Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 6, 2011

Three Sisters (2003) by Bi Feiyu, translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin

I read this book while I was away in Adelaide at the History Teachers Association Conference, and it was a bizarre experience to be spending the day discussing a 21st century curriculum for Australia while at night reading about such anachronistic ways of life in China.

Three Sisters won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2010.  It consists of three inter-related short stories, written in a blunt, often coarse style which (I assume) is meant to replicate or to mock the ‘earthiness’ of peasant life.  It’s the story of three sisters trying to make their way in the misogynistic peasant society of 1970s and 80s Communist China (before the One Child Policy was introduced in 1978).


Part I is about Yumi, a strong-minded and intelligent girl who despite her father’s status as a party official has had only rudimentary education and can barely read and write.  Her inferior status is reinforced from the first pages of the book when her mother – after having given birth to seven daughters – finally gives birth to a son. Little Eight’s arrival transforms the family dynamics and mother’s prestige.  First-born Yumi takes on the care of this child and earns the respect of everyone in the village with her dignity and hard work.  (As much respect as a woman can have in this patriarchal society, that is).

Yumi acts out against the prevailing sexist mores by challenging not her father who has both forced and unforced sexual liaisons with every beddable woman in the village, but by confronting and shaming them.  (The confrontations seemed a bit lame to me at first, until I realised that much of ‘losing face’ takes place through non-verbal interactions.  In Chinese peasant society, despite its disconcerting frankness about many things, it seems you can be insulted to the depths of your being by apparently innocuous courtesies or by someone moving into your personal space.)

In a corrupt society, a Party official such as Yumi’s father can act with impunity in the most fundamental of ways, creating cuckolds from one end of the village to the other – but it is not done to sleep with the wife of a soldier away doing his duty. When Wang Liangfang crosses this line he loses his position, and Yumi’s fledgling romance with a high prestige aviator from another village is doomed.  Now her only hope is to settle for being a ‘second’ wife, but Yumi decides that she will at least improve her life by ‘marrying out’ to someone in a town, and with the remnants of his influence, her father is able to arrange this for her.  Off Yumi goes to Broken Bridge so that the intended spouse can inspect the goods, which he does by bedding her in a perfunctory way, and they are subsequently married.

He’s twice her age, but Yumi’s in luck because the first wife conveniently dies.  In fact, Guo Jiaxing was enjoying his test ride on Yumi’s body as this first wife lay dying – this is so that he could ensure a seamless transition from one wife to another.  He has two children already, one a wilful adolescent daughter, and the other an arrogant son doing well for himself in another town.  Yumi manages to negotiate these difficulties reasonably well until her flirtatious 17-year-old sister Yuxiu arrives in town, making her own escape from the village where she and her younger sister Yuye were publicly gang-raped.

In Part II, which focuses on the third daughter Yuxiu, the details of the rape are revealed as a village conspiracy on behalf of the sexually abused village women, an act of revenge against the girls’ father.  This rape is written about in such a matter-of-fact way, and the girls’ trauma dismissed so perfunctorily, that I found myself wondering about the author’s own attitudes to women.  He is writing a parody, one which exposes the way in which women are exploited in a so-called equal society, but the way in which he presented this event jarred. What he chooses to include and what he omits defines it as something which has extreme social consequences for Yumi, and emotional and social consequences to be stoically borne by Yuxiu – but is dismissed of no consequence at all for the younger girl.

Yuye is the fifth daughter and her age isn’t given, but she can’t be more than 15 and is most probably considerably younger.  Yet in Part I after the rape all we see is Yumi hastily trying to salvage her doomed engagement.  Later, in Part II we learn that on the night of the rape all her efforts had gone towards comforting Yuxui who at seventeen ‘knew what had happened’ (p97), but that in Broken Bridge her sympathy had vanished by the time she needed to act to ensure that her own new social position isn’t compromised by Yuxiu’s tarnished reputation.  (Yumi has a very cruel streak indeed, and a vicious tongue).  We also see the emotional and social consequences for Yuxiu who relives the trauma when in Broken Bridge she so unwisely falls in love.  But for the little one, Yuye?  All that Feiyu says about her is that ‘the younger girl cried and said it hurt, but that after she was cleaned up, she fell asleep’.  We hear nothing more about her.  I found this very disconcerting.

