Bi Feiyu’s novel Three Sisters is a candid tale of just how hard it was for rural women to survive in Cultural Revolution China. Last week it won the Man Asian Literary Prize, and while it is ostensibly about the hypocrisy of 1970s China, it also carries a subtle critique of contemporary society too.
The book starts out in 1971, and it quickly becomes clear that two decades of Communist Party rule didn’t manage to diminish deeply entrenched ideas about the (subordinate) status of women.
“Women hold up half the sky” declared Mao Zedong. But they don’t hold any positions of authority in “Wang Family Village”, the fictional setting of the novel. Instead the female gender is valued largely for their ability to give their husband a son and heir.
The village doctor is a quack, the Party secretary’s Marxism seems more superstition than science, and age-old traditions are still stubbornly obeyed. That’s the background that the Wang sisters are trying to escape – and the only clear way out is through marriage.
In fact, the three sisters follow different paths. When the family’s fortunes fall, elder sister Yumi resigns herself to marrying a powerful, older man. After being shunned by the village, middle sister Yuxiu runs away to town. But youngest sister Yuyang manages to get out by winning a scholarship to a teacher training school. Once there she’s greeted with derision by her city-born classmates and finds herself at the mercy of unscrupulous officials. Love, ultimately, eludes all three.
Cheerful stuff, then. But sexual politics is the major theme in the book – and one of the areas where comparisons are most readily drawn with today. Much of the plot centres on sex. Female villagers are considered ‘ruined’ when they’re raped. The village men, on the other hand, get away with such acts of sexual violence.
WiC has written previously about the enduring double standards in some Chinese social mores. Think of the situation actress Tang Wei found herself in after starring in the 2007 film, Lust, Caution (see WiC2). She was banned by the State Administration of Radio Film and Television from working for more than a year after the film came out. Why? One, because her character has fairly graphic sex on screen, and worse, does so with a traitor sympathetic to Japan. As a result Tang lost a lucrative TV endorsement campaign with skincare firm Pond’s, as well as falling down the pecking order for leading roles in subsequent films.
Tony Leung, the actor who played the traitor, and more than held his end up in the sex scenes too, appeared to be completely unaffected by comparison. It’s a man’s world.
The Three Sisters author, who also wrote The Moon Opera, has already won the Lu Xun Literary Prize. And with his latest novel, Bi has not only written a pacy story but also offers a good introduction to China’s complex gender politics.
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