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The Girl from Purple Mountain: Love, Honor, War, and One Family's Journey from China to America

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A family memoir set against the shifting tides of twentieth-century China, The Girl from Purple Mountain begins with a mystery: the Chai family matriarch, Ruth Mei-en Tsao Chai, dies unexpectedly and her grieving husband discovers that she had secretly arranged to be buried alone—rather than in the shared plots they had purchased together years ago. For many years, Ruth's f A family memoir set against the shifting tides of twentieth-century China, The Girl from Purple Mountain begins with a mystery: the Chai family matriarch, Ruth Mei-en Tsao Chai, dies unexpectedly and her grieving husband discovers that she had secretly arranged to be buried alone—rather than in the shared plots they had purchased together years ago. For many years, Ruth's family remained shocked by her decision and could not begin to fathom her motivations. Over time, they would fully understand her extraordinary story. Ruth was born in China at the beginning of the 20th century, during the reign of the last emperor. Educated by American missionaries, she was one of the first women admitted into a Chinese university, during an era when most Chinese women were illiterate and had bound feet. She would defy tradition and refuse to marry the man her family had chosen for her, instead choosing his younger brother as her husband. Later, as the Japanese Army advanced across China during World War II, her foresight and quick thinking kept her family alive as she, her husband, and their three sons were forced to flee from city to city. In war-torn Chungking, she was Lady Mountbatten's interpreter as the Allies struggled to help China. After the war, the Chais immigrated to the U.S. to what seemed, until Ruth's death, a happier and more peaceful life. In this extraordinary family epic, Ruth's first-born son, Winberg, and his daughter May-lee explore family history to reconstruct her life as they seek to understand her fateful decision. As Winberg writes: "It is my duty to try to understand my mother, to seek answers. To ignore the past is too much like forgetting . . . I hope my memories are enough to fulfill a son's obligations."


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A family memoir set against the shifting tides of twentieth-century China, The Girl from Purple Mountain begins with a mystery: the Chai family matriarch, Ruth Mei-en Tsao Chai, dies unexpectedly and her grieving husband discovers that she had secretly arranged to be buried alone—rather than in the shared plots they had purchased together years ago. For many years, Ruth's f A family memoir set against the shifting tides of twentieth-century China, The Girl from Purple Mountain begins with a mystery: the Chai family matriarch, Ruth Mei-en Tsao Chai, dies unexpectedly and her grieving husband discovers that she had secretly arranged to be buried alone—rather than in the shared plots they had purchased together years ago. For many years, Ruth's family remained shocked by her decision and could not begin to fathom her motivations. Over time, they would fully understand her extraordinary story. Ruth was born in China at the beginning of the 20th century, during the reign of the last emperor. Educated by American missionaries, she was one of the first women admitted into a Chinese university, during an era when most Chinese women were illiterate and had bound feet. She would defy tradition and refuse to marry the man her family had chosen for her, instead choosing his younger brother as her husband. Later, as the Japanese Army advanced across China during World War II, her foresight and quick thinking kept her family alive as she, her husband, and their three sons were forced to flee from city to city. In war-torn Chungking, she was Lady Mountbatten's interpreter as the Allies struggled to help China. After the war, the Chais immigrated to the U.S. to what seemed, until Ruth's death, a happier and more peaceful life. In this extraordinary family epic, Ruth's first-born son, Winberg, and his daughter May-lee explore family history to reconstruct her life as they seek to understand her fateful decision. As Winberg writes: "It is my duty to try to understand my mother, to seek answers. To ignore the past is too much like forgetting . . . I hope my memories are enough to fulfill a son's obligations."

30 review for The Girl from Purple Mountain: Love, Honor, War, and One Family's Journey from China to America

  1. 4 out of 5

    Sierra

    Mr. Sierra picked this up in Half-Price Books because of the opener: when the grandmother dies, the family discovers she had changed her burial plans to be buried alone, not in the plot she and her husband had bought. No one knows why. In response, the husband changes his plot to be outside the gates of the mausoleum where she is buried so that he can watch over her forever. That’s a pretty good opener. The book unfortunately didn’t follow the lines of a fantastic story but instead was a wonderf Mr. Sierra picked this up in Half-Price Books because of the opener: when the grandmother dies, the family discovers she had changed her burial plans to be buried alone, not in the plot she and her husband had bought. No one knows why. In response, the husband changes his plot to be outside the gates of the mausoleum where she is buried so that he can watch over her forever. That’s a pretty good opener. The book unfortunately didn’t follow the lines of a fantastic story but instead was a wonderful non-fiction account of China from about 1900 to now. It’s something I certainly hadn’t understood even though I’ve read lots of books about the Communist revolution. This family’s story really brought home the horror of the changes and the wars. It was a wonderful book and although this Chai family is just another family among the millions of families who suffered, you feel like you get to know them well. You care about them. The mystery behind the grandmother changing her grave is not so dramatic as one is lead to believe, but instead turns out to be real and human and wonderful just the same. She does it because in her old age people aren’t listening to her anymore, they’re writing her off as a rambling old woman. She’s still shocked by the wars and the changes in China. She wants people to remember that. So she gets their attention in the only way she thinks she knows how—by changing her burial plans and leaving the family to wonder about it. It’s an interesting commentary on the massive upheaval China went through in the 20th century. The grandmother’s son, Winberg, and his daughter May-lee both tell the story, making it very human and real.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Raymond Hwang

