The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices

Xinran nearly lost the manuscript of this book when a mugger grabbed her bag in London.

“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, and the route is different every time.”

A radio call-in show host, Xinran’s interest in the intimate lives of women in China began when she received a letter from a boy in Nanjing about a kidnapped girl in his village who had been chained around the waist by the old man who bought her. After some wrangling, Xinran managed to get the girl some help and return her to her family. But instead of praise for her help, Xinran only received criticism for “stirring up the people”, and she began to wonder: “Just what was a woman’s life worth in China?” She’s given permission (by the central office no less) to add a women’s feature to her show, to read and discuss the letters she receives.

These stories are so moving, so poignant. Some were rather difficult to read and left me in tears. The story of Jingyi in ‘The Woman Who Waited Forty-Five Years’ is tragic. Xinran’s father tells her of the reunion of two of his former classmates, Jingyi and Gu Da, who had been sweethearts at university and lost touch during the Cultural Revolution, with Jingyi searching for her beloved for 45 years only to find him at the reunion with his wife (it’s not a spoiler, the story is more or less revealed in the second paragraph of this chapter.)

Xinran told The Guardian: “When I interviewed a woman the first thing was to give her space – a warm and friendly feeling – because she needed someone to listen. I discovered that women had no idea how to talk about themselves. In family tradition, in education, in society, even if you asked them, women had never talked about what happened in their own lives. Some kept their old beliefs – that a naked woman is not to be seen – and likewise not her innermost feelings. If they didn’t choose to tell me I never forced them and the number who refused me was always much greater than the number who talked. Some had so much pain in their hearts and in their past that you felt heavy, as though if you touched them you could break them.”

It’s quite appalling to read of the lives of these women, who grew up being tormented for coming from families who have overseas or capitalist associations, for example. Xinran’s own background, as a “daughter of a capitalist household” resulted in her being spit on by other children, of being forbidden to take part in singing and dancing activities at school in order to not ‘pollute’ the revolution (her parents were in prison). Many of these women’s stories deal with abuse and as such, it’s not the easiest of books to read. I was constantly angry about what happened with these women and my heart ached for them. It made me glad for my own happy, carefree childhood in Singapore. And incredibly thankful that my ancestors left the various parts of China that they came from and made their way to that little island in Southeast Asia.

This is such a brave collection of the lives of some of the women in China. Not only were the women brave in telling their stories, but so was Xinran in seeking out these women and bringing their tales to life. While the translation is a little iffy at times, The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices is an important, unforgettable read.

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