Three Sisters – Bi Feiyu

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 Winner of 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize

Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin

Five words from the blurb: sisters, China, power, society, family

Three Sisters gives a fascinating insight into the life of Chinese women in the 1970s. By observing the differences between three sisters we see how the status of their birth position affects everything that happens to them.

The Three Sisters

  • Yumi uses her status as the eldest daughter to gain the respect of all those around her. This power ensures that she easily finds a favourable marriage and so has a far greater chance of achieving a happy life.
  • Yuxiu, the third sister, must use as much charm as possible to negotiate opportunities for herself.
  • Yuyang, the seventh sister, must rely on her talents alone, having none of the power that being an older sibling brings.

The book showed each sister in turn, allowing us to connect to them completely. It did a wonderful job of showing the Chinese culture, particularly by explaining their inner thoughts and fears.  The importance of ‘saving face’ was high on all their agendas and this book was great at explaining their actions in an easy to understand, but vivid way.

….everyone in town knew Yuxiu’s secret. She assumed that no one knew, but they all did. This is generally how private matters are treated. It is as if they are screened by a sheet of paper so flimsy it cannot withstand a simple poke but so sturdy everyone will avoid it. Only country folk are so uncouth and impatient that they need to get to the bottom of things at once. Townsfolk aren’t like that at all. Some things are not meant to be poked open; exposing them spoils the fun. What’s the hurry? You cannot wrap fire in paper; sooner or later it will burn through and everything will be exposed. That is more spectacular, more appealing.

I found the last section to be less interesting than the others, but it was still enjoyable. My only complaint is that the book did not end well. I don’t mean that it was sad, just that it was abrupt and didn’t come to any logical conclusions. I would have liked to see all three sisters mentioned on the final pages, not just a slightly odd scene containing only the youngest. This is a minor quibble though. It is a beautifully written book and I’m sure it will be loved by many people.

As an introduction to Chinese literature, this is an ideal choice. It is well paced and contains a depth of emotion. I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in Chinese literature, but I think the focus on family relationships will mean that it will be appreciated by women more than men.

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  1. Brenna says:

    Lovely review, Jackie. I think I’ve got you to blame for my ever-growing TBR list :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Brenna, That is what I like to hear!! I hope that you enjoy the books as much as I did. :-)

  2. kimbofo says:

    I have a copy of this in my TBR, mainly because I got a bit obsessed with Chinese fiction and non-fiction last year, so pleased to hear this one is good. I spent three weeks travelling through China in Nov/Dec and it is the most amazing country I’ve ever visited: everyone was so friendly and welcoming, the food was delicious and the scenery, in places, was awe-inspiring! I would love to go back.

    1. Jackie says:

      kim, I loved visiting China too. The whole country was wonderful, but Guilin has to be the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited. I have had the same fascination with Chinese literature since visiting, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to have been translated to the same extent as Japanese literature (another favourite of mine!) Hopefully more translations will slowly make their way over here.

      1. kimbofo says:

        Didn’t know you’d been to China, Jackie. When did you go?

        My favourite place was Yangshuo — all the limestone karsts were just outstanding.

        I think you’ll find more and more Chinese fiction is being translated into English, as the West comes to realise that this is a country we can no longer ignore.

        If you’ve not read Ma Jian’s “Beijing Coma” I really recommend that as a hard-hitting and powerful read. You might also like Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth” which won the Pulitzer Prize.

        1. Jackie says:

          Kim, I went to China about 7 years ago. I have been collecting Chinese books since then and own both the books you mention, but haven’t got around to reading them yet. :-( I should really stop this terrible habit, but I just can’t stop myself from buying them all. The problem is that I don’t like to read books from the same part of the world too close together and so they stack up. At least I know I have them to hand and will get to them eventually.

  3. Misha says:

    I love the premise of the book. Thanks for the lovely review! It seems like a book I would love.

    1. Jackie says:

      Misha, I’m pleased that I was able to bring it to your attention.

  4. Alex says:

    I do like a good family drama :) How did the time (70s) influenced the book?

    1. Jackie says:

      Alex, The cultural revolution was taking place during the 1970s and so the family had to be very careful about their actions – ensuring they maintained good relationships with the important people in their area.

      It was nice to see a book which showed life during this period without focusing on the fighting. It just showed the life of a normal family getting on with things.

  5. Biblibio says:

    I’d heard of Three Sisters but had avoided it for fear of it coming off as too common and familiar a novel. While it does still appear to be fairly familiar, it seems as though the setting must lend some originality and perspective to the story. I’m still hesitant (particularly after your comment regarding the disappointing ending), but I’m seriously considering reading Three Sisters now. I am woefully ignorant and limited when it comes to Chinese literature… that should change.

    1. Jackie says:

      Biblibio, It is a very familiar story. There are affairs, rapes and pregnancies, but other than that very little happens. It is all about the family life of these women. If you haven’t experienced Chinese literature before then I think this is a very good place to start – you won’t be disappointed by the ending until the very last pages ;-) And the setting with all its cultural differences will hopefully make up for any quietness of the plot.

  6. Charlie says:

    Most of the Chinese books I’ve read have been historic and based on real people so I’ll keep this one in mind, I love learning about the social aspects especially.

    1. Jackie says:

      Charlie, If you enjoy reading about their social interactions then you’ll love this one – I haven’t read anything that explains them so well :-)

  7. Alex Baugh says:

    This sounds really good. I was glad to see it is in my library, though the British cover is much nicer than the US edition. Thanks for the great review.

    1. Jackie says:

      Alex, It is good to know your library has a copy – I hope that you enjoy reading it if you decide to give it a try.

  8. TERESA says:

    I really like the sound of this, thanks for a great review, Jackie.

    1. Jackie says:

      Teresa, My pleasure :-)

  9. NancyO says:

    I just read this a couple of weeks back — I agree about the last part. It was a bit off from the rest of the book, but I still liked it, and I liked the book overall. It was really interesting to me how different, yet how the same the sisters were. Thanks for the review!

    1. Jackie says:

      Nancy, Yes. I remember seeing your review, but I didn’t want to read it as I knew I’d be reading it soon. I’ve just gone back to take a look and it seems as though we had very similar thoughts on it. I hope I enjoy Serious Men just as much.

  10. JoV says:

    I have read many Chinese Lit. Bi FeiYu would be a new one for me. But I don’t like abrupt end, so I will be reading this with trepidation. Thanks for recommending this one. Great review Jackie. ;)

    1. Jackie says:

      Jo, At least the rest of the book provided enough information/entertainment to make up for the ending. Don’t worry about starting this one :-)


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