- Book Reviews
- Northern Girls by Sheng Keyi
Northern Girls by Sheng Keyi
Translated by Shelly Bryant
Qian Xiaohong is born into a sleepy village far from China’s headlong rush towards development. A scandalous love affair launches the buxom but unworldly sixteen-year-old on a journey to the southern boomtown of Shenzhen. There, released from the stifling conservatism of her rural upbringing, Xiaohong must navigate a strange new world with unfamiliar rules and values, and learn to go on in the face of great adversity. Along the way, Xiaohong finds support and solace from her fellow ‘northern girls’, with whom life’s challenges and pleasures can be shared.
Northern Girls explores the inner lives of a generation of young, rural Chinese women who embark on life-changing journeys in the search of something better.
Reading Chinese Network Reviews
Reviewed by Markéta Glanzová, 5/12/18
“Once their pockets were filled with a little cash, guys like him always wanted to try out the ‘Northern Girls’ (as the Cantonese liked to call girls who came to the city from the rural provinces), using them to create a life of leisure, or – you might say – indulgence.” Northern Girls is a debut novel written by Sheng Keyi 盛可以 in 2004. Sheng Keyi was born in Hunan and she belongs to the newer generation of Chinese writers describing life in modern China. Northern Girls was translated into English by Shelly Bryant and in 2012 longlisted for Man Asian Literary Prize.
The novel is set in the 1990s and describes the life of young, unskilled and uneducated girls who decided to leave their villages and come to Shenzhen – China’s first Special Economic Zone – in search of a better life. However, the reality in Shenzhen is much tougher than anyone could imagine, and the readers witness all the hardships which the young migrant workers had to endure and the price they had to pay. As one male character says: “To get money, women always have to go through men”. Young female workers are therefore mostly being perceived just like an object of male´s desire, and according to the man, their only value is their “body”.
The main character of the novel is Qian Xiaohong, who was just sixteen years old when leaving her village with her childhood friend Sijiang. Xiaohong is a strong character, with strong will and aim to achieve. She is also kind and supportive but at the same time very daring and sharp-tongued. She has a special gift to see right through people and know their hidden intentions, which helps her get through lots of difficulties. What is admirable about Xiaohong is her positivity. Even after experiencing most extreme treatment and conditions, she always looks to the future with hope and she believes she will succeed. As she says: “There´s no bridge that can´t be crossed.” Probably thanks to her strong will and charisma, the life in Shenzhen didn’t take such a big toll on her as on Sijiang who is a very naïve and trusting person. However, Xiaohong´s life is still far away from what could be called “happy”.
The two girls changed many jobs and we can see how the migrant workers were treated in different places and what the working conditions were like. Generally, the girls were abused in some way in all their jobs. Moreover, after returning to their village to visit their families after one year, the girls experience some great disillusionment there as well. These episodes are maybe even harder to read than the one describing the hardship in the city as the girls are misunderstood by the people they trust the most. The girls struggle also in their private lives and the novel is surprisingly open in the topic of women´s sexuality and desire. Much of attention is paid to Xiaohong´s enormously big breasts, which serve as her main characteristic and could be called the leitmotif of the novel.
Sheng Keyi definitely has a storytelling gift as the story couldn’t go more smoothly, which is also thanks to an excellent translation by Shelly Bryant. The novel doesn´t have a complex plot but is made from many episodes which are connected through Xiaohong. Story introduces lots of characters who appear and disappear and allow us to take a glimpse of lives of many people in Shenzhen and many troubles they had to deal with on everyday basis.
Northern Girls is an extraordinary book showing the dark side of the China´s economic miracle and the “better life” it was promoting. Even though the lives of the “northern girls” were brutal and shocking, the book is filled with Xiaohong´s intoxicating sense of humour and irony. Sheng Keyi manages to talk about such a heavy topic with a light tone, however, the reader can sense the heaviness and importance of the message all along and this I consider a great merit of the novel. Moreover, Xiaohong is such a lively character that it is hard to part with her and I believe I will keep seeing her in front of my eyes long time after finishing the last page of the novel.
Reviewed by Markéta Glanzová
Reviewed by Vicki Leigh, 3/4/18
Urban modern China is a minefield to say the least if you’re from a poor background like gutsy Xiaohong. Hailing from Hunan province with her gentle friend Sijiang, these two principled, if almost naïve, 16-year-old Northern Girls do their best to make a life for themselves in a cruel, misogynistic Shenzhen in ‘glam-writer’ author Sheng Keyi’s biting, emotive debut novel.
The geographical demarcation of the eponymous ‘northern girls’ initially suggests they are from any region north of the Qinling Huaihe Line, much like the Mason-Dixon line in the United States, however we find this is the way ‘the Cantonese like to call girls who came from rural provinces to the city’, who like to ‘try out’ these ‘Northern girls’ like some exotic delicacy, yet this particular term of endearment leaves a nasty aftertaste for both protagonist and reader.
‘Glam-writers’ (美女作家) such as Sheng Keyi dare to write about the ugly side of life for their female protagonists, which is nothing like the self-important and vain, gratuitous sex that the official Chinese media would have the reader believe post-Shanghai Baby. Instead, glamour is often difficult to come by when you are in Xiaohong’s position, even if you are considered externally beautiful yourself as she often is for her large bosom. The ‘ugly’ minutiae-led realism is depicted in mundane detail: from graphically squeezing a spot in a mirror, to putting a brass coil into water to boil it for personal use are all commonplace events, and worlds away from being explicitly ‘glamorous’ (possibly a byword for ‘sexual’) for the sake of it.
Indeed, much of the sexual interaction depicted in the novel is far from glamorous, or even consensual: I was fearful for Xiaohong as I worked out how young our protagonist was when her much older brother-in-law is implied as beginning to coerce around ten-year old Xiaohong into sexual activity. A commodity from birth it would seem. Later in life, sexual micro-aggressions from Li Mazi who gets ‘too friendly’ with the girls on the train and thus forces them into making an excuse to go to the bathroom (‘I’m going to be sick’/’he kept grabbing my hand, I barely managed to fend him off’) make me feel like I’m re-living Everyday Feminism again. And that is just the beginning. Twenty-first century patriarchy, everybody.
Outrageously and illegally low living and working standards are exhibited throughout, a particular memorable ‘highlight’ described as being a months’ paid factory work only counting after Xiaohong has worked on the brutally monotonous factory hamster wheel for the coming six months… these wages are initially a ‘deposit’ designed to keep easily-manipulated migrant workers who have virtually nothing chained to eternal debt, which is something that should surely incense the Western reader when having a rude awakening about the reality of conditions of the ‘workshop of the world’ producing tons of their clothes for Primark, or iPhones.
Northern Girls is the first time I have experienced a Chinese ethnic minority as even a minor character in a novel, with Ah Jun from Guangxi who has ‘hair so long it reaches her buttocks’. This is something I would like to see more of in translated Chinese literature, as Chinese society is certainly not solely by and for the Han majority.
