To contemporary Chinese writers, peasants’ lives have special charm: They comprise the majority of the Chinese population; they endure more poverty and social injustice than their city counterparts; and most importantly, their conditions and fate largely decide those of the country.
The book list is long: Mo Yan’s “Red Sorghum,” Lu Yao’s “The Ordinary World,” Yu Hua‘s “To Live” and Han Shaogong’s “A Dictionary of Maqiao,” to name just a few. And now we have the novel “Three Sisters,” by the novelist and screenwriter Bi Feiyu.
Set in rural China in the 1970s, Bi’s story tracks the lives of three sisters – Yumi, Yuxiu and Yuyan. The book is divided into three parts, each centering on one of the three women.
Yumi is calm, determined and authoritative. She cares for her seven siblings and her submissive mother. She resents her father, the formidable Village Party secretary, who sleeps around without shame or guilt. When Yumi falls in love with a potential aviator, she dreams of a changed life. But her dream is derailed when her father loses his position and party membership after being caught sleeping with a soldier’s wife. Despairing, Yumi asks her father to find her a husband; there’s only one condition: “He must be a man who wields power.”
As Yumi’s only village rival, Yuxiu is pretty and passionate, a seductive “fox fairy.” But before she can benefit from her beauty, she becomes the victim of a gang rape, carried out as revenge against her lascivious and now powerless father. Unable to stay in the village, she goes to town to seek the protection of Yumi, now wife of an aged deputy director named Guo. While Yumi does what she must to meet Guo’s sexual needs, Yuxiu tries to secure her future by learning about bookkeeping, by pleasing Guo’s ugly and vain daughter, and later by seducing Guo’s estranged son.
Compared with Yumi and Yuxiu, Yuyang is homely, clumsy, stubborn and taciturn. Yet she succeeds in getting into college, if only because she “could commit page after page of her textbooks to memory.” She is realistic, knowing that “she really didn’t amount to much; she was like a squirt of urine in the Yangtze River.” At the same time, she’s ambitious, serving as an informant to Wei, the head of a security team. Her job: give “a weekly written report to Wei on any and all anomalies” on campus.
But her fate isn’t much better than her sisters’: Her brief encounter with love is a disappointment; she’s disdained by her classmates, not favored by her teachers and sexually molested by Wei. Facing these adversities, she still feels that she has “come out ahead” because she now has Wei’s promise of keeping her in town.
Bi’s compelling and unsentimental book tackles myriad subjects, such as power and corruption, love and betrayal, civil duty and personal sacrifice, and conflict between the rural and urban worlds. It draws a meticulous picture of a transitioning village in ’70s China, and in so doing, Bi has created memorable characters: not just the three sisters, but also the villagers and townspeople.
“Three Sisters” has its structural problems. While Yumi’s and Yuxiu’s stories are skillfully interwoven, Yuyang’s story seems detached, almost as if Yuyang were an afterthought derived from her two sisters’ stories. Partly because of this, the book seems unfinished. But one may overlook these flaws, thanks to Bi’s intimate knowledge of his characters and his masterful storytelling.
Despite the cruelty and suffering, there is hope in Bi’s book, which lies mainly in the three young women’s defiance of life’s privations and their determination to find a new future for themselves against all odds. In this sense, they transcend their depressing conditions and, ultimately, inspire the reader.