A bit of bookish synchronicity: around the time that I was writing up my post on Zhu Wen's I Love Dollars, a collection of short stories about the effects of 1990s capitalism on life in urban China, Telegram/Saqi very kindly sent me a copy of Bi Feiyu's Three Sisters (2010 in the UK, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun Lin). Set in a remote village and a small provincial town after the Cultural Revolution, and focusing on women's lives where I Love Dollars told the stories of young men, it made for an interesting - if hardly any more cheerful - counterpart.
Tonally, the two works have much in common: a slow, grim march of things going from bad to worse, leavened (to an extent) with flashes of dark, bathetic humour. In an interview last year, the author struck a somewhat fatalistic note when he said that the troubles his characters go through are a destiny from which he cannot save them. The destinies of Yumi, Yuxiu and Yuyang - three of the seven daughters of feckless philanderer and village Party Secretary Wang Lianfang - are shaped by the overwhelmingly patriarchal world into which they're born. Just as being female is the central reality for women in the sisters' home village, so the workings of gender and power provide the backbone of the novel, in plot and theme alike.
Finding a husband who is acceptable to both family and neighbours is an inescapable obligation for women in this environment; as one notes to Yumi, "'The only opportunity for even the most talented woman lies in marriage.'" There are no social roles for single women (beyond, presumably, widowhood) that do not involve destitution, disgrace and isolation. In this tight-knit community, moreover, there is no privacy in such matters; introverted Yumi ("who, like all such women, possessed a second pair of eyes that looked inward") is intensely embarrassed but not entirely surprised to discover that the letters she has exchanged with a prospective husband have been opened and read by half the village.
Wang Lianfang's status within the Party gives Yumi, as his eldest daughter, somewhat better prospects than the average village girl - in the sense that she attracts a suitor from further afield, Peng, a fighter pilot with a fine line in zealotry. Peng is hardly a scintillating correspondant, but sheltered Yumi is transported by the possibilities - the literal new horizons - that marriage to him offers her:
Peng's letter then described his mission in life - to protect the blue skies above the motherland and struggle against all imperialists, revisionists, and reactionaries.
By this time Yumi was barely able to stand and was on the verge of collapse from sheer joy. The skies had always been too far off to have any consequence in her life, but now things were different, for the skies were tightly bound up with and became part of her. In her mind, the blue sky now stretched far and wide until she merged with it.
The downside of such an enviable match, of course, is that she does not get to meet him until the negotiations are already well underway. When Peng visits her for the first time, it is - like the letters - a thoroughly public event, in which the entire village feels entitled to participate:
The arrival of Yumi would bring the story to a climax. She was dragged along after the women had taken Wang Hongbing from her and opened a path to her home. This was a scene they long anticipated, and once it was acted out they could breathe easier. So they walked her home, one step at a time; all she had to do was lean back and let the others do the work. But when she reached the gate, her courage abandoned her, and she refused to take another step. So a couple of the bolder unmarried girls pushed her up until she was standing in front of Peng Guoliang.
The crowd thought that he might actually salute her, but he didn't. There was total silence. He didn't salute, and he didn't snap to attention. He was, in fact, barely able to stand, and he just kept opening and shutting his mouth. When Yumi stole a look at him, the expression on his face put her at ease, though she fidgeted bashfully.
(Interestingly, the translation seems to have undergone some changes since an excerpt from it was published in the Guardian last year.)
Their fledgling relationship is sweetly stilted and, outside their letters - which he fills with propaganda and she, barely educated, cannot write in a way that comes close to expressing her emotion - largely non-verbal. The quotation at the head of this post is taken from Yumi's thoughts are she sits beside Peng, and demonstrates very nicely both the idealised affection and the gulf of understanding that lies between them.
But other realities of womanhood - and of the precarious nature of social status in rural China in this period - intervene, and the novel lurches from gentle comedy of traditional manners to something rather darker. There are glimpses of real cruelty earlier in the story, notably when Wang slaps his wife, Guifang, for daring to deny him sex, despite having yet to give birth to a son ("'Who do you think you are? [...] Not a single boy has popped out of you, and yet you still expect two bowls of rice at every meal'"), and Guifang's reaction is not anger but fear that word of her refusal will reach her neighbours, since "only an ugly shrew" would refuse her husband's attentions under such circumstances. But this is only a taste of what is to come, and frankly in places Three Sisters is extremely tough to read.
When Wang is caught sleeping with another man's wife - hardly his first instance of adultery, but the first that cannot be explained away because only women know about it - he loses his position as Party Secretary, and his daughters soon bear the brunt of the ill-will he generated during his arrogant ascendancy, now released by his swift fall. Two of the girls, Yuxiu and Yuye, are dragged from a public film-screening and gang-raped. And that isn't even the most grim event in the book.
Oh no. My personal prize for that goes to Yumi's wedding night. Peng, of course, drops her like a stone as soon as word of the rapes happens to reach him, so dear dad finds her an alternative: Guo Jiaxing, a later-middle-aged Party official in the nearest provincial town. Guo needs a second wife because, as he so charmingly and sensitively explains to Yumi - in the middle of consummating the union with the most skin-crawlingly selfish sex ever committed to the page - his first wife is dying. Not dead, dying:
"Who?" she asked in order to keep him talking.
Yumi jerked her head around and looked wide-eyed at Guo.
"This has nothing to do with you," he said. "She's in the last stages. A few months at best. You'll move in when she's gone."
The smell of alcohol washed over Yumi. She felt as if she were his 'last stages' wife, pinned beneath Guo Jiaxing. She was terrified. Guo covered her mouth with his hand before she could scream. Her body was rocking wildly under the blanket.
"Good," he said.