The translation is generally smooth and engaging, yet using a colourful British vernacular with ‘bugger off!’ and ‘can I scrounge a smoke?’ This could almost be Hackney. Later, As the two girls converse with prostitutes in a hostel, references to ‘my rich uncle’ and such like may cause translation issues for non-Chinese speakers, who may not realise these are not male blood relatives they are talking about.
However, if I never see the words ‘rump’ and ‘bust’ again, it will be too soon!
During my studies, this would have been the kind of feminist fiction I would gladly devour in my spare time when not overloading myself with academic literature that kept me in touch with the culture I was immersing myself in, and simultaneously keeping a tab on the realism of life for the tens of millions of ill-treated, rural women below the poverty line in China whose voices are rarely heard, or even counted, on the international stage. As Xiaohong posits: ‘prostitutes and rape victims lose out’.
Indeed, Sheng Keyi has even stated that the experiences of these women on the ‘lowest social rung’ silently endure ‘shocking hardships’ that she has not even expounded upon in this novel. Which, to be quite honest, surely does not leave very much.
The Writing Chinese Network affirms that Sheng Keyi had the female protagonist of this tale ‘frame her questions about the way China treats women, migrant workers and the rural poor’ and I would venture that Sheng Keyi has written a startling story that has made this point magnificently. Should any policy-maker or politician wish to know what life is truly like for the rural Chinese worker, I would politely suggest this novel and duly inform them this is no work of fiction, but an autobiography about the subaltern female post-Mao peasant population still trying their damnedest to ‘hold up half the sky’.
Reviewed by Vicki Leigh
Reviewed by Andreea Chirita, 21/2/18
Qian Xiaohong, the country girl school drop-out from Hunan province who leaves for Shenzhen in search of a job, has an impressive pair of breasts that Sheng Keyi does not shy away from describing in minute, eroticized detail from the opening paragraphs. Having slept with her brother-in-law, she runs away avoiding public shame. Upon arriving in the big southern city of Shenzhen and with the help of her breasts, Xiaohong manages to quickly climb the social ladder.
She goes from being a salon shampoo girl, to a worker in a toy factory, to a receptionist at a hotel, and finally to being in charge of the PR gynaecology department at the city’s hospital. As if real characters, her breasts shamelessly and provocatively accompany her step-by-step on a painful path to social emancipation.
Xiaohong’s abnormally large, impressive bosom witnesses and acts upon its owner’s various encounters which parallels the issues that China has to pay for its equally abnormally large, impressive economic development. The protagonist, along with her breasts, are envied, desired, commodified, humiliated, tortured, raped, and accordingly grow larger and larger until they turn into grotesque accessories that drag the Hunan girl down, the point that, by the end of the novel, her professional development is sabotaged.
Xiaohong’s flamboyant eroticism and naïve understanding of her own sexuality go hand-in-hand with China’s own exploding economy, specifically the epicurean wannabe lifestyle of contemporary Chinese society. But unlike the economy’s boule-de-neige which is blinded by power and money, Xiaohong has control over her breasts and morals even when she can hardly stand up on her feet because of their weight.
The northern girl’s sharp mind, spontaneous and warm approach to fellow human beings, and her uninhibited sexuality are charming and intriguing. Xiaohong is genuinely bright in dissecting people’s twisted psychologies, which she does without pretense and with plenty of sarcasm and heightened emotions. For example, in the following passage, in which Xiaohong is advising her friend Sijiang to proceed to abortion, she says, “Fuck! Sijiang, now is not the time to be maternal. If you give birth to this wild creature, it’s all over for you. You’ll be ruined! And anyway – look… The child is begging! She just created another life to suffer slowly with her. If she loved that child, she would have destroyed it more quickly!”
The gruesome experiences that most of the female characters in the novel go through are pervasively charged with horrid violence. Women get raped, killed, harmed. The shocking aspect of abused women consists not so much in the abundance of aggression inflicted on them, but rather in the natural yet surrealist grasp of the author. Sheng Keyi knows very well that the ill-treatment of female body is taken for granted within the Chinese society, like a verified chemistry formula or like an everyday boring piece of news. The author chooses a detached narrative view of the monstrosities her female characters undergo in order to shock and provoke the readers: “He pinned her to the vehicle, his knee pressed firmly between her legs. He dug his fingers into the flesh under her arms. She couldn’t move. He freed one hand to yank her pants down, renewing in her the will to fight back. ‘Keep struggling and I’ll stab you.’ Her resistance seemed only to serve as further stimulation. […] The two were at a stalemate against the van when it shuddered with a few random shocks before settling into a steady rhythmic rocking – up and down, up and down. The movement invigorated him further, and he rammed himself as hard as he could against her. […] Dizzy, she fell limp.”
The rampant violence forced upon the female body is not, of course, a new trope characterizing contemporary Chinese fiction whenever society’s lack of morality, powered by the invasion of neoliberal values, is at stake. Yu Hua, Su Tong and a good number of male Chinese writers famously juxtapose the act of rape performed on the female body with the rape performed by historical contingencies on China’s new sense of consciousness. However, unlike the symbolic association tailored within the fiction of male writers, Sheng Keyi’s characters are endowed with infinite beauty and power of resurrection.
Sijiang is ready to sacrifice her own body in order to save her friend’s when she is raped. She becomes herself a sure victim of savagery, just like in the following scene: “The doctor, face expressionless, stabbed with her forceps. Sijiang howled. The doctor grasped the metal and wiggled it back and forth. Bleeding like a stuck pig, Sijiang continued to wail, the cries growing gradually weaker. (…) She broke out into a cold sweat, lying in a puddle of fluids.” After such a sadistic experience, Sijiang admits her fragile nature but moves on with her life without relying on her emasculated boyfriend’s attempts to comfort her. There is a lot of power in her frail condition, which lurks behind the physical pain she had been mistakenly administered.
Sheng Keyi’s dark realism and sarcastic but genuine dialogues seem to be the only narrative keys able to make this story of intertwining beauty and violence plausible. Her accounts of Chinese women leaves you with a taste of infinite sadness, yet surprising hope.
Reviewed by Andreea Chirita
Reviewed by Bonnie Cheung, 21/2/18
Life as a female is no easy journey.
That isn’t to say that life as a man is a walk in the park either, but throughout the course of this story the brutal realities that attractive and young girls face and forced to endure are highlighted to a degree that is impossible to ignore.
Xiaohong, the story’s protagonist, is a young, attractive and voluptuous teenager who possesses a body that causes almost any man who encounters her to be led astray. The story follows her as she jumps from one job to the other, some chosen by her own volition, others chosen for her due to fate’s cruel design.
