ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Book Review: Our Lady of Kaifeng Part 1

Updated on April 25, 2016
Book reviews are a good way to share our thoughts about a particular novel, such as Our Lady of Kaifeng.
Book reviews are a good way to share our thoughts about a particular novel, such as Our Lady of Kaifeng.

The novel Our Lady of Kaifeng is by Aya Katz and opens in the China of 1940. The main character in the story is Marah Fallowfield, an American who is teaching English courses at a school called Precious Blossoms. She taught previously at a Methodist School in China, and some of the nuns at Precious Blossoms are skeptical as to why she has decided to teach at a Catholic school, which she says she was drawn to because of its good reputation. Sesame is her former classmate from Rice Institute, and he also just happens to be teaching Latin courses at Precious Blossoms. Later we find out when Sister John of Ghent visits Marah’s room that she has a reproduction of a picture she has painted of Sesame, along with others of Joan of Arc and Bonnie and Clyde on her nightstand, which are all icons of sorts for her. What has drawn Marah to Precious Blossoms, and does it have anything to do with Sesame? I was intrigued to figure out the answers to various questions that popped up in my mind during the first several chapter of the novel.

Marah position as outsider in Kaifeng inspires her pupil Lotus to confide in her that she has a baby girl, and that she only married her husband because he could send her to school. So even though this story takes during the onset of World War II and the characters have to deal some very harrowing issues, such as considering what being American might mean in a China that is occupied by the Japanese, this does not seem very pressing at the moment. Marah does not seem to fixated on the Japanese occupation of China, as she points out the Americans and Europeans have been occupying China for years, and Kaifeng itself seems to be at peace for the moment. Not sure I would feel as at ease about the prospects of teaching in China at the beginning for World War II, but you have to admire Marah for not being scared about this.

Sometimes being an outsider means that you might not be accepted by the cultural mainstream, but it also means that as an outsider you can relate to people born into that culture who have never felt that they properly fit in there, such us how Lotus feels she can confide in Marah. Also, Marah’s other students such as Bella and Luna seem more interested in learning about Western culture than their own, and Marah even ends up giving them extra writing assignments outside of class. World War II may have been over seventy years ago, but people dealt with the same issues then that they are dealing with now. As much as life has changed over the years and centuries, many things remain the same.

Marah needs an apartment for her furniture and books, and at first no one seems to understand why she even has brought any to China. However, Father Horvath understands her needs because he has several apartments of his own for storing things. Father Horvath observes that Marah is Jewish , and suggests she might rent a room from a Kaifeng Jewish family, so he invites her to a special dinner to meet the family. Marah insists she is not a practicing Jew, and wonders about Father Horvath’s obsession with focusing on her ancestors shared faith with the Ai family. At first it appears the Ai family does not celebrate any the traditions of Jewish families such as Sukkoth, which is around the time of the harvest moon festival in China. Morah’s perceptions of the Ai family changes when she recognizes an Assyrian wall hanging in their house confirming that their ancestors were Jewish.

Marah discovers she can rent an apartment from the Ai family, but Father Horvath abruptly leaves the dinner party remembering he has to say mass. Marah is left to try to find her way home, and ends up staying out past curfew. Luckily, Sesame spots her nearly asking a Japanese MP for directions, and invites her to have dinner with him in his posh apartment, or upscale by early 1940’s Kaifeng standards anyway.

Sesame and Marah get into a philosophical debate about war, ethics, and religion over dinner, and you can tell they both enjoy sparring with each other. Why is reading this passage so much more enjoyable than reading on overly popularized book such as Fifty Shades of Grey? Perhaps it is because I prefer to read stories with a plot, depth, and interaction between the characters, even if I do not always agree with the actions and beliefs of each character. Sesame and Marah have an interesting debate about whether you should save a friend from himself, and you have to conclude with Marah you really cannot prevent someone from doing something they are probably going to do anyway. If you prefer to think and enjoy characters that have engrossing discussions about history, literature, poetry, religion, politics, then I highly recommend checking out the book Our Lady of Kaifeng. It will not disappoint. However, you will have to read the book to find out what happens to Marah, Sesame, Lotus, Bella, Luna, and of course the absented minded Father Horvath!

