While helping my daughter navigate the graphic novel section at the International District Library, the cover of The Bathing Women on a nearby shelf caught my eye. I couldn’t resist a story about the intersecting lives of a group of women shaped by the Cultural Revolution. I read it almost in one sitting, gulping down the last chapter hours after my bedtime. I wish I had gone to bed instead of reading the last chapter. I would have loved the book so much more.
The book is divided between the wild 1990s when Chinese government began encouraging people to xiahai or “jump into the sea” of entrepreneurship to stimulate a stagnant economy, and the wild 1960s when absolute conformity to the Cultural Revolution was still not enough. But these circumstances are just the backdrop for a very human drama.
Tiao, her little sister Fan, and their friend YouYou all live in the same housing complex. They are only children, but they live alone because their parents have been sent to the countryside as part of the Cultural Revolution. Eventually the sisters’ mother returns home, beginning a slightly transactional affair with her doctor that allows her to remain at home with a medical diagnosis. The fourth friend, Fei, is the neice of the doctor. The mother’s affair and the older girls’ murder-by-negligence of their younger half-sister create the central conflict of the story.
As in Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, each of them has committed a crime that cannot be corrected, and must spend the rest of her life coping with her culpability. Fei becomes wanton and self-destructive while Tiao tries to be good all the time. Fan attempts to escape by moving to America, while their mother tries to obliterate the past through plastic surgery. Two of them never marry, and the other two are trapped in failed marriages. Only the guiltless YouYou is able to pursue and achieve her dreams.
In the beginning of the book, Fei’s mother is publicly denounced and made to eat shit because she will not reveal the name of Fei’s father. For the rest of their lives, both Fei and her uncle, the doctor, are preoccupied with the purity of their mouths, but both are undone by sexual indiscretions.
Tiao becomes involved in a manipulative relationship with a narcissistic, older, married man that holds her back for years. Only after she and her sister admit to each other what really happened the day their half-sister died is she able to move forward and begin a real relationship with the man who has loved her all along. Through him, she is introduced to the art of Balthus, whose portrayals of young girls roughly the age she was at her sister’s death seem to help her make sense of herself or her past.
Sometimes in translated Chinese stories I feel like the most important part has gone unsaid. Although Tie Ning described works of Balthus in detail, I am not sure what their significance to the story is precisely. I find the paintings themselves creepy.
Conversely, sometimes Chinese translations seem to beat you over the head with things. In The Bathing Women, there were many instances of repetition, like “He ravaged her and she ravaged him.” In English, they sound awkward and sing-song, but I can imagine the characters on the page created a pleasing mirror-image symmetry.
In any case, it was a beautifully told story about genuinely complex characters who belonged to their time and were affected by politics without being particularly political. Although they are guilty of an almost inconceivable crime, it is easy to hope for their happiness as they make the best of what is left of their damaged lives. It is especially easy to sympathize with Tiao, who like Ethan Allen in The Winter of Our Discontent, realizes that many people live exemplary lives in compensation for past sin.
Until the last chapter. Suddenly, Tiao broke from the hard won life that she had been building in a way that made this down-to-earth human drama feel like a religious parable. She abruptly devotes herself to her parents like a good Confucian; turns the Christian cheek to her estranged sister; discusses Judaism with the man who may be Fei’s father; and “gives back” her lover to his ex-wife, completely denying him any agency and squashing him into a 2D character as she purifies herself. It was a baffling and disappointing end to an engaging, richly characterized story.
The Bathing Women, by Tie Ning, translated from the Chinese by Hongling Zhang and Jason Sommer (Scribner)