There were many things to like about Miss Chopsticks by Xue Xinran. First, the translators notes gave a good overview of the difficulties translating Chinese into English and also an insight into the difficulties of spoken vs. written Chinese as well as the understandable differences in the Chinese language resulting from the wide geography of the country.
That’s all technical but it also reflects the second interesting theme in the novel: the lives of rural Chinese vs. those of people living in the larger cities and towns. Xinran’s narrative makes these differences very clear and the major theme of the narrative is how the three sisters overcome these differences and adapt to the challenges for growth in the city. They go from being only chopsticks, everyday tools that are easily replaceable to being just as strong and valuable as men and boys, easily capable of holding up a roof-beam.
Another parallel theme is the changes that have been made to modernize and expand the life and economy of China. But the historical aspects are less developed than the personal aspects.
What is probably the novel’s strong point is also its weak point: it is clear and cleanly written but it seems simplistic and didactic. I was able to accept this dichotomy by assuming that the novel was written to appeal to juveniles. That makes Miss Chopsticks work for me and, although not much of a challenge, it was an enjoyable read: a good book, if you will.
Xinran now lives and writes in Great Britain. Her listed works are:
- The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices, 2003.
- Sky Burial, 2004.
- What the Chinese Don’t Eat, 2006.
- Miss Chopsticks, 2008.
- China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation, 2008.
- Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother, 2010.
- Buy Me the Sky, The Remarkable Truth of China’s One-Child Generations Rider, 2015.