The author is one of the great critics of the treatment of women in Chinese society and in many ways the book is designed to point out the injustice of the inequality between the sexes. In the book the women are all educated and achieve great success with their literary abilities. Set in the time of Empress Wu, she ordains that there should be examinations for women, and the 100 girls that are the focus of the novel, all pass the imperial examinations. However, after passing the examinations none of them enter government, but most of them marry, and in the course of events later in the story end up committing suicide when their husbands die. Likewise the author points out the pain of footbinding, and the frivolity of beauty. However, the main focus of the book is also to reclaim the throne for the Tang emperor and dispose of Empress Wu. So on the one-hand women should be treated better, but they should still know their place.
The book was written as a satire and is intended to be very funny as it points out the absurdity and hypocrisy of many aspects of Chinese society.
Even in this translation it does this well, not only in the section of visiting many lands, but also in the end with the self-defeating spells where the men all fall victim and die of gluttony, alcoholism, lust and avarice. (And of course the women are able to break the spell and save the day for the army).
The main characters are the flower immortals that were cast down from heaven for obeying the wishes of Empress Wu, to make all the flowers bloom at once in defiance of the laws of heaven. The flower immortals are all reincarnated as young girls who are good scholars, and some good warriors from China and the strange countries around the sea. Part of the book also describes the visit by the main character's father to many different islands; this part of the book is why it is often referred to as the Chinese Gulliver’s Travels.
Like most traditional Chinese novels it is 100 chapters long and unfortunately the only translation of it that I've been able to find in English (Even the dual language version) is about a quarter that. At least the translator will sometimes give brief descriptions of the parts that he skipped; though it often seems that these parts are very interesting and quite exciting. The biggest problem with the translation is as he puts it "I have tried to render a version which will appeal to the Western readers. The original version had some 400,000 words of which I have deleted most of the passages which have to do with classical texts and discussions of Chinese language, dissertations on history, poetry, phonetics, etc" which begs the question why would you be reading it if you weren't interested in Chinese, history, poetry and philosophy? It's like he said I'm taking out all the bits about Chinese culture cause people reading a book famous because of it's criticism of Chinese culture won't be interested in that! Needless to say I found that terribly frustrating and added it to my list of reasons to keep studying Chinese so that someday I can read it in the original. (I've already found an e-text version and with Pera-kun might be able to get through it in a year or two).
There was an amazing part that was left intact where the danger of drinking tea was discussed at great length. I was of course reminded of Sheridan La Fanu and all the health benefits associated with Green Tea in today's health food circles. After discussing the history of tea, Purple Jade goes on at length to criticise it.
"As for tea itself, apart from quenching thirst, nothing good can be said about it. In the Book of Medical Plants, it says tea will take off fat and make a person thin. Tea often makes all kinds of illness converge in the body. In my father's book, he also counsels people not to drink too much tea. He often tells me, it is better to drink less tea than more tea, and to drink no tea than little tea. There are a few good teas, and many bad ones. If tea is good, it is habit-forming, and too much tea-drinking will impair the principle element in the body and cause the blood and vital essences to be reduced, and cause stomach troubles, stones in the stomach, as well as paralysis, both the painful kind and the kind which is not painful. It will cause the small intestines to swell and be obstructed. People who have diarrhoea or vomit or stomach ache, or are thing and swallow-complexioned due to internal injury can often find that tea is the cause of it. But few people know this, and seldom blame tea for their illness. The ancients lived a long time, but nowadays people do not enjoy such longevity. That is because tea and wine are taken in too great quantities and do harm to the internal organs. Thos who like tea and wine always burst out laughing when they hear this argument, and say that it is not true. People say that tea is a greater purger of the impurities of the body, but are not aware of its hidden bad effect, which works slowly in the body."
Despite the abbreviated translation it was very enjoyable, a delightful read, and one I really look forward to reading all of someday....Continua