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In Women of the Silk Gail Tsukiyama takes her readers back to rural China in 1926, where a group of women forge a sisterhood amidst the reeling machines that reverberate and clamor in a vast silk factory from dawn to dusk. Leading the first strike the village has ever seen, the young women use the strength of their ambition, dreams, and friendship to achieve the freedom they could never have hoped for on their own. Tsukiyama's graceful prose weaves the details of "the silk work" and Chinese village life into a story of courage and strength.
About the Author
Born to a Chinese mother and a Japanese father in San Francisco, Gail Tsukiyama now lives in El Cerrito, California. Her novels include Dreaming Water, The Language of Threads, The Samurai's Garden, and Night of Many Dreams.
Read an Excerpt
Women of the Silk
Her first memory of pain was an image of her mother. Pei was three or four the first time, and the same thing that had happened then was happening now. Her mother's moans almost woke her from this daydream, but she squeezed her eyes shut, and could see her mother's silk painting with the five white birds on it. Three of them were perched upon branches of white blossoms, the other two in flight. It was the only beautiful thing in their house, and Pei could see it even in her darkness. When she asked too many questions about it, or about anything else, Pei's parents became angry. Her father made a clicking sound with his tongue, and her mother would say her mind wandered too far from home. So Pei tried hard to keep very quiet like her sister, Li.
Her mother's moans grew louder. When Pei opened her eyes she could see, in the light of the flickering candle, her father sitting by the door. His long legs were spread out, one crossed over the other, as he stroked the thin hairs on his upper lip. She glanced at Li, who sat quietly in the corner mending some tattered clothing, as she always did in the evenings.
Pei's mother was in the next room, separated from them by a heavy, dark curtain she had had up for as long as Pei could remember. The midwife, Ching, was with her. The moaning andheavy breathing continued, as Ching whispered words of encouragement. The last time this had happened, her mother had become thin again, and they had a new baby sister.
That little sister cried and cried. No matter what Pei's mother did, the baby would not take her milk. For days her mother cradled the baby in her arms, walking from one end of the room to the other, until she formed a narrow path in their dirt floor. Her father bought herbs for a broth from an old woman in the village. It smelled of burning leaves as it boiled, but the baby refused to take it down. Soon Little Sister lost all strength to cry and simply lay stonelike in her mother's arms. Not long after that, Pei's father took Baby Sister out of the house, and when he returned looking sad, like a defeated animal, it was without her.
"Where is Baby Sister?" Pei asked.
"She has died of sickness like the other one," her father answered. "It would have been different if they had been sons."
Pei's mother stood swaying slightly back and forth. Her clothes were unkempt and her hair strangely out of place. There was something cruel about the fine lines that moved from her lips as she pressed them tightly together. Never once did her mother cry, but Pei knew something was wrong, that she was in great pain, even when her mother nodded her head in agreement with her father.
Her mother's moans grew more desperate. Pei knew that that meant another baby would soon come. It was only a few steps from the table to the curtain, and Pei moved quietly so she wouldn't disturb her father. When the last baby sister came, they were not allowed to enter her mother's room for a month. This was so they would not anger the gods. But she couldn't see the gods being angry at her for taking a small peek.
Pei lifted the curtain. Candles shone from each side of her mother's bed. The tiny space seemed suffocating with the smellof sweat and burning wax. There were candles close by Ching, who bent over, telling her mother to push. "Push now, Yu-sung, push, yes, yes and now breathe." Her mother was on the bed, a large wooden board covered with a thin mat, half-lying, half-sitting against the wall, her knees pushed up, her legs spread open. Underneath her legs was a large piece of brown paper, which Ching constantly straightened as her mother pushed against it. Her mother moaned louder and let out a small cry when she pushed down as Ching instructed her. When she let her head drop back down, she breathed in rapid pants as Pei had heard dogs do when they were thirsty for water. She wondered if her mother might want some water, but even as Pei tried to speak, no voice would come from her opened mouth. Pei was frightened by her pain. Her mother looked so tired and sick, her fingers tearing at the cotton netting which hung down to keep the mosquitoes away. Then once more her mother raised herself, and pushed with a renewed strength. She let out a small cry and pushed again.
"Yes, Yu-sung," said Ching. "There is the head, the baby comes, the baby comes!"
