Continuing with the Chinese women longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, I find myself faced with a book described by Ōe Kenzaburō as “one of the best ten literary works in the world of the past ten years”. That’s a big claim, so I was intrigued to see what Ōe saw in the novel by the first female president of the Chinese Writers Association.
Spanning the first thirty years of the lives of two sisters, The Bathing Women charts the maturation of Tiao and Fei, sisters of two people banished from Beijing for their naughty ways. But as Tiao and Fei discover, their parent’s marriage is less than happy, and when their mother has an affair, they are upset. But when a child is born from this affair, Tiao and Fei find themselves even more conflicted.
The first thing to say is that the writing is exquisite, no doubt thanks to Hongling Zhang and Jason Sommer’s translation. Tie’s sentences are both decorative and meaningful, straddling that line between purple prose and literary description in an almost perfect manner.
There’s one part of the translation that does intrigue me. Rebels and revolutionaries are termed “hooligans,” a theme that is returned to again and again, though not directly. Instead, Tie gives us the opportunity to examine what it means to be the family of someone who has been branded a revolutionary, someone who is driven to suicide because of the constant watching and insulting.
The most obvious manner in which this is done is Fei’s mother, Teacher Tang, who, in a rather harrowing scene early on in the book, is made to stand in front of an entire primary school, where she is then subjected to what can only be described as mob justice from a whole load of angry teachers egging on impressionable young children. It culminates in her being made to literally eat shit, and though she refuses at first, in the end, she complies. All this because she had a child out of wedlock. That child, Fan, eventually becomes friends with Tiao and Fei, and the impact of her mother’s suicide, and her growing up with her uncle, Dr Tang, seems to be that she becomes something of a wild child, a trait that continues well into her adult life.
Teacher Tang is not the only hooligan in the novel. Tiao and Fei’s own parents, Wu and Yixun, have been banished from Beijing for crimes that are never made explicit, but they are sent to a farm to work, though for some reason, their daughters are not allowed. Instead, they live in an apartment in Fuan, the city nearest the re-education farm, though their solitude does not last long. Their mother, Wu, comes back complaining of dizzy spells, and though the doctor does not find anything physically wrong with her, the two start a relationship that allows her to stay with her daughters in their tiny apartment.
Of course, as with all secret affairs, the consequences are never pretty. When Wu discovers she is pregnant to Dr Tang, she decides to keep the child. For a long time, we are unsure as to whether her husband, Yuxin, actually knows the third daughter is not his, but his behaviour would suggest he fully comprehends the situation. The resentment Tiao and Fei feel toward their mother’s selfish (in their eyes) behaviour is to transfer that hatred to the new child, Quan. This reaches a head one day, when Quan falls into an uncovered manhole in the courtyard of their apartment block, and though the two girls see it happen, they do nothing to stop it. Ostensibly, it is the guilt they feel from these actions that inform the rest of the life choices.
Up to this point, the novel is good, if not great. Sadly, the second half does not live up to the promise of what came before, and comes across as disjointed, both structurally and thematically. We move away from two young girls growing up in the shadow of their mother’s affair to two young women failing to find affairs of their own. I suppose the obvious link between the two sections is the fact that Tiao never had a good female role model growing up, resulting in an inability to form close relationships with men as an adult.
Arguably the largest problem with the second half of the novel is that Fei’s story is skipped over quite quickly, leaving one feeling rather unbalanced. Though we track Tiao’s adult life quite closely, including her two relationships, Fei’s story—that of moving to America to find a better life—is told, not shown, and suffers because of it. That’s not to say it’s not an interesting story—the relationship between the willing migrant and her motherland is rich in questions of identity, family and nationalism, but Tie makes only fleeting attempts to draw these out in a complex manner.
What does make it onto the page, though, is interesting. Fei, leaving China in the hope of finding a better life, turns into one of those people who hates on their homeland while they are away, perhaps to fit in more with the locals, perhaps to cover their insecurity. Her ability to speak English fluently gets her far in America, and she eventually marries an American man, though the relationship is far from happy. When she comes back to China, which she does sporadically throughout her twenties, she finds herself in the strange position of not feeling at home, having immersed herself in the ways of American cultural superiority.
Though Fei seems to reach an uneasy happiness by the end of the novel, Tiao seems just as discontent with her life as she did at the beginning. She remains isolated and alone, unable to connect with anyone else in a meaningful way. The only man she ever loved, the same man who agreed to marry her, has been pushed away by her sense of duty to his first wife, and she chooses a life of romantic solitude.
Ultimately, while I could appreciate the writing, the novel never hit the emotional heights I suppose I wanted from a story that promised to detail the lives of two sisters coming to terms with the fact that they helped cause the death of their younger sibling at a young age. And that first half is very good, detailing fragile relationships between mother and daughters. But the second half fails to deliver what was promised, falling apart into a rambling, meandering mess.