Tie Ning’s The Bathing Women (2000, 2012 – English translation by Hongling Zhang and Jason Sommer) was an unexpected read. The translation received mixed reviews, and I initially found it a bit “off” – but I realized it wasn’t the translation so much as the style of storytelling. It was a bit frustrating, especially early on, because reading the book was like putting together a puzzle. When I put together a puzzle, I do edges first and separate the pieces by color to work on sections. Sometimes you find a piece that clearly goes in another section. It disrupts the process just a tad, but at the end you have a completed puzzle. The Bathing Women is a lot like that with random bits showing up in unexpected sections.
I haven’t read many, if any, books by Chinese authors who currently live in China. That’s largely because the vast majority don’t get translated into English. For example, Tie Ning was an extremely prominent Chinese author prior to The Bathing Women, yet this was her first novel to be translated into English and that took 12 years.
Much like the artwork for which it is named, The Bathing Women offers a rare glimpse into the very private and intimate world of Chinese women.
The novel follows two sisters, Tiao and Fan, and one of Tiao’s friends, Fei. (Another friend, YouYou, is a prominent character, but she doesn’t have her own sections and she’s not connected to the secret that binds the other three.) The novel spans from Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, where Tiao and Fan are left to their own devices as their parents have been sent to Reed River Farm for “concentrated labor and thought reform”) to the economic boom of the 1990s, where Tiao and Fan are still struggling with their identities and their past.
After Tiao’s mother feigns an illness to return home from the farm,she finds herself in an adulterous relationship with the doctor who assisted her in the deception. Tiao hates her mother for this and rebels against her. When Quan is born, Tiao suspects the doctor is her father. Tiao and Fan both hate their little sister, and in a moment of gross negligence that will forever haunt the two sisters, Quan dies.
Tiao, forever marked by her mother’s affair and Quan’s death, grows into a woman with romantic ideals but an inability to be truly happy. She goes to college and gets a dream job with a publishing company. Her life is very fulfilling in many respects, but something is always missing. A true romantic, she has passionate relationships, but they never fully satisfy her.
Fan, the younger sister, is also haunted by her involvement in Quan’s death. She masters English because she understands the doors fluency will open and she wants to escape. She ultimately marries an American. While her pathway to citizenship is a blip in the novel, it should be mentioned that there wasn’t a pathway at all; a US birth certificate was falsified. American Fan took significant steps to erase her past.
Fei is the adulterous doctor’s niece. She doesn’t know who her father is, and her mother committed suicide after being exposed as an unwed mother – or a “hooligan.” A gorgeous girl with limited means and no parents, Fei learns very early how to use her sex to get ahead in life. She uses sex not only for her own benefit, but also to help her friends. She uses sex to get ingredients for a meal that YouYou wants to make when they’re teens. She uses sex to get Tiao a foot in the publishing door. She uses sex to get her ex-husband’s family member into college. Time and time again, she sells her body, but she never allows anyone to touch her mouth. This small detail is one of the reasons the beautiful and broken Fei was my favorite of the three.
The Bathing Women is not without its flaws. The writing is a bit unraveled and clunky in parts, and there are some extremely awkward scenes and phrasings that I attribute to the fact it’s a translation; but Tie Ning is a Chinese woman writing about Chinese women, and I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys reading intimate portrayals of women and who like diverse shelves.