walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Tsukiyama's _Women of the Silk_

Deceptively simple writing style. For a first novel -- heck, for any novel -- lacking in any major flaws. Two complaints. First, it is clear internally, and from a tiny amount of research that the author intended to tell the story of Pei's entire life, but ended it when she went to Hong Kong in her late 20s. And indeed, there is a sequel. Always annoying. Second, POV -- jumps from character to character, and not very well defined ever. Mildly irritating as an issue of craft; in no way works to the detriment of the story, so only a minor complaint.

Pei's dad is Hakka; her mum is regular Han. It's pretty obvious right from the beginning that this is not a normal family; they are unhappy. Dad doesn't talk. Mother used to be happy, but now has crusted herself over and protects herself from everyone by detachment and overwork. Older sister Li is excessively compliant. Everyone is probably diagnosably clinically depressed. No one's talking. Life gets bad with bad harvest one year, so Pei is delivered to the silk factory where her wages save the family farm, but don't really help out Li after she is married off to an abusive farmer. Pei is eight at the time, and gets no warning that the unusual outing with her father one day means she won't see her mother for the better part of two decades, and no one from her family ever visits her, despite the fact they are dependent on her for their continued subsistence.

Tsukiyama has an interesting take on the whole thing. All characters are depicted with great sympathy, even when there is no excuse for their action (or inaction, or lack of communication). Uniformly, the characters experience great tragedy. This is during the Japanese invasion of China, so tragedy arrives in a lot of forms. But those characters who cultivate close personal relationships are consistently depicted as happier -- even when their objective life is poor, exhausting and marked by death and loss -- than those who detach from everyone around them, who withdraw, who give up, who are passive. These relationships sometimes work to the objective betterment of those involved (Pei definitely benefits by her friendship with Lin!), but not always. But that isn't the point. It is the subjectively better life experience that matters.

I spent a fair amount of time while reading this thinking about how to characterize this theme/perspective/philosophy. Certainly, it is one I wholeheartedly agree with. But I would be very reluctant to call it a Western perspective. But it was also interesting to see that what I often blame on our detachment culture can arise in nearly any culture.

While some of Pei's earnings go to her family, she has some to herself, more as she rises through the ranks thanks to her skill and go-gettingness and friendship with Lin. The women in the silk factory, like the daughters of farm families working in New England textile mills, spend their money on a variety of things: better food than they had at home, cultural experiences (books, art, theatre), travel. It was very interesting to see how a lot of the effects of women-in-mills were the same in a village in Canton, or New England. Culture mediates partly, but salaries to women have profound effects across cultures.

I bought this book used. The previous owner marked it up considerably in ink. That woman (look, there are hearts all over the place in the margins; the assumption is justified) is/was an idiot. There are numerous, close friendships between women in this book, and they were consistently labeled lesbian by the previous reader. Let me tell you, there is no basis in the text for this, and anyone who has done any reading of Victorian era English/American letters/diaries/etc. knows how passionate language between friends of the same sex could get without in any way implying sexual orientation or activity. Further, the reader then went on to complain that all the hetero relationships in the book were described in a very negative way, while the homo (her word) relationships were positive. She never came right out and used the phrase homosexual propaganda, but I could readily imagine her thinking it. Gack! There were actually positive heterosexual relationshiops. Pei's mother's parents clearly had a good relationship and her early family life was happy and cheerful. Sui Ling (sp? shot during the strike) has an extremely close and loving relationship with her husband, despite living separately while he is a laborer and she works in the silk factory. True, the majority of the depicted marriages were unhappy, but if it's propaganda for or against anything, it's propaganda against early/forced/arranged marriages.

Ack! Further research suggests Tsukiyama meant the Pei/Lin thing to be subtly lesbian. Oh, come on. Apparently our reader was not such an idiot. Well, maybe. But here's some more background on the setting of this novel:


I'm betting Tsukiyama read the essay by Watson. This page also refers to the three stages in women's lives (following dad/older brother, then husband, then son), which supplies a nice explanation for why Lin's mother was in the garden weeping angrily after her son married. Couldn't really ignore the fact that she had been displaced within the household anymore?