Part III is about Yuyang, the fourth daughter.  It takes place ten years later and has little connection with the preceding two stories.  Yuyang is neither pretty nor especially intelligent but her hard work wins her a place at teacher-training college.  This section amplifies Feiyu’s theme about the disparity between rural and city life because Yuyang is relentlessly bullied about her peasant origins.  The abuse of power is also explicit when she is manipulated into becoming an informer, though she appears to relish the role, taking copious but pathetically inane notes about her bitchy rival Pang’s relationship with the homeroom teacher. (A relationship which appears to be willing, but given the imbalance of age and power and the position of trust a teacher holds, we in the West would call this student-teacher relationship predatory sexual harassment).   Predictably, Yuyang’s clandestine relationship with Teacher Wei leads to her own sexual abuse, which although she despises him, she is powerless to avoid.  When finally the school authorities act over the overt scandal the homeroom teacher is allowed to escape, and Yuyang has paid the usual price to achieve very little.

Feiyu’s critique of power and exploitation is set in the 1970s and 80s but given what we know about the constraints on writing in China it can be interpreted as parody of contemporary life.  There are references to sloganeering, victims of the Cultural Revolution and to the disconnect between peasant life and the ‘rewards’ of having work in a town.   Social mobility matters just as much in China as it does anywhere else; and it’s who you know, not what you know that matters.

There is a brief review at The Independent, and one at Gender Across Borders which analyses the story from a feminist perspective.  From what I can gather online, the ‘Asian Booker’ has a long way to go before it has any impact comparable with its British Commonwealth counterpart.  Better translation might have helped: the fact that two of them worked on this book doesn’t seem to have helped much…

© Lisa Hill

Author: Bi Feiyu
Title: Three Sisters
Translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
ISBN: 9780151013647
Source: Personal library


Fishpond: Three Sisters


  1. I don’t think I’m likely to read that one so your excellent review with spoilers was very welcome. What an interesting book it sounds. What a dismal society it makes China sound (perhaps it was -maybe still is) and no place to be born female – but having said that, the one child policy has made it very difficult for teenage boys apparently who have little experience of young women and little chance of finding a girl-friend.


    • Good point, Tom, I hadn’t thought of that. If the author had sisters, or his editor had been a woman, perhaps they might have intervened to make the unsatisfactory elements of the book more credible from a female perspective.


  2. I ve this on my tbr pile I have yet to get to it did read first few pages and decide it was one that maybe need my full attention when reading ,all the best stu


    • I’d very much like to see your review of it, Stu. You have much more experience of reading things in translation than I do and perhaps you might not find it so strange to read. What I haven’t said in my review very clearly was that I was conscious all the time of China and the Chinese being so very, very different in sensibility. Thinking about it now, I find the tone either harsh or dismissive about the feelings of others and I am not sure if this is authorial intent or authorial-cultural attitude.


  3. Lisa –

    You’re bring up the best points! I was really on the fence about Boat to Redemption, but you’ve concisely summarized everything that bothered me about Su Tong’s novel, here. It’s fascinating, isn’t it? How small the world has become but how culturally different we still remain ? I’m hoping to read more Chinese literature and any recommendations would be greatly appreciated. Is there any value in trying Bi Feiyu next?


    • I wish I knew more about Chinese Lit myself, but I’m just floundering around in the dark. It’s much easier to find books by Chinese authors who’ve fled China than it is to find ones by people who actually live there, and the expats offer a whole different perspective, most often dissident, of course.
      I think it probably is worth reading Three Sisters because it won the Man Booker, which gives it an authenticity & ‘guarantee’ of literary merit which perhaps the list of ‘Fiction from the Chinese Mainland’ on Goodreads might not have( (though I see that Su Tong has a number of novels listed there).
      I would also recommend The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu – it’s non-fiction and is focussed on the underclass but is revealing about a way of thinking that is probably worthwhile to be familiar with. See for my thoughts about that one.
      Stu at Winston’s Dad (a great source forworks in translation) read & enjoyed Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian (see which was longlisted for the independent foreign fiction long list in 2007.
      It’s an adventure, eh?


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