One’s expectations of how they think they would be treated can, oftentimes, be shaped from the person’s younger childhood days. This is certainly the case for Xiaohong, who had had more than her fair share of inappropriate and lecherous glances and has come to know exactly what to expect from those stares, from the moment she hit puberty. A girl from Northern China, born with the type of body that stirs some of the most perverse thoughts from the minds of boys and men, learns at an incredibly young age that life is not fair. As a youth possessing an enviable figure, Xiaohong attracted negative behaviour from both sexes. From males, she experienced lechery. From females, she provoked both admiration and envy. The latter of which, unfortunately for the female protagonist of this story, would cause her strife on more than one occasion, forcing her to leave and physically remove herself from wherever she was at that given moment in life.
Due to her ability to, often unconsciously, entice the males around her, she is involved in all sorts of scandals, some with truth in them and others simply rumours or jealous suspicions. At times I was left feeling quite sorry and sympathetic for the girl. I was painfully aware, throughout the course of the story, of just how young she was. Despite handling most harsh and cruel situations that life threw at her admirably well, sometimes I couldn’t help but feel as though her behaviour and reactions to some situations naïve and childish.
In a way, Xiaohong was an immensely admirable character. Sure, I by no means always agreed with the decisions that she sometimes took, but she was a dreamer. She never gave up of striving for more, working hard for more. Personally, I don’t think she ever took anything for granted. What she received she would almost always be aware of how she came to possess it. Bearing in mind the types of horrendous situations she’d encountered since such an early stage of her life, I found it extremely commendable that she had the conviction to strive towards having a better life for herself. She would not allow herself to be wrongfully pushed around by society and was often all too aware when life was simply being unfair to her as opposed to her actually committing a wrongdoing.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wished to gain an insight into the hardships country girls often faced when migrating to the city in hopes of attaining a better life for themselves and for their family.
Reviewed by Bonnie Cheung
Reviewed by Cynthia Anderson, 8/1/18
Northern Girls is a coming of age story about the experience of a young woman leaving her rural village to find a better life in the big city. Set in Shenzhen during the 1990s, China’s first Special Economic Zone and one of the fastest growing cities in the world, Sheng’s protagonist gives a voice to the experience of millions of young migrant women across China who have set out on a similar journey.
Xiaohong, a teenager with ‘breasts much too large for civilized, polite society,’ is cast out of her home in Hunan by her sister and the villagers who blame her for her brother-in-law’s advances. With little education, Xiaohong’s opportunities are limited. Frequently switching jobs, she becomes a shampoo girl in a salon, a factory worker and a hotel receptionist. As she confronts exploitation and discrimination because of her gender and being unable to obtain a Shenzhen resident permit, resiliency and quick-thinking get her through. When tragedy strikes one of her friends, a policeman helps her obtain a post in a women’s hospital where her life seems to change for the better until her best friend, Sijiang, gets caught up in the hospital’s draconian family planning policies. Through it all we see Xiaohong as an independent, funny, and brave woman determined to face and meet the challenges life throws at her.
The title, Northern Girls, is a term Cantonese men use to refer to rural women who come to the city from the provinces. Local guys, believing these girls are naïve and easy to exploit, ‘always wanted to try out the ‘Northern Girls,’ using them to create a life of leisure, or – you might say – indulgence.’ Though Sijian and Xiaohong come under the influence of such men from the moment they leave their village, they are determined to work hard and study at night to hold on to their independence and self-esteem. The constant refrain through the novel seems to be the importance of education. As an older women advises Xiaohong, ‘You’ll be sought after in your late teens…but after a few years, even a dog won’t take a second sniff at you. Learn something. Pick up a skill.’
In simple, frank prose Sheng paints a bleak picture of the discrimination rural migrant women experience. After a year of living through the hardships of Shenzhen, Xiaohong returns to her village bearing gifts for her family and friends. To her surprise she is greeted with suspicion by the villagers and especially her sister, who can’t believe a woman can earn such money through hard work. ‘Girls go to Shenzhen and they always go down that path. Everyone knows it. Just look at you, so well dressed. Who wouldn’t have some doubts?’ And after her brother-in-law demands to sleep with her again, Xiaohong realizes that no matter how bad the experiences she’s had in Shenzhen they have changed her in a profound way. From earning her own money, learning new skills and seeing the world, she can stand up for herself in a way she couldn’t before and she feels the stifling constraints of rural village life.
But Xiaohong’s life in Shenzhen weighs on her. Sheng symbolizes this weight through the swelling of Xiaohong’s breasts that towards the end of the novel almost make it impossible for her to go on. And yet despite all the hardships she does go on. There are an estimated 150 million migrant workers in China, one third of them women. Rather than seeing them as a faceless mass of workers or ‘ants in a vast colony,’ Northern Girls captures the complex mix of emotions and experiences of a few individuals that lived through this period of rapid social and economic change.
Shelly Bryant has done an excellent translation so that English readers grasp the complexities of dialects and slang and how they harbor markers of socio economic class. Northern Girls is an engaging read that captures a woman’s perspective during a significant period in contemporary China.
Reviewed by Cynthia Anderson
Reviewed by Zahra Raja, 30/12/17
I’m a rather conservative reader, so when the novel opened with a description of how large the protagonist’s breasts were, I didn’t hold out much hope for the rest. Having said that, our protagonist is a compelling character and much more than the size of her chest.
Although there are perhaps too many references to her breasts, it doesn’t detract from Xiaohong’s overall story which details her struggles with her best friend Sijiang in life and love as “northerners” in a big city (even though Hunan is in the south of China, to residents of Shenzhen, the girls are still foreign “northerners”).
Xiaohong is a bright, vivacious character whose gung-ho and liberal attitude get her from the small village where she grew up in Hunan, to Shenzhen, one of the special economic zones in China in the hope of a better life. Xiaohong has a liberal attitude to her sexuality, however she is no way naïve; she is worldly for her age and is able to use her wiles to get out of sticky situations. She also refuses to compromise her principles and does not sell her body for money. She blazes through life like a bull in a china shop with just as much subtlety, job-hopping from hair girl in a salon, to factory worker, to hotel clerk to the publicity department of a hospital, and along the way both have their fair share of encounters with the opposite gender. Sijiang is different from Xiaohong in that she is more timid, and she yearns for a more romantic, long-term relationship. She has several attempts, which all backfire spectacularly and have a horrible conclusion, seeing her abandoned and alone and heading back to the village she was born. This leads on to the point that men are not treated particularly well in this novel; not a single semi-decent human being of the male persuasion can be found within a 100km radius. Zhu Dacheng seems to be the closest we get to somewhat redeemable male, as he gives Xiaohong a place to stay and refuses to sleep with her when she attempts to instigate it, saying it would be taking advantage of her. However, during a discussion at a recent conference on reviewing modern Chinese fiction, the author Sheng Keyi revealed that Zhu Dacheng would have ended up the same way had she had enough time and words to dedicate to him. Men are irredeemable pigs it would seem, and our heroines are better off without them.