And there between her mother's legs Pei could see the baby's head emerge. It was a dark, wet, ugly thing, sliding out so slowly with each push. She wanted to step forward and see more, but her legs felt weak. When Pei turned around to share this with Li, she saw that Li had her eyes closed tight, even as her hands continued mending the cotton trousers.
"The baby comes face up," Ching said, in a worried whisper.
In the next moment the baby's entire head appeared, with tiny dark lines for its eyes and mouth, and a flat, small nose. Ching cupped the back of its head, and with another push, the rest of the baby's body quickly followed, along with a lot of blood and water.
"It is a girl, Yu-sung," Ghing said softly, examining the baby.The new baby sister let out a loud, clear cry. Ching clipped the cord attached to the baby with a small, sharp knife, and tied it. "She appears well." Ching wiped the baby and placed her in Pei's mother's arms. Her mother looked exhausted, and so sad, but she accepted her fifth daughter with a tired smile.
Then before she could move, Pei felt the strong grip of her father's hand, taking her arm and pushing her to the side. At first she was terrified that he would punish her for looking, but then Pei saw that he really didn't even notice her. With him, he brought the heavy scent of smoke and sweat into the thick heat of the small room.
"Is it a son?" he demanded.
No one answered. Pei turned to Li, who was looking down at the dirt floor. Ching busied herself with cleaning up the remains of the birth, wrapping it all in the brown paper to be buried in the earth as Pei had seen her do before.
"Why?" she had asked Ching the last time.
"Because it is dirty," Ching answered, placing the bundle gently into the hole she had dug.
"Why is it dirty?"
"Because it is," Ching said. "And we must spare the gods the sight of it. Someday you will understand."
When her father looked down at the baby and saw that it was healthy, he removed the blanket she was wrapped in. But when he saw that the baby hadn't the requirements of a son, he made that clicking sound he always made when he was displeased, and left the room. Pei quickly moved to one side so he wouldn't see her.
Her mother rewrapped the baby and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
"The next one will be a son, Yu-sung, you just wait and see," said Ching.
"There will not be a next time," her mother answered.
For a month after giving birth, Yu-sung stayed with the baby in the confines of their house. During this unclean period she did not bathe or wash her hair. This was done to spare the highest god, T'ien Kung, the sight of them: From the village herbalist, Ching bought herbs for soup, and Yu-sung ingested an array of strengthening tonics.
As always, her third daughter, Pei, asked too many questions. All during the month Pei wondered why Yu-sung could not go outside anymore, and what would happen if she did. It was always Pei, with all her curious ways, whom Yu-sung worried about most.
"But why would the gods not want to see a baby?" Pei asked.
"Because we are unclean," she answered.
"And you will be clean after a month?"
"Was I unclean as a baby?"
"But why is everything dirty?" Pei insisted.
"Because everything to do with the birth is unclean, even for the month afterwards. Now go!" she said, pointing toward the door so Pei would go outside. "And you must help Ba Ba during this time and not ask so many questions!" Yu-sung reminded Pei again and again, as Pei lingered at the table, her finger tracing small circles on its surface.
The month Yu-sung spent in the house felt very long. After the births of her other daughters, she was always occupied with their dispositions. Even the two who had since gone on to the other world had kept her busy. But this girl child they named Yu-ling spent so much of the time sleeping.
After the first week, Yu-sung scrubbed everything from top tobottom. Then she grew restless and disturbed that she could not be outside helping her husband, Pao, pick the mulberry leaves, then pack them in the baskets for him to take to the market. She knew how difficult it was for him, even if he said nothing. On a sheet of paper she made crosses to count the days. There were only two days remaining, and then she would be released from the confinement.
Other things never changed. Every morning Yu-sung rose while the rest of the house slept. The first thing she did was start the fire to make jook, the rice porridge that would carry them through the day until their evening meal. Then she boiled the water for their tea. With the soft murmur of the water boiling, and the steam filling the cold spaces, it was the time Yu-sung heard her thoughts most clearly.
Sometimes she was reminded of having once been very pretty. It struck her at the oddest timeswhen she was stirring the jook or stripping the leaves from the mulberry trees. It was always when she was working. Yu-sung was still startled by the thought of once being pretty. It seemed so long ago. Unlike her husband, she was fair-skinned, with delicate features that had hardened over the years from working, both inside and out. She had a small frame, which made childbearing very difficult. The last child had been no easier than the first, though Yu-sung prayed to the gods that it would be.
