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Beyond the Moongate by E. Quan

Quan, Elizabeth. Beyond the Moongate: True Stories of 1920s China. Toronto: Tundra Books, 2013. Print.

“Beyond the Moongate” is a reminiscence of two long-ago childhood years spent by the author as a young girl in her father’s hometown in inland China in the 1920s. This is probably an important book that has the potential to complicate history (i.e. make more interesting).  I use “probably” and “potential” because a young reader likely would not pick up on these themes. A keen reader willing to question and explore further, however, is rewarded with a deeper understanding not only of Chinese history but also of Canadian history and the discipline of history itself.

The “remote village in the south” is described as “not yet touched by technology” and many “pre-technology” examples are given such as brick stoves, wooden wash basins in the courtyard, oil lamps, “primitive machines,” and clothing “stitched entirely by hand.” This implies a contrast to more advanced technology elsewhere (if it was not unusual, why write about it?). Where was this “elsewhere”?  Was it Canada in 1920? If so, it might reflect the social class of the author’s family since one can imagine similarly “pre-technology” conditions in parts of Canada at the same time. Or, the “elsewhere” might have been other parts of China – cities like Hong Kong or Shanghai. Or, is the author comparing technological expectations in the 21st-century to remind readers it has not always been so? These options (and more) are potential topics for interesting historical research into the “facts” of when technology arrived in various areas (or didn’t) and what this says about development.

One could also explore the concept of “technology” itself.  China is often described as the origin of many technologies we take for granted (e.g. paper, gunpowder, ceramics) and each story in this book features various technologies such as fabric for blouses and pants; lumber for houses and furniture; the cultivation of a variety of food; writing with ink, brushes, and paper. The issue then is not so much having technology but the effects of the availability of new or relatively advanced technologies.

There are some rich social and cultural research possibilities, too. When they first arrive, the author’s father “kowtows” to his mother which makes her deeply happy. Kowtowing is fascinating because in English it has come to represent “groveling” or “giving in” (not deep respect) and has been the source of much diplomatic tension. Also, the author refers to the people of her ancestral land as the “Hans” which is not the whole story because there are various other “peoples” in China that mean deep discussions about Chinese identity even today.

The story hopefully makes one rethink the status of immigrants in Canada. It is often assumed that immigrants to North America came and stayed because they were poor, had escaped poverty or tyranny, and it was impossible to go home (until modern times of cheap airfare). It is sometimes acknowledged that many people (some Chinese and Japanese that I know for sure) dreamed of becoming rich and going home or, at least, having their remains sent home after death. The idea that a whole family could afford to go back to China (or any homeland) for years in the 1920s might seem unusual to some readers. There is, however, much evidence that people came and went quite regularly although the issue of not getting permission to enter Canada (even if your parents and family were allowed) sadly led (and probably still leads) to many heart-breaking stories.

The artwork that accompanies each story is brightly coloured and complements the text nicely giving visual representation of the written descriptions. I am curious whether it appeals to other readers because it has a feel (in the colours, lines, and facial expressions) that seems quite different than many other picture books. The author’s bio at the back highlights her watercolourist credentials and mentions a connection to Jack Pollack (not to be confused with Jackson Pollack).

I think this is an important book that could be enjoyed by young readers in grades 3-6 but could also be used with older students in high-school or even university to problematize (and thus look beyond) the seemingly simple and factual stories. In fact, such a discussion might start with the subtitle itself by unpacking what the concept of “true stories” might mean.

Recommended: 3 out of 4 stars
Reviewer: David Sulz

David is a Public Services Librarian at University of Alberta and liaison librarian to Economics, Religious Studies, and Social Work. He has university studies in Library Studies, History, Elementary Education, Japanese, and Economics;  he formerly taught in schools and museums. His interests include physical activity, music, home improvements, and above all, things Japanese.