Also found this: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=8891

Really nice analysis of how marrying out/sons inheriting never got dented -- even by all the evil craziness of the mid 20th century -- and is now manifesting as a massive gender imbalance in births. Also some interesting comments about how the difficulty of getting a divorce combined with the birth control laws probably encourages men in rural areas to murder their wives if they don't produce a son/children at all. A bit further on, there's a description of a couple of men who attempted to marry into a village and died mysteriously/were chased off violently (wow, it's like the dark side of the way the bonobos do things).

The previous owner of this book also had some issues with the descriptions of hair styles and the hair dressing ceremony. Apparently she didn't realize that the hair styles involved were a widespread cultural marker for the status of the women (not unlike wearing a wedding ring, for example; I understand that some priests and nuns do wear wedding rings to show their marriage to the Church/Christ/whatever, which would seem to be an exact parallel for the Hairdressing Ceremony). See: http://www.sacu.org/marriage.html. The ceremony marked the moment the woman became a full adult. It is part of the traditional wedding ceremony, and had been adopted by women in South China who chose not to ever marry. To treat this lightly, or with contempt, as somehow a superficial obsession is . . . despicable.

Tsukiyama herself, according to the back matter, is the daughter of a Chinese-Japanese interracial marriage. !!! I'm tempted to add more exclamation marks. And here she is writing a book that, towards the end, introduces a young woman who has, through great personal stamina and will to live, survived and escaped the Rape of Nanking, where she herself was raped, next to her sister and mother. I think this is the second or third time I've seen a description of such a rape in which one woman sings lullabies to another woman throughout the rape in an effort to comfort each other. Tsukiyama in an interview said she wouldn't write a memoir because her life is too boring. One wonders if that could possibly be true, given her parentage and the inevitable complications that must have brought to her life. I do wonder if she chose to make Pei's father Hakka and Pei's mother Han was influenced by her own life experience. Certainly having at least one parent be Hakka made Pei's tall stature more plausible, and supplied a ready set of stereotypes to explain her wanderlust, which could otherwise not readily be explained in a Chinese peasant. Hakka family also helps normalize an expectation that women should economically contribute to the family.

As the invading Japanese army approaches, and as the chaos of the struggle between Chiang Kai-Shek's army and the Communists makes the countryside increasingly difficult, the women at the silk factory do not passively await the death and destruction. Instead, together and individually, they consider the available choices for where to ride out -- or hide out -- the war: in religious orders (the Buddhist vegetarian halls), spinster homes (not sure if this is spinster unmarried woman, which many but not all workers in the silk factory were, or if this is spinster in the original sense), or travel to safer regions. They provide what assistance they can to each other in making and implementing these decisions. Only one woman chooses to remain in the now closed factory; these are clearly women who are accustomed to making good decisions on their own behalf. Tsukiyama has really drawn a compelling picture of Chinese protofeminists.

One last remark. I kept thinking Tsukiyama had screwed up with that month-long confinement for Pei's mother after giving birth. It had to be 40 days, right? It's _always_ at least 40 days. Well, she didn't screw up. But it was 40 days. Still called "doing the month".


As some of my readers may know, I'm a _huge_ fan of (voluntary, assisted) "confinement". I think all this out-and-about with a young baby crap leads to problems establishing breastfeeding, exhaustion, and adapting more slowly/less completely to one's inevitably new and very different life. While there is some unsupported stuff about how the rituals of doing the month can stress some women out, there's supported stuff about how doing the month reduces complications and postpartum depression -- just the way I would expect.


Okay, that's it. I'm stopping. I only read this book for book group tomorrow. This is not, NOT an area I'm going to keep researching. I swear. I'm going back to my gearhead mama tendencies.

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