The ending of the novel seems to be rather bleak, a stark contrast to the energetic and upbeat pace that has accompanied us from the beginning. Sijiang heads back to her home thoroughly defeated, and Xiaohong’s breasts are no longer an asset, rather they start to grow again, and balloon to the point where she struggles to walk. Where once she was ogled by men on the bus, she now has men giving up their seats for her out of duty, and where once her breasts were “bulging mounds” they are now “two beggar’s sacks” which weigh her down and make it hard for her to move. Xiahong’s breasts are both a blessing and a burden; they are a symbol of her femininity and representative of the struggle faced by women in modern China. The author has stated in an interview that “for migrant women in China, one of their key struggles is dealing with attempts to exploit them sexually in the big cities where prostitution flourishes and often offers better pay than other jobs, making their sexuality a central issue.” Through Xiaohong, the author has done a brilliant job in highlighting the issues that women face today – worth a read if you’re interested in that area.
Reviewed by Zahra Raja
Reviewed by Todd Foley, 28/12/17
A rough plot outline of Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls seems typical enough: A young woman from China’s provincial interior, unskilled and relatively uneducated, makes the bold decision to move to Shenzhen, the hedonistic Southern megacity born of the post-Mao economic reforms. Here she comes face-to-face with the sex industry and the numerous, seemingly insuperable barriers that prevent her from establishing a respectable, comfortable, and happy life. Yet Sheng Keyi’s treatment of this Factory Girls-type plot is poignant, nuanced, funny, and refreshing, and had it won the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize for which it was long-listed, it would, in my opinion, have outshone certain previous winners like Wolf Totem and Please Look After Mom.
Xiaohong, the novel’s protagonist, exhibits an élan vital that compellingly drives her quest for personal growth and happiness. Well-known in her native Hunan village for her voluptuous figure, Xiaohong has always suffered rumors about her impropriety, and the discovery of her affair with her brother-in-law precipitates her departure for the South. With her best friend Sijiang in tow, Xiaohong sets off for the big city, and the pair of young women struggle through a series of jobs that includes factory work, a hair salon, and a hotel. While Xiaohong, clearly the more dynamic of the two, demonstrates a down-to-earth sensibility and laudable work ethic, she is hounded by the police because of her questionable legal status, and she is constantly propositioned by the lecherous representatives of Shenzhen’s capitalist excess.
Through it all, Xiaohong demonstrates an attitude that is neither prudish nor moralizing, yet which is characterized by a refreshing truthfulness and innocence. This is the key to Sheng Keyi’s success in creating this character, which is perhaps most clearly demonstrated through Xiaohong’s relationship with her sexuality. After a harrowing episode in which she and Sijiang are taken in a van to some dark corner of the city to be raped, Xiaohong defiantly continues to make her own way in Shenzhen, and on her own sexual terms. She indulges in a risky night of pleasure with a sexy triad boss simply because she is attracted to him, and later, when she is in need of both physical satisfaction and cash, she ends up humorously rebuffing a “big spender” at the hotel when she faces him in closer proximity: Although “the thought of a romp on the pure white bed with its fluffy pillows and a night of ecstasy was certainly an interesting proposition,” Xiaohong is ultimately so repulsed by this “fifty-odd-year-old, S-shaped man” that she ends up paying him instead: “Uncle,” she says in her diplomatic parting, “I’m a virgin. I’m just curious about your body. I took off your clothes. If it’s not too much trouble, would you mind putting them back on now? This fifty yuan is a tip for your trouble” (199-200). Although in this instance Xiaohong almost effortlessly manages to reverse the typical sexual power dynamic, the dangerous, fine line she walks is highlighted by the fate of her roommate, “a girl from Chengdu who called herself by the exotic-sounding name Julia Wilde” (170). Although hesitant at first, Xiaohong accepts and eventually respects Julia Wilde’s “quivering sensuality,” which she displays as she openly engages in all manner of sexual pleasure right there on her shaky dorm room bed—that is, until she disappears and is later found dead, having been raped, murdered, and discarded.
The balance of the dark, disturbing social underbelly of Shenzhen with a young person’s determined yet ambiguous pursuit of something better closely mirrors Mian Mian’s Candy, written just a few years before Northern Girls, and the two novels can be seen to complement one another in an interesting way. Mian Mian’s protagonist, Hong, is an enfant terrible from a family of Shanghai intellectuals who runs off to Shenzhen to indulge in the unrestricted personal freedoms of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, all the while vacillating between ennui and sense of purpose. For Hong, Shenzhen represents a new postsocialist imaginary where anything is possible. As a city that came into being in 1980 as China’s first Special Economic Zone, it is uniquely cut off from the historical, ideological, and cultural burdens of the past, thereby providing the perfect experimental environment for a young artistic soul from Shanghai in search of herself. Hong’s Shenzhen is abstract and amoral, frightening and exciting, and as such it serves as the perfect, monstrous backdrop for Hong’s personal journey.
Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls approaches Shenzhen from the opposite direction. While its atmosphere and characterization are the same, Xiaohong shows us the city from the ground up by demonstrating the internal logic of its operation. While Hong drifts along in Shenzhen’s irreverent youth culture, detached from the lives that have built the city and keep it operating, Xiaohong directly participates in making the city the kind of place that can enable a lifestyle like Hong’s. As a factory worker, hair-washer, receptionist, and finally hospital employee, Xiaohong’s precarious existence balances between economic necessity (though never quite desperation) and her tenuous legal status as a migrant worker on the one hand, and her own inventiveness, permissiveness, and sheer will to live on the other. Within Xiaohong, we see the basic ingredients of Shenzhen itself, yet her character is not just a simple symbol or allegory of this frightening, hopeful, dynamic place. The subtly complicated nature of the relationship between Xiaohong and Shenzhen is presented with a straightforward simplicity that makes it particularly effective.
The only part of the novel I am not so enthusiastic about is the ending. In the final pages, Xiaohong becomes weighed down by her ever-growing breasts; they eventually cause her to topple over on the street, where she lays “like her breasts were nailed to the ground” (318). For me, this seemed to exceed the bounds of the sort of realism within which the rest of the novel exists. While many contemporary Chinese authors—most notably Mo Yan—are known for their hyperbolic and grotesque style of writing, the exaggerated nature of this final plot twist seemed, to me, unnecessary and overtly symbolic. This certainly does not ruin the novel, though, and Shelly Bryant’s wonderful translation enables a smooth and rewarding read from start to finish. The speed with which the novel can be read comes not from a lack of depth, but from the directness of the prose that mirrors Xiaohong’s simple and unhampered vitality.
Reviewed by Todd Foley
Reviewed by Cuilin Sang, 26/12/17
Sheng Keyi’s debut novel, Northern Girls, is replete with a primordial energy. Compared with her later, more mature works – such as Death Fugue and Shui Ru – Northern Girls is less designed than “eruptive,” to use her own word, and thus adopts a curiously energetic, untamed shape. It is a story that begins with breasts and ends with breasts, the most prominent body parts that ascertain a person’s female identity. Yet it is not a lascivious story, not in any sense of that word. Nor is it a story about sex, or even sexuality. It is more of a documentation of an unnamed species of impulsive energy, and its doomed frustrations and failures in China in the 1990s, when parochialism in economically less developed areas clashed with the fledgling moneyism in the country’s special economic zone, Shenzhen.
