By Kwei-li

Adapted and with a foreword by Eileen Goudge

Illustrated by Zhang Qing

Viking. 181 pp. $17.95

When her editor mentioned that she was looking for a book on life in China, Eileen Goudge remembered reading a book of letters, "My Lady of the Chinese Courtyard," published in 1914, written or purportedly written by Kwei-li, a Chinese noblewoman, and translated or purportedly translated by Elizabeth Cooper, an American missionary. Although Goudge obviously wanted to believe in the authenticity of the letters, Cooper, contrary to the information on Goudge's title page, never claims to have "translated" the letters, only to have "based" them on letters shown to her. They are "conceived to be written by Kwei-li," she says.

Still, Goudge's book, a slightly edited version renamed "Golden Lilies," beautifully illustrated and presented in a handsome format, seems to be what her editor wanted: a story of life in China at the turn of the century as seen through the eyes of a "real" Chinese lady. The book is divided into two parts. In Part 1 Kwei-li, a young bride, writes fervent love letters to her absent husband that include descriptions of medical practices, religious observances, festivals, family traditions, superstitions, and wedding and funeral rites.

But why, one asks, is she telling her husband this? "Do you remember?" she writes as she recounts a well-known folk tale. As interested as one may be in the subject matter, who can believe that this is Kwei-li speaking and not Elizabeth Cooper with an eye on her American audience? Who can believe that a "real" Chinese lady imbued with a traditional reverence for feminine modesty would write in such an overblown, sentimental style? And who cannot suspect that it is Elizabeth Cooper who slips the New Testament into Kwei-li's hands at the most propitious moment?

Part 2 takes place 25 years later. The year is 1912; Kwei-li's husband (presented only by his family name, Liu) has been made governor of Jiangsu province, and the family is living in Shanghai in what Kwei-Li calls an ugly, foreign house -- square, cold and unfriendly. Suddenly in this international city she is thrust into the midst of the conflict of cultures that is still tearing China apart today. Kwei-li represents Old China, resisting the outside world, fearful that her children will be corrupted by it. Her daughter wants to be a doctor, one son wants to study abroad, and another wants to select his own wife.

In one emotional outburst after another, Kwei-li pours out her heart in letters to her mother-in-law. "If I were China's ruler," she writes, "and for one day had power, there would not be one white man left in the borders of my country." "The introduction of free thought and private opinion has produced in China an upheaval in men's minds." For a lady who is upholding traditional values, she is strangely outspoken. "I have written you a sermon," she observes in one letter, and indeed her mother-in-law must have been surprised.

Yet there is no doubt that Elizabeth Cooper understood China and would understand it today. She would recognize the same fear of foreign corruption that many Chinese have now, certainly the hard-line octogenarian leaders. "Poor China!" Kwei-li writes. "She is first clubbed on the head and then stroked on the back by these foreigners." Perhaps in our current, shaky relationship with China, we need a voice from the past to remind us of China's long humiliation at the hand of foreigners.

But is this Kwei-li's voice? Was there a real Kwei-li? Goudge is ambivalent. Reluctantly she admits in her foreword that this book may be a fictional memoir, but at the same time she tries to verify it and calls it a "translation." When Cooper establishes that Kwei-li's husband was appointed governor by President Yuan Shih Kai, she sounds as if she is talking history. She speaks as if she knew Kwei-li. The letters, however, raise so many questions that we need to ask: Was there a real Governor Liu? According to a registry of republican officials (Minguo Zhi Guan Biau), the governor of Jiangsu at that time was not named Liu, nor was there any high official of that name. So of course Kwei-li's son, Ting-fang Liu, cannot have been the same man whom Eileen Goudge found listed in the "Directory of Contemporary Chinese Who's Who" and whom she cites in her foreword. In any case, the two Ting-fangs were not in the same place at the same time.

Cooper wrote many books of fiction, including three others on women -- in Japan, Egypt, India. It is a pity, however, that she cast this one in the form of letters. Her own Western candor and didacticism continually get in her way. As for Goudge, a best-selling author in her own right, she would have done well to ask more questions.

The reviewer, who was brought up in China, has written three books about it, including "Homesick," the story of her childhood.