Continuing my reading of the Man Asian Literary Prize longlist, I find myself in China. I’m intrigued by this novel, not least because it is printed by Penguin China, the first Asian branch of the publishing powerhouse now known as Penguin Random House. Designed to promote Chinese literature, and literature about China, I think I’m right in saying this is the first translation they’ve commissioned.
Xiaohong and Sijiang are ‘northern girls’ (beimei; 北妹), girls from the country who have come to Shenzhen to look for work and money. Xiaohong has been caught sleeping with her sister’s fiancée, and to escape the family shame, she has dragged Sijiang with her to the big smoke to find their fortunes. But it is not easy being a country girl in a big city, and as Xiaohong and Sijiang are about to discover, friends are hard to find.
There is a brutality, a grittiness, to Sheng’s writing that shines through Shelly Bryant’s translation. I don’t know if this is just because we are in southern China, far away from the cultural centre that is Beijing, but the characters in Northern Girls are just that little less couth, that little more grating, than one might expect from the capital. Most of the main characters, not just Xiaohong and Sijiang, are working-class, rough and ready, an attribute that is made only more clear when they encounter characters with higher social standing.
The huge cultural differences in China are a barrier for Xiaohong and Sijiang in their move to Shenzhen. Though Mandarin is the official language of China, and spoken in Beijing and surrounding areas, in the provinces, particularly the rural ones, dialects are spoken that are not intelligible to one another. So when the two girls move to Shenzhen, they must learn to speak both standard Mandarin, and some Cantonese, spoken in the southern provinces where they now live. It’s a reminder of not just the metro-rural divide of China, but of the deeply diverse cultural divide in a country that houses one-seventh of the world’s population.
Sheng does seem deeply concerned with breasts. Indeed, time and time again, the size and heft of Xiaohong’s breasts are mentioned by the narrator, and by the other people she encounters. But this is not a creepy, Murakami-style fetishisation of breasts. Sheng uses them as a symbol of femininity in her work. Breasts are arguably the most feminine of body parts, and the link between the state of one’s breasts and how one is viewed by society is one Sheng makes clear in her work. In the beginning, then, Xiaohong’s breasts are what get her into trouble—men lust after them, and being young, she is happy to go along with it. In the final chapters, though, her breasts begin to grow, heavier and heavier. They weigh her down, and have become a burden. Being a woman in modern China is not something that is easy; it is a burden that must be carried around at all times.
Certainly by Western standards, this book would probably be termed feminist. Sheng is deeply concerned with how modernity in China affects women, young women in particular, and the ways in which they are used by men in positions of power—and indeed, men not in positions of power—simply as objects for sexual pleasure. So few of the men encountered by Xiaohong seem to be decent human beings. Without fail, each one of them ogles her ample bosom. And at first, she seems happy to go along with this, and beds many men. But as she matures, she does this less and less, learning to reject the advances of the men who try to get with her.
Sheng is keen to bring women’s issues to the foreground. Xiaohong finds herself working in a women and children’s hospital, in the PR department, of all places. This allows Sheng to subtly, but clearly deliberately, bring the issue of reproductive rights in China to the forefront of her novel. By the end, Xiaohong has had two abortions, from sexual encounters she did not initiate. Several other minor female characters have also had abortions, either because they have been raped, or because they are not allowed to have children, or because they have slept with someone they shouldn’t have. It becomes almost second-nature to just go and have an abortion when you have discovered you are pregnant and know you cannot keep the baby. And the point is repeatedly made—this is something only women have to decide and endure. Many of the men that have fathered these children never know about it. It is something they will never have to think about or be reminded of in the future. This is women’s business.
This all comes to a head when, one night, Sijiang is mistaken for another woman, and is forcibly sterilised by the government. Think about that sentence. Forcibly sterilised by the government. It’s an horrific concept, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was out of some post-apocalyptic future. But this really happens. It’s a harrowing scene, and Sheng tells it with a grace that belies the rest of the novel, perhaps proving her skill as a writer. And so Sijiang decides to return home. She has been eaten up and spat out by this huge city and cannot take it any longer. Xiaohong decides to remain, but the last sentence, in which she disappears into the crowd, just another anonymous face, highlights the journey she is taking – away from individuality, and towards an uncertain future.
I know this all makes Northern Girls sound terribly dull and intense, but it isn’t. Certainly at the beginning, Xiaohong’s refusal to take any crap from anyone, whether they be her family or people she’s just met on the street, is not only funny, but a refreshing change from so many simpering female protagonists we’ve all read in so many novels. She is a brilliant creation, acting not just as a symbol of an entire generation of girls coming to the big city to find work and riches, but as a human being I think we’d all like to meet.