Also By Aya Katz

Movies Set In China With Similar Themes, And Other Thoughts About East Meets West

I never read the novel The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham, but I did watch the 2006 film adaption, which has certain elements that remind me of Our Lady of Kaifeng with both of these stories being set in China, and dealing with foreign missionary schools. For some reason I kept envisions the Catholic missionary school from the Painted Veil when reading the Lady of Kaifeng, although the schools most likely do not look much alike at all.

The Painted Veil is an entirely different kind of story about an English woman named Kitty who is approaches an age when her is soon to deem her an old maid, and she is tired of the criticisms her mom offers, when her sisters are always praised. However, Kitty is very much a selfish person because she is primarily interested in her own amusement, and simply marries the bacteriologist Walter because he asks, and it seems like moving to Shanghai might be fun. This was back in the 1920s when Shanghai was considered the Paris of the east, and Kitty is really only interested in her own diversions.

Walter is kind and a good husband, but Kitty finds him boring. Why did she marry him anyway? I could not help but think about Mary Fallowfield's admonishing Lotus for marrying someone she really did not want to marry, and she points out how people should only marry someone they truly "Admire. Adore. Respect. Worship". Not sure I would take it as far as worship, but you get the idea that Kitty did not exactly respect her husband, just as the character Lotus does not respect her husband entirely. However, the mistake Kitty makes is to think she can have an affair with a "more exciting man", and to actually believe he will leave his wife for her.

Kitty made her bed when she decided to marry Walter, and one day he comes home when she is cheating on him with another man. Rather than confront Kitty's lover with bravado, he decides to give his wife a proposition. She can either slink home with the shame of a divorce to her mother that already despises her, or she can join him as he goes to work in an isolated part of China that is experiencing a cholera epidemic.

Granted The Painted Veil is set in the 1920s, but it also discusses certain issues like the war lords feuding over territories they have staked claim to, and how Chiang Kai-shek was unable, and eventually unwilling to unite all of China, which will led to its fall to Communist rule in 1949. Our Lady of Kaifeng does not explore this phenomenon as much because it is about the war years, but as Marah noted the Europeans and Americans have long been occupying parts of China, so what was the major difference when the Japanese came to Kaifeng? Chiang Kai-shek had actually gave up hope of unifying northern China by the late 1930s, and was not interested in sending aid to those Chinese cities anyway. China is a large and sprawling country that has long been feuded over, and the Japanese were simply the new occupiers at that moment in time.

The Painted Veil does not get into this later history of China either, but the gist you can get from reading Our Lady of Kaifeng, watching The Painted Veil, and reading other books about the early 20th century history of China is no one was able to unite the country until the Communist party took over, and even then people only swore allegiance to that government because they were afraid of what might happen if they or their relatives if they were deemed traitors to the regime. Just read Mao's Last Dancer to find out how Li Cunxin feared what would happen to his family after he defected to the US to dance for the Houston Ballet Company, and that was a late as the 1980s. Eventually, Li Cunxin learned his family was okay, but the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution did not set anyone's minds at ease.

So why were the Communist so successful at unifying China and taking it over in 1949? The 19th and early part of the 20th century of China was rife with foreign powers trying to usurp power in one way or another, and the traditional culture of China was deemed exotic, but always considered somewhat inferior to the cultural influences of the west. The sad part is we could have been learning from each of each others cultures, but westerners only wanted to have adventures, import exotic goods, or convert Chinese people to Christianity. Not many took an interest in the actual culture of China sans western influence.

Even missionaries are not blameless as the role of occupiers of sorts. In Our Lady of Kaifeng, Marah asks Sister John of Ghent why she wants to be a nun, and her explanation of because she wants to help people is not exactly satisfactory. What Walter said in The Painted Veil to Kitty when she is later enchanted by the sisters of the local school run by the nuns is actually quite fitting: "they want to make more Catholics". The book Our Lady of Kaifeng is not a cultural critique of the Catholic Church per se, but it does cross upon thoughts many of had before about how missionaries and expatriates coming to China really did not always have a sincere or helpful reason for doing so. In contrast, the 2006 rendition of The Painted Veil is very much a cultural critique of western imperialism, which is interesting to watch in juxtaposition to reading Our Lady of Kaifeng.

