Oppressed sisters rise together
Miss Chopsticks By Xinran Xue Chatto and Windus, 254pp, $ 32.95
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.