    May-Lee and Winberg Chai write an intimate story of their own family. As only a daughter and father, they each write their perspective in forward and honest way. It is not Chinese to express so intimately the details of their lives in this a very public way. What interested me most was what happened to the family when they fled Nanjing. My father and his family had also fled Nanjing but I don't have much detail. This story is compelling drama and touching portrait of a family living through war, May-Lee and Winberg Chai write an intimate story of their own family. As only a daughter and father, they each write their perspective in forward and honest way. It is not Chinese to express so intimately the details of their lives in this a very public way. What interested me most was what happened to the family when they fled Nanjing. My father and his family had also fled Nanjing but I don't have much detail. This story is compelling drama and touching portrait of a family living through war, famine, survival and even triumph.

  3. 5 out of 5

    David Marxer

    I enjoyed every aspect of this book---the history, the multi-generational family ties and even the duel narative. I was at first worried about the daughter and father writing the same book, but soon came to love it for the richness of each of their styles and the way they 'filled in the gaps' of the story the other couldn't or didn't wish to tell. From the turn of the 20th century China, to the Sino-Japanese War, to Taiwan, to America, to returning to China in the 1980s, they lead the reader on I enjoyed every aspect of this book---the history, the multi-generational family ties and even the duel narative. I was at first worried about the daughter and father writing the same book, but soon came to love it for the richness of each of their styles and the way they 'filled in the gaps' of the story the other couldn't or didn't wish to tell. From the turn of the 20th century China, to the Sino-Japanese War, to Taiwan, to America, to returning to China in the 1980s, they lead the reader on a emotional jounry not soon forgotten...

  4. 5 out of 5

    Colleen

    My first non-fiction novel in a long time. It was an interesting story of a highly educated family in china who struggled through the Japanese occupation and many warlord changes and eventually emigrated to the US. It was told by both the daughter and the father's persectives - which added a depth to the story that I appricated. My first non-fiction novel in a long time. It was an interesting story of a highly educated family in china who struggled through the Japanese occupation and many warlord changes and eventually emigrated to the US. It was told by both the daughter and the father's persectives - which added a depth to the story that I appricated.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Rhonda

    Good book that truly makes you realize more than ever that ALL families have to deal with crazy relatives, not just mine! :) Beautifully told by the son and granddaughter of 'the girl from purple mountain', which is confusing at first, but neat by the end. A little too much history at times for me, but I tire easily in that area. It will stay in my memory, as some books just do. Good book that truly makes you realize more than ever that ALL families have to deal with crazy relatives, not just mine! :) Beautifully told by the son and granddaughter of 'the girl from purple mountain', which is confusing at first, but neat by the end. A little too much history at times for me, but I tire easily in that area. It will stay in my memory, as some books just do.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Kennedy

    I loved this book. It is the story of a family moving from China to the US. It covers a great deal of Chinese history in the early 20th century while telling it in the context how history affects a family. W. Chai is funny and honest. This was a really interesting read.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Lin

    Written by a daughter and father team about their different perspectives on their grandmother/mother who survived the Cultural Revolution and came to America. Writing is clear, beautiful, particularly the chapters by Winberg Chai.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Marleen

    This is a remarkable story of a beautiful young woman born in China at the beginning of the 20th century. Her life story was impacted by all social, cultural and political changes that affected her country. Her life was one of privilege and tremendous hardship.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    I loved it.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Fran

    I found this story really fascinating. One of the more interesting biographical books I have read set in a particularly tumultuous time in Chinese history.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    Pretty interesting, if a bit on the long side. Effective structure, though a tiny bit confusing.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Bindee

    Loved it. great story told from different generations. gives an appreciation of what the Chinese people have had to endure

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sandy

    Loved this book! Written by a father and daughter in their two different viewpoints. Learned a lot about the history of China and their life as a multicultural family.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    This was a fun way to learn more about China's recent history. I realized that this is a large gap in my education. I learned a lot China's transformation over the past century. It's an easy read. This was a fun way to learn more about China's recent history. I realized that this is a large gap in my education. I learned a lot China's transformation over the past century. It's an easy read.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Michele

  16. 5 out of 5

    Thressa

  17. 5 out of 5

    Sharon

  18. 5 out of 5

    Agata

  19. 5 out of 5

    Carissa

  20. 5 out of 5

    Laurie

  21. 5 out of 5

    Bonnie

  22. 5 out of 5

    Hsu Yeh

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer Sturmer

  24. 4 out of 5

    Mary Alice

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jenopcer

  26. 4 out of 5

    Phyllis

  27. 5 out of 5

    Amber

  28. 5 out of 5

    Allison Traxler

  29. 5 out of 5

    Southern Flower

  30. 4 out of 5

    Edna Wallin

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