Book Club Questions

Since the publication of The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, I’ve visited book clubs throughout California and across Amsterdam, too. I’ve started to notice a pattern in the questions a book club will ask. I thought I’d share them with you, though you’ll have to come up with your own answers.


discuss history
Image source:

Do you see Anyi as a metaphor for China at war? The Japanese occupied the Chinese sections of Shanghai in the summer of 1937 and the rest of Shanghai after Pearl Harbor. Do you agree with Xi Jinping that the 2nd Sino-Japanese War should be pre-dated to 1931?

Why is Anyi xenophobic? Discuss the Unequal Treaties and the treaty port system that transformed Shanghai from a sleepy fishing village into a world-class metropolis. Did you know that French law applied to crimes committed inside the French Concession? And how easy it was to escape prosecution? As Frederic Wakeman notes in Policing Shanghai:

All that a criminal had to do was to step over the concession border to slip from sight before arrest was possible.

Discuss the pro’s and con’s of such a system.

violence against women

What is shame? To me, it’s Auntie Song who does the greatest harm to Anyi.

‘It’s time, Anyi. You need to marry before it’s too late.’
‘I don’t want to marry,’ I say, though even to me my voice sounds childish.

‘Your parents have spoiled you,’ Auntie says. ‘They’ve allowed you to have wild ideas. Women of our family marry. It’s the proper thing to do.’
‘What man would want to marry me now that I’ve been raped?’
Auntie Song slaps me across the face, first the right cheek then the left.
‘Never use that word again,’ she hisses. ‘No one must know. No one needs to know. It never happened, you see, because you’re a good girl from a good family. Something like that doesn’t happen to people like us.’ 

Discuss the relationship between shame as a response to rape and self-harm as a reaction to shame.

How could Auntie Wen, herself a victim of rape, choose to exploit other women like Anyi for monetary gain? Discuss violence by women against women.

life in shanghai

discuss life in Shanghai
Shanghai Lady poster. Image source: Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center

What is Beauregard doing in Shanghai? His friendship with Anyi is one of the bright spots in this novel. Imagine what life in Shanghai must have been like for a black man from the American South.

Do you see Cho as a hero or an anti-hero? The anti-hero is a central figure in noir fiction. He’s often portrayed as a flawed human being, as morally corrupt as the society in which he lives. Does the blame for Cho’s weaknesses lie with him or his environment?

The novel is designed to give the reader an upstairs-downstairs insight into Shanghai. There are the domestic servants Nian and Blossom as well as the “petty bourgeois” like Auntie Wen and Manager Lin. What do these characters tell you about life in 1930s Shanghai?

Do you understand the relationship between Anyi and her brother Kang? The Chinese are not known for their emotional expression. Kang is as repressed as his sister, perhaps even more so due to his burden as eldest son. Discuss how the parent-child relationship molded Kang and Anyi.

the shanghai quartet

pretty dancers
Ballroom Dancing Girl Manager. Illustrated by He Youzhi. From Old Shanghai calendar 2011

If you could become any character in this book, who would you choose? Why?

The Dancing Girl and the Turtle is the first volume of The Shanghai Quartet. The other 3 volumes will move backwards (1929) and forwards (1954) in time. Each volume will star a different character featured in The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. Which character would you like to know better and why?


Take these questions to your own book club when you discuss The Dancing  Girl and the Turtle. Or use them to reflect on your own. Then tell me what your answers are! You can contact me here.