Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 17, 2014

Northern Girls (2004), by Sheng Keyi, translated by Shelly Bryant

I’ve been keen to read a novel by a female contemporary Chinese author for a while, so I was pleased when I stumbled across Northern Girls at the library.  It’s a novel which was long-listed for the now defunct Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a fresh, lively voice, writing about a slice of life in China that is little known to the West.

I’ve noted before, in the fiction of Ouyang Yu, that Chinese writing can be rather ‘earthy’ and this is certainly true of Northern Girls.  Set in the 1990s as China’s economic development surged, the Northern Girls are young women who leave their villages for the bright lights and apparent freedom of the city where they have to learn to be streetwise very quickly.   It’s an old, old story in a very new setting.

The central character Qian Xiaohong is only sixteen when she is surprised in bed with her brother-in-law and this is the catalyst for her departure, but due to the size of her breasts, she has already acquired a ‘fast’ reputation in the village:

Noticing that her family had a little money, some guys had hopes of becoming Xiaohong’s man.  It was often said that her earliest involvement with the opposite sex came when she was in primary school, first hooking up with boys from the secondary school, and later moving on to the young men of the village.  She brought them home, each leaving his impression on her bed.  Some claimed that, during the summer months, she sometimes did it while out enjoying the cool evening breeze.  She was even known to go at it in broad daylight inside the large culvert at the power plant.  Such was Xiaohong’s reputation, and it rolled over the village in waves. (p. 3)

It is not sleeping around that is scandalous, it is sleeping with her relation that causes a scandal.  As we soon see when Xiaohong gets to the bustling city of Shenzen, sex is a human bodily need, it is discussed in an open, casual way,.  Although a girl’s virginity is a marketable commodity, there is no stigma or guilt attached to premarital sex, even with multiple partners.

This matter-of-fact attitude to sexuality strips the novel of any romantic overtones, and while characters come to care for each other and enjoy affection, it comes without any of the courtship rituals that occur in the West, and none of the characters have what we would recognise as a loving relationship.   What matters to these girls is survival: finding a job, getting the required paperwork, and negotiating the manipulative behaviour of others in the constant quest for betterment.  They also have to learn to harden their hearts, because money is all that matters in the modern city.  There is no time or space for loyalty, integrity or even friendship.  Everything is fractured, displaced, urgent and open to corruption.

Xiaohong soon becomes friend to Sijang, an innocent from the same village.  Their first job is as hair-washers at a salon where extra ‘massages’ can be provided as part of the service, and Xiaohong takes the other girl under her wing to protect her virginity.  Not because there is some mystic or religious significance to virginity but because for Xiaohong, it’s all about self-determination and it should be Sijang’s choice, not something thrust upon her by some manipulative man out to make a profit from her.

Prey to ruthless bosses, jealous wives,  and internecine office politics made more complex by the party machine, Xiaohong seems to weave her way through all kinds of dangers without coming to harm, but this is not the case for her friends.  There is a prostitute who is murdered, an occurrence so common that the police scarcely bother about it; and an unwanted pregnancy which results in a cruel sterilisation which leaves the girl barren, unmarriageable, and prey to a man who only wants to get his hands on the compensation money she is paid.  Keyi’s writing (and the excellent translation) is at its best when conveying the awful reality of China’s intervention in the reproductive lives of women…

All this sounds rather sombre, but Xiaohong is a spirited creature with an irrepressible zest for life.  An incurable optimist and a highly intelligent young woman, she is determined to improve her lot, with study, hard work and a steely determination.  The only thing that holds her back is her gender, symbolised most graphically by breasts which grow to become a burden that literally weighs her down.  These breasts ‘badge’ her as a prostitute, but she refuses to monetise her sexuality in a city where everything is monetised.

A most interesting book.

Also see Mark Staniforth’s review at Eleutherophobia and Matt Todd’s at A Novel Approach.

Author: Sheng Keyi
Title: Northern Girls, Life Goes On
Translated from the Chinese Bei Mei by Shelly Bryant
Publisher: Viking Penguin, 2012, first published 2004
ISBN: 9780670080953
Source: Kingston Library


Fishpond: Northern Girls: Life Goes on


  1. I’ve just finished reading another Chinese book, and these modern works do have a bit of an edge to them (sex, violence and illegal DVDs) – very different to Ma Jian’s ‘The Dark Road’, a more traditional work I read recently…


    • LOL Tony I haven’t come across the illegal DVDs yet. But I do have Ouyang Yu’s new book in the TBR so maybe the DVDs will turn up there!


  2. I just finished Northern Girls, a book I probably would not have bothered to read but on your recommendation I did. That is why blogs like yours are so rewarding, you read books that you wouldn’t otherwise know about. I thought it was quite a sad read but I did admire Xiaohong. She kept getting up and taking care of herself and others.


  3. […] I read it twice before penning this) but it’s also more rewarding than Northern Girls.  (See my review).  Death Fugue is a sophisticated allegory for the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and its […]


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