Imagine coming to a city like Nanjing when you have never seen a television or a car... Her heart is like a blank sheet of paper, ready to absorb whatever lands there. (p. 183)Miss Chopsticks, which tells the stories of three country sisters who go to Nanjing to find work, is based on the true stories of three young women -- not actually sisters, but Xinran (a successful journalist in China and now in Britain) felt that their stories ‘seem to speak for so many others’. (p.2) Set in the early years of the 21st century, Miss Chopsticks vividly illustrates the rise of commerce and the massive social changes that have resulted from economic reforms.
“.... girls are called chopsticks and boys are called roof-beams. They all say that girls are no good because chopsticks can’t support a roof ...” (p. 12)
The girls come from a family of six children, all female. “Their father had been so disappointed by his lack of sons that he had never given his children real names, and so they became known by the order in which they had been born.” (p. 6). Three, the first to flee the village due to the imminence of an arranged marriage, goes to work in the ‘Happy Fool’ restaurant, where her skill in arranging and displaying fresh produce makes the place very popular. Five, who is illiterate and naive, finds work in the Water Dragon’s Palace, a therapeutic spa which uses traditional Chinese medicine and state-of-the-art plumbing to attract a wealthy clientele. Six, who was the only girl in the village to finish middle school, ends up working in the Book Taster’s Teahouse, where she is surrounded by books and has the opportunity to meet foreigners and improve her English.
Each of the girls experiences considerable culture shock. City life is utterly unlike anything they could have imagined, and each must change her way of thinking, her behaviour and her dreams to fit with what she finds. ‘Stone-hearted’ Three falls in love; ‘stupid’ Five reveals a talent for engineering; ‘too-clever’ Six learns a great deal about the world, and about China’s place in it, and becomes rather cynical.
Reading Miss Chopsticks felt like opening a window onto a society with very different rules, mores, goals. Xinran’s Nanjing is more alien than many SF settings I’ve read. This impression is heightened by the girls’ culture shock as they encounter city ways. “‘In many ways,’” Six’s employer tells her, “‘people in the countryside are living in a different century from those in the city, and it will take them many years to catch up.’ She did not feel able to tell Six that in her view the Chinese countryside was as much as five hundred years behind the city.” (p. 86)
The translator, Esther Tyldesley, explains in a foreword some of the difficulties of translating Chinese to English: the prevalence of puns and classical references in Chinese prose, the huge variation of dialects, the densely-layered sense of history and culture. There’s often a sense that a line of dialogue is funnier in the original Chinese: there are also passages which expand upon idiosyncrasies of language and dialect. (Five is bemused by a northern girl who uses different words for ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘her’.)
Xinran provides an afterword in which she recounts her attempts to track down the girls whose stories she’d borrowed. Contacting anyone in modern China (where cellphones and email are only for the rich, the Westernised, the politically adept) isn’t easy. Eventually Xinran discovered that the ‘Happy Fool’ restaurant had closed, and that the Book Taster’s Teahouse had been shut down for distributing ‘banned books’. The girl whose story inspired Three ended up in an arranged marriage after all. ‘Six’ could not be traced. The girl encoded as ‘Five’, though, had had more success: she’d been sent on an advanced training course, despite her illiteracy.
I’m sobered by the girls’ acceptance of their feminine inconsequentiality: I’m heartened by their sheer determination and refusal to give up hope. And I’m appalled that millions of women are still enduring the layers of oppression and discrimination described here.