In Women of the Silk, a 1991 book from Gail Tsukiyama, times are hard. It’s China in the late 1920s and especially in the small villages nature and politics affect everyone. Our main character is a young girl named Pei. As the story opens, she’s about six, and her parents struggle to raise enough mulberries and fish to sell and feed the family. Her mother helps as much as she can, but pregnancy and child-rearing get in the way. And Pei is known for asking a million questions.

Very soon, Pei’s parents decide they have no choice but to sell Pei to the silk factories in the small city of Yung Kee. It’s far from their village, so they don’t expect to see their daughter again. But in that day and age, extreme poverty caused parents to do things we consider abhorrent today. So, Pei must learn to work hard and fit in at the “girls’ house” in Yung Kee.

She’s lucky to immediately make friends with an older girl named Lin, who teaches her the ropes. Throughout the story, the two become inseparable both in work and their life among the other girls. Pei probably had a better life in the silk factories because of the women surrounding her, but it takes her time to find her way.

Tsukiyama also introduces us to Auntie Yee, who runs the house and her ‘daughter’ Chun Ling. Understanding Auntie’s back story helps flesh out the history, culture and traditions of the silk workers in that time. In addition, other characters highlight the other issues Chinese women faced in that time. 

By the time the story ends, we’ve reached the 1930’s and Japan begins to encroach on China. The harrowing truths of war start to reach Yung Kee, including diminished demand for silk thread and factory workers to create it.

My conclusions

Women of the Silk is achingly beautiful and quite sad, even though Pei’s inquisitive personality makes for some laughs. I want historical fiction to teach me about a time and place I don’t already know. And Tsukiyama does this in spades here. She explores small town China when the clash between ancient and modern times is at its strongest.

Women lived with intense restriction because of culture, times, and finances. But the female silk workers have both physical and financial freedoms that other women don’t. Yet as they get older their parents often still force them to marry, putting them squarely under the thumb of a man once again.

I was particularly touched by the relationship between Pei and Lin. They begin as mentor and mentee, then developing into closer friends and maybe even falling in love. Tsukiyama treats the female love relationships in this book with delicacy, never quite stating them outright. Clearly though, Pei and Lin are intensely close, despite their differences. They make rebellious choices to stay together and have many tender moments. 

Another thing Tsukiyama reminds us of is the brutality of the Japanese in the war between the two countries. It is mostly just hinted at here and doesn’t reach the story until the end. But it’s there under the surface. I suspect the second book from this duology, The Language of Threads, explores it further.

All in all, I quite enjoyed this book. It doesn’t shy away from the real-life difficulties of the time and place. And Tsukiyama develops her characters with care and attention. I’ve already started book two.

Pair with Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore or Women Talking by Miriam Toews for other explorations of women’s roles in a very different time and place.