Book Review: Miss Chopsticks by Xinran, tr. Esther Tyldesley

miss chopsticksXinran takes her readers to the heart of modern Chinese society in this delightful and absorbing tale of three peasant girls getting to grips with life in the big city.

The Li sisters don’t have much education, but one thing has been drummed into them: their mother is a failure because she hasn’t managed to produce a son, and they themselves only merit a number as a name. Women, their father tells them, are like chopsticks: utilitarian and easily broken. Men, on the other hand, are the strong rafters that hold up the roof of a house.

Yet when circumstances lead the sisters to seek work in distant Nanjing, the shocking new urban environment opens their eyes. While Three contributes to the success of a small restaurant, Five and Six learn new talents at a health spa and a bookshop/tearoom. And when the money they earn starts arriving back at the village, their father is forced to recognize that daughters are not so dispensable after all.

As the Li sisters discover Nanjing, so do we: its past, its customs and culture, and its future as a place where people can change their lives.

Received as a Christmas present from my bookgroup.

The story starts in 2001, and tells of three sisters (Three, Five and Six), who travel from the countryside to make their way in the big city of Nanjing.  Since their parents never had boys – despite flaunting the “one child” rule – the girls have brought shame on their family, and they only warrant being given their birth order as names. The first two children have either committed suicide or been married off, and Four is deaf and dumb, so it is Three, Five and Six who go to the city. Each girl ends up getting a job that turns out to be suited to her skills – Three works in a restaurant, Five in a spa and Six in a tea house. Each learn a level of independence, as well as gaining self respect from being in the city and earning their own way.

We are presented with a modern China, not long out of the Cultural Revolution and where external investments are taking place, not all for the better. Recent history has been wiped out by Mao’s diktats on the destruction of photos, records etc., as being anti-party, anti-Chinese sentiment.  The restaurant that Three works in has to contend with the KFC next door, and a McDonald’s near by. The street they are on used to be a red light district but has been cleared out and is now renamed in respect for the party.

In the countryside, women are described as “Chopsticks” as they are seen to be easily breakable and not reliable to support a household. However, attitudes start to change when the girls go home and bring with them the money the money they have earned in the previous year.

All three girls also look at how their mother has been treated by her husband and the community and swear that this will never happen to them. Their mother has quashed her own dreams, married the man her parents told her too, and then never produced the much desired boy-child.  She has therefore brought much shame to her husband, her family and the wider community.

Despite the apparent relaxation of rules, even in the city some things are slow to change. The corruption and bureaucracy are there; for example the tea-house gets visited by the neighbourhood committee who are miffed at the lack of a “proper” opening ceremony and that they apparently haven’t been  consulted on whether the tea-shop should be allowed to open in the first place. There are also visits from men in suits until the son of the owners makes a stand and challenges them for their own anti-party behaviour. It goes some way to demonstrate how city people react to authority differently to the country people, and how the young react differently to the previous generations.

Written initially in Chinese and translated by Esther Tyldesley, there is an introduction that highlights how hard it is to translate such a book for audiences who dont know much of what it’s like to live in such a secretive place as China without coming over heavy handed. Thankfully it’s done with a light touch, which some may think as lacking a certain complexity, but  I find it all the nicer to read for that.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Miss Chopsticks by Xinran, tr. Esther Tyldesley

    • I’ve read another one of her books, which is called “Sky Burial” and it’s about the Tibetian tradition of leaving their dead out on the holy mountains for the body to return to nature (via the birds and the sky). Both are well worth a read

      Liked by 1 person

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