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Miss Chopsticks was written by Xinran and translated into English br Esther Tyldesly. It was first published in July 2007.
What’s the book about
Miss Chopsticks isa contemporary story of three young Chinese sisters who escape from the poverty of their small village in the Anhui province to the prospect of a better life in the city Nanjing. The story begins in 2001 and covers about four years.
The Li sisters don’t have much – they have little education, no money or belongings. They don’t even have names. Girls, their father drums into them, are like chopsticks: they are easily broken. Boys, on the other hand, are strong like the roof beams that hold up the roof of a house. As such they are given numbers instead of names in the order they are born.
Li Zhongguo has six children – all girls and is known in his village as The Chopstick Man. One is married off to a man older than her father. Two commits suicide rather than be married to a man paralysed from the waist down.
Three is the first to take action. She leaves home with the help of her uncle and gets a job at a small restaurant in Nanjing. After a successful year, she returns home with money and presents for her family.
And so, sister Five and Six accompany their sister back to city eager to seek their own fortunes. Five is given a job in a health spa and Six in a bookshop / tearoom.
What I liked about the book
The book is based on real people their life stories. Much was changed to protect their identities. The real girls who were the inspiration for Three, Five and Six are not sisters but otherwise do bear a strong resemblance to the characters.
The characters. I felt quite attached and concerned about the three girls and was eager to see how they got on. I particularly loved Five.
As the sisters discover the customs and culture of Nanjing, so do we – the readers.
I liked the additional information provided at the back of the book. There is a map of China and a more detailed map of Nanjing. There is brief description of the Chinese Festivals mentioned in the book. There is also an afterword “The story after the Story” which didn’t like as much but more of that to follow . . .
The cover –a simple picture of three girls walking into the distance. From their figure, clothes and hair you can identify the characters. The walking into the distance somehow gives an element of hope and progress.
The main thing though for me was that the book highlighted just how far from women’s equality the world really is. Many women in China still don’t have much equality as I and many others think - particularly those in the smaller villages. Women are still thought as second or even third class citizens.
What I didn’t like
The book is interesting but the writing style doesn’t always flow so well. But then it is a translation.
I wasn’t keen on the afterword “The story after the Story”. Xinrin added the afterword after a comment from the translator that she wished she knew what happened to the three sisters afterwards. Xinrin herself says “Books end, and we can’t see beyond their final sentences.” I just felt the book should have just left it at the story’s ending. Still, I didn’t have to read the afterword!!
I do love reading about the history and culture of China but choose the more historical novels which provide insight into the reasons why the Chinese culture is as it is today.
About the author
Xinran was born in 1958 in Beijing. Her family was wealthy until the Cultural Revolution condemned wealth and knowledge separating her from her family at the tender age of seven. Xinran worked in a military university and as a radio journalist in China before moving to the UK in 1997. She lives in the UK but regularly travels to China
Xinran founded the charity The Mothers’ Bridge of Love (www.motherbridge.org) which helps Chinese women and children. It also aims to share Chinese culture.
Would I recommend it
Yes. I think it is quite evident from my likes and dislikes that there was more that I like about the book than I disliked. Miss Chopsticks is an important book which portrays the position of women in Chinese society well.
The book is a portrayal of three lives. There is no real plot or storyline to speak of. It is a slow gentle read. Don’t pick it up if you are looking for action or a fast read.
Xinran’s other books are The Good Women of China (1997), Sky Burial (2004) and What the Chinese Don’t Eat (2006). I particularly enjoyed Sky Burial – a short but sad tale.
Cost and availability
The book is published by Vintage Books with a recommended retail price of £8.99. It is available from Amazon for £5.33. It is available from most good bookshops and stocked by libraries. It was published in 2007 so many used books are available.
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