Op­pressed sis­ters rise to­gether

Miss Chop­sticks By Xin­ran Xue Chatto and Win­dus, 254pp, $ 32.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Anne Susskind

SIS­TERS Three, Five and Six don’t have proper names be­cause they don’t merit them. They’re peas­ant girls and, like chop­sticks, are there to be used and are eas­ily bro­ken. Boys, on the other hand, are rafters that hold up the roof of the house: in­dis­pens­able.

So goes the Chi­nese lore be­hind Miss Chop­sticks, by Xin­ran Xue, au­thor of the best­selling The Good Women of China.

That Xin­ran is a jour­nal­ist — she’s a colum­nist for Lon­don’s The Guardian — is clear. She has taken the sto­ries as told to her of three un­re­lated young women and wo­ven them into sis­ters, chang­ing de­tails to pro­tect their iden­ti­ties. The un­der­pin­ning is one of faith­ful record­ing. It’s a tough read, a bit like read­ing Dick­ens or Zola. In the midst of mod­erni­sa­tion, when ev­ery­one in the city who pos­si­bly can is climb­ing on the cap­i­tal­ist band­wagon, life for rural peo­ple is bit­ter and pinched.

A fam­ily’s sav­ings for the year, one pre­cious 10 yuan note hid­den away, is chewed by rats; there’s a girl of 15 with no trousers to wear, al­though the au­tumn winds have be­gun to blow; and chil­dren wail for a piece of sweet potato.

‘‘ Five re­mem­bers the first time her fa­ther’s fist had struck her head. ‘ You’ve done no work,’ he shouted, ‘ How can you eat?’ ’’ She was four.

Life has been so hard for the girls of this fam­ily that they have never bought any­thing just for the sake of it, just to look pretty. They don’t know what a joke is. Five, who is il­lit­er­ate and per­haps a bit sim­ple, has it hard­est, but all three girls have had it drummed into them that they are in­fe­rior and in­ca­pable.

It seems doomed to go on this way, but when Three makes her es­cape to Nan­jing to avoid an ar­ranged mar­riage, Five and Six fol­low.

Many women who come to work in China’s cities, says Xin­ran in an af­ter­word, were never cud­dled by their par­ents, have never touched a book, worn warm clothes or eaten their fill. More than 50 per cent of Chi­nese chil­dren live in poverty. It’s not all sweet­ness and light in the city ei­ther. A tan­gle of mad bu­reau­cratic rules still en­velops ev­ery­one and peo­ple are con­stantly be­lit­tling each other. Men be­rate women, bosses be­rate their em­ploy­ees and strangers spew out streams of in­vec­tive, long mono­logues of bile.

An old lady slowly cross­ing the road is trans­formed into a shout­ing shrew when she is prod­ded on by a lit­tle toot: ‘‘ Im­pa­tient, are we? Think this old lady’s too slow? Go on and drive on the main road if you’re such a big shot. I’ve seen your sort be­fore. Run­ning around with young girls and si­phon­ing off money for your dirty prac­tices.’’ And on she goes, as a crowd gath­ers and the driver cow­ers.

Xin­ran por­trays vividly the girls’ con­fu­sion as they come to grips with new things such as cars, mo­bile phones, city man­ners and sex­ual mores. For­tu­nately, there’s kind­ness along the way, and they are in­dus­tri­ous and do well, to the ex­tent that they are able to send money home.

When their long- suf­fer­ing mother — who in 20 years of mar­riage has never heard her hus­band ac­knowl­edge that she owns any­thing — re­ceives a gift from her chop­stick girls, she tries to pass it to him and her fin­gers trem­ble when she un­wraps it. It’s a red bro­cade jacket, a per­fect fit, picked out by the il­lit­er­ate Five af­ter many hours gaz­ing in store win­dows at man­nequins and puz­zling out her mother’s ex­act shape by po­litely ask­ing ev­ery­one she meets their dress size and mea­sure­ments.

Xin­ran is ob­vi­ously a good lis­tener and has cap­tured the three girls’ par­al­lel sto­ries, per­son­al­i­ties and idio­syn­cra­sies. De­spite a slow start, her nar­ra­tive gath­ers pace, and one re­ally does start to care what hap­pens to Three, Five and Six. She’s a dry, un­der­stated writer, but the depth of emo­tion is there, and the sis­ters’ hard­ships, and tri­umphs, brought a prickle of tears to my eyes more than once.

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