One of our recommended books is Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang


A dazzling debut novel set against the backdrop of the Chinese Exclusion Act, about a Chinese girl fighting to claim her place in the 1880s American West

Daiyu never wanted to be like the tragic heroine for whom she was named, revered for her beauty and cursed with heartbreak. But when she is kidnapped and smuggled across an ocean from China to America, Daiyu must relinquish the home and future she imagined for herself. Over the years that follow, she is forced to keep reinventing herself to survive. From a calligraphy school, to a San Francisco brothel, to a shop tucked into the Idaho mountains,

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A dazzling debut novel set against the backdrop of the Chinese Exclusion Act, about a Chinese girl fighting to claim her place in the 1880s American West

Daiyu never wanted to be like the tragic heroine for whom she was named, revered for her beauty and cursed with heartbreak. But when she is kidnapped and smuggled across an ocean from China to America, Daiyu must relinquish the home and future she imagined for herself. Over the years that follow, she is forced to keep reinventing herself to survive. From a calligraphy school, to a San Francisco brothel, to a shop tucked into the Idaho mountains, we follow Daiyu on a desperate quest to outrun the tragedy that chases her. As anti-Chinese sentiment sweeps across the country in a wave of unimaginable violence, Daiyu must draw on each of the selves she has been—including the ones she most wants to leave behind—in order to finally claim her own name and story.

At once a literary tour de force and a groundbreaking work of historical fiction, Four Treasures of the Sky announces Jenny Tinghui Zhang as an indelible new voice. Steeped in untold history and Chinese folklore, this novel is a spellbinding feat.

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  • Flatiron Books
  • Paperback
  • April 2023
  • 336 Pages
  • 9781250811806

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About Jenny Tinghui Zhang

Jenny Tinghui Zhang is the author of Four Treasures of the SkyJenny Tinghui Zhang is a Chinese-American writer. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Apogee, Ninth Letter, Passages North, The Rumpus, HuffPost, The Cut, Catapult, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of Wyoming and has received support from Kundiman, Tin House, and VONA/Voices. She was born in Changchun, China and grew up in Austin, Texas, where she currently lives. Four Treasures of the Sky is her debut.

Author Website


New York Times Notable Book
New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice
Longlisted for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction
A Goodreads Choice Award Nominee

A Good Morning America Book Club Buzz Pick
An IndieNext Pick
A Best Book of the Year (The New York Times, TODAY, BookRiot, SheReads, Paste Magazine, Library Journal, Shelf Awareness)

“Zhang’s blend of history and magical realism will appeal to fans of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer as well as Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement.”Booklist (starred review)

“Engrossing…Epic…Zhang’s descriptive prose is an arresting combination of earthy and lyric…The resonance and immediacy of these barbarous 19th-century events are testament to Zhang’s storytelling powers, and should stand as a warning to all of us.” —Jennifer Egan, The New York Times Book Review (cover review)

“A surreal and sprawling story…Historical fiction that lays bare the human tragedy behind the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act.” —Ayesha Rascoe, NPR Morning Edition

“Zhang’s transporting story of perseverance in the face of shocking injustice resonates across cultures, and also feels sadly relevant to today’s world.” Washington Post

“The prides and prejudices of the Old West blaze to life in Zhang’s propulsive, fable-like novel…Zhang skillfully embellishes her novel with Chinese characters, suggesting that language is our most potent weapon against oppression.” —Oprah Daily

Discussion Questions

1. Daiyu grows up hating her name and namesake: “Lin Daiyu was weak. I would be nothing like her, I promised myself. I did not want to be melancholic or jealous or spiteful. And I would never let myself die of a broken heart.” What is Daiyu’s relationship to Lin Daiyu, and how does it change over the course of the novel? Do you agree with Daiyu’s assessment that Lin Daiyu “was no heroine”?

2. How do Daiyu’s relationships with her mother, father, and grandmother shape her? What do they teach her as a child? When Daiyu learns of her parents’ deaths, what impact does it have on her?

3. Master Wang describes calligraphy as “the monumental task of creating unity between the person you are and the person you could be.” How does Daiyu interpret his words? Why does calligraphy become so important to her? What role does it play in the story?

4. Throughout the novel, Daiyu must continue to reinvent herself to survive: “Since the beginning, being myself has led only to darkness. Instead, practice erasing and overturning and re-creating the self, until all I have to do is disappear.” What remains consistent for her throughout each reinvention, from Daiyu to Feng to Peony to Jacob? What does she lose along the way?

5. Before she is smuggled across the ocean in a coal bucket, Daiyu is forced to learn English. How does this new language compare to Chinese? What does it suggest to Daiyu about the worldview of the English speakers she will meet? Discuss, in particular, how love and time are differently described in English and Chinese.

6. At the brothel, Daiyu is immediately drawn to Swallow: “She was a character I could neither read nor write, her face shifting between day and night.” When Daiyu asks Swallow to escape with her, Swallow tells her, “For you, there was a you before this and there will be a you after this. For you, leaving is easy. Leaving is an escape. For me, it is the opposite.” What does she mean? Do you agree with Swallow’s view that she can do more good by staying at the brothel than by leaving? How does Daiyu’s understanding of and empathy for Swallow evolve over the course of the novel?