In the far corner of the room slept her daughters, Li and Pei, huddled together on a makeshift bed her husband had put together for them. It was a strange thing, the way they had always taken care of each other, even with all their differences. She and Pao were partly the cause, since they were as silent with the girls as with one another. Pao hardly took notice of his daughters, and she had given them little affection in the last few years. To show them anything more would just make things more difficult when the time came for them to leave. With Li, there were fewer problems. She was quiet and kept to herself. But with Pei, whotouched and hugged, and who always sought answers to the questions she asked, it was less simple. Yu-sung had to quiet her spirit with scoldings, so that life would be easier for her later. It was hard enough to find a husband of worth, because a girl with such spirit was not wanted by most families. How often Yu-sung had wished one of them were a boy, something Pao could be proud of, something of value.
Yu-sung looked up when the curtain stirred. Pao stepped out from behind it. He had had a restless night, lying awake, while she pretended to be asleep. Neither of them said a word as her tall, weatherbeaten husband came toward her and sat down at the table. In all the years they had been married, they'd spoken only when it was necessary. Pao never had any need for more.
Pao Chung and Yu-sung had been promised to one another by their families. They were still children, brought together by a fortune-teller because of the date and year of their births. Yu-sung came to Pao and his family when she was barely sixteen. She left the warmth of her family near Nan-hai, not far from Pao's family in Kwangtung province, expecting to find the same kind of warmth and happiness. She did not know then that her new home might as well have been a million miles away. No longer was she to have those evening meals filled with laughter and voices. From the moment Yu-sung married into Pao's family, she was no longer a member of her own.
Pao was the tallest man she had ever seen, standing at least a head taller than her own father. He was much taller than most of the fishermen in their village. He had told Yu-sung it was because they were descendents of the Hakkas, the guest people, who migrated from the north. Pao's grandfather had migrated south, with the last migration of the Hakkas at the end of the Taiping rising. Pao had heard many stories growing up, and told some of them to Yu-sung in those early days of their marriage. His grandfather had been a born fighter; he lost two fingers onhis left hand, chopped off by a disgruntled villager who did not like Hakkas. With blood pouring from the open wounds, his grandfather beat the man to a bloody mess. He then picked up his two fingers and walked calmly away. One of the private things Pao revealed to her was that his grandfather kept the two shriveled fingers in a pouch around his neck, forever proud of his Hakka strength. The Hakkas were different from those of the south. They were taller, with bigger bones and wider, flatter features. And they did not speak the same language as in the south. Her husband was very Hakka, though his mother was a Cantonese. Her daughters, Lin and Pei, were taller than most of the other children they knew. At eight years old, Pei was already as tall as Li, who was two years older.
His family had been so different from hers. They were without even the most natural comforts of life. Her family was no wealthier than Pao's family, but she had been accustomed to certain luxuries. Yu-sung still remembered how smooth the silk comforter felt against her skin when she was a child, and the wonderful vivid colors of red and green on the paintings that graced the walls of her parents' modest house. Unlike other girls, Yu-sung was also taught to read and write the simplest characters by her mother, as her mother's mother did. But nothing could have prepared her for the sight of Pao's own house. At first she thought it such a luxury to be living apart from his family. It was a rarityand a blessing, since she could not understand his father's Hakka dialect. His mother had died shortly before she came, so Yu-sung did not have a mother-in-law to guide her.
At first Yu-sung thought the reason for Pao's unkempt appearance was that there was no female to wash and clean. But what she was to encounter was the most unbearable filth she could have ever imagined. Pao lived like an animal, the stench almost unbearable when she walked through the door. Night soil was left in clay pots by the bed, and spider webs grew thick withdirt in every possible crevice. Yu-sung could hardly keep down her vomit when she saw the rotting food, thick with growth, scattered on a table. On his bed was a dirty, coarse blanket, which was all he slept with. Pao showed all this to her without the least bit of shame, only the same measured-out words he was always to use. Pao had grown to manhood surviving on the barest necessities, while everything was given to the mulberry groves and fish ponds, and what they produced. It did not take Yu-sung long to realize that stripping the mulberry trees of their flat green leaves and packing them into straw baskets would be her life's work. These groves, along with the fish Pao cultivated in the ponds, would always be of greatest importance.
