Sunday, October 26, 2008

Book Review: The Good Women Of China by Xinran

The Good Women of China - Hidden Voices: By Xinran Translated by Esther Tyldesley

Review by Tamarra Kaida

“The world is not made up of atoms but rather of stories” Muriel Ruykiser

In the prologue to Hidden Voices, Xinran recounts an incident that illustrates the power of true-life stories.

One evening in November 1999 when Xinran was on her way home from teaching an evening class at London University, a mugger hit her on the head, pushed her to the ground and shouted, “ give me your bag!” Although Xinran was in physical danger, she did not release her handbag. Luckily, passers- by came to her rescue and she did not loose her purse or get beaten further. Later, when questioned by the police as to why she risked her life fighting to keep her bag. She explained her manuscript was in the bag. “And is a book worth your life?” asked the policeman. “No, of course not, but this book is my life.”

It was my testimony to the lives of Chinese women, the result of many years’ work as a journalist. I knew I could have tried to recreate it. However, I wasn’t sure that I could put myself through the extremes of feeling provoked by writing the book again… In fighting for that bag I was defending my feelings and the feelings of Chinese women. The book was the result of so many things which, once lost, could never be found again. When you walk into your memories, you are opening a door to the past; the road within has many branches, the route is different every time

In the late 1980’s Xinran worked for a radio station in Nanjing, China as a presenter of a talk show called Words on the Night Breeze. “During the program I discussed various aspects of daily life and used my own experiences to win the listeners’ trust and suggest ways of approaching life’s difficulties.” At this time in China, this type of advice on life show was a new thing. Communist officials heavily regulated it and getting a listener call-in segment with live discussions was risky business. Because of Xinran’s humane presentation style and her compassionate personality listeners wrote in and asked her help in various injustices to women. Xinran the trained journalist became a women’s issues champion.

One of the first letters to reach her contained a chicken feather and a letter. According to Chinese tradition, a chicken feather is an urgent distress signal. The letter was from a young boy, a follower of Xinran’s radio show who was appealing for help on the behalf of a powerless girl. The letter explained that an old man in his village had bought a young girl who had been kidnapped from a distant village and sold to the old man who wanted male heirs before he died. This was not an uncommon practice in outlying villages at that time. The man kept the girl a prisoner, chained at the waist and attached to a wall. Her skin was rubbed raw and blood was seeping through her clothes. “I think he will kill her. Please save her. What ever you do, don’t mention this on the radio. If the villegers find out they will drive my family away.”

This was the first of a series of life threatening stories that would find their way to Xinran’s desk. The book contains fifteen absorbing and sometimes heart wrenching stories about women’s lives in China during the Cultural Revolution and up to 1999.

The Mothers Who Endured an Earthquake tells the story of women survivors of The Tangshan earth quake of 1976 who lost their own children in the disaster but later started an home for orphans from that catastrophe. Each personal story of suffering broke my heart and deepened it with compassion. Xinran asks what does it mean to be a mother and to watch your beloved child suffer for 14 days trapped under a fallen building before fially dying?

In What do Chinese Women Want Xinran addresses three questions posed to her by a Chinese university student who was also an ‘ escort girl’ or ‘personal secretary.’
“What philosophy do women have?”
“What is happiness for a woman?”
“And what makes a good woman?”
The questions themselves pose queries for me and all Western women raised and educated in relative freedom and democracy, but still aware of the long road that must be trodden before all women achieve full equality. ‘The personal is political’ was the motto that turned my ideas about politics in a feminist direction. Xinran asks, “What is a woman’s life worth in China?” When the police consider it a bureaucratic hassle to investigate a peasant girl chained to a wall by a dirty old man. What is a daughter’s life worth when her own mother says she must submit to the sexual abuse by her own father?
Her only recourse is to become so physically ill that she must remain in a hospital where she can escape her father’s advances. The Girl Who Kept a Fly as a Pet is a story of a young girl’s poignant resourcefulness in the face of this dire situation.

This is a book of true stories, stories that cry out to be witnessed. They will remind you that compassion requires courage. They will make you ask questions about the nature of ignorance, e, and love in a new way.

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