The Bathing Women
Four women come of age amid Mao’s Cultural Revolution in a small village near Beijing. Taio is a children’s book editor while her sister Fan lives in America; both are daughters of Wu and Yixun. Fei balances a life of pleasure and danger, while YouYou dreams of becoming a chef. Wu and Yixun are sent to the River Reed labor farm, where their lives are difficult and lonely. Wu becomes sick with symptoms of dizziness and frequent syncope. She is sent home to rest and seek a diagnosis. Dr. Tang determines her symptoms are psychological, not physiological. Even though she loves Yixun, she abhors the farm. Her decision made, she devises a plan to stay home permanently. This requires the in-depth adulterous services of Dr. Tang. One day Tiao meets Dr. Tang’s niece, Fei. Without provocation, Fei slaps Tiao in the face, and calls her mother Wu a whore. Fei’s own mother is dead. She was denounced at a public gathering, humiliated and forced to submit to an odd but disgusting punishment ironically witnessed by Tiao. Fan and Tiao are inseparable as children and Tiao assumes the big sister role as protector. About a year after Wu returns from the farm, she gives birth to another daughter, named Quan. Quan is beautiful and adored by everyone. Taio feels uncomfortable and strange with her. When Fei insinuates that she looks like her uncle, Tiao’s suspicions rise.
The novel does not flow linearly but rather is pieced together randomly through scattered snippets, flashbacks and memories that interconnect the four women. For this reason it is a challenging book to wrap one’s head around. That said, however, it is a literary gem of poetic prose that unmasks a complex story of jealousy, adultery, deception and acceptance. The Bathing Women is an emotionally poignant novel by Tie Ning.