Little changed after their marriage, except that gradually, the filth and stench disappeared. Even then, Pao never said a word, nor did he seem to notice the difference. For the first few months life was unbearable. Yu-sung cleaned endlessly during the day and submitted to her husband's desires after dark. And how it had hurt. The pain of his entering her terrified her so much, she could not even cry out. But Yu-sung could never refuse her husband; it would have angered the gods and brought shame to her family. There was nothing more she could do but to tire herself out completely during the day and hope that Pao had done the same. She did this with such efficiency that even the bedbugs sucking on her legs, and the bugs' foul odor, ceased to bother her. Only when Yu-sung was with child, and during the month after, did Pao leave her alone. Now there would be no more children; her body had delivered its last child. Yu-sung was certain. She could feel the emptiness.
Over the years, she had grown as silent as her husband. She had learned to keep all her thoughts to herself. Yu-sung had let go of the spontaneity of her girlhood. The years of gathering the mulberry leaves and inhaling the stale, dank earth of the fish ponds had squeezed her life dry. All that was left of Yu-sung's other life was stored away in her wooden chest at the foot oftheir bed. Sometimes, when she was alone, she opened the chest, releasing the strong smell of camphor. Below the layers of white paper Yu-sung had carefully folded the red silk dress her mother had made for her, and the lace handkerchief given to her by her grandmother. It was then that she felt most alone. Yu-sung could see her lost joy in Pei, even if Pei most resembled her father. It was Yu-sung's past life Pei carried in her. And in Pei, she could see her greatest pleasures and her worst fears.
Pao sat across from Yu-sung, sipping hot tea. He looked across the room at their two daughters sleeping in the corner, and then turned back to her. She knew there was something bothering him, but she kept silent.
"This baby sleeps easy," Pao. said quietly.
"Yes, she is very easy," Yu-sung answered, remembering the disturbances the other babies caused. "But you have not slept well?"
"No. It has been a bad harvest; we will have problems when Hung comes to collect."
Her husband's face was stern as he said this, his dark eyes looking past her. She got up quickly and dished some jook into a clay bowl.
"In a day or two I will be able to help again," Yu-sung finally said.
"There is nothing to help with, it's done."
"I could mend or clean for others."
"Who would have you? You have just given birth and cannot be away from the child. Besides, it is just as bad for the others."
She remained silent.
"When the month is over, we will go to the village to see the fortune-teller," said Pao, looking down at the table.
They had spoken of this only once before. Never would she have dreamed that the gods could be so cruel, that the fate oftheir daughters would end up in the hands of a blind old man.
Yu-sung nodded her head in agreement.
Pei loved going to the village. Her mother was clean again, and finally able to leave the house. Her usually silent father said they would go to the village in celebration. Even Li, who was always quiet, moved through the house excitedly the morning they were to go. Neither of them could sit still without moving while their mother braided their hair.
"Keep still or you are not going anywhere!" their mother said, threatening them into silence.
Pei's father borrowed an ox and cart for her mother and the baby to ride in. She and Li would take turns sitting next to her. The baby, Yu-ling, was strapped tightly to her mother's chest with an old gray blanket. They brought rice and vegetables to eat along the way, and their father had promised each of them a sugar candy if they were good.
Pei longed to see the village, though it was no more than a cluster of makeshift buildings, situated along a much-traveled road. At the far end of the village was a larger, more ornately decorated ancestral hall. Pei had been inside just once. Her mother had told her people went there to honor their dead by lighting long thin sticks of incense, which smelled like something sweet burning.
When the village finally came into view, Pei jumped down from the moving cart and ran ahead. At the edge of the village she stopped to wait for her family. There was an old woman sitting in front of a small shack, spinning thread from one end to the other of a strange wooden contraption.
"Ba Ba, what is that woman doing?" Pei asked when her father came.
"She is spinning silk," her father answered. "Now come along before we leave you!"
Pei caught the hard edge of her father's words, but it never frightened her as it did Li, even when he became so angry he took a stick to her. After the beatings, her father would go out to the groves, and her mother would always calm her tears by reminding her to keep her words to herself. "It is a lesson," her mother would say, though Pei never really understood what the lesson was. Eventually she did learn when to stop questioning her father.
