Daughters of Shandong 

By Eve J. Chung


Interview by Diane Slocum

Eleven-year-old Hai was the oldest in a family of girls living in rural China on the wealthy Ang family farm where her grandmother, her Nai Nai, ruled over the other females. Because her mother had produced no male heirs, she was essentially a slave in the family and her girls were of less value. The year was 1948 and when the Communist revolutionaries approached, the family fled, leaving Hai, her mother and sisters to “guard” the homestead. When the army came, there was nothing they could do but hide out in the smelly shed of a tenant who had been treated kindly by Hai’s mother. Hai was nearly killed by the revolutionaries as a surrogate for the men in her family. As soon as she could travel, they set off on foot attempting to reunite with the rest of the family. With few resources, the mother, Hai, Di, and their baby sister relied on their wits and kindnesses of others along the hazardous journey filled with fear of discovery by the Communists and finding ways to survive.

AUTHORLINK: Where did you get the idea for this story?

CHUNG: The idea for this story came about when I was visiting my mom with my two kids. We began talking about my maternal grandma, who had helped raise me. Since my grandma passed away ten years ago, my relationship with my mom has changed, and she tells me things that she might have withheld from me as a child. As I learned more about my grandma’s life—details that I hadn’t heard before, I thought about how amazing grandma’s story was, and so I decided to try to write it.

AUTHORLINK: How did your family help you develop the events that Hai, her mother and sisters endure?

CHUNG: My mother and I interviewed my grandma’s sisters, who are still alive, as well as other relatives who went through the Communist Revolution. Many of the events that Hai and her mother and sisters endure are entirely true in some way or another—if they didn’t happen to my own family, they happened to another family. Truth can be stranger than fiction, and some of the most outrageous stories in the book are the ones that are fact. For example (without giving too much away), my grandma had a dog, and one of her most visceral memories (according to my mom) is watching that dog running along the train tracks.

AUTHORLINK: In addition to family sources, what did you do for research?

CHUNG: I went to Boston University and majored in International Relations, and within that context I specialized in East Asian anthropology and studied the history of the region. Much of the historical background I already knew, but I did look at academic articles, books, as well as memoirs. The Communist Revolution was chaotic, and much of the information about it had been lost, especially since people in my grandmother’s generation often didn’t like to recount it. I relied on material from American marines in Qingdao, as well as from British sources in Hong Kong to supplement the gaps. My best sources are often the most obscure ones, and in this case, I was very lucky to come upon a PhD dissertation, in which the author interviewed many Chinese refugees in Hong Kong who were at the same camp that my grandmother was at.

AUTHORLINK: The last two novels I’ve read featured a domineering grandmother. And many other stories have featured a matriarch who is the main force demanding that the younger women conform to male domination and importance, even though she herself now wields a lot of power, sometimes even over men (her sons, for instance). Can you speak about that dynamic in your story and in general?

CHUNG: When I talked to people about this book, I was at first surprised at how much people hated “Nai Nai”, the grandmother in my story. Nai Nai was based on a real person, who my grandmother’s sisters and my mother lived with and abhorred. My mom remembers seeing Nai Nai punish the women in her family. As terrible as that was, Nai Nai was a product of her surroundings, and a system that was reinforced by men and women alike. That does not excuse her behavior at all, but Nai Nai’s type of character was fairly common. Prior to the Chinese Civil War, the suicide rate in China was highest among young women in their early twenties—women who could not stand their new married life. After the Civil War, when more young women started working, that dynamic shifted, and the suicide rate became highest among older women, many of whom ended up abused by their children-in-law. Women like Nai Nai were often also mistreated by their mothers-in-laws, and perpetuated an awful cycle of cruelty in part because they feel like they “earned” their positions by enduring their own elders, and birthing heirs for the family. Being able to birth an heir was key; for my own great-grandmother, her inability to have a son led others in her family to justify their abuse towards her.

AUTHORLINK: How has this gender disparity affected your own life?

CHUNG: In my own life, I have seen how important it is for women to have a son, and this affects many daughters who feel guilty that they are not one. There were definitely times in which I felt like I had to work harder and do more for my parents to make up for not being a boy. I also observed the disparity in treatment between girls and boys among my extended relatives. Generally, I think families have improved greatly over the past decades, especially as more girls are able to pursue their education and career opportunities, but many girls still face discrimination from birth. My desire to fight for change and gender quality is what led me to become a women’s human rights lawyer.

AUTHORLINK: Besides the gender gap (and the grandmother gap), your story also makes significant mention of the relationship between mothers and daughters and between sisters. Can you discuss that aspect of your novel?

CHUNG: Daughters of Shandong is a book that I was only able to write after becoming a mom. Growing up, I did not have a good relationship with my mom, but we are much closer now. I understand her better but am still frustrated by some of the traditional beliefs that she continues to be stubborn about. What I wanted to show in my book is how women can love their family members—fiercely, but also be disappointed by their actions. I think this is a fairly common sentiment, not just for Chinese women, but other women with older relatives who continue to perpetuate sexist beliefs. As for the sisters, I actually do not have a sister, but the relationship between Hai and Di is based on my grandma’s relationship with her second sister, who she was estranged from. In the book, I tried to explore their different personalities, and why they might have had a falling out.

AUTHORLINK: What do you hope your story demonstrates to your readers?

CHUNG: As a person who has been able to pursue my dreams because of the sacrifices made by those before me, I hope that this book shows that a story doesn’t have to end with a single person—that sometimes, they span generations. The book is a work of fiction, but my grandmother was abandoned by her father because she was a daughter—she even had a sister who died because the family refused to pay for medical treatment for girls. I hope that we can look back on our past and see how far we have come in terms of gender equality and women’s human rights, but also understand that challenges remain and we all need to keep pushing for change.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

CHUNG: I am currently drafting another historical fiction novel, based on my work in women’s human rights and a war which affected my husband’s side of the family. I’m excited to share more about this soon!

About the author: Eve J. Chung lived her early life with her beloved grandmother in Taiwan. As she grew older, she realized some of her grandmother’s habits were remnants of her life as a child refugee during the Communist takeover. Her debut novel, Daughters of Shandong, is a fictionalized telling of this story. As a human rights lawyer she has worked against torture, sexual violence, contemporary slavery and discriminatory legislation. She lives in New York with her husband, two children and two dogs.