometimes kept her company, driving back the threatening shadows, she studied every page and wished so much that she could read.

The characters were shaped so beautifully, displayed before her in such neat rows, splendid in their mystery. She wanted to understand them, to let them take her to places she could never go, to learn the wisdom of scholars she would never meet. To read and understand would be the greatest of all wonders.


The Happiness Tile

The fifth birthday of Li-Xia arrived without further incident. No fox had been seen in the spice fields, and even Goo-Mah had little more to say. Li-Xia was unusually tall for a girl of her age, and obviously strong. Her child's limbs were long and awkward, her long hair thick and shiny as black silk. Her large round eyes were tilted to give them a look of wonder, as though everything she looked upon was made of shining gold.

It had reached Yik-Munn's ears from the kitchen that the child had asked Number-Three Wife to teach her to read for her birthday. Had she been a boy, the gift on reaching the age of five — when a child becomes of value — would have been a miniature silver abacus so that he might be good in business, or a gold chicken leg so that he might one day own a restaurant. For a girl it was a simple plaything, for she would have no need of knowledge. As was the custom in his district, he would not accept a daughter as part of his family, acknowledging only his sons.

Only a mother might value a daughter and teach her to cook and to sew, Yik-Munn said to himself, to train her to help in the kitchen and serve the family. There was no such chance for this one, but she would soon know her place. Teach her to read? Where could she have gotten such a thought but through the demon spirit of her mother?

That the concubine, Pai-Ling, had died in such a violent way no longer disturbed him. She had clearly been mad, but the priests were right; already the child's luck was blessed. The fox spirit had saved her twice — once from being buried alive in the mustard field and again at the baby tower.

At this moment a comforting light descended upon him, as though the gods had reached down to touch his head. Lotus feet. He would give his daughter the dainty feet of a courtesan. It would make her future shine. He smiled to himself. And it would stop her from running away.

* * *

Yik-Munn had Li-Xia brought before him, and peered down upon her as he would a fattened piglet. He received her in the room where important business was conducted with all the time-honored rituals of the spice trade; where weight, quality, and price were debated over much drinking of hot rice wine and munching of small chow.

Fans hanging from the high ceilings beat the musty air in broad, soundless sweeps. Rows of chests, great cabinets, and small drawers covered the floor and lined the walls, each filled with the costly herbs and spices that had made Yik-Munn rich. Ground and powdered, shredded and chopped, some were displayed in special jars or open bins, others kept in darkness, too delicate to be exposed to light. Aromatic samples were passed around with much sniffing and tasting from tiny silver spoons, as carefully examined for quality as any collection of precious stones.

He sat in a grand chair, its arms and legs and wide back carved with peaches and pomegranates, the fruits of longevity. In this chair Yik-Munn felt like an emperor. His large slippered feet rested on a single step that elevated the occupant of this magnificent chair at least a head higher than those who sat before him. A robe of kingfisher blue reached from his neck to his white-stockinged ankles. His knees wide apart, a hand planted firmly on each, he attempted a smile, his perfect teeth white as a china cup.


Excerpted from The Concubine's Daughter by Pai Kit Fai. Copyright © 2009 Pai Kit Fai. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

Concubines and Bondservants:A Historical Perspective

For centuries before the early 1900s, there was a prominent male domination in China. Women were deprived of all rights and were present mainly to serve men. Women served as slaves, concubines, and prostitutes. What follows is a brief social history of the Chinese custom of female enslavement as portrayed in The Concubine's Daughter.

Although urban areas had seen progress in the condition of women's lives—in the abolition of foot binding and in professional and educational opportunities—rural women were scarcely affected. Their vulnerability was due not only to a perpetuation of patriarchal values but also to the absence of economic opportunities, which maintained the time-honored role with which women were still associated—to do with domesticity reproduction, as well as sexual services. Thus patriarchal dicta, coupled with the demands for unpaid domestic labor for prostitutes and concubines, plus Chinese women's lack of general economic independence, contributed to a disparate situation: While educated Chinese women clamored for political rights, women from the poorer social strata were still being sold into slavery.

Hong Kong was not only an entrepôt for inanimate goods between China and the rest of the world, but also for human beings. Girls of Chinese descent born in Singapore, in the Dutch Indies, in the Straits, and in Macao were brought to Hong Kong for profit; girls from Shantou, Shanghai, Tianjin, and the rural hinterlands were sold by way of Hong Kong to Southeast Asian markets. All these girls shared a background of poverty, whether rural or urban. Some girls could recall farms on which the whole family had eked out a living; perhaps at some stage the family lost its tenancy, drifted to the nearest city, and during the phase of alienation from what had constituted the family's rootedness in social and moral values, the sale of a daughter would occur. Disassociation from a supportive context of kinship relations eroded many of the social inhibitions parents might have had in selling their daughters into an unknown fate.

In times of greatest desperation boys, too, were sold, mostly to be adopted; but this was the last resort and an admission of ultimate defeat. Girls, being by cultural definition "outsiders" in a patrilineal society, sooner or later to be married off to another family, went first. Patriarchal evaluation of the female sex, supported by the absolute authority of the pater familias to decide the fate of his family, provided for an obvious solution in times of material crisis: to sell the daughter, and grant the rest of the family at least a temporary respite.

At these times of crisis, parents, when parting with their daughters, were not always indifferent or callous to their fate. With the same reluctance but resignation in the face of an unrelenting fate with which families left their home villages to face an unknown future in search of a living, they may have resorted to the next step in a downward spiral of despair—offering their daughters on the market.

Excerpted with permission from Concubines and Bondservants: The Social History of a Chinese Custom by Maria Jaschok (© 1988, Oxford University Press, East Asia)

1. Discuss the similarities and the differences between Li-Xia and her daughter, Siu-Sing. What matters most to each of them, and what does each do to achieve and preserve it?

2. Pai-Ling tells Li-Xia to "gather your thousand pieces of gold wherever you may find them and protect them with all your strength." What do you think this means? How do Li-Xia and Siu-Sing gather their "pieces of gold" throughout the story?

3. What role does learning, from books and otherwise, play in the principal characters' lives?

4. Discuss the tradition of foot binding in Chinese culture. What are the deeper implications, aside from the obvious physical handicaps of the practice?

5. The Concubine's Daughter is the story of three generations of women, all of whom are faced with challenges. How does the experience of one generation influence the next? What does the novel have to say about continuity with the past?

6. Myths and legends are recurring elements in the story, and link generations with a common thread. How are stories used to explain the violent forces that barrage the lives of Li-Xia and Siu-Sing? What role does spirituality play in the characters' lives?

7. Although society in the novel is explicitly dominated by men, in what ways are both major and minor women characters able to assert some sort of power over their destinies? In what ways are they powerless? Although the position of women has obviously changed since that time, can you see any similarities to the role of women in contemporary society?

8. What motivates some of the women in the story to help their fellow women, while others try to thwart them?

9. Discuss the roles of the various men in the story, and Ben Devereaux's role in particular? What do you think Li-Xia finds most attractive about Ben? And how great a factor do you think his otherness plays in that attraction?

10. How does Siu-Sing's childhood, which is idyllic in some ways, prepare her for a world beyond the mountains? How does it leave her vulnerable?

11. As young readers we are taught that every story has a "moral." Is there a moral to The Concubine's Daughter?

12. The Concubine's Daughter is set in an exotic world that often seems to date back many centuries instead of less than a hundred years ago. What seems most alien to you about this world, and what, if anything, reminds you of life in our own times?

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