Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by Xinran

"Xinran" means "with pleasure" in Chinese. From 1989 to 1997, Xinran hosted a nightly radio program Words on the Night Breeze from a Communist Party controlled radio station in Nanjing. She played a little music, took telephone calls, and discussed lives of common people. With a ten second delay, a censor was always ready to pull the plug. Cultural reform had made the program possible, but Party officials would not tolerate criticism. Xinran was always cautious, but she also had a driving need to learn about the true lives of women in China. They had a great need to speak, and Words on a Night Breeze became very popular.

In the eight years Xinran was on the air, she received many cards, letters, and packages from listeners. Some told stories that she could not repeat until she left China to live in London. The Good Women of China is a collection of these stories.

The roots of many of the stories lay in the Cultural Revolution when families were repressed by the government under Chairman Mao. With many rules governing proper thought, speech, and action, husbands and wives could not trust each other or their children. Children were often sent off to Communist schools. Parents were often sent to prison or to rural communities for reeducation. No one was safe.

Life did improve after the Cultural Revolution, but not much. Tenets of the party said that women had equal status with men, but in many cases women led miserable lives. All forms of poverty and abuse were common, and the police and local officials often ignored obvious violence towards women. With no one to champion them, women began to send Xinran their stories.

Western readers may have trouble believing some of the accounts. One lengthy story tells about an abused girl who keeps a fly as a pet. Another tells about girls living in caves taking turns wearing their clothes; if it was not her day to wear the clothes a girl would have to stay in the cave. Most of the women who tell their stories are desperate.

With China becoming a dominant country in foreign affairs, this should be a well-read book.

Xinran. The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices. New York: Pantheon Books, 2002. ISBN 0375422013

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