THE GOOD WOMAN OF CHINA
Author: Xin Ran, Translated by Esther Tyldesley
Genre: Social & Cultural, Documentary, Nonfiction
This book caught my eyes while I was in the local library last weekend looking up some Catherine Lim novels for my son. This hard-cover book has a Chinese calligraphy character - 女 written on it. Flipped over the back cover, I was captivated by more Chinese calligraphy characters:
female + housework = woman
female + kindness = mother
(female + tradition) + (female + kindness) = girl
female + son = good
The character for 'woman' was originally composed of elements illustrated a Female and a Broom 《婦》, symbolizing her domestic role. But a woman could never be the head of a household, and was only delegated to run the the domestic side by her husband. From these Chinese characters, we can also see the responsibilites of Chinese women:
A good Girl is expected to observe Tradition and Kindness
A Girl with Kindness makes A Good Mother
A Woman is good when she borne a Son
Short Extracts "I received no praise for the rescue of this girl, only criticism for 'moving the troops about and stirring up the people' and wasting the radio station's time and money. I was shaken by these complaints. A young girl had been in danger and yet going to her rescue was seen as 'exhausting the people and draining the treasury'. Just what was a woman's life worth in China?"
The short extract reflects that girl children were valued less than boys. This could be due to the tradition that girls would marry out one day. Because traditionally once a girl had grown up and married she had to take her husband's surname and would immediately be regarded as an outsider. Since they did not stay in the family and contribute to it economically and ritually, hence in harsh times far more girl children were left to die than boys."Everyone who has lived through the Cultural Revolution remembers how women who committed the 'crime' of having foreign clothes or foreign habits were publicly humiliated.
Their hair was shorn into all sorts of strange styles for the Red Guards' amusement; their faces were smeared with a mess of lipstick; high-heeled shoes were strung together and looped around their bodies; broken pieces of all manner of 'foreign goods' were dangled from their clothes at odd angles. The women were made to recount over and over again how they had come to possess foreign products.
I was seven years old when I first saw what these women went through, paraded through the streets to be jeered at; I remember thinking that if there was a next life, I did not want to be reborn a woman".
The stories told in the book are true but names have been changed in order to protect the people concerned.
Cultural tolerance may be a much-avowed gospel among liberals, but it has created no end of problems for feminism. Raised on the principles of democratic individualism, Western advocates for women's rights have a hard time identifying with the loyal wives, hardworking mothers and dutiful daughters who exemplify female virtue in many Third World countries. Feminists tend to perceive such women either as idealized representatives of Edenic cultural purity or as mute victims of that vague yet ever-present menace, "the patriarchy."
Chinese journalist Xinran has a more intimate audience in mind for The Good Women of China. This book is both a record and an extension of Xinran's decade-long effort to teach Chinese women about themselves.
In 1990, as a broadcaster on Radio Nanjing, she began soliciting women's life stories and recounting them on the air. Letters and phone messages poured in, and the extraordinary range of experiences they revealed astonished Xinran as much as her audience. "Much of what they said came as a profound shock to me," she recalls. "I had believed that I understood Chinese women. Reading their letters, I realized how wrong my assumption had been. My fellow women were living lives and struggling with problems I had not dreamed of."
It's difficult to imagine this kind of disconnect in the United States, with its reasonably uniform culture and economy. But in vast, chaotic New China, with its wildly diverse standards of living, the extraordinary variation among different women's lives amounts to a kind of cultural schizophrenia.
Xinran spoke with elegant, opportunistic yuppies and peasant girls stolen from their homes and sold as brides. She encountered a woman who'd spent 45 years searching for her childhood sweetheart -- he'd been torn from her in the shakeups of early communism. Another old woman revealed that her son, an up-and-coming urban politician, had no idea she was living on the street. She had come to the city to be near him but wouldn't live with him for fear of disrupting his relationship with his wife.
Most of the women Xinran encountered were wounded in some way: either emotionally from abuse, or physically, from any number of causes. These hurts bespeak an awesome range of human experience. In the tiny village of Shouting Hill in central China, the women walked bowlegged, their crotches scarred by the coarse leaves they used as sanitary napkins. In the northeastern village of Tangshan, which was struck by an earthquake in 1976, a mother described watching her daughter hang for days between two buildings that had slammed together.
Xinran's prose is remarkably evocative, bursting with details that make each account haunting. These stories have all the force of good fiction. More remarkable, they combine vigorous universalism with a bone-deep cultural authority. It's easy to see why The Good Women of China is slated for publication in 16 countries, including China. Without a doubt, Xinran is the voice of China's women.
Following is an introduction of the author, Xinran, and we hear more about Chinese women of China from the author herself, Xinran, during an interview with AsianWeek.About the Author
Brought up by the red guards during the cultural revolution in China, Xinran was taught to disregard her parents as her 'true family' and pledge alligance first and foremost to the Chinese government.
For eight groundbreaking years, Xinran presented a radio programme in China during which she invited women to call in and talk about themselves. The radio programme became famous throughout the country for its unclinching portrayal of what it meant to be a woman in modern China. Centuries of obedience to their 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, became the first woman to hear their true stories.
