Hidden voices of Chinese women [book reviews]

good women of china-1Maybe I was spoiled by the brilliance of Wild Swans by Jung Chang but any thoughts that The Good Women of China by Xinran would be similarly revealing about the lives of Chinese women today were sadly quashed.

Xinran is a journalist who worked for eight years as a presenter at a Chinese radio station. Touched by many letters she received from women she persuaded her bosses to let her reveal some of their stories. It was a bold move because some of those stories were critical of Chinese society and it’s ruling elite — exactly the kind of story subject to the country’s strictly enforced censorship rules. Though Deng Xiaoping had started a process of opening up the country in 1983, it was still risky to discuss personal issues in the media. But Xinran prevailed. She was, she said:

… trying to open a little window, a tiny hole, so that people could allow their spirits to cry out and breath after the gunpowder-laden atmosphere of the previous forty years.

Over time she began pushing the boundaries, taking a risk that one mistake – even one comment – could endanger her career if not her freedom. Such was the popularity of her program that the radio station had to install four answering machines so women could call in and record their comments.  Words on the Night Breeze became famous through the country for its unflinching portrayal of what it meant to be a woman in modern China. Xinran was hailed as the first female presenter to ‘lift the veil’ of Chinese women and delve into the reality of their lives. Her programme dealt with sexual abuse, attitudes towards disability, forcible removal of children from their mothers and a practice of pushing intelligent women into unhappy marriages with government leaders — marriages they could not leave because of the resulting damage to the husband’s reputation. Her stories concerned women of all different classes and ages and degrees of experience.

The most moving for me was the story of  Xiao Ying, a survivor of an earthquake in Tangshan in 1976 which killed 300,000 people.  In the subsequent chaos she was gang raped by soldiers. When her mother found her in a ditch, she kept pulling down her trousers, closing her eyes and humming. Xiao Ying was sent for psychiatric treatment. She seemed better after two and a half years, but the day before her parents were due to take her home, she hanged herself. She was 16.

Xinran was deeply affected by what she discovered, travelling the breadth of the country to track down some of the women whose stories she had heard. One of them lived in a poor shack next to the radio station, keeping body and soul alive by scavenging though Xinran discovered her son was a wealthy party official. Another woman she found in a remote hotel in shock after meeting again the boyfriend from whom she’d been separated 45 years earlier. Xinran sat with her throughout the night, slowly giving the woman the courage to speak about her life.

Centuries of obedience to the principles of “Three Submissions and the Four Virtues” (submission to fathers, husbands and sons), followed by years of political turmoil had made women terrified of talking openly about their feelings. Xinran won their trust and, through her compassion and ability to listen. Repeatedly they told her that she gave them a space in which to express themselves without fearing blame or other negative reactions.

If the ability to tell their stories, changed these women, hearing them also changed Xinran. Her youthful enthusiasm gave way to pain the more she learned and the more she understood.

At times a kind of numbness would come over me from all the suffering I had encountered, as if a callus were forming within me. Then I would hear another story and my feelings would be stirred up all over again.

By 1997, after a particularly traumatic visit to a community where women were denied sanitary product, whose wombs had collapsed through constant childcare,  the pain became too much and Xinran left China for England. She wanted, she said to breathe new air and to feel what it was like to live in a free society. But she didn’t want to abandon the women who’d been encouraged by her programme – so she wrote her book to teach the west what it meant to be a woman in China.

It’s a worthy cause and there is little doubt that Xinran gave hope to thousands of women whose stories she heard and the millions more who listened to her programme. But it doesn’t make for a very good book. By the very nature of its subject The Good Women of China is an episodic book and each of the 15 personal stories she relates is touching. But it lacks objectivity and analysis. Instead of stepping back from a story and reflecting what this tells us about Chinese society, she’s onto the next example and the next and the next. Without analysis and reflection on whether these conditions have changed, it’s hard to comprehend if these are isolated examples or how representative they are of real life. Reading this book left me with too many unanswered questions.

Footnotes

About the bookThe Good Women of China: Hidden Voices is translated by Esther Tyldesley. It was published in 2002 by Chatto and Windus in the UK.

