Friday, April 13, 2018

Better, in a Terrible Way


It must have been truly awful to be a woman in China in the 1970's -- and certainly before and probably after, as well. In Three Sisters, Bi Feiyu traces the lives of three young women as they grow up in a family of eight and strive to balance the traditional demands and challenges of Chinese society with the requirements of political correctness.

To say that what they face are "demands" and "challenges" vastly understates what they must undergo, just as "political correctness" fails to do justice to the intricacies of modern China's doctrinal requirements.

Yumi, the eldest sister, assumes the role of family matriarch early, while tasked with caring for the baby boy her parents finally succeeded in having after seven tries. Mature beyond her years, Yumi must cope with her father's blatant philandering, her mother's passivity (or perhaps exhaustion), her wayward sisters, and her own desire to chart her life by making a successful marital match from the introduction period arranged for her with a military pilot. Though thwarted at every turn, Yumi still  manages to progress . . . but not to escape the damage done to her personality and values by the cultural system she's born into.

Yuxiu, the third sister, is beautiful, flirtatious, and a little bit wild, in stark contrast to the sober and responsible Yumi. Her life's prospects are derailed by a gang rape and subsequent unmarried pregnancy -- two events that spell social and emotional doom in a society that prides itself on equality, modernity, and political purity of intention, but still operates with many of the traditional beliefs that devalue women and consider them property.

Youngest sister Yuyang is a strong student, poised to succeed without drawing much attention to herself. But again, the potent combination of sexual dominion and political intrigue provides the means to complicate her life and challenge her emotional health. Yuyang is chosen as an informer against her classmates, but that role brings her dangerously close to her teacher, who takes advantage of her innocence. She survives, perhaps with less damage than her sisters, but will never be the same.

This novel drew me into the lives of the sisters and offered insight into the workings of modern China. It is terrible to observe the toll the patriarchal system takes on these young women, particularly in light of the official pronouncements for correct, respectful behavior that are included from time to time. What irony! The pronouncements of the new political structure do nothing to change the age-old patterns of human behavior -- they merely form a veneer that conceals the devastating workings of the old order.

Excerpt:

Before she left home, Yuxiu swore that once she walked out the front door, she would never again set foot in Wang Family Village. She'd be ashamed to show her face in this place. She had no interest in settling scores with its residents. If everyone is your enemy, it is the same as having no enemies. When there are too many lice, you stop scratching.

Yuxui accepted what had befallen her. She could let everyone off the hook but the little whore Yusui. Thanks to her, Yuxiu was no longer able to hold her head up in Wang Family Village. If the little whore had never uttered those evil, hurtful words, none of this ever would have happened. The girl would have to pay, especially since she was her own sister. This was one score Yuxiu was determined to settle. And once she'd made up her mind, she swung into action. 

Note: This book counts toward the Color Coded Reading Challenge (any other color: orange) and the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2018.   

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