"The Good Women of China" is Xinran's account of these eight years interviewing and speaking openly with Chinese women about their lives. Through the vivid intimacy of her writing, the women share their almost inconceivable suffering: forced marriages, sexual abuse, separation of parents from their children, extreme poverty.
But they also talk about love - about how, despite cruelty, despite politics, the female urge to nurture and cherish remains.~~~~~~Review By Terry Hong
Special to AsianWeek
The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices is one of those books you just can’t put down. Part memoir, part history, part tragedy, part social documentary, Good Women is the first book by Xinran Xue, a journalist who hosted a nightly radio show in China called “Words on the Night Breeze.” The show debuted in 1989 and lasted for seven years. As the first show in China to give voice to Chinese women, “Words” had millions of faithful listeners. Xinran received hundreds of calls and letters every day, in which women from all walks of life poured out their stories. Xinran often wept.
These women’s stories make up Good Women. So important were these women’s lives to Xinran that she actually risked her life for the sake of the book. When she first moved to London from China in 1999, she was mugged on her way home from London University, where she was teaching at the time. She struggled desperately with the assailant, refusing to give up her bag, which contained her only copy of the book’s original manuscript. While she admits today that, “Of course, life is more important than a book,” she insists that in many ways, this book was not only her own life, but also a testimony to the lives of all the women in China who had been silent for far too long.
In the book, Xinran bears witness to incest, rape, kidnapping, brutality, suffering, torture and neglect. She writes of a young girl whose only escape from her father’s torturous incestuous demands was to slowly die in a hospital. She writes of mothers who lost their entire families to a violent earthquake, who recreated a large make-shift family filled with surviving earthquake orphans. She writes of the women in a far-off village who have lives filled with suffering — they work all day from sun-up to sundown, then must ‘service’ the men, sometimes as a shared wife to numerous men, and bear children endlessly year after year, whose only joy is receiving an egg mixed with water and sugar upon the birth of a son — and yet, ironically, they are the only women who claim they are “happy.”
Xinran also offers glimpses of her own life, a brutal experience as a much-abused victim of the Cultural Revolution. Somehow, Xinran, like the women she represents in this memorable book, not only survives, but thrives. AsianWeek Interview with Xinran, the Author of the bookAW: How did you become a journalist?
Xinran: After secondary school, I received further education in a military university, where I studied English and international relations. After my studies, I worked in the military as a civilian.
I published my first poem at 15, and then after that I published quite a lot — short stories, poems — and I think that is why they put me in that station [which broadcast “Words”]. Now with this book, I’ve been published in 50 countries in 22 languages. I can’t believe it!AW: Once you arrived in London, what did you do? How did you become a writer?
Xinran: I did many different things. I worked as a cleaner in a store, I taught Chinese classes, I was a freelance journalist, I did voiceovers for a Chinese television production company. I just wanted to learn, to practice the English language in different ways. If you want to be part of a new country, you have to learn about it at different levels, from different people, so I tried a little bit of everything. I was also very interested in learning about lives of Chinese women living overseas. I wanted to try all the different kinds of jobs they were doing while living in a foreign country. AW: And what did you discover about these overseas Chinese women?
Xinran: This is one of the reasons I have written this book. Chinese women have the reputation of having no feelings, no emotions, no color, no taste — I was so sad to hear comments like these about Chinese women’s lives. Between 1989 and 1997, I interviewed face-to-face over 200 women, from the countryside, from the city, from small villages where life is as it was 500 years ago. I know Chinese women have colorful feelings, they know emotional things, but they have to try and live their lives in different ways, because our culture is a hiding, negative culture.
This is why I chose this name for book. When we women come into this world, we want to be good — a good daughter, good mother, good friend, good lover, good wife. But because of our [Chinese] culture, many women feel they’re no good. In 1995, I opened four telephone lines to ask men two questions: How many good women in your lives have you met?; and what’s the standard of a good woman? I received over a thousand letters, but only a few letters said that they had ever met a good woman in their lives. Most of the men said no, they had not met a good woman. I was so shocked. If these men could write to me, then obviously, they were educated and this is the way educated men felt.
To be a good woman, according to the men, required five standards:
1. A good woman is quiet, never goes out, is never open, especially to other men;
2. A good woman must give the family a son;
3. A good woman is always soft and never loses her temper;
4. A good woman never makes mistakes in doing the housework, she never mixes the colors when doing the wash, she never burns the food when cooking; and
5. A good woman is good in bed and retains her beautiful figure.AW: Are you a “good woman”?
Xinran: In my eyes, the standard of good woman is completely different from these standards. If we don’t look down on ourselves, we are good. If we know how to love, how to give love, how to feel toward other people, then we are good.
But under this Chinese standard, we are not good. I’m a freelance television producer, I’m a writer, I do consulting for companies in foreign countries, but when I come home and find my husband cooking dinner, I think I should be cooking. I’m the woman, I’m the wife. I’m educated, and still it’s difficult for me to break out of this kind of thinking.