The idea that foreign missionary influence bordered on imperialistic is not a new one. Pearl S Buck's grew up in China as the child of missionaries, and she later had a lot to say in her books about the imperialistic influence missionaries had in this region in her novels. Why did missionaries want to come to China and convert people to Catholicism or Christian Protestant sects anyway? Did they help the people of China, or would it had been better if missionaries had not meddled at all?

What do we think about girls like Lotus, Bella, and Luna who are mesmerized with learning English and western culture as opposed to going to a school where they could learn more about their own traditions? I believe in learning of all kinds, but we are being continuously presented with how western culture is more romantic, superior, or important to that of China, which is part of the reason the Communist were so influential in winning power in 1949. They told their people they were against western influences always being supreme, and they claimed they actually wanted to promote Chinese culture, even though this turned out to be completely false as well. In reality, Mao and his henchmen wanted to promote an austere brand of Communist driven Chinese culture where everyone claimed to be brothers "sharing the wealth", while the peasants starved because they were forced to send all their food to the cities, and the Communist party leaders drove fancy western cars, wore expensive clothes, and even indulged in western movies that were forbidden for the rest of the population to see.

After the death of Mao, Deng Xiopeng wanted to open economic relations with the west, and multinational corporations jumped at the opportunity. Of course many people in China have wanted to learn English because at it gave them more opportunities to compete in the world economy, and it is interesting to ponder how people in China people are learning English in massive numbers, and this country now imports many goods to the west. It is almost as if the imperialist drive has flipped, and now China has a large amount of economic klout in influencing economic policies world wide. We now live in a world economy where products are made everywhere, and more than ever in China. In many ways China is becoming the supreme and leading world power at the moment.

It is imperative we know about each other's cultures and customs, but it is interesting how certain languages end up being the most valued ones economically, such as how the language English continues to have an influence in China long after western imperialism and missionaries left after World War II. Today China is transfixed by western media and movies, but what do most westerners really know about China? Westerners are still drawn the exotic in China, and Chinese are drawn to watching western movies and learning English. People are drawn to the unknown and what is deemed unknown, which is why many still want to travel to China today.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • prettydarkhorse profile image


      2 years ago from US

      Definitely a good book to read about how people are curious and interested in other culture. Touches about history, everyday living and how culture is shared.

    • SweetiePie profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Southern California, USA

      Thanks, Carol! I always appreciate your comments.

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 

      6 years ago from Arizona

      Good reviews and well written. Voted UP.

    • SweetiePie profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Southern California, USA

      Glad you enjoyed this hub, Mhatter99!

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      impressive, thank you...

    • SweetiePie profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Southern California, USA

      Hi Jackie,

      The first part of this hub was a summary and some of my observations about Our Lady of Kaifeng, and the second portion was the comparison of similarities I found between the book and the movie the Painted Veil. Whereas I do not take Our Lady of Kaifeng to be a cultural critique of western influence the way The Painted Veil is, Marah does make some observations about why exactly were missionaries in China anyway? The underlying theme I have taken away from this is missionaries were not that far removed from business titans and western political powers that thought they could exploit China for economic and political gain. Later the Japanese did the same thing during World War II, and after the war the Communist gained a foothold in the country because they rallied their people around foreign powers continually interceding. Today China has become so powerful, and to the point it has used western influence to its favor, such as the English language when it comes to business. Now it almost seems as if things are going the other way with the way China is controlling economic policies with the exports of products for this country. Ultimately it came down to the lust of those who thought China was and is an exotic place, and who believed they could profit from making and pushing products from there.

      I am seeing a lot of connections between all of these themes, and the one lesson I learned is we have become very much an interconnected world, and we might want to promote US and European made products a bit more unless we want more and more outsourcing. I am not against all products made in China, but what is irksome is that the Chinese people continue to be exploiting by various groups throughout history, and the latest ones are those who want to make a buck creating things under sweat shop like conditions.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      6 years ago from The Beautiful South

      This sounds so interesting and you have covered it thoroughly! I always love reading about great women. Voted up!


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)