Jul/Aug 2003 Book Reviews

The Good Women of China

Vintage, Random House (June 2003) 230 pages
ISBN: 0 09 944078 4

reviewed by Ann Skea

This is a harrowing, depressing and dreadful book. Not because it is poorly written (in fact, its impact is largely due to the skill with which the words and the stories are shaped), but because every woman in it, including the author, has been damaged by the culture and history of China, which she and her family have endured. Their stories are about rape, oppression, madness, bleak faithlessness, and cold, loveless survival.

The author, Xinran, who was born in Beijing in 1958, tells us of her own childhood traumas, but she survived these to become a highly successful, very popular radio presenter in a medium which is completely controlled and censored by the Communist Party. How she achieved this, in the face of the seemingly impossible conditions of women's lives as she presents them here, and how she came to be a sole parent bringing up her son on her own, she does not tell us. Perhaps her own story would have given the book some balance. Perhaps not. As it is, the picture we get from this book of a "good woman's" life in China is terrible.

In 1989, Xinran was the presenter in Nanjing of a programme called "Words on the Night Breeze." It was a new venture for her and for the radio station, part of Deng Xiaoping's "opening up" of China. In the programme, she discussed "various aspects of daily life" and used her own experiences "to win the listeners' trust and suggest ways of approaching life's difficulties." This approach, in itself, was dangerously innovative, but Xinran's next initiative was to persuade the authorities to allow listeners to phone in with questions, views and experiences. Like all such on-air discussions with members of the public, there was a time-delay and a kill-switch to monitor the calls. But unlike Western presenters, Xinran's position(and that of her supervisors) was made especially precarious by complex Party rules, censorship and the acute sensitivity to reactionary views and debate. She notes, towards the end of her book, that in 1995, journalists ranked fourth in the list of professionals who had the shortest life span, and she puts this down to their being forced to say and write things they disagreed with.

Xinran's phone-in programme was enormously popular and prompted many listeners to write to her. Following up one particular letter led her to considering and discussing various aspects of the lives of Chinese women on-air, and this book was the eventual result of her investigations. Some of the "stories," as she records here, dealt with dangerously sensitive subjects—homosexuality and mental illness, for example—and many could never have been discussed on air at all.

Xinran presents herself throughout the book as a sensitive, journalistic investigator, surprisingly ignorant of the lives of other women, and her journalistic skills are evident in the human interest and the intimacy of the narrative. This makes the book flow easily, and I am full of admiration for the way in which she has written and crafted her work (and for the quality of Esther Tyldesley's translation). However, I was often aware that a journalistic hand had shaped her interaction with these women and her presentation of their stories, and I did end up thinking, "Surely women's lives in China can't all be this bad."

I am bothered, too, about the ethics of this kind of reporting and publishing. I don't doubt that Xinran is sincere in her shock and distress about these women's lives, or that she feels the need to tell their stories. But, however anonymous the women remain, to have their lives exposed to foreigners, who can afford to buy books and sit in comfortable homes to be shocked and, perhaps, titillated by their pain, is surely one more indignity inflicted on them. It cannot benefit them. Nor is it likely to change a cultural bias which has existed unchanged for thousands of years. Meanwhile, the publishers and the author (in professional terms, if not also financially) benefit from this exposure.

The stories in this book are not, as Amy Tan is quoted on the book's cover as saying, "Stories that must be read." They are, as John Snow (also quoted) says, "Shocking." And they are a reminder of the huge and devastating changes which have taken place in China, and which have dramatically affected the lives of this present generation and their families. China, still, is an enigma to most Westerners. No doubt it is not the strange, romanticized place of many stories, but Xinran's stories, too, must be only part of the picture. It is a pity that she seems to suggest, even in her presentation of today's young women, that for the women of China there is no hope, other than to do as she has done and leave.


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