Pei skipped alongside the cart as they moved deeper into the village. They were soon surrounded by throngs of people moving toward the marketplace. Stray dogs and cats were left to fend for themselves among the bamboo cages, stacked high and filled with chickens. The dogs yelped and snapped at the ruffled chickens, whose feathers floated in slow motion through the hot air.
The marketplace provided a source of pure delight for Pei. She loved the crowds and the noise. She watched the men and women behind their makeshift stalls, selling whatever they could.
Voices beckoned to them.
"Come this way, I will certainly give you the best deal!"
"The finest flutes in all of Kwangtung!" another voice rang out.
"Missy! Step up here! I will read your face for a pittance!"
They were all there, from the letter writers and herbalists to the marriage brokers and spiritualists. Pei marveled at their persistence, as Li clung to her arm. Farther on, the stalls contained fruits and vegetables and served hot dumplings in soup. Pei looked around, stumbling after her parents, hoping to findthe sugar-coated candy she and Li wished for. Everywhere around them was the tantalizing aroma of food.
Her father slowed down and finally stopped. Behind two wooden crates sat a man her father called the fortune-teller. He was the oldest man Pei had ever seen, with a long white beard that hung in ragged strands down to his chest. In his long, crooked fingers he held a brush, with which he wrote in black ink on a piece of paper in front of him. He stopped and tilted his head toward her father, though he couldn't have seen a thing, for his eyes were sewn shut. Pei watched as the fortune-teller smiled kindly and lifted his brush in greeting. Her father spoke, as Li's hand closed tighter around hers.
"This is my eldest daughter," her father said, pushing Li forward.
"Come, child, do not be afraid," the fortune-teller said. "I only want to see what life will bring to you."
Li obeyed and sat down on the stool across from him. Her father moved closer and gave the fortune-teller the time, date, and year of Li's birth. The fortune-teller listened, and with a slight nod lifted his large, crooked fingers in front of Li's face, moving them in small circles, closer and closer until his fingers rested on her face. His fingers moved gently from her forehead down to her chin, and then away from her. He remained silent for a few moments, mumbling inaudible words to himself.
"This daughter will marry and bear two sons," the fortune-teller finally said. He looked up at them through his darkness. "There may be illness, but she will survive."
Then it was Pei's turn. Her father pushed her roughly forward. He gave the necessary dates, and the fortune-teller, who looked asleep with his head tilted downward, began the same ritual he had just done with Li. When his fingers touched her face, Pei felt a tingling sensation, which left when his fingers did. When the fortune-teller was finished, Pei looked up at herfather. He stood back, watching the fortune-teller with the same intensity as he watched his groves and ponds.
"Can we go soon, Ba Ba?" Pei whispered.
"Quiet, girl," he snapped. Her mother and Li stood quietly behind him.
"She is a curious one," the fortune-teller then said. He straightened his back and tugged at the strands of his beard. "I see many numbers in her life, perhaps miles."
Pei's father glanced down at her. "Will she marry?" he asked.
The fortune-teller turned his head from side to side, stroked another strand of his beard, and slowly said, "This I cannot see clearly."
"Is she of the nonmarrying fate?" her father pressed on.
"She will be loved," the fortune-teller continued, in a slow, even voice. "By more than one, but there will be difficulties."
"I see," her father answered in a tone of agreement.
Pei thought of nothing but the sugar candy. She watched her father take out two silver coins from a small leather pouch and place them in the fortune-teller's hand.
When they returned from the village, Pao said very little and went immediately to check on his ponds. Yu-sung and his daughters hurried into the house to prepare their evening meal, their voices drifting slowly away. Pao looked down to the immense floodland below. The burnt-orange earth, crisscrossed by the numerous canals, looked like a web. His grandfather had liked being near water; the delta provided the waterways and the wet, sandy soil, which was suitable for fish breeding and the cultivation of mulberry groves. The fish and leaves were packed in baskets and boated along the canals to market. They were then sold for the highest price to the silkworm owners. This ritual had gone on for hundreds of years, though the floods of the past few years had left very little to bring to market.
Pao loved the rich, fertile land. He worked for it as hard as his father and grandfather had. As a boy, Pao had been told over and over how his grandfather had taken one look at the land where he stood, then dropped to his knees to rebury his ancestors' bones. It was the land Pao had hoped to pass down to his own son, but with the birth of his fifth daughter, he could see that this day might never be.