Xiaohong, the protagonist of the novel and the host of this energy, draws incessant attention to her extraordinary breasts from her early adolescent years to her mid-twenties, when the story ends on an indecisive note. The obsessive fixation on breasts might be a bit puzzling to the reader from a sextually more liberal context, but it is understandable in the 1990s in China. It is not only that Xiaohong’s breasts are huge or protruding enough to raise eyebrows. It is also that she unflinchingly let them be. As the author affectionately says in the afterword, Xiaohong leads an “honest” life and “possesses an impregnable vigor and vitality.” Xiaohong’s loyalty to her own principles and defiance against social prejudice and pressure make her life adventurous, both in her hometown village and in the big city.
In many ways, Xiaohong is a character before and beyond conventional theoretical framework. There are so many conflicting qualities about her that it is almost impossible to categorize her as anything other than a girl who truly values friendship. On the one hand, her moral restrictions are unbounded when it comes to the primal energy that guides her behavior. She won’t sell her body, but she doesn’t hesitate to sleep with her brother-in-law, knowingly hurting her sister. As a teenager, she is physically intimate with her father out of her own willingness. She can enjoy sex without any emotional strings attached and will choose an abortion during an expected pregnancy. On the other hand, she cherishes her friendship with other “northern girls” who work menial jobs in the southern city Shen Zhen to such an extent that she would sacrifice her own interests for the benefits of these girls. She rescues and takes a suicidal girl in, takes care of her best friend, and helps solve the murder of one of her ex-coworkers. It seems her sense of responsibility and compassion are more reserved for the “northern girls” than for her sister, who is portrayed as the epitome of the village culture that she can’t identify with.
“Northern girls” is a derogatory term used by the locals in the 1990s to refer to the female workers from anywhere north of Guangdong province, where three out of five of China’s “Special Economic Zones” were located. Although it is used as the title of the novel, the xenophobic connotations of the term are not explicitly explored. The hardships and injustice these “northern girls” endure are not from the locals, but from the broader context of economic and social transformations in Shenzhen, the model special economic zone of the nation in the 1990s. Compared to the village where Xiaohong is from, Shenzhen monetarizes everything, including ambition, sex and relationships. This encompassing monetarization both stimulates and enervates Xiaohong in ways drastically different from the emotion-ridden antagonism such as mock, gossip, and jealousy in her hometown. The fact that Xiaohong eventually chooses to stay in Shenzhen indicates that, to her, the money-driven counterforce against her nature is the lesser of two evils compared to the emotion-driven one in her hometown.
The only thing that is immune from this cold, engulfing moneyism seems to be the friendship between Xiaohong and the other northern girls. It is a bond formed out of necessity, a survival instinct stemming from Xiaohong’s primal energy. Sheng Keyi calls Xiaohong and her friends “the women on the lowest rung of the social ladder, the real working class.” For Xiaohong, the social classification could be a more complicated matter. In her hometown, where her father supported the family as a well-to-do contractor, she wasn’t exactly “on the lowest rung of the social ladder.” As the term “northern girls” itself implies, in the 1990s, geography was factored into the women’s social status equation in Shenzhen. In Shenzhen, Xiaohong’s original social network and social power are nullified and she nearly becomes a “bare life” (to appropriate Giorgio Agamben’s term) stripped of any political significance, stagnating between a life of mere survival and a lived life. The fact that Xiaohong clings to her friendship with such vigor and passion manifests the strength of her primal energy, and of her instinctive resistance against the dehumanizing violence of money economy.
Such energy and resistance are also reflected in the linguistic arena in the novel. Under the mainstream of mandarin Chinese as the principal literary medium, the undercurrents of dialects from different regions compete with each other. The Hunan dialect, Xiaohong’s mother tongue and her secret code with her fellow townspeople in the big city, is half hidden and only erupts when true emotions emerge. Meanwhile, Cantonese, the local language of Shenzhen that carries more weight and money, sporadically surface to shatter and reform the sense of belongingness of the northern girls. For the most part, Shelly Bryant’s adept translation captures and transplants this linguistic power play into English, although sometimes the half homophonic, half figurative translation of a name like “Zhu liye” (朱丽野) into “Julia Wilde” might be culturally confusing for the English-speaking reader.
Reviewed by Cuilin Sang
Reviewed by Paul Woods, 19/12/17
Northern Girls is the story two young women from rural Hunan who for different reasons decide to seek their fortune in Shenzhen, on the border with Hong Kong. Qian Xiaohong leaves her village after an affair with her brother-in-law and tries various jobs in the county seat before meeting Li Sijiang at a hair salon. All through the story, Xiaohong is the leader and main risk taker, and Sijiang is her faithful follower.
The two girls arrive in Shenzhen very much as fish out of water, struggling to speak in standard Mandarin, let along make sense of the local Cantonese dialect. Very soon after landing in Shenzhen and beginning to look for work and get the feel for the city, the girls sense that their gender is a significant factor in their lives there. Indeed, almost every man they meet seems to have some interest in taking them to bed.
The girls have a variety of adventures which reveal the seedier side of life in south China’s boom town, mixing with gangsters, dubious politicians, and kind policemen, all of whom see them as sex objects at some point. Xiaohong gradually works her way up from unskilled labourer to a job in the publicity department at a local hospital. Her combination of determination, physical attractiveness and a sharp mind take her a long way. Sijiang takes up with an apparently decent man, who stands by her when she is unjustly sterilised.
The story ends in disillusionment when Sijiang’s partner leaves with money paid to her as compensation and she attempts suicide. Xiaohong is betrayed by colleagues in the hospital and then suffers from a chronic condition which causes her breasts to become distended and painful. Both girls feel they have aged a lot and gained nothing from their time in the South. Sijiang returns home and we do not know what becomes of Xiaohong.
Although the book is a novel, the people and situations described in it resonate closely with accounts of the lives of migrant labourers in China, especially the so-called dagongmei (打工妹 ‘working sisters’). The girls represent a combination of optimism and naiveté, coupled with the desire and ability to learn from the people they meet and the scrapes they get into. At the same time, Xiaohong in particular understands how to use her physical attractiveness and flirtatious nature to get on in life. Above all else, she is a realist and pragmatist. It is interesting that in a country with the two strong ideological streams of Confucianism and Communism no acknowledgment of either appears in the work. Although we should not assume that fiction from China is political, is this a critique of modern Chinese society?
