Rating 4/5 stars
I read a different book by Xinran earlier this year–Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother–that ripped my heart out and left me sobbing at various points. I approached this book with caution because of that.
Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother tells one woman’s story per chapter. Eventually, so does The Good Women of China. However, the start is much slower, and less engaging. I picked up and put this one down a few times, easily distracted by other books. However, once I got to roughly 1/3 of the way through the book, I was sucked in and found myself crying time and time again.
Xinran was, for a time, a presenter of a highly popular radio show in China in the 80’s and early 90’s called “Whispers on the Night Breeze” which focused on the stories of everyday women (or rather, that is what it evolved into). This is the source material for this book and others. The stories she shares are most often those of her generation and that of her mothers–the generation that were children during the cultural revolution, and that of the mothers of those children.
My bachelor’s degree is in History. I have a deep attachment to learning about race, class and gender history. The thing about studying women’s history, though, is that for every fascinating and empowering story about women, there is often a much larger number of truly depressing stories.
One of the most common experiences that occurs in women’s history, and in this book, is that of rape. To the point where I would firmly caution that this book needs a trigger warning for rape. Girls are raped by their fathers. Girls are raped in the cause of “re-educating” them during the Cultural Revolution. Girls are raped in the chaos after an earthquake. Girls who wish for death after rape, who are institutionalized, whose mothers commit suicide after they are raped.
It is also the story of how a moment of deep change–the Cultural Revolution–impacted not just the wealthy or the well born, but the every day woman as well. These are stories we almost never hear. The Japanese expatriate who was in China to teach at a university, and is jailed as a counter-revolutionary. The daughter of wealthy capitalists who gets to her family’s home too late–they have fled to Taiwan–and has to pose as the illegitimate daughter of her aunt, hoping that the truth will never be revealed. The women who began an orphanage after their own children were killed by an earthquake–an earthquake the government didn’t find out about for weeks because there was no modern means of communication in the impoverished mountain villages. A woman who was separated from her love by duty to the party, only to find him again 40 years later—and that he’d married after being told that she was dead. Weaved throughout the other stories is Xinran’s. Her parents were accused of being counter-revolutionary, and she and her brother were brought up by the party. Peasant children were taught to insult them, and treat them as subhuman. Her deeply complicated relationship with her parents, and with her own past is shown as the book progresses.
We also see Xinran’s growing dissatisfaction with trying to toe the party line as a media representative. Stories must be edited, others not told (no need to embarrass the party with a story about highly educated women being given to party elite as new wives, or the village wives they left behind).
As an American, I learned very little modern era Asian History in any of my classes. I was vaguely aware of how Mao had gained power, but I had no context for what that looked like for a woman living in China. Xinran lends us those voices, which when paired with other resources can help paint a more complete pictures of the experience.
If you have an interest in Asian History, in women’s history, or in women’s studies, this book is definitely one you should make time to read. But allow yourself to read as fast (can’t put it down) or as slow (too emotional, need a break) as you need. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an easy read.