Things don't get much better after this: Yumi becomes a dead-eyed domestic servant to Guo, and she derives the remaining scraps of her self-worth from her ability to use sex to get Guo to give her sister Yuxiu a job in the city, and from crushing said sister's spirit with vindictive thoroughness. As ever, social power is intersectional; mirroring the patriarchy, the other hierarchy at work in the girls' lives is that of the family, and Yumi exploits the power inherent in being the eldest daughter, all the more ruthlessly as she sees herself demeaned in her other relationships. She rationalises away Yuxiu's gang-rape, and the way it ruined her own life, by blaming it on the younger girl's beauty and "seductive" behaviour; at every turn, she assumes the worst of her sister's behaviour, and seeks to cast her in a bad light in order to make herself appear more virtuous and dutiful by comparison, and feel a little less powerless in her new home. The omniscient narratorial voice initially seems to support her in this, describing Yuxiu as:
eye-catching, different, coquettish, and reminiscent of the female enemy agents in the movies. She was a bundle of affectations, always acting a part, her attitude one of insouciance.
Yuxiu then gets pregnant, from another rape, this time by Guo's adult son. This comes about because Yumi informs him of Yuxiu's gang-rape in order to kill off the growing affection between the pair, and so he decides, what the hell, she's damaged goods anyway:
[H]is pain turned to anger mixed with affection and other unrelated emotions, including rabid jealousy and a certain inability to accept what he had been told. It was on that same night that he decided to have sex with Yuxiu; after seven or eight men, one more shouldn't matter.
It's wrist-slitting stuff, which tips over into sheer, needless misery porn on several occasions; if the dying wife episode didn't quite break you, how about the callous hilarity of Yuxiu's co-workers at the sight of her, heavily pregnant but in desperate denial, falling over during lunch yard games?
It was an amusing sight to see her sprawled on the ground, where she took in little air no matter how hard she breathed. All she could do was open her mouth wide while more air came out than went in. It was even more entertaining when she tried to get up [...] She looked like an overturned turtle that can only paw the air as it tries but fails to right itself.
It's not just hard going but lurid. Yet what kept me reading, just, is the fact that there is also a clear-eyed sense of the conditions that so poison the relations between people. When, in the third section, we follow ambitious Yuyang to a high-pressure school in the city, we are shown how village life - with its inhabitants' relentless interference in each other's lives, the way that status and self-worth derives from exploiting and ruining your neighbours (and being ruined in turn, when the chance presents itself) - is a pale reflection of how Party ideology and the framework of its enforcement has distorted every level of life in larger towns and cities. Or, perhaps, how the Party ideology is village life writ large, given jackboots and an intellectual backing.
There is sly humour in the description of one teacher's "rehabilitation" after being temporarily disgraced ("After seventeen self-examinations, twenty-six tearful demonstrations, and nine solemn vows, he was returned to the school and assigned to the security section"), but the effects of the culture of spying, shaming and self-abasement that has been fostered in the school is unflinchingly exposed in the narrative that follows. In many ways, these are the values of patriarchal society taken to their logical conclusion: since every individual's identity and status depends upon visibly and brutally dominating others, everyone exorcises the fear of their own weakness by abusing those below them in the food chain.
Thus, back in the village, Wang Lianfang takes out his frustration at his lack of sons - a sign, to both him and his enemies, of his failure as a man - on his wife, while ignoring his deeper failure as a father, namely to secure his daughters' futures through making timely and secure marriages for them, something society forbids them to do for themselves. Thus, in the urban school, the teacher Wei finds he can only overcome his apparent impotence - a source of deep shame to him, rendering him a member of a "third sex", neither man nor even woman - by exploiting his authority over Yuyang, punishing the poor, scared, naive girl for an infraction she never committed in order to get her alone and vulnerable so that he can sexually assault her.
Thus, too, Yumi takes out her myriad sufferings and humiliations first on herself - in a heartbreaking scene that blurs the boundaries between masturbation and its euphemism, self-abuse ("as remorse took over, her fingers abruptly jammed their way inside. The sharp pain actually brought with it enormous comfort. The insides of her thighs were irrigated by a warm liquid. You unwanted cunt, she thought to herself, what made you think you should save yourself for the bridal chamber?") - and then on her younger sister.
In any such hierarchy, the ones in the most desperate straits are not those with no-one to turn to, but those with no-one to turn on. As Yuxiu reflects when she flees the village, and her irreparably ruined reputation, for the town where Yumi lives:
If everyone is your enemy, it is the same as having no enemies. When there are too many lice, you stop scratching.
I'm not entirely sure I'd recommend the gruelling experience that is Three Sisters, then; while the counterpoint between the curiously chirpy, upbeat narrative voice (channelling the tone of Party propaganda?) and the none more bleak events of the story is oddly compelling, I could wish that not all of Bi Feiyu's points were written on the sexually abused bodies of women and teenage girls.
Things get a little brighter towards the end, but only in the sense that the author mixes in a little more sweet with the bitter with a subplot about a starcrossed teacher and pupil at Yuyang's school, who come the closest of any two characters in the novel to falling in something approaching genuine love. So naturally, it concludes with the teacher on the run, accompanied by a flowery phrase that very neatly inverts the usually exhilarating image of the sea into something dehumanising, and utterly alien to landlocked, sheltered Yuyang - who, unlike her sister Yumi, can no longer even imagine farther horizons that she might reach for:
"He didn't escape. How could he? He has simply fallen into the vast ocean of the people."
[...] At 10:45, Yuyang heard heard Director Qian's pronouncement from a classmate. Having never seen an ocean, Yuyang tried hard to imagine what it was like, but by lunchtime she still had not conjured up an image of an ocean. But she was convinced that, generally speaking, it must be vaster than she could envision. She was sure of that.