Larry Bassett's Reviews > Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love

Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother by Xinran
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Jul 13, 14

bookshelves: china, nonfiction
Recommended for: anyone involved with adoptions of girls from China
Read from July 31 to August 04, 2012

I have an adopted Chinese daughter. We call her Mei Mei which means little sister in Mandarin. I think about her birth parents regularly and imagine that they must think about her as well. In the orphanage she was called Fu Ping. She was born in Aksu, Xinjiang, China but she is pretty much an American child now at the age of nine. She came to us from China at the age of 3½ underweight, speaking no English, shy, and eating every morsel of food on her plate down to the last grain of rice. From her immersion in the American culture, she quickly picked up English, became more outgoing, and learned that there was always going to be a next meal. We are still dealing with issues related to her cleft palate but she is doing well. She inherited an energetic spirit and an inquiring mind from her birth parents.

Since she has been a part of our life, I have taken a special interest in books about China. I had heard about this book some time ago with the negative comment that Xinran’s writing is somewhat melodramatic. But you can decide that for yourself. Google Books includes the first seventeen pages of the book: http://books.google.com/books/about/M...

Many of the stories in this book are heartbreaking as well as gruesome. This is a book with some unhappy endings.
She looked at the bowl of water the midwife had prepared for her before the birth. This was the Killing Trouble water for drowning the girl baby in. For a boy, the bowl for washing the baby was called the Watering the Roots bath. She knew it was her duty to end her daughter’s life by drowning her in the bowl, and this is what she did.

I wonder how a mother could kill her own daughter. I have never heard of the father doing it but sometimes it is the midwife or a person other than the mother. In this book you will meet mothers who have done just that, the unbelievable, and then gone on with their lives. You will hear their stories in their own words.

Homicide, of course, is not the only way that this “trouble” of having girls instead of boys is solved. Newborns are abandoned and are placed in orphanages and may eventually be adopted, many internationally including in the U.S. However, many never leave orphanages until they reach adulthood. More recently once it became possible to determine the sex of a child in utero, those with the economic ability and access to medical procedures (mostly women in urban areas) make that determination and abort girls. This does not happen in rural areas where women have no money and no medical care. The one child policy is predominantly enforced in urban areas but there is still a very strong tradition in the countryside of wanting the first living child to be a boy. Once a rural woman has a boy, she may well go on to have one or more additional pregnancies with girls being acceptable.

I am reading another book at the same time I am reading this one: The Girls Who Went Away . Both of these books are about women who have been separated from their babies right after birth. Reading these two books is an emotional experience for me. Not only do I have an adopted Chinese daughter but I was a teenager when my first son was born.

“I think any woman who’s had a child knows the depth of feeling she has for that child, and can imagine the pain you would go through if you lost that child.” This is a sentence from The Girls Who Went Away . It is easy to hear these same words coming from a Chinese mother who has abandoned a child. The stories of the mothers in both books have much in common.

I remember during the War in Vietnam the highest ranking U.S. military officer, General William Westmoreland said, ''The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient." In Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother a young Chinese woman working in the adoption field in China expresses a similar belief.
Mother love is supposed to be such a great thing, but so many babies are abandoned and it’s their mothers who do it, isn’t it? They’re ignorant. They feel differently about emotions from the way you do. Where I come from, people talk about smothering a girl baby or just throwing it into the stream on the edge of the village to be eaten by dogs, as if it were a joke.

Earlier I mentioned that I had heard one criticism from someone in the Chinese adoption world that Xinran’s writing is too melodramatic. I think that she is very emotionally invested in the topic based on her own life and experience and she explains that in the book. Her melodrama belongs in this book because she is appealing to your heart. She reached my heart, my heart that understands a bit more about my Chinese daughter. I hope she will read this book when she is older.

I urge anyone involved with international adoptions from China to read this book and to check out the several other books Xinran has written about Chinese women. I give the book a well deserved five stars for its content and style.
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Reading Progress

08/01/2012 page 33
14.0% ""I can't read or write. But I came here to see if I could bump into the foreigners who adopted my daughters. I heard that city folks know how to have a baby boy. I thought I could learn that too, have a boy and then go home and live like a human being for a bit.""
08/02/2012 page 76
32.0% "When Kumei had finished, she asked us, weeping, "Why couldn't my daughters have lived? Why did I have to kill my own daughters? I wish they could have had just a mouthful of that delicious birthday cake, just one mouthful! If only they could have put on those pretty clothes, just for a day!""
08/04/2012 page 189
79.0% "Dear daughters, I hope that by the time you have finished this book, you will have come a little closer to finding the answer to the question you have been asking all your lives: "Why didn't my Chinese mother want me?""

Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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message 1: by Christopher (last edited Aug 05, 2012 05:15PM) (new)

Christopher Wow, Larry. This is a really great, intensely personal review, and one that hits close to home here, too, as I am trying to initiate the process of adoption. It breaks my heart.


Thing Two My goodness, Larry. I just finished reading this after reading a book about prostitution in Nigeria/Belgium. I'm going to bury my head in some sand.


Larry Bassett I like to read books that make me sad or angry. It reminds me of the days I wanted to change the world.

I just started another Xinran book today: The Good Women of China


Thing Two That's on my list for this year, too.

I finished On Black Sisters Street: A Novel and waltzed into this one. Next up is The Garlic Ballads. And I wonder why I'm crying in the shower every morning ... yikes!


Larry Bassett Thing Two wrote: "And I wonder why I'm crying in the shower every morning ..."

That's why I started reading mysteries and novels a couple of years ago. My conscience still requires that I read a serious, social change book periodically.


Thing Two No kidding! I'm terrified Fifty Shades of Grey might be in my future!


Jeanette Thanks for sharing, Larry. This sounds like a good book for TBR list.


Larry Bassett Thank you, Jeanette! I read this book a couple of years ago and it just popped up again as a reminder of a part of my life that is really always right in front of me! I have a bunch of books related to Chinese adoption, some that I have yet to read, gathered together on my bookshelf. It might not be long until my adopted daughter is reading them herself!


Nicole~ I always enjoy being reminded of your own involvement with adoption, Larry. You are inspiring as well, lovely review!


Larry Bassett Being rewarded for doing the right thing is an added benefit! Thank you for your kind words, Nicole.


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