The sky was darkening; a faint shimmer of light from the moon reflected off the empty ponds. Along with the bad harvest, the Warlords had begun placing taxes on everything from rice and candles to windows and chairs. Pao could only be grateful that there were no glass windows in his house.
Pao wrinkled his brow and sighed. A decision must be made. There was nothing he could do but wait for the harvest to improve again, even if it meant the sacrifice of one of his daughters. He could at least count himself lucky that daughters were of some use. The fortune-teller had as much as predicted that Pei was of a nonmarrying fate. Then what would she do? An unmarried woman had little in this world without a husband and his family to care for her.
Pao had heard, from other men along the canal, of steamdriven machinery used in the big villages for silk work. These silk factories accepted unattached girls to work in them for very good wages. There were many girls left to this unmarrying fate in the silk villages, earning money for themselves as well as for their families.
Pao turned and walked back toward the house, looking hard to see his land in the darkness. He had no other choice. It was not an easy decision to make, since Pei, with all her spirit and imagination, might be the closest thing he would ever have to a son. And it seemed his Hakka blood flowed most prominently in her. He gave one last look towards the shadows and made his decision. Pei would be sent to the silk village.
Yu-sung put the baby down to sleep. She moved quietly back into the other room, careful not to wake Pao, who slept soundly for the first time in many nights. The shadows cast by the single flame she carried flickered and danced when she placed it on the table. Her two daughters slept in the corner of the room, where the light barely touched.
In the dull and serious light, Yu-sung poured herself a cup of tea. She sat down, weary from their trip to the village. Now that she could be outside among the mulberry groves again, she was certain that things would be better. It was with this same certainty that she knew her husband had made his decision to send Pei away.
Yu-sung sipped her tea and closed her eyes. There would never be any mystery for her daughters to decipher. From the moment they came into this world, their fates had been sealed. If Yu-sung pitied them, then she would have to give herself that same pity. And it would not change anything. There was also the chance that Pei would be happier where she was going, make a better life for herself.
Still, Yu-sung could not help thinking that perhaps everything might be different if she had given her husband a son, a continuance of himself. More than once she had told her husband to take a concubine, another woman who might give him a son, as many other men had done. But always he remained silent.
Yu-sung stood up. Without taking the candle, she moved toward her daughters in the murky light. As usual, they slept huddled together under a single blanket. It was always Pei who had her arms wrapped around Li, with her knees brought up to her chest and her head resting on Li's shoulder. Li slept straight and with little movement. Their dark hair carried the small waves of the undone braids, spreading out in a tangled web. Yu-sung could hardly tell one head of hair from the other. Evenif she did try to straighten Pei out, she would simply return to the same position by morning. Yu-sung pulled their blanket up, and moved their hair away from their faces. It was all she could bring herself to do.
The next morning Pei ran down the slope ahead of Li and then stopped to wait for her. Li had always been a slower runner. During the summer they always played down by the ponds when their father took the boat to market and was not around to scold them. He had left the house very early that morning, while Pei lay in bed pretending to be asleep. As usual, her parents spoke a few words in whisper, and then said nothing at all.
Sometimes, her father would do something to let them know he thought more of them than just being a female nuisance. Yesterday in the village, after they saw the old fortune-teller, her father bought her and Li not one, but two pieces of sugar candy. Pei placed one immediately into her mouth and began sucking the sweetness out of it. The second piece she let sit on her tongue, sucking little by little as they made their way home, hoping to make the candy last as long as possible.
It was only that morning that Pei found out Li had not eaten either piece of her candy. Li had saved them, tightly wrapped in a piece of paper in her pocket. Li slowed down even more when she saw Pei waiting for her.
"Please give me a small piece?" Pei asked.
Li walked right past her toward the pond, knowing how Pei could keep on and on until she got what she wanted.
"You have your own," Li answered.
"I have eaten them," she said, skipping after Li. "Just a little, please?"
Li shook her head no.
Pei stuck her tongue out at Li and ran down to the pond. The pond with its muddy contents had always been her favoriteplace. She slowed down and squatted closer to the water, trying to catch a glimpse of the fish who used to make it their home. When nothing stirred, Pei became impatient for some movement and threw in a rock, then picked up a stick to stir things around. Before the floods, she would have seen hundreds of dark shadows gliding back and forth in the water, sending white foamy bubbles to the dark surface, but now, the pond was always still.
