Shanghai Girls

by Lisa See

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Student Question

In Lisa See's Shanghai Girls, who is smarter and more beautiful between the sisters?

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Shanghai Girls is Lisa See's tale of two sisters and their relationship throughout many hardships. The sisters, Pearl and May, are very different, but very close. Their relationship is simultaneously intimate and harsh, cruel and fiercely loyal. 
Since the book is narrated in first person by Pearl, all we know for certain is that Pearl understands May to be more beautiful than she is, but less intelligent. Though both beauty and intelligence are subjective traits, there is evidence in the text that suggests that May, the younger of the two, is more beautiful than Pearl, while Pearl is the smarter of the two. 
Throughout the novel, there are hints at Pearl's intelligence. Pearl notes that "People call me bookish" and that she is fluent in four languages. Pearl compares this to May's knowledge of only two languages and notes that May "has no interest in reading anything beyond the gossip columns." Conversely, there are hints that May is more beautiful. Unlike Pearl, May's complexion is clear, not ruddy like Pearl's.
Arguably, both sisters possess both beauty and intelligence. We know that both are considered beautiful because they both work as "beautiful girls" (models) with the character Z.G. and other painters. We also know that they are both intelligent, at least at a foundational level, because both at the beginning of the story have completed the normal amount of schooling for their ages (either high school or college). There are also examples within the text that evidence both sisters' intelligence. One example of May's intelligence occurs when she quotes the great writer Lu Hsün although she's "not a reader."
Between the two of them, May is the charming and beautiful one, while Pearl is the smart, practical one. May, born in the Year of the Sheep, is fashionable and artistic, yet needs someone to take care of her. Pearl, born in the year of the Dragon, is loyal, demanding, and responsible.
Pearl notes this as she reflects on their relationship:
Whenever you have two sisters -- or siblings of any number or either sex -- comparisons are made. May and I were born in Yin Bo Village, less than a half day's walk from Canton. We're only three years apart, but we couldn't be more different. She's funny; I'm criticized for being too somber. She's tiny and has an adorable fleshiness to her; I'm tall and thin.

Between the sisters, however, there is an understanding of each of their roles within their family with regard to beauty and intelligence.

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