Northern Girls has a different feel from Massage, in that although the blind lack agency and are thus constrained in life, work, and relationships, the somewhat wild-west feel of Shenzhen and the gendered nature of roles and authority there mean that the girls from Hunan suffer greater exploitation and abuse. The ending of Massage is mixed and the reader can imagine how the massage parlour can go forward, but the conclusion to Northern Girls leaves one feeling empty and sad for the girls. As I read Northern Girls I found myself reflecting also on Claire Tham’s The Inlet, the story of a ‘China-girl’ working as an escort in Singapore. Although the main character there is better educated and does not suffer the same exploitation, there is a similar combination of being streetwise and vulnerable, a fish out of water who is at the wrong end of a complex power dynamic. Possibly my strongest takeaway from Sheng’s book is the relative lack of reflection from Xiaohong and Sijiang; we learn little of their inner thought life or deeper feelings as they seem to live in the present. There is a contrast here with a novel such as Xu Xiaobin’s The Crystal Wedding, which reveals a great deal about the inner struggles and search for meaning of the female protagonist.
The translation is very well done and conveys well the feelings and responses of the characters during their different experiences. I wonder if some way could have been found to convey the differences between standard Mandarin, Hunanese, and Cantonese; although this would have been difficult, it would have added an extra dimension to the characters.
Reviewed by Paul Woods
Reviewed by Tamara McCombe, 17/12/17
Northern Girls is a story based on the toil and mistreatment experienced by thousands of migrant women who have traveled from China’s rural provinces to the seemingly shining southern province of Guangdong since it was made a Special Economic Zone during Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Reform and Opening-Up’ period in the 1970s and 1980s. The women are making a bid of freedom from the traditions of country life and if possible wealth. For Sheng Keyi, the author of six novels, Northern Girls is her first to be translated into English. Sheng’s women encounter murder, gangsters and forced sterilisation but this is not a thriller or a feminist tract. This is a story about life’s tests which suggests the resilience and independence of contemporary Chinese women.
Even in today’s China, in film and literature, the action of sexual intercourse is typically either dealt with via embarrassed metaphor or graphically portrayed as a sordid act of manipulation as in novels such as Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui. By way of contrast, in Northern Girls, via her protagonist Xiaohong, Sheng uses each of Xiaohong’s sexual encounters as a means to progress Xiaohong’s motivation for the next step higher in her social ascent and hence the plot. Xiaohong is neither a victim of her sexuality or a manipulator of it, she merely tends to her animalistic urges and uses it as a means to connect with her fellow human beings in a society under the incoming tidal wave of materialism.
Not one of the male characters in Northern Girls comes out in a positive light let alone as a knight in shining armour. At the same time, they are not portrayed as the true source of the women’s woes. Instead, we might pity the men for their lack of power and are highlighted to the women’s self-determination.
The discussion surrounding the size of Xiaohong’s breast is unceasing. Yet this discussion is not vulgar or a reason for pitying her. Instead, it is Sheng’s clever trope “to symbolize their [the female characters] worries and anxieties as they head into China’s urban society”. Xiaohong’s breasts are farcically large, to the extent she is literally paralysed by their size. The preoccupation with Xiaohong’s breasts would make it easy to underestimate her shrewdness, unwavering principles and ambition. Xiaohong works her way up from hair salon assistant/demi-escort, to factory worker, hotel receptionist and further upwards whilst the other women in her situation fall victim to men, money and the authorities.
By fortune of my wildly different background I can hardly sympathise with Xiaohong and her predicaments but I could not but help feel myself rooting for her. The Civil Servant’s Notebook by Wang Xiaofang, Crystal Wedding by Xu Xiaobin, and the aforementioned Shanghai Baby are a handful of examples of the mass of autobiographies-cum-novels that dominate modern Chinese literature but Sheng admits that much of her inspiration comes from reading and interacting with fans on social media rather than from personal experience. This means Sheng has created a character which can speak to readers regardless of personal life experience and nationality. Although Xiaohong is not based on a specific person Sheng has encountered, when I had the opportunity to hear Sheng discuss Northern Girls you could tell she is incredibly fond of Xiaohong. Sheng admitted that she has often thought about what happened to Xiaohong when we leave her walking into the distance in the novel’s finale and not to be surprised if there is a sequel.
Northern Girls is a sensitive narrative, spattered with unexpected moments of humour, highlighting the emotional , financial, sexual and legal environment female migrant workers confront in modern China.
Reviewed by Tamara McCombe
Reviewed by Henry Yunwei Wang, 24/11/17
The term bei mei 北妹, or bak gu北姑 in Cantonese, is a derogatory name in Guangdong meaning girls from the regions to the north of Guangdong; yet in Hong Kong, it typically refers to sex workers from mainland China, including Guangdong.
Qian Xiaohong, the heroine of Northern Girls (Beimei 北妹), a critically admired novel by Chinese female writer Sheng Keyi, and shines through Shelly Bryant’s translation. Xiaohong and her friend Sijiang, are the epitome of any young Chinese girls from the rural countryside, seeking their places and fortune in big cities—since the government began sweeping economic reforms in 1978. The result has been greatly affecting everything: from family relationships to social values to sexuality.
Although skilfully narrated with a brutality and grittiness in Sheng’s writing, girls like Xiaohong and Sijiang are just so numerous. One disadvantage of China’s massive population is that the voice of an individual can be instantly swallowed by the crowd. Let alone the voices of poor village girls. They could be waitresses just serving you in the street restaurants, or leaning on a mop in the corner watching you stepping over the wet floor, or dying from overwork in Apple’s sweatshop factory that you wouldn’t hear of nor care about. What’s even worse, they may sit behind a glass door in a pink-light barber shop signalling illegal sexual services within. (If, after reading this book, a gentleman shows off his numerous exotic affairs in China or what he has recently discovered in a London Chinese escort tabloid, ignore it. Those ‘insights’ are in bad taste and unrelated to the book. The moment when you find yourself looking at a girl like Xiaohong with a completely different attitude to that of neighbour’s daughter, therein towers the moral high ground.)
Sheng grew up in a village in the southern province of Hunan before heading to Shenzhen for her seven years working experience. She deeply demonstrates how modernity in China affects women. Those migrant girls, barely educated and vulnerable, but whose bodies have experienced much ruthlessness and hardships beyond their years, being sexually exploited by men in positions of power, or traded for money. Both are merely means of survival.
Xiaohong is not a prostitute, although, without fail, each one of the male characters ogles her ample bosom. And Northern Girls is not a Chinese version of Fanny Hill — if I have to make a comparison, it is more like the story of a female struggle as portrayed in Tokyo Joshi Zukan東京女子圖鑑. The social context of Northern Girls is more complicated and profound than Sheng’s contemporary authors, such as Chen Ran 陈染, Lin Bai 林白, Mian Mian 棉棉 and Weihui 卫慧. It is not a plausible story about paramours, gallant, kept mistresses nor rational pleasure-seekers. It gives you permission to access a brave girl’s inner heart.
