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The Girl from Purple Mountain



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About The Authors

By May-lee Chai and Winberg Chai

Winberg Chai was born in Shanghai. He received his Ph.D. from New York University, and later became the first Asian American vice president of a state university. The author of more than twenty books on China, he is currently a political science professor at the University... More

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Reading Group Gold

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."


1. The book provides a portrait of Chinese family life as it evolves in China and America, during war and peace, over more than a century. What are some of these changes? What adaptations does the Chai family make after moving to America?
2. How are the changes in women’s roles over time reflected in the book—beginning with Ruth Meien’s mother’s story and ending with May-lee?
3. Why do the authors relate the story of how Ruth Mei-en’s mother had her feet bound andunbound?
4. How is Ruth Mei-en’s decision to be buried alone connected to her personality as manifested throughout her life?
5. What is the role religion plays in Ruth Mei-en’s life? Did this role remain static or change over time?
6. Based on the Chai family’s experiences in family conflicts and in war and peace, which do you feel is more important in shaping people’s lives: our capacity to make decisions or historical circumstances? Or both?
7. Although this story takes place largely in China during WWII, do the issues of survival, family, remembering and forgetting the past remind you of other ethnic groups’ experiences? What about your own family’s history?
8. What kind of man is Ruth Mei-en’s husband? How does his character come through in the narrative? How would the story have been different if the authors had chosen to put Charles Chu Chai at the center instead of Ruth Mei-en?
9. Ruth Mei-en never forgave her brother-in-law Huan because of a number of things he did during the war. Is her intense anger justified in your view? Does her anger in itself pose a threat to the family?
10. Ruth Mei-en is quoted as saying that she could have withstood all the hardships of war without complaint but really family problems were the worst thing on earth. Why do you think she found the family conflicts harder to bear than the problems brought on by the wars?
11. Winberg describes his own reluctance to talk about the past because of the trauma his memories caused him, yet May-lee expresses her need to know and understand her family. Are there similar issues of forgetting v. remembering in your own family regarding its past and how do you feel about exploring this past?
12. How did the two narrative voices—Winberg’s and May-lee’s—differ in telling Ruth Mei-en’s story? How did generational, gender and cultural differences affect how the narrators viewed Ruth Mei-en? Do their views change over time?
13. Are there any lessons women of today could take away from Ruth Mei-en’s life story?

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