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Chinese Whispers Essay, Research Paper

Chinese whispersThe Good Women of Chinaby XinranChatto and Windus ?14.99, pp244Any Journalist who writes about suffering knows that the copy will be read partly in a spirit of prurience. The story may cry out to be told, but part of what makes it publishable is its shock value. Exploitation, cruelty and violence make compelling reading, and although the writer’s – and indeed the reader’s – chief motive may be to expose or understand wrongs, you can’t get away from the fact that torment is titillating. Good journalists can minimise the voyeurism – by putting the story into context and (a related point) by the quality of their writing.The Good Women of China passes neither of these tests with flying colours. The book contains stories of rape and child abuse, forced marriages and sexual humiliations. Its author, a former radio journalist called Xinran, contextualises where she can but her 15-odd stories focus on her subjects’ emotions, with the result that you are left wondering how representative their experiences really are. In some cases she has had only brief encounters with the women described, so that her account lacks the texture of, say, Wild Swans (with which it is bound to be compared, not least because Xinran is now married to Toby Eady, Jung Chang’s literary agent).Since the book appears in translation, it is also hard to judge whether certain awkwardnesses in the writing are in the original, from the English, or are the necessary consequence of cultural differences. Xinran paints herself as naïve (slightly irritatingly – she was highly successful) and is forever telling us what to think, underlining her responses: she was ‘amazed’, ‘agape’; she was ‘touched by [her colleagues’] estimation of me’.But enough complaining already. The subject matter of The Good Women of China demands attention. Xinran’s stories, collected over 10 years working in radio, reveal a China in which the Party attempted to dam up emotion and sexuality for the sake of politics, only to see them fire off in hideously wrong directions. The women about whom she writes endured child abuse, rape, gang rape, abduction and the forced parting of parents and children.Xinran began her exploration of the private lives of Chinese women on her late-night Nanking radio show, Words On The Night Breeze. It was the early Nineties, and ‘openness and reconstruction’ were easing prohibitions against discussion of feelings and sexuality. Previously, as Xinran points out, physical contact between unmarried people led to being ’struggled against’. Husbands and wives would denounce each other for ‘pillow talk’ (she doesn’t explain precisely what this is). Her aim on the late-night show was ‘to help women understand each other, men understand women and bring families closer together’.Xinran herself – and this is why I think the naïvety in the book may be unforced – had refused to hold hands with a male teacher at a bonfire party at the age of 22 for fear of getting pregnant. (She was born in 1958.) She didn’t hug her mother until she was in her forties. She grew up in a world in which feelings were barely acknowledged, let alone discussed, and when she set up a tape machine into which women could call and tell their stories, it became clear that all the emotions bottled up over years were waiting to pour out. She was soon getting more than 100 contributions a day.The Good Women of China is a selection of the stories that affected her most, plus some she gleaned from travelling around the country. They concern women of all different classes and ages and degrees of experience, although the underlying theme is horror. She begins with the story of Hongxue, whose abuse at the hands of her father began when she was 11. Even though they were living in a dormitory, he managed to rape her every day. She wrote to a friend that the only reason she didn’t kill herself was that she could not bear to abandon her little brother.By dint of freezing herself in winter, eating food that had gone off in autumn, and trying to cut her hand off, Hongxue managed to spend much of her time in hospital.When Hongxue told her mother – who had been forced to work elsewhere – what was happening, she counselled that ‘for the security of the whole family’ she must endure it. In hospital again, Hongxue adopted a baby fly, the only creature she could love and whose sensuality she could enjoy innocently. When the fly died, she stole out to bury it and saw what she thought was a man attacking a woman on a grassy bank in the grounds.Hongxue reported the attack to the hospital authorities. In fact, it had been her best friend from the hospital, making love to her boyfriend. Both were expelled from the military academy and the boyfriend hanged himself. Not long after, Hongxue effectively committed suicide by rubbing a fly into a wound in her arm and developing a fever.Then there’s Xiao Ying, a survivor of the Tangshan earthquake of 1976 which killed 300,000 people. So preoccupied was the Chinese state with the deaths of Mao Zedong, Zhouenglai and the military leader Zhu De that no one in Beijing realised there had been an earthquake until a man travelled all the way from Tangshan with the news, and at first they thought he was mad. Even the local news agency found out about it from the foreign press. In the chaos following the quake, Xiao Ying was gang raped by soldiers. When her mother found her in a ditch, she kept pulling down her trousers, closing her eyes and humming.Xiao Ying was sent for psychiatric treatment. She seemed better after two and a half years, but the day before her parents were due to take her home, she hanged herself. She was 16.Like the previously underreported rape of women in war, these unheeded violations of women need to be accorded their proper, terrible importance. China in the second half of the twentieth century was a place in which you could be banished for saying one wrong thing, for having the wrong parents, or for falling in love with the wrong person.Xinran tells the story of a general’s daughter forced to pretend to be someone else’s child in order to survive, who finally admitted her identity in order to stop the torture of her guardian. She was sent for re-education to a place from which she eventually emerged with a torso scarred with bite marks, part of one nipple chewed away and a branch stuck in the neck of her womb.Power was so perverted that a Party meeting could become an excuse for gang rape. But some of the most moving stories that Xinran tells are quieter and less sensational. Her own is bad enough: she was sent to live with her grandmother when she was one month old, and didn’t see her mother until she was five, when she found it impossible to address her other than formally, as ‘auntie’. Her parents were subsequently imprisoned as suspected reactionaries, and she and her brother spent five years in a school for ‘polluted’ children.’It is characteristic of the modern Chinese to have either a family with no feelings, or feelings but no family,’ Xinran writes – by which she means that practical considerations of safety and security have dominated for so long that emotions are repressed. ‘What most women are searching for is a family that grows out of feeling.’The Good Women of China recently sold to a Chinese publisher. The reaction in Britain is predictable: it will shock and sell. The reaction there will be much more interesting to watch.

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