The main character has been caught sleeping with her brother-in-law, and to escape from the family shame she has persuaded Sijiang together with her to gather the first honey off the thorns. As for Sijiang, the acquaintance and communication with a bad influence of the same sex, is as fatal to her innocence as all the seductions of others. Whilst believing in the inflammable principle of pleasure, so easily fired at their age, their shy timidity has been cured, and soon they no longer to look on men as predators.
If we list Xiaohong’s positions and the men she encountered, then we must understand that Xiaohong has never been domesticated by any of them — quite the opposite, weak as she is, she makes the intial move in most of the scenarios below, despite the fact that she is still abused in several instances:-
village girl, brother-in-law (abortion 14 yrs)—receptionist, northern tenant in a county guesthouse—raped by Sea Pearl Night Club consumers—hair dresser in 007 Hair Salon, raped by her police friend’s colleague Ma Xiaoming—receptionist in Qianshan Hotel, Jimmy Chan, a rich Ferrari owner met in manager’s younger brother’s wedding—receptionist in Qianshan Hotel, Liao Zhenghu, a police officer who arrested Xiaohong in Jimmy’s sea side villa when investigating a robbery—Publicity and PR department of Women and Children’s hospital, the head of the department, Xia Jifeng; Bigfoot man met on street when borrowing a lighter; Jin Haishu, hometown village cadre—dog keeper, Yang Youli, the employer (this part was not included in the English translation)
The elements of the plot concerning Zhu Dachang, about the seaside villa, alibi statement and working in the PR department of a hospital, seem somehow to be inserted with too much of the authorial voice, displaying an understanding which seems beyond Xiaohong’s ken. Sheng’s technique of writing though, vividly sculptures a striking physical attribute for Xiaohong—unusually large “pomelo-like” breasts. But even their pride, whiteness, fashion, could not bribe those men who are enslaved by intemperance. Those “lousy middle-aged” men 油腻的中年男人, and their male chauvinism are only to be blamed in this novel.
Indeed, time and time again, the size and heftiness of Xiaohong’s breasts are mentioned by the narrator. Sheng facilitates them as an unarguable symbol of femininity in her work. Sheng is keen to bring women’s issues to the foreground. Xiaohong’s job in a hospital deliberately highlights the issue of reproductive rights in China. The harrowing territory also features forced sterilizations, unintentionally pregnant, abortion, and inadequate sex education.
Sheng’s exploration of women’s bodies and how they shape their destinies creates an atmosphere of freedom, but what lies beneath the relaxing vernacular language of the Hunan dialect, is more about the limits to that freedom.
Reviewed by Henry Yunwei Wang.
Reviewed by Cat Hanson, 16/11/17
Qian Xiaohong believes that her fellow villagers are obsessed with money and sex. She’s not wrong. Sheng Keyi, author of Northern Girls, writes a visceral portrayal of the vulnerability and endurance of China’s working-class women at the turn of the century. We follow our protagonist, Xiaohong, objectified from a young age, and her friend, Sijiang, a naive child, plunged into the chaos and brutality of prostitution, gangs, and sexual violence.
In Northern Girls, sex is power for men, who frame their believed entitlement to the girls’ bodies as a transaction for providing security, money and shelter. Prostitution is veiled as a ‘line of work’. Even the police are accused of treating raids on brothels as a ‘cash cow’. It’s as Sheng Keyi has lifted a rock to reveal a dark, pungent, economic underbelly which, as is stated throughout the novel, so often encounters those seeking a better life.
From a city mayor to salon clients, we witness how the two friends navigate their challenging environment under the threat of power structures: officials, the police, doctors. Violence punctuates the story and pulls the reader back into the stark reality of the two friends’ situation. From the beginning, the will of those in power holds the key to life or death.
“Li Mazi pontificated, ‘For a man, money is a lifeline’.
‘And a woman’s lifeline is…?’
‘A woman’s lifeline is her man.’”
And thus, this foreshadowing to a dark and sinister chain of command is laid bare for us. The girls are constantly fighting for control of their bodies, their sexuality, their safety, and eventually, even their reproductive systems.
The book contains poignant milestones for our characters in terms of their own personal development. Xiaohong, introduced as a girl caught in an affair with her brother-in-law, later confronts the very same brother-in-law over the actual affects of his traumatizing abuse during her childhood. Once confused by a poster over what a ‘prostate’ was (“A man’s thingy sure is complicated,”) she later finds a job publishing the same posters and reports in a sexual health department. Xiaohong and the friends she encounters demonstrate remarkable resilience in the face of constant threat of incarceration, violence and death. Sadly, they are not always lucky, and I truly felt heartbroken for the characters.
Guangdong is a particularly interesting space for this story. The race to make a life for oneself in this harsh and unforgiving landscape that drew in countless migrant workers after China’s economic reforms. Both author and translator describe the setting as one perhaps unique to China, and the translation does not stray from using Chinese terms and China-based similes. From the steaming kiosks on a rainy street to the dingy smoke-filled KTV booths, each one of these spaces is described in such detail that it conjures realistic memories for anyone having spent time in the country.
Throughout the book, I was reminded of Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang. Factory Girls is an in-depth account of migrant workers in Dongguan. I often find myself reflecting on their stories of grit and determination, and after reading Northern Girls, I realise that as the tagline states, life does go on for many of these women. But in a chaotic environment such as this, and with so many losing out to the unforgiving power structures at play, how many stories remain untold?
Reviewed by Cat Hanson.
Reviewed by Barry Howard, 15/11/17
Xiaohong is bored of life in her provincial home town, so heads for the bright city lights. She takes her friend, Sijiang, with her and their lives will never be the same again. This is a story that touches upon the exploitation of the working class, but particularly focusses on the struggles faced by women in a patriarchal world.
Most of the story is set in Shenzhen, China, around the turn of this century. Xiaohong and Sijang are two of the many migrant workers that have flooded this metropolis in search of a better life. Xiaohong is a feisty, independent, streetwise girl. In contrast, Sijiang is shy, reserved, and more naïve. Together they become sisters-in-arms, with their camaraderie providing the positive thread throughout the book.
The girls head to the city in hope of higher paying work, but it isn’t long before brutal reality kicks in. It is beyond anything most of us might imagine, as Xiaohong and Sijiang try to make a go of things. Bureaucracy, in the form of China’s hukou (household registration system), prevents straightforward access to the job market. In negotiating a system that takes “it’s not what you know, but who you know” to extremes, the two young women find out just how limited their opportunities are without knowing the right people. This is the plight of many migrant workers, and here we see it from a female perspective.
What Xiaohong and Sijiang find is that men are the gatekeepers to all avenues of financial independence. Only by direct or indirect submission to the base desires of men in places of power or influence, can they proceed. Otherwise they will have to give up and go home or accept wage slavery on a soul-destroying factory production line.
This is a book to open your eyes and make you think. Not just about how hard it is to be a woman in a man’s world, but about the suffering and exploitation that can be behind the myriad of goods we purchase from China. Why then, the mixed reception of this novel?