7. To survive at the brothel, Daiyu tries to become “whatever they want me to be . . . and perhaps that will be my greatest weapon.” What does she mean? How does that bear out in her relationship with Samuel?

8. When the gray-haired man sexually assaults Daiyu in Boise, how does she change? How does that experience continue to impact her for the rest of her life?

9. When Daiyu transforms herself into Jacob in Idaho, she reflects, “What does it mean to be a man? My experiences then told me everything: it was a matter of believing oneself invincible and strong, and owed everything.” How does her gender shape her life? What opportunities does she have as Feng and Jacob that she doesn’t have as Daiyu and Peony?

10. Discuss William’s and Nelson’s different approaches to resisting the racism and discrimination around them. When Nelson asks Daiyu to join their efforts, she tells him, “I came here against my will . . . This is not my country. These are not my people. This is not my problem.” Do you sympathize with Daiyu, or do you agree with Nelson that this is a selfish perspective?

11. Discuss Daiyu’s experience of racism in America: “My body is covered in the syllables of another language, the scroll of a kingdom that has existed long before they did and will continue existing long after they are gone. I am something they cannot fathom. I am something they fear. We all are.” How are she and the other Chinese in Idaho treated? What injustices do they face because of their race? How might this novel help us understand antiChinese racism today?

12. When she sees Nelson and Caroline embracing in the clearing, Daiyu feels shame: “I am nothing but a girl trapped inside a boy, a woman pretending to be a man. Love 愛, a giving up of self for another. But to do that, you must have a heart that is free to give itself away. I have nothing to give to Nelson, because nothing I have is true.” What does she mean? What is her relationship with Nelson? Do you believe they love each other, in their way?

13. When she finds out from William that Jasper has died, Daiyu asks, “What do I have to fear, now that the threat of Jasper is gone? Who is Daiyu without her villain? Who will I be now that I can be anything?” Do you agree that we often define ourselves against a villain? What role does Jasper play in Daiyu’s story?

14. Discuss this passage: “Is my life my own? Or have I always been destined for tragedy because of my name? My name. The characters that have haunted and plagued me since the beginning appear before me again, precious with their weight and familiarity. This thing that I have hidden, that I have changed and added to, this thing I have yearned for all along. I am the constellation of all the names within me, of every name I have ever inhabited. And this is the truth I see for the first time: I have only been able to survive because of my name. I ask myself again, Will I be the one holding the brush or will I be the one who is written?” What role do fate and free will play in this novel? How does Daiyu’s relationship to her name change over her life?

15. Daiyu’s parents taught her that her intentions and actions must always match. How do you interpret that lesson? Do you think Daiyu ultimately achieves, as she describes it, “the perfect line”?

16. As she is being hanged, Daiyu tells the men, “You will never forget me.” To us, she says, “My life was written for me from the moment the name was given to me. Or it was not. That is the true beauty. That is the intent. We can practice all we want, telling and retelling the same story, but the story that comes out of your mouth, from your brush, is one that only you can tell. So let it be. Let your story be yours, and my story be mine.” What does this passage mean to you? How might it shift our understanding of the entire novel that precedes it?

17. Discuss the novel’s epilogue, in which we see an old woman and another figure on a shoreline, both calling out the same name. How do you interpret this scene? Do you find it hopeful?




When I am kidnapped, it does not happen in an alleyway. It does not happen in the middle of the night. It does not happen when I am alone.

When I am kidnapped, I am thirteen and standing in the middle of the Zhifu fish market on Beach Road, watching a fleshy woman assemble whitefish the shape of spades into a pile. The woman squats, her knees in her armpits, rearranging the fish so the best ones rise to the top. Around us, a dozen fishmongers do the same, their own piles of fish suspended in nets, squirming. Below the nets are pails to catch the water sliding off fish bodies. The ground is glossy with water from the ones that are not yet dead. When they flail in the air, they gleam like silver firecrackers.

The whole place smells wet and raw.

Someone yells about red snapper. Fresh, they say. Straight from the Gulf of Pechili. Another voice tumbles over that one, louder, brighter. Real shark fin! Boost sexual potency, make skin better, increase energy for your little emperor!

This is poetry to the house servants who came to the fish market for their masters. Bodies surge in the direction of the shark fin voice, knocking and grinding for the promise of a promotion, of rank advancement, of favorability. It could all rest on the quality of shark fin.

While the others clamor, I remain staring at the fish woman, who continues to rearrange her pile. Her fish are not in a net like the others, but laid out on a tarp. At her shuffling, loose fish slide down from the top of the heap to the tarp’s edge, where they remain vulnerable and unattended.

Hunger presses against the walls of my stomach. It would be so easy to snatch one. In the time it takes for me to approach, grab the fish farthest from her, and sprint away, the woman would barely be able to rise to her feet. I finger the silver pieces in my pants before letting them fall back into the lining. This money should be saved, not wasted on some limp fish. I would just take one or two, nothing she could not make up the next day. The ocean holds plenty.

