Bi Feiyu's "Three Sisters," reviewed by Jonathan Yardley
By Bi Feiyu
Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 282 pp. $24
This engaging novel about the inhabitants of Wang Family Village doesn't pack a great deal of weight, but it should be useful and instructive for Western readers because it documents in palpably human terms the low value accorded the lives of women in China and the deep divide in that country between rural and urban areas. As China becomes ever more urbanized and its demand for skilled and semi-skilled workers becomes ever greater, more people will move from the country to the city, and tensions between the two cultures will become a significant problem for the Beijing government. "Three Sisters" suggests that solving it will not be easy.
Bi Feiyu, who is in his mid-40s, is well known in China as a novelist and screenwriter (for "Shanghai Triad") but considerably less so here, though his novel "The Moon Opera" was favorably received when it was published last year. He clearly has a strong, sympathetic interest in ordinary Chinese, women most particularly, and seems to have no inclination toward the autobiographical obsessions with which so many of his American counterparts are afflicted. His prose is straightforward (his translators, Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin, appear to do well by him), and his storytelling gifts are considerable.
The three sisters of his title are daughters of Wang Lianfang, the Communist Party secretary and eponymous chieftain of Wang Family Village. During the 1960s and '70s, long before the one-child-per-family edict, he sired seven daughters in his tireless (and, to his wife, no doubt tiresome) quest for a son, which he is finally granted as the novel opens. Wang is stubborn, self-absorbed, arbitrary and essentially insufferable. He is less a party official than a full-time Lothario, at one time or another bedding virtually every woman in the village:
"Having studied dialectics in the county town, Party Secretary Wang knew all about the relationship between internal and external factors, and the difference between an egg and a rock. He had his own irrational understanding of boy and girl babies. To him, women were external factors, like farmland, temperature, and soil condition, while a man's seed was the essential ingredient. Good seed produced boys; bad seed produced girls. Although he'd never admit it, when he looked at his seven daughters his self-esteem suffered."
The first of these daughters whose story Bi tells is Yumi, eldest of the seven and, in response to their exhausted mother's relinquishment of maternal and household duties, "more like a sister to her mother." She has an "understanding of the ways of the world" and a "level of shrewdness" remarkable in one still a minor, but: "Age among siblings often represents more than just the order of birth; it can also signal differences in the depth and breadth of life experience. Ultimately, maturity requires opportunity; the pace of growth does not rely on the progression of time alone."
Yumi rules the family with a firm hand, respected and admired by all, but she has a secret "belief that she was slated to have a brighter future than any of them." When "nothing came of it, her happiness seemed like a bamboo basket: Its holes were revealed when it was taken out of the water. At such times, strands of sadness would inevitably wrap themselves around her heart." Then the possibility arises of an arranged marriage to Peng Guoliang, whose name "means 'pillar of the state' . . . appropriate for an aviator." She cannot believe her good fortune in becoming affianced to a man with so exalted an occupation, and is put into a romantic daze when he asks her in a letter: "Are you willing to be with me, hand in hand, in my struggle against the imperialists, revisionists, and reactionaries?"
The villagers -- who in Bi's hands become something of a Greek chorus -- "had known that a girl like her would land a good husband, but an aviator went beyond their wildest predictions" and Yumi's wildest dreams. When at last she and Guoliang meet, sparks fly, but she refuses to give herself to him fully, believing that this must await marriage. Her decision has consequences that change her life dramatically, not exactly as she had hoped, but, characteristically, she makes the most of it. Her sister Yuxiu, by contrast, is rebellious and disobedient, "a little fox fairy, a seductive girl," qualities that eventually get her into trouble. She moves to the hamlet of Broken Bridge to be with Yumi, but the sisters are often at war. The course of events leaves Yuxiu with feelings common among Chinese women:
"Yuxiu suddenly had a clear picture of exactly who she was. As a female, her value had dropped to virtually nothing. This brutal fact made her sadder than any self-inflicted humiliation ever could. For her, the future held only despair and misery with no tears to shed. At that point she cocked her head and said to herself, Don't give it any more thought."
She is a country girl who has come to town and doesn't really know how to cope with the change. The same at first appears to be true of Yuyang, the subject of the book's third section. The seventh of the seven girls, "a necessary preparation for her parents' project of producing a baby boy . . . an extra, born to be disliked and shunned by her parents," she is "a country girl with little physical training." "Like most girls from the countryside, she was not endowed with any special talents; her grades were passable, but that was about it." Yet she wins admission to the teacher-training school in Beijing, "which had brought her many days of glory." Indeed, "the news had caused a sensation in Wang Family Village, where it made the rounds several times shortly after the old principal opened the admission letter."
Now she is in Beijing, struggling to find a place for herself in a school largely populated by chic, condescending city girls. Yet eventually she is accorded a position on the school's "security team" that gives her "surveillance and control" over a girl whom she envies -- a triumph that "moved her profoundly." Then she becomes involved with a teacher, and sex, as for her sisters Yumi and Yuxiu, asserts its alluring and complicating presence. If you think of Chinese women as passive robots in Mao jackets, think again. Well before the liberalization of many aspects of Chinese life, these three young women use their sexuality in ways that Western women would find familiar in essence if not in all particulars.
Bi is deeply conscious of the feminine presence in China, not merely in its women but in the land itself. Here is how he describes planting season in the countryside: "The feminine qualities of the earth are heaving with the passion of ovulation and birthing, passions beyond their control as they grow soft in the sunlight and exude bursts of the rich, mellow essence of their being. The earth yearns to be overturned by the hoe and the plow, and thus be reborn, and to let the early summer waters flow over and submerge it. Moans of pleasure escape at the moment the earth is bathed and slowly freed from its bindings, bringing contentment and tranquillity. Exhausted, it falls into a sound, blissful sleep. The earth takes on the new face of a watery bride."
This is a China that few Westerners know. Bi Feiyu makes it real and believable in this charming, surprising novel.