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The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices, by Xinran

with 5 comments

The “opening up” of China in the late ’80’s allowed Xinran, who worked for the state radio system before pursuing a career as a journalist in the U.K., to air a call-in radio show for women called “Words On the Night Breeze”. Nothing like this had existed in China before, and the popularity of the show was unprecedented. Women of all ages at the end of China’s Cultural Revolution, it seemed, were desperate to tell their stories and to listen to each other. This is an assemblage of the stories which most moved Xinran…or most haunted her.

This book was both riveting and harrowing from the beginning. It’s impossible to say anything more about it without noting that it should come stamped with a big, bold, trigger warning for rape, incest, sexual and other graphic abuses of all kinds. As should, maybe, the rest of this post. A girl who hurts herself so that she can stay in the hospital away from her rapist father, who keeps a fly as a pet; a mother who tries for over a week to console her injured daughter, trapped between two walls after an earthquake; sisters so impoverished that they must take turns leaving their cave in the one outfit they share while the others remain naked in the dark: these are the shocking, tearful tales that make up the modern China that Xinran came to know intimately.

Rape. There is SO MUCH rape in these stories, and it’s gruesomely detailed. My stomach did flip-flops as I read, and I thought I might actually make myself sick by finishing this book. There’s no doubt that it’s well-written and entirely gripping, but everyone’s got their limits when it comes to this kind of thing and these stories pushed me a little too far. I realize, of course, that it’s a painful reality that deserves both illumination and confrontation…but these incidents were recreated almost voyeuristically, at times, which made me feel I was committing a further degradation by reading about them. This is an entirely personal reaction, and I don’t feel entirely capable of teasing out what is my own discomfort and what  might be inherent to Xinran’s style, but there you have it.

All of these stories, while fascinating in many respects, were cries of silent suffering. Despite the inclusion of stories about women from different class backgrounds, from different regions of China, with different experiences of sexuality and everything else, the presentation of Chinese womanhood that I got from this book was one of pain and horror and not much else at all. It’s possible that I’m being naive: I know little about China or the women who live there. I know these tales of misery and terror are true (though they do read like fiction at times–or am I only trying to comfort myself?) and I’m glad that these voices are no longer hidden–but I kept hoping for counter-examples of happy women, confident women, contented women, even just conflicted women. Surely Xinran must have encountered just a few such women, right?!

A much smaller quibble I had was that I wanted to know much more about Xinran herself. Her story is revealed gradually throughout the telling of others, but it would have been helpful to know more about her from the beginning, so that her own questions and reactions to other women might be put into some sort of context.

So, I don’t know. I started out loving this book, and was really excited about it. A quick look through the book’s reviews on Goodreads suggests that for most readers, that initial mood held them through the end. But it took a heavy toll on me–and I’m sensitive, but not THAT sensitive. Slowly but surely, my estimation of the book sunk. I want to learn more about the condition of women from around the world, even when it’s entirely depressing, disgusting, and disturbing, as it all too often is. But I want to learn more than that stuff, too. In fact, I need to, to get through all the ugliness. I think we all do.

Written by Emily Jane

February 2, 2012 at 6:09 am

Posted in Non-fiction

Tagged with ,

5 Responses

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  1. I read this a few years ago and still have very vivid images from some of the chapters imprinted in my mind :S I didn’t find Xinran’s style voyeuristic, but you’re right, it’s down to personal reaction. Also, I can see your point about wishing for some positive stories to counterbalance these. To me, it’s not so much a matter of each and every book about a particular country having the obligation to contain both good and bad aspects, but of there being enough different books out there that we can form a more rounded picture. And I’m not sure whether there are. A book like this, about some of the worse effects of sexism in China, is perfectly legitimate. The problem is that it fits into a narrative that the West really likes telling about countries like China (particularly while patting itself on the back about how equal things are here *eyeroll*). And quite possibly this has an influence on which books about gender in China are translated and published and become successful. I still think this is a good book, but it all comes down to what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says about the dangers of a single story.


    February 2, 2012 at 10:07 am

    • Yeah, I agree–not every book needs to say everything, and it’s okay to focus only on the bad stuff. I just found this one particularly hopeless 😦 I see that narrative pattern about China, too. You’re right that that’s the problem. I don’t think it’s not a good book, exactly…it’s just difficult to enjoy. I’m afraid some of those images are going to be imprinted forever in my mind, too!

      Emily Jane

      February 2, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    • I agree with you nymeth. Totally. If you catalogue all the serial killers and rape that had gone on in the West into a single book and give it to any reader anywhere, the individual is likely to arrive at a similar conclusion that the individuals in the book are oppressed. Yet, that’s one side of the story. Did Xiran herself suffer from such abuse. Most often those who try to paint an abusive country tend not to have even gone through it themselves. Not that it matters. In fact it is good for such stories to be told for the world can only get better. However, when such stories begin to define what that country is, it becomes upsetting. No one can tell for a fact that there is a country where there is no poverty, hunger, rape etc. In fact I watched a documentary of people living in underground storm drains in the US. Yet, no one has come out to say this defines the US. It’s highly important that we make such generalised statements with caution. Whilst I thank Xiran for exposing these I would also be glad that readers read such stories knowing that there is always the other side. Mostly this other side do not sell and so are rarely accepted.

      Nana Fredua-Agyeman

      February 3, 2012 at 4:49 pm

  2. This does sound difficult to read, I think I’ll avoid it. Eecks.


    February 2, 2012 at 11:30 am

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