It is one of the great economic success stories of the modern world but it is a story foreigners often misunderstand. Invariably, the government often gets the credit for bringing rural peasants over the US$1-per-day breadline. Rarely does the life of the peasants themselves enter into the equation.
Beijing native Xinran has made a career of writing about the lives of China’s rural dwellers and continues this strong form with Miss Chopsticks.
In Xinran’s book, “chopsticks” are daughters – the babies of rural peasants in a village from Anhui province that, unlike their male offspring (known as “roof-beams”), are not obliged to support a household. It is in this village that one man has six daughters. He is so shamed by this turn of fate that he cannot be bothered to give the children proper names and instead identifies them by number.
China by numbers
This is the background to the tales of Three, Five and Six, the three daughters who leave their home in search of an invariably better life in Nanjing.
Three goes first, spurred by her Uncle Two and the sudden possibility of a forced marriage to a rich cripple. In Nanjing, she has relatively good luck, running across people who are not only well-meaning but eager to help her. She finds a job at a restaurant and quickly becomes the favorite of the owners.
When she returns to her village for a visit a year later, she is an instant success. The amout of money she brings impresses the villagers and her father wins back some of the face he lost by having six daughters.
On top of that, the adventurous Three becomes an example to her bookish sister Six and the apparently slow-witted Two.
Six and Two also have incredible luck in Nanjing, quickly finding jobs that suit their aptitudes and inclinations. Generally, everybody they meet is kind to them.
It is a little unbelievable to expect three sisters to find good jobs within minutes of making it to the big bad city but that is not the most interesting part. Much more fascinating are the insights into what the sisters know and don’t know, their expectations of city people, foreigners, life and China itself.
Two, Three and Six know very little beyond their own small worlds and often have a difficult time comprehending much of what is going on around them.
There is a moment when the reportedly fragile reality of life for the migrant worker shines through. Uncle Two gets arrested while looking for his three nieces. He is taken into custody because the police officers have quotas to fill and they make it clear that, even though Uncle Two has done nothing wrong, they would have thought of something to pin on him.
After a night in jail, the employers of the three sisters come together to help out the poor jailed relative. From an outsider’s point of view, it seems somewhat implausible that all three sisters would find employers with such good natures, willing to use their contacts and to stand-up to the police to help out a complete stranger. That said, it would be nice if the world worked this way.
Improbabilities aside, Xinran offers an interesting look at the life of a migrant worker. The book underscores why a job in the city is the most obvious avenue by which a farmer can escape a life of drudgery, poverty and the relative isolation of China’s villages – an existence that can be numbing to the soul and stifling to the mind.
Excerpt: Behind bars
"Uncle Two thought about his gangmaster on the building site, who owed him three years’ wages. Some of his fellow workers had tried to sue the man, but the court had sent them packing because they didn’t have contracts. Then a few of the workers whispered that the court had been paid a bribe and said they should go on strike, but their bosses warned them off. They were working on a key State project, they said, and any strike action would be considered anti-Party and anti-State. Who would risk that kind of charge?
Every since Uncle Two had gone out into the world, he had prided himself on his caution. He’d watched fellow workers get into difficulties and listened to their complaints, thinking all the time that they were foolish not to learn how to do things the city people’s way… But here he was, arrested for waiting at a door. Who would have thought that could be a crime."