Review - Three Sisters By Bi Feiyu

Bi Feiyu's account of three sisters struggling to survive in the aftermath of China's Cultural Revolution is a complex moral tale that also illuminates the country's rise from sleeping tiger to global power.

Born in an impoverished rural hinterland, the Wang family find their lives dominated by the unspoken rules of patriarchal customs. Sons are valued over daughters, and a young woman's only hope for advancement is a good match.

The hierarchy of village life and, it is implied, of China as a whole, is reflected in the pecking order between siblings. The intelligence and resourcefulness of the eldest Wang daughter, Yumi, is pitted against the seductive nature of her younger sister, Yuxiu. The conflict between the two becomes the emotional heart of the novel.

All three sisters are drawn to the city for different reasons. Disappointed in love and frustrated by the loss of her family's honour, Yumi seeks the protection of an older man with a vestige of power. As a dutiful wife she gains a job and some standing. Yuxiu becomes the victim of an act of revenge against her philandering father and follows her sister to escape the taunts of the villagers, but as she crosses the lines drawn by Yumi tragedy swiftly follows.

A decade later, in the 1980s, their youngest sister, Yuyang, is admitted into teacher-training school. A simple country girl, isolated from human warmth, she finds that hard work pays off when she is chosen to inform on her fellow students. But this meagre achievement exacts a heavy price.

Although the three sisters are rewarded for their perseverance in an overwhelmingly misogynistic society, their small gains are easily outrun by their misfortunes. The third story jars in that it appears to bear no connection to the other two intricate portraits, but you realise that it is the sisters' shared pain that Bi wants to highlight.

Despite the tragic undertones, this is at times a very funny novel. Bi is not afraid to poke fun at the rigidity of China's rural customs, the endless slogans of the Cultural Revolution, the cynical, coarse humour of the peasants and the collision between the state and the individual, progress and tradition. The human spirit is complex and the real moral of the tale, Bi slyly suggests, is that there will be a price to pay for China's awakening.

Originally published in the Independent on 9 August 2010