Li squatted down beside Pei as she dropped another large rock into the pond. Her reflection rippled alongside Li's as they watched one circle grow out of another. They looked so alike in the dark water, with their pigtails and their matching blue cotton shirts. Both of them had dark, round eyes, though Li's rose up slightly at the corners. Pei had always loved Li's eyes.
But as much as they looked alike, they were different in every other way. Next to her, she could hear Li's even breathing and feel her calmness. Li's hands rested quietly on her knees, while Pei's felt the ground beside them for anything that would make the water splash. She didn't dare glance at Li now to see the serious look on her face.
Pei let another rock drop into the pond, her hand plunging in after it, wetting her entire sleeve. "I wonder what they think of us?" she asked.
Li looked down into the pond, but there was no movement. "I don't think they think at all, they just swim around waiting to be caught."
"We must look like big foreign devils staring down at them," Pei said, rolling over onto her back. "I bet they really do think about things."
"About what?" Li asked, though she knew Pei was just playing with her.
"About their families, and what they are going to eat."
"You're just being silly," Li then said, getting up and walking along the edge of the pond. "We better go before Ba Ba gets back."
"He won't be back so soon."
"Do what you want, then," Li said, in a tone that let Pei know she was still the oldest.
Pei heard her mother calling for them when she was almost back up the hill. Not far ahead of her, she could see Li scrambling to get up. She called for Li to wait for her, pulling at her clothes and using her sleeve to wipe the dirt away from her face.
Together they walked toward their unsmiling mother. She immediately snapped at Pei, "Look at you, your clothes are a mess. Why can't you stay clean like your sister? Now I'm going to have to wash your clothes as well as give you your lessons!"
Pei said nothing. They walked past their mother's angry stare into the house. Pei took off her summer clothes, which her mother scrubbed and hung out to dry. For the rest of the day, she did her chores, then sat down for their reading and writing lessons, wearing her thick, uncomfortable winter clothing.
Her mother taught them to read and write in the quiet moments of the evening, or when her father was busy down at the ponds. Once, her father came in while they were having their lessons. He watched them for a moment, saying nothing. Her mother didn't look up and continued teaching. Only when he quietly left the house again did her mother pause, and let out a small breath before continuing.
"Sit still," her mother said, as they sat across the wooden table from her, fidgeting.
Pei loved to watch as her mother took great care to write the difficult strokes on the precious pieces of paper she bought in the village. Her hand moved up and down in small waves. Sometimes, Pei wanted to reach out and touch her mother's traveling fingers, but she didn't dare.
Her mother taught them only what was necessary. She told them over and over again, "Too much knowledge will only lead to heartaches for a female. Especially for one as curious as you!" she said, turning towards Pei.
That evening, when her father returned, he whispered a few words to her mother before leaving them and closing the curtain to their room. For the first time Pei could see tiny lines from the corner of his eyes, and his shoulders seemed heavy with some invisible load.
"Is Ba Ba all right?" she asked, looking up at her mother.
"He is tired. He has traveled a long way today."
"Where did he go?" Pei persisted.
"Far away," her mother snapped, turning abruptly around and putting an end to her questions.
Pei was relieved when they were finally lying quietly in their bed. Her mother's anger would, she hoped, be put to rest with the beginning of another day. Pei lay still and listened to Li's quiet breathing. Sometimes, she wondered what it would be like to be more like Li, to move through each day with so little trouble. When Pei turned towards Li, she could only see the shadowy outlines of her sister's face, a face so similar to hers. And even as Pei began to drift off to sleep, she couldn't help but smile about the piece of sugar candy Li had finally given to her.
WOMEN OF THE SILK. Copyright © 1991 by Gail Tsukiyama. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
1. One of Gail Tsukiyama's talents is her ability to reveal a whole world and a culture though subtle details. This novel opens with a very graphic scene, in which Pei's mother gives birth to yet another daughter. How does this one scene introduce the dynamics in Pei's family-and thus a Chinese family-to its audience? What details are important and what larger issues do they signify?
