Miss Chopsticks – Xinran

February 2, 2010 § 8 Comments

Sisters Three, Five and Six don’t have much education, but one thing they know for certain: their mother is a failure because she hasn’t produced a son, and they only merit a number as a name. Women, their father tells them, are like chopsticks: utilitarian and easily broken. Men, on the other hand, are the strong rafters that hold up the roof of a house.

And that, is how this book has come to be titled Miss Chopsticks.

In this book, Xinran tells the story of three girls, sisters, who come from the country to the city of Nanjing in order to seek work, and some way to make life better for the rest of the family. The girls are each taken up by some very kind cityfolk: Three goes to  restaurant to help arrange vegetables as a way to attract customers; Five is brought to a Water Culture Centre, a health and medicinal spa where she makes up her mind to learn everything she can; Six, the only girl with some form of basic education and a lover of books, is taken to help at a teahouse that also provides books for their customers’ reading pleasure.

What follows is how each girl individually experiences their new life in the city. It is sometimes amusing to see how different the sisters’ opinions can be, but only serves to prove how important education is and can be. Six, being the most educated, sees studying English and aiming to further her studies to a higher level as the only way of improving her life. But Five, who never received any form of education and has always been deemed the most stupid of the lot, thinks that is is important to be practical and keep her eyes and ears open to learn anything she can without asking questions.

It was a little distracting to have the girls named Three, Five and Six. They even had an Uncle Two. It’s not that this doesn’t happen in real life, because it does. I’ve got uncles and aunties that I call based on where they are placed amongst their siblings. But the literal translation was a little difficult for me to grasp in the beginning, because I started reading “Three told them” as “Three of them”, which doesn’t quite make sense later on in the sentence, and I’ll realise I read it wrong.

It does get easier after a while, and before long, I surprised myself to realise I had already finishsed the book.

But I felt that a lot of the beauty that might have been in the original Chinese manuscript might have been lost in its translation to English. I had a vague sense that maybe the Chinese script was a lot more lyrical, with more emotion and depth, like how most Chinese idioms and individual words could carry layers of meaning in them. It’s a pity not much of that was brought through to English.


Im including this book for the Women Unbound Challenge. Xinran is known for her books that focus on the women of China. And this book is no different. What this book presents is a little different from some of the China-based books I’ve read so far, in that this story is set in 2001. The fact that there is such a difference in how rural Chinese still perceive women compared to in the city is something that is, I think, very little known outside of the villages, much less outside of China.

That girls are to be married into her husband’s family means that she is useless when it comes to continuing the family bloodline. That, and that alone, has been the only thing that matters for the typical Chinese family for so long, and quite sadly, still persists today in some parts of China.

In this book, we’re told that girls are compared to ‘chopsticks’, and boys to ‘roofbeams’. Physically, chopsticks are thin and slender and don’t do much; roofbeams hold up the roof, the structure that keeps the house intact. But I can’t help but think, when people say girls are like chopsticks, they are also (unwittingly) saying that girls, like chopsticks, are crucial in daily life, and an indispensable part of Chinese culture.

Rating: 3.5

For: Women Unbound Challenge

§ 8 Responses to Miss Chopsticks – Xinran

  • Mel u says:

    I read this book a few months ago-Like you I liked it but did not love it-I enjoyed the portrayal of the 3 sisters and yes the numbers for names was a bit annoying after a while-Here in the Philippines sometimes children get ended up being named “Boy” or “Baby” as the parents cannot think of their own names or the children are named by medical workers.

    • Michelle says:

      You mean they actually get named ‘Boy’?! Wow! It’s more like pet names for us, like I call my younger brother ‘boy’, because he’s the only son, but his name is most certainly not ‘Boy’. I’ve got a cousin who we call ‘Baby’, because he’s the youngest of 3 brothers, but also that’s just what we call him at home. How awkward it must be for someone to be named ‘Baby’!

  • mee says:

    Oh gosh you know I don’t like Chinese names translated to English. I can totally see how it could be extra confusing in this particular case when the names are numbers (more than words that don’t come up very often like, say, Snow Flower).

    Btw just today I found out that Xinran has a new book coming called Message from an Unknown Mother.

    • Michelle says:

      She’s got quite a few books under her belt already, hasn’t she? It’s funny how I think I don’t really love her writing, but just keep going back for more.

  • gaskella says:

    This one has been on my TBR pile for a while. I loved Sky Burial, one of her previous books in which a Chinese woman goes searching for her husband – a doctor, who went missing in Tibet. That one really moved me, so I would like to read another of hers.

    • Michelle says:

      Glad you loved Sky Burial. That’s one of her books that I’ve been meaning to read too. I had wanted to read Sky Burial over Miss Chopsticks, but couldn’t find it. Hope you enjoy your copy.

  • savidgereads says:

    Hmmm this one is a book I have been wanting to hear lots and lots about… might be one to get from the library though am thinking! (Well i can’t actually get it anywhere else being on a book buying ban hahaha)

    • Michelle says:

      I’d say get it from the library first. I have a suspicion that this might not be her best. I’m still keen on trying out Sky Burial. Maybe it would be better than this?

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