‘…she only managed to give birth to a handful of chopsticks and no roof-beam.’ I was struck by this way of referring to girls and boys. I had never heard it before, but it seemed to epitomise the manner in which the Chinese view the differences between men and women…
And so begins an explanation of why the narrator and her five sisters were only ever given a number as a name, and why their family faced much disgrace in countryside China – and why Three takes the opportunity as a young girl, to go to the city of Nanjing to find work when her uncle offers.
‘Miss Chopsticks’ is an interesting and unusual story which shows many contrasts between:
1. values placed on girls and boys
2. attitudes in city and rural areas of China
3. old and new ways
Xinran was born in China, but separated from her mother by the Cultural Revolution, and so grew up with her grandparents in Beijing. In China, after the Cultural Revlotion ended, she became a radio broadcaster whose program, “Words on the Night Breeze”, encouraged lots of discussion about true picture of the daily lives of Chinese women. Her high media profile ultimately lead her to leave China for England in 1997, where she began to carve out her current career in journalism and writing.
With this background, you can understand that her stories, including Miss Chopsticks, are well-informed and genuine reflections of China as she knew it , and China as she hopes it is becoming today. Her girls, Three, Five and Six, are not tragic figures in ‘Miss Chopsticks’ but rather succeed in overcoming their birth consequences. They represent a new generation of Chinese girls. Unlike many other Asian tales, it is a more lighthearted. While it portrays some harsh values which still exist in parts of China, it does offer hope.
‘Miss Chopsticks’ is loosely based on many of the girls and women that Xinran has met –
“For a long time I have wanted to write down some of the stories of the girls I have met…”
Xinran gives an interesting insight to Chinese life and values. There is much to be learned from this tale. It would also be interesting to know how it might have been received in China…
For more detail about Xinran, there are many articles you can read from the Guardian.