But by the time I decide, the fish woman has noticed me. She knows immediately who I am, sees the gnawing in my belly, an insistence that hollows all the things it touches. My body betrays me; it is as thin as a reed. She recognizes what she sees in all the urchins who dare slide into the fish market, and before I can look away, she is in front of me, body heaving.

What do you want?

Her eyes are narrowed. She flaps at me, hands the size of pans.

I duck one, then two blows. Away, away! she yells. Behind her, the whitefish wait in their pile, glistening. There is still time to grab a few and run away.

But the rest of the market has noticed us by now.

I saw that scamp here yesterday, someone shouts. Grab him and we will give him a good whipping!

The fishmongers nearby roar in agreement. They emerge from behind their fish and form a barricade around me and the woman. I have stayed too long, I think, as their shoulders lock against each other. There will be a lot to explain to Master Wang if I ever get home. If I am still allowed to stay at home.

Get him, someone else yells gleefully. The woman lunges forward, hands outstretched. Her gums are the color of rot. Behind her, the fishmongers’ faces fatten with anticipation. I close my eyes and brace.

But what I am expecting does not come. Instead, a pressure descends on my shoulder, warm and sure. I open my eyes. The woman is frozen, her arms outstretched. The fishmongers inhale together.

Where have you been, a voice says. It comes from above, the color of honey. I have been looking all over for you.

I raise my head. A slender man with a large forehead and a pointed chin smiles down at me. He is young, but he carries himself with the weight of someone older. I have heard tales of immortals who descend from the sky, of dragons that turn into wardens who turn into human forms. Of those who protect people like me.

The man winks at me.

You know this scoundrel? the fish woman pants. Her arms now hang at her sides, red and splotched.

Scoundrel? The man laughs. This is no scoundrel. This is my nephew.

The fishmongers around us groan and begin to disperse, returning to their unmanned fish. There would be no excitement today. Red snapper, red snapper, the first voice offers again.

But the fish woman does not believe the man. I can tell. She glares at him, then at me, daring me to look away. Something about the man’s hand on my shoulder, the calm heat of it, tells me that if I do, we will never leave this place. I continue to stare back at the fish woman, unblinking.

If you have a problem, the man continues, you can speak with my father, Master Eng.

And just like that, as if the man has spoken magic into the air, the fish woman looks away first. I blink one, two, three times, the backs of my eyelids raw.

I am so sorry, Brother Eng, she says, bowing. So dark in here, and the fish are making me light-headed. I will send Master Eng my best fish to make up for this terrible mistake.

We leave the market together, me and this tall winking stranger. He keeps his hand on my shoulder until we are both back on the street. It is midday, and the light from the sun casts everything into greens and gold. A merchant walks past us with a sow in tow, her teats swinging.

We are in the foreign business center of Zhifu’s Beach Road. Over the tile roofs and the British consulate, a rush of green fields swells toward faraway hills. The cotton roar of the beach is at our backs, the sea breeze one long exhale around us. The air here is rich with salt. Everything clings to me, and I to everything.

I have come because there is always something to be found here. In places where foreigners roam, I find silver pieces, embroidered handkerchiefs, dropped gloves. The frivolous things with which Westerners garnish their bodies. Today brought two pieces of silver. They jingle in my pocket next to the four pieces I earned from Master Wang. Today, I could call myself wealthy.

In the daylight, I inspect my strange winking man. He feels rich, but he is not dressed like the other rich men I have seen. Instead of a silk chang shan, he wears a white shirt with a shiny fabric dangling from his neck. His black jacket is heavy and open, instead of buttoned to the neck, and his pants are tight. Most odd of all is his hair—not braided into a queue but shorn and cropped close to his head.

What do you think, little nephew? my savior says, still smiling.

I am a girl, I blurt out. I cannot help myself.

He laughs. The sunlight reflects two yellow teeth. I think of tales where men have yellow teeth, how those teeth grew from pieces of gold. That I knew, he says, but being a boy worked out better for us both, in this case.

He scans me, eyes bright with intent. Are you hungry? Are you here alone? Where is your family?

I tell him, Yes, I am starving. I am eager for him to show me his mercy. There are things I want to ask him, too, like, Who are you? Where did you come from? Who is Master Eng, and why did the fish woman back away so suddenly when you said his name?

Let me tell you all about it, he says, placing his hand back on my shoulder. He suggests noodles—there is a good shop just down the street.

Something tells me that this invitation is not one to be taken lightly. I nod and offer him a shy smile. This is answer enough. He steers me farther away from the fish market and we stroll down the street together, passing the post office, three more foreign consulates, and a church. Passersby stare at us before returning to themselves, momentarily stunned by this odd father-and-son duo, one dressed like a character from the theater, the other wan and skittish. Behind us, the ocean froths.

With every noodle shop we pass I ask my savior, Is it this one? With every noodle shop we pass he says, No, little nephew, not quite yet. We keep walking until I do not know where we are anymore, and by the time we are done walking, I understand that we will never arrive at the noodle shop.

It is the first day of spring.