It seems that everything hangs upon how the many references to Xiaohong’s chest are viewed. Her large breasts are meant to be a metaphor representing the burden of being a woman in a patriarchal society. Without this interpretation, too much might be made of a succession of sexual encounters. I do wonder, however, what the author wanted to say about Xiaohong’s promiscuity. Is it about promoting the notion of sexual liberation for women or is it a message that shows how that can be counter-productive (asking if such freedom benefits men more than women)?
Moreover, I was intrigued by how this novel further portrays China beyond that already mentioned. The thoughtless cruelty of ordinary people is frightening, and it cannot just be pinned on the perverse outcomes of government policy. And what are we to make of the seemingly ubiquitous infidelity of Chinese men, constrained only by access to disposable income or positions of influence? Such is the depth of this novel, that we are left to ponder a variety of issues that remain relevant today in both China and the West.
Reviewed by Barry Howard.
Reviewed by Catherine Shipley, 11/10/17
Northern Girls makes for uncomfortable reading. You may feel as though you have entered a barren wasteland devoid of hope and may experience jolts of shock and disbelief as the story unravels. I should make it clear that this will at no point lead to you wanting to put down the book. There are glimpses of light throughout the story, which appear to be even more significant and uplifting given the wider context of events. The main character herself, Qian Xiaohong, brings a great deal of optimism and buoyancy to navigating the dire situations she finds herself in.
The title of the book is interestingly misleading. It implies that the main characters will be from cold, steamed-bread eating northern China, such as snowy Harbin or industrial Changchun. In fact, the girls are from Hunan, a province in the south of China, known for its spicy food and for being the birthplace of Chairman Mao Zedong. For residents of neighbouring Guangdong, however, anyone from Hunan province is seen as from the North and is certainly considered to be very different from them.
Author Sheng Keyi recounts the experiences of two young girls, Xiaohong and her friend Sijiang, who leave their home village in Hunan and head to the metropolis of Shenzhen. The girls are not very well educated, having left school to start earning money. They are ambitious and are aware that greater opportunities are available to them if they are willing to risk leaving the familiarity of their home province. Although the girls hail from similar backgrounds, Qian Xiaohong is somewhat streetwise and very driven whereas Li Sijiang is more naïve and hesitant.
Such a story is commonplace in today’s China, which is what makes ‘Northern Girls’ so poignant. The events and characters in the narrative could be located in any major Chinese city. As a city a stone’s throw away from Hong Kong and one that was designated as China’s first Special Economic Zone in 1980, Shenzhen is a perfect example of a modern city attracting the hopes and ambitions of people from rural areas across the country.
Sheng Keyi allows us to see beyond the glitzy skyscrapers and sports cars to the daily challenges faced by the majority of the migrant population. We are shown what a struggle it is to even make it to Shenzhen and to stay there, let alone to build a happy and successful life in an alien city. The hardships are particularly harsh for women, whose status, being both migrants and non-male, is the lowest of the low. The sacrifices made by the women in this story are huge and, although the word sacrifice implies conscious choice, it is clear that even freedom of choice may not be available for women who take this path to better their circumstances. The luxury of being able to make informed decisions is frequently replaced by an urgent need for survival, to continue surviving. An accumulation of losses leads to the need to keep going, to have something to show for everything that cannot be regained. It is a story of disillusionment, the process of a pure and logical desire that is gradually tainted by the bleakness of reality.
Northern Girls is thought-provoking in other ways too. There are references to problems of corruption at local official-level, which has regularly featured in the Chinese media in recent years. In fact, the corrupting nature of money is a theme throughout the book and a reflection of concerns about modern Chinese society. Education is another important theme. The dangers of a lack of education can be seen not only through the restricted prospects of uneducated characters in the story but also in the way that uneducated characters treat each other. Qian Xiaohong, a naturally bright and curious girl, notices posters in town warning about the dangers of sexual diseases. She is only able to guess at what the posters are trying to communicate, although she can sense they must be trying to say something important. Without an education, people are at a disadvantage and ripe for exploitation.
The story is told from the viewpoint of young women, beautiful women who are full of life, independently-minded and willing to work hard to succeed in life. They wish to enjoy their youth and independence but their femininity, rather than empowering them, often weighs down upon them, a heavy burden. In spite of all this, they persevere and make progress in their own ways. They support each other, showing generosity and kindness.
Sheng Keyi has written an eye-opening novel that leaves the reader with a deep fondness and admiration for the ‘northern girls.’
Reviewed by Catherine Shipley.
Reviewed by Andy Thomas, 4/10/17
This mildly titillating tale of young promiscuous women is in the same territory as that covered by Virginie Despentes’ Baise Moi. Their cynical trajectory in, around and out of actual prostitution is similar to Fucking Berlin by Sonia Rossi (Studentin und Teilzeit-Hure), Paolo Coelho’s Eleven Minutes, and Mes Chers études by Laura D., (Étudiante, 19 ans, job alimentaire, prostituée). In short, Northern Girls by Sheng Keyi covers well-trodden ground.
But it is no less shocking for that. These could be tales of Teddy boys’ girls, bikers’ girls if you like, tales of young ladies – below or around the age of consent – not always, but sometimes, forced into sex, with inevitable biological consequences, by a parade of pimply, sweaty, fat, and greasy men, some married, who represent the male gender badly. Sheng spots “guys [who] always wanted to try out the ‘Northern Girls’ (as the Cantonese liked to call girls who came to the city from the rural provinces), using them to create a life of leisure, or – you might say – indulgence” and nails them to the floor with her insight.
Modern China does not lack the printed cards through a man’s hotel door, nor the cheap notepaper with scribbled mobile phone numbers handed out – but rarely to foreigners – by the girls in black who line the newly pedestrianised streets. In some hotel bars it’s difficult to buy a drink without the bar girl who takes the order joining you to pour it. And there is an ambiguity about the hairdressers’ neon sign reading Xiǎojiě (小姐). Where do these girls come from? But we have never met such tough characters as the heroines of this novel. And they have hearts of gold too.
The relationship between our girls – phlegmatic Qian Xiaohong and honest, innocent Li Sijiang – is only strengthened by the sale of virginity, abortions, and encounters with treacherous men, who really are only after one thing. Despite their new urban environment the country girls rise steadily in social status, from lacking an employment permit to jobs in factories, hotels and hospitals, all the while fighting off men’s clawing hands, unless they were seeking them where their own fingers could not reach.
But there is sadness, too, and a real anger, barely repressed, about periods, about breasts that grow too big, and at the treatment of womens’ bodies by men in general and by the state in particular, in the form of the Family Planning Police conspiring with a medical service without honour.
Shelly Bryant’s translation conveys this endless story of working-class hero girls into a bombastic and cheerful eternal novel. It is a delight to read. The scene is modern Shenzhen but the script is a thousand years old, or more. Sheng Keyi has accomplished a timeless first novel.
Reviewed by Andy Thomas