2. The theme of the Chinese family remains in the foreground of the novel throughout. Once Pei arrives at the girls' house how does her own experience in her family compare to the other girls' experiences? Mei-li's family, for example?
3. Once Pei arrives at the girls' house she is struck by the fact that all the girls there look the same - same hairstyle, same clothes. How does this homogeneity affect Pei? For example, examine the scene where Pei looks at herself in the mirror for the first time after being dressed like the others.
4. What are the dynamics between the girls at the silk house? For example, how does Moi affect the girls? How do they regard Chen-Li?
5. On page 90, Lin's mother is described as having lost her "voice" after her husband's death. What implications does this statement have? How does it relate, for example, to Pei's later statement that her own family remained "silent"-meaning they never responded to Pei's letter, nor did they ever come to visit her.
6. Compare the hairdressing ceremony with the wedding ceremony of Lin's brother. How are they similar or different, and what do they symbolize?
7. What drives Pei to participate in the hairdressing ceremony and join "the sisterhood?"
8. What does the ending scene, with Pei leaving for a "new life" in Hong Kong, suggest? How does it affect the way you view the novel and Pei's progress?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a beautifully written novel set in a time and place that few Americans are well acquainted with. The 1920's and 30's were a time of tremendous social and political upheaval in China. This is a fictionalized account of the lives of young girls who were sent by their families to work in silk factories. The two central characters come from very different backgrounds. Pei comes from a poor and uneducated rural peasant family. Lin was born into a wealthy, cosmopolitan family; which has fallen onto hard times. The well drawn supporting characters are primarily their family members and fellow women of the silk. The author has enriched the story with details of Chinese culture, geography, history and more. This serves to gently educate a western reader, without judgement or comparison. This first novel is a definite accomplishment.
Early writing of Tsukiyama and I read it after others. Not as good as Street of a Thousand Blossoms or Samurai's Garden. The picture of China in the 1920's from the perspective of a rural girl forced to work in a silk factory. I agree with other reviewers that the plot is quite secondary to the characters and writing style. It is a pleasant read but not the author's best work. I think readers should come here after they have tried others and just enjoy the writing style.
One of the best books I've read. Pei is one of the most courageous girls I've read about. :D
Learning, through this book, about working in the China Silk Factories during the 20's/30's was definitely worth my time. I also found the "Sisterhood" of these young women and the "Hair Dressing" ceremony to be very interesting. I didn't connect as closely with these characters as I have with those in other books but Tsukiyama does have a really nice writing style that made this an enjoyable read.
I really like other books by Gail Tsuiyama, but this one was a waste of time. It was boring. It was informative, but i should have just read a text book.
This book was really good but there was not enough going on in it for me. Pretty much she was a silk worker and her friend died. After reading another of gail Tsukiyama's books(Samurai's Garden)I was looking for more then I expected.
This book reminded me so much of 'The Good Earth' by Pearl S. Buck regarding the setting of the poor people of China. I enjoyed the book and felt for the main character as she endured her many losses of her family and friends. I wanted more of her story and have since purchased the sequel.
A must read!
Simply written but so descriptively written. You can feel the sparseness of her house as a child, see the land she grew up on, feel how cold her father was. The detail of life at the silk houses is conveyed so well you feel as if you are right alongside Pei, Lin, Chen Ling, and Ming, and just when you think you've reached the denouement, surprise. The reader will want to reach out and hug Auntie Yee just like they would their own mothers or grandmothers. Historical fictions are always worthwhile, and this one particularly so. I will read more by Gail Tsukiyama.
Gail Tsukiyama's poetic prose makes this tale of a very politically challenging era of Chinese history a must read. She incorporates issues of separation, growth and lasting friendship into a credible yarn of women in the silk making industry. Not an action-packed thriller, but well worth the read.
This book is not only interesting and beautifully written, it is also just a wonderful story. The author has a talent with expressing the simplistic beauty of the japanese culture.
This period novel is character driven, but gives you a feel for the social changes China underwent during the early to mid 1900(s). At the heart it is a women's empowerment story, and although some characters were underdeveloped, it will leave you hoping for a sequel.
I enjoyed reading this book very much. The story flowed well throughtout the book. I enjoyed the story of Pei and the sisterhood. I can not wait to read more of her books, if this one is the example of how she writes. I guess the only thing I did not like was the small indication that they are gay. I thought that was not needed in the story.