SHANGHAI, in the early decades of the 20th century, is a city very much divided, if not strictly along geographic lines then socially at least – Chinese, British, French, with further divisions within each ethnic group.
Jialing is barely seven years old when her mother leaves their small traditional household on the outskirts of the city one morning, promising to return to collect the fatherless child within a couple of days. When those days pass, and still more come and go, Jialing is distraught: hungry, cold and seemingly alone.
What outsiders cannot see, however, is that Jialing is attended by a crafty, industrious guardian, Fox, a benevolent shapeshifting spirit with the ability to morph between animal and myriad human forms and at the same time entrance unsuspecting men.
The arrival of new owners of the complex in which Jialing has always lived is her salvation. Her landlord’s daughter, Anjuin, becomes Jialing’s only true friend, even as the family matriarch takes the little orphan as her indentured servant.
Mothering by the slightly older Anjuin and the watchfulness of ever-vigilant Fox enable Jialing to survive.
Her real-world, longer-term prospects are bleak, however; Jialing is zazhong – a mixed-blood Eurasian accepted by neither Shanghai’s many Caucasians nor by the powerful ruling local Chinese. Will she ever be allowed to fit in – to shake off the stigma of being not only abandoned but impure, too, set apart from other girls her age by her long curling eyelashes and too-fair skin?
Taiwanese-Canadian author Janie Chang writes with cultural and religious sensitivity and insight, drawing on her family’s own stories of life in China before World War I supplemented by exhaustive historic research. Dragon Springs Road takes place at a time of enormous political and economic change, when a child emperor rules in name only as factions manoeuvre viciously for practical control.