This book is one where I fell prey to a beautiful spine and then the gorgeous cover immediately after plucking it from the shelves. I am glad I picked it up as it expanded several horizons I didn’t even know existed.
The Crystal Ribbon takes place in medieval China and follows the story of 11-year-old Jing. She has a difficult life, in her small village of Huanan, where she is picked on by the local children for the similarity her name shares with the towns deity, the Great Huli Jing. Because her family is incredibly poor, when a wealthy family offers to buy her to be the daughter-in-law/nursemaid to their young son, her family jumps at the opportunity. Jing is against this marriage, but her cruel aunt forces her to do it anyway and her father fails to stand against his sister. Jing is sent to live with the new family where she is treated even worse than before. Despite this, Jing promises to return home and the story follows her journey to finding herself and her way back to Huanan.
I enjoyed The Crystal Ribbon a lot. Jing was a strong, female lead who stood on her own two feet throughout the story, never acting or being treated as a damsel in distress. I rarely come across novels that focus on women or young girls going on journeys to find themselves, and I loved the book for this. Jing goes through a lot of hardship, but it doesn’t make her cruel, it doesn’t harden her soul, it simply steels her will. I genuinely loved seeing this in a story. Too often, women who have struggled are shown to become vicious and that isn’t always the case. So, that was a refreshing component of the story.
I also loved how much I learned about Chinese culture from the story. Initially, I was confused by the Chinese mystical creatures, jings, because they weren’t immediately explained with great depth, but I found their role in the story compelling. These creatures play an important role in the book as they provide companionship and support to Jing during her journey. Previously, I was not aware these spirits existed or what role they played in medieval Chinese culture so this was really interesting to read.
Another shocking discovery was what tong-yang-xi was. Several of the reviews I read that disliked the book argued they were uncomfortable with the level of negativity and violence, both physical and emotional, Jing experienced. While I can understand that this may be difficult to read, it would be poor form for authors to write only about positive things. Lim wrote an honest and well-researched novel. The reality is that many young girls would experience this kind of harsh treatment from family. Tong yang xi was a very real practice in Chinese history, and not writing about it because it is difficult to read would be wrong.
Reading about Jing experiencing this was appalling, but it made me want to learn more about tong yang xi. Though I trusted Lim’s research and account of Jing’s experiences (though fictional, they are based in truth), I wanted to find out more from a non-fiction source. Indeed, I found the practice continued even into the twentieth century despite the creation of marriage laws in China, though it occurred in rural areas where it is much more difficult to police.
I think people downrating the story because they don’t like this reality is unfortunate and a little ridiculous. Though I don’t agree with the practice, I’m glad Lim brought it to light in The Crystal Ribbon. I had no idea this occurred and I’m sure I am not the only one who was shocked to learn this.
However, I do have negatives about the story as well. For this book being rated as middle grade, it seemed to have more adult themes that make me wary giving it to a younger audience. If you were to have a child read this book, I would only recommend it to kids with a maturity level greater than that of their age.
Additionally, I felt for Jing being 11, she spoke with a vocabulary beyond the knowledge and education of a child her age and wealth. This did take me out of the story a little but not enough to have a significant impact on my reading pace. Moreover, when it came to Jing’s age I had a difficult time keeping track of her aging. She started out at 11 and then suddenly she was 13 a few pages later. The progression of time was confusing and difficult to keep up with.
Overall, for a debut novel, I think the plot was well -executed, -researched, and -written. I am looking forward to reading another novel by Celeste Lim.
TL;DR The Crystal Ribbon featured a strong, female lead who goes on a journey to find herself and return home. Some of the subject material may be too mature for a middle grade audience despite being rated to them. 4/5 stars.