Miss Chopsticks / Xinran; translated by Esther Tyldesley.
London: Vintage, 2008, c2007.
Another book I just happened to pick up because it came across my desk and looked intriguing. This book is unfortunately not much considered as a novel; it really reads more straightforwardly as non-fiction with some novelistic techniques tossed in. That said, it was still a fascinating read. The Li sisters, six of them, live in rural China -- which is why there are six of them. They are told by their father: "women are like chopsticks: utilitarian and easily broken. Men, on the other hand, are the strong rafters that hold up the roof of a house." The sisters are not valuable enough to even have names, they are called One, Two, Three, Four, Five and Six.
I enjoyed this book because of Xinran's obvious experience talking to peasant girls in China, those who have made their way to cities and as she says, moved from medieval peasant life to modern urban living in just those few miles. Women's shifting places in the culture are shown on many societal levels. Sister Three is the brave one; all the sisters have internalized the view of their mother's worthlessness as a woman unable to bear a son. The oldest daughter has been married off, Two killed herself to avoid a marriage, and now it is Three's turn. She takes advantage of a visit from her uncle to flee the village with him back to the city of Nanjing. There she finds work in a restaurant due to her special talent of arranging vegetables attractively. She works and accustoms herself to city life, until her visit home the following year. At that point she convinces sisters Five and Six to leave with her (poor sister Four is deaf and dumb and stays home to care for their parents). Five finds work at a Water Culture Centre (a spa of sorts) and Six lucks in to the best job of all, in my opinion. Because Six loves books and wants to continue her education, she attracts the attention of the owner of a teashop for bookworms. It's a new business, just opening, run by a cultured couple who are relatively well off, but even so, as their sole waitress Six lives in the closet sized third room of their flat. The description of the teashop is lovely; dark wood tables, shelves of books, tea sets on display and so forth. Six is allowed to read even the dangerous books not on the approved governmental list; those ones they keep in the back. The son of the family is living with a British girl, Ruth, in the suburbs of town, which shocks Six at first. But she soon finds herself befriended by the many Westerners trying to learn Chinese, allowing her to learn English.
Through many ups and downs the sisters adjust to their new lives, spending their one day off a week together. They carefully save their money so that when they all go home again to celebrate the Spring Festival, they can go bearing gifts and packets of money for their parents. In this way they finally receive what they've been longing for: recognition from their father that perhaps his girls can hold up the roof after all.
While this summary is a bit perfunctory, the book is full of tidbits about life in Nanjing (I enjoyed reading about 'stinky tofu') and about the different kinds of people found in the city. There are many details about the sisters' jobs and the differences between urban and rural expectations of morality and social strictures. The translation is great, and if you have any interest at all in China or modernization and how it affects women's lives you may enjoy this one as well.