If you’ve never read anything by Xinran before then allow me to get bossy: Read something by Xinran.
Actually, I’ve only read her non-fiction, which is invariably so affecting, so powerful that the stories she tells will never leave you. I was keen to see how she tackled fiction and her novel, Miss Chopsticks, was recommended to me by Lisa (an excellent suggestion to meet a tricky reading challenge category).
Miss Chopsticks is the story of peasant sisters – their mother is considered a failure because she never produced a son, and the daughters only merit a number as a name.
“In my village, girls are called ‘chopsticks’ and boys ‘roof-beams’. They all say girls are no good because a chopstick can’t support a roof.”
Sisters Three, Five and Six move to the large city of Nanjing to seek work – their lack of education and naivety makes life difficult in the big city but each girl manages to find her place.
Miss Chopsticks is based on three unrelated women Xinran met in China in the early 2000s. Although this book is not biographical, their stories are representative of the experiences of many woman who moved from rural villages to big cities. Xinran captures the detail of city life, it’s surprises and shocks, as well as weaving references to Nanjing’s festivals, traditions and landmarks into the story. The section about Face Powder Lane/ Red Guard Road was particularly interesting and described one aspect of the Cultural Revolution –
“…turned the wolf-hair calligraphy brushes that had been treasured for generations into bottle washers. High-quality rice paper that had once borne beautiful poetry was used to ‘resolve the outgoing problems of the masses’ – that is, as toilet paper… Incense burners from the Ming dynasty became crocks for storing rice and beans; writing tables with secret, mirror-lined drawers were transformed into hen-coops or shelving.”
Knowing this book was fictitious, I wasn’t as emotionally invested as I have been when reading Xinran’s other books. That said, her Afterword, and the story of how Miss Chopsticks came about (prompted by a visit to Tasmania!) is charming and reminded me of the very personal element in all of Xinran’s writing.
There are many fascinating references to food in Miss Chopsticks and although much of the story centres around the Tofu Lady’s “…stinky tofu fritters: a great Nanjing specialty not unlike deep-fried blue cheese”, I was especially interested in this –
“Nanjingers also liked edible wild plants, and they were very proud of their ‘Eight Dry Fresh Things’ and ‘Eight Watery Fresh Things’. The Dry Eight consisted of purslane, Hen’s Head, malantou, wild celery, rocambole, Chinese wolfberry greens, shepard’s purse and reeds. The Watery Eight include shrimp, snails, lotus root, fish, water caltrop and wild rice stems.”