About the author: Xinran (the name means “with pleasure” ) was born in Beijing in 1958 and lived with her wealthy family until the Cultural Revolution separated them when she was seven. After working in a military university she became a radio journalist. Her talk show, Words on the Night Breeze, started in 1988; within three weeks she was receiving 100 letters a day, mostly from women. She moved to the UK in 1997, where she compiled their stories in The Good Women of China. Xinran is a columnist for national newspapers in the UK.

Why I read this book: I’ve been fortunate enough through my job to visit China and to meet many people from that country. The stories of their culture and how this is under pressure as the country becomes an economic power house and a force in international affairs, has fascinated me. I thought The Good Women of China would help me better understand the people of this country. This book is part of my 20booksofsummer reading list.

 

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on July 18, 2017, in #20books of summer, Book Reviews, Chinese authors, Non fiction and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. Hi, sorry to read that this was a disappointment – it sounds like such a worthy and fascinating project. Just wondering if you have any other recommendations for recent translations from China? I’m going to the Shanghai and Beijing book fairs next month and would like to get an idea of what’s happening in Chinese literature at the moment. I have ordered Beijing Coma to read before I go. I work for a publisher, so hopefully will find some good writing to bring back to the UK. Thanks.

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    • Oh this is a tough one because I find it hard to see what’s coming out of China plus of course so many of the books by Chinese authors are not actually published in the country. Transoceanic Lights by S. Li had quite a buzz last year – not sure if she has anything new coming though. Similarly Yan Lianke is one to watch for. Would love to hear what you pick up. We’re surely due another episode in the Detective Chen Series by Qiu Xiaolong – he hasn’t published one since 2015 but they are a fascinating glimpse of how the party still exerts so much control.

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  2. I think there is a kind of beauty in letting these women who have never had a voice before be able to speak without the lens of analysis. Perhaps this wasn’t meant to be a book meant to teach about China, but one to give voice to certain women, even if their stories are not representative of the common Chinese woman’s experience.

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  3. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this review of the book, The Good Women of China, by Xinran, as featured on the Booker Talk blog

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  4. buriedinprint

    This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this collection compared unfavourably to June Chang’s; I wonder if part of the challenge is that there aren’t very many books of this sort available (for either translation or distribution issues) to western readers and, so, we feel we must compare them. Which seems unfortunate as surely there are enough stories to fill volumes upon volumes, and a variety of storytelling styles to suit. I’ve not read either, but recently finished an older volume by Bette Bao Lord, called Legacies, which was also episodic in some ways but did offer reflection and context between some of the pieces, which helped fill the gaps in my cultural understanding. Such an expansive culture – so much to learn!

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  5. It’s a shame. I’ve read some of her other books and found them excellent. Looking back, I’m not sure that ‘Message From an Unknown Chinese Mother’ had much in the way of reflection or conclusion either but that didn’t stand out at the time – I guess I was thinking that the stories were representative of many other women’s experiences and that sadly, there has been little progress.

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  6. Sounds sad and depressing.

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  7. I loved Wild Swans too, and I think I might have picked this up at one point, but I obviously never read it. Not sure I will now, either….

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    • I think you could safely leave this one on the shelf, sadly because there are stories in the book which do deserve exposure but a different author would have made a better job of putting them into a context

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  8. Oh dear, that is such a shame that it could have been so good but missed the mark. I suppose she thought it was important to tell their story and pushed that out. Also, are all book covers the same when about Chinese women? This one looks like one for Falling Leaves I read years ago!

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    • I think it was when she got to UK that she felt the stories needed to be told to help the western world understand what was happening in China. My cover of fallen leaves is quite different – it has an autumnal feel

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  9. It is so heartbreaking listening to the stories of this women, especially Xiao Ying. I hope these women get the power to rise above the society and their expectations. Thanks for the review.

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    • Some I fear will never do so. If they live in and around the large metropolis cities like Shanghai they do get a chance to make a mark in business but if they live in the rural areas untouched by the economic changes, I fear they are stuck for many years

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