Philippa's Reviews > The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices

The Good Women of China by Xinran
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Jul 14, 12

Read in August, 2002

Review published in the New Zealand Listener, 31 August 2002

The Good Women of China
by Xinran
(Chatto & Windus, 2002, $34.95)

Reviewed by Philippa Jamieson

"When Deng Xioaping began the slow process of 'opening up' China in 1983, it was possible for journalists, if they were courageous, to try and make subtle changes to how they presented the news. It was also possible, although perhaps even more dangerous, to discuss personal issues in the media… I was trying to open a little window, a tiny hole, so that people could allow their spirits to cry out and breathe after the gunpowder-laden atmosphere of the previous forty years." So writes radio journalist Xinran in The Good Women of China, a book which grew out of her show Words on the Night Breeze.
Broadcast on Radio Nanjing from 1989-1996, the programme made her a household name in China. Every night she discussed personal and social issues, albeit greatly restricted by state censorship. Her listeners, mostly women, responded in droves – over 100 letters poured in each day. One letter in particular shocked her into action: a boy wrote of a young woman whose husband was keeping her captive by a chain which cut into her waist, the blood seeping through her clothes. Xinran had to pressure the disinterested police into following it up. It turned out the young wife had been kidnapped and was only 12 years old. Thanks to Xinran's efforts, she was returned to her family. Xinran earned no praise for helping the girl, but was instead criticised for wasting time and money. The incident haunted her and she asked herself "Just what was a woman's life worth in China?"
From then on, as she endeavored to answer this question, the programme became focused on women's issues. Talkback radio was unknown in China then as everything was screened and censored, so Xinran went out and pre-recorded interviews with women from all walks of life, and had long-playing answerphone tapes installed for women to leave their stories, which could later be edited.
A book was perhaps an obvious follow-on from the radio show. The Good Women of China gathers together fifteen of the stories that Xinran was told during her time at Radio Nanjing. After moving to England in 1997, she found the freedom to write this book, with the aim of describing to Western readers what it was like to be a woman in China. The title comes from the notion of a 'good woman': meek, submissive, hard-working, long-suffering.
In recent years a number of books by and about Chinese women have been published, but most, like Jung Chang's Wild Swans, are about one individual or family. By contrast, this book conveys an overview of women's lives in China in the last few decades. There's a diversity of women represented: businesswoman, peasant, student, tribeswomen, scavenger, young and old, straight and lesbian. Yet despite their apparent differences, they have much in common. Recurring themes are: rape and sexual abuse, violence, forced marriages, and families split up during the Cultural Revolution. Most of the men in these stories treat women and girls as their property, exisiting for men to use or abuse, rather than as equals.
It disturbed me that the women in this book seemed to have little if any support. A girl who was being sexually abused by her father told her mother , who advised her to put up with it for the sake of family stability. Kind, loving men were almost completely absent – possibly the best male role model in the book is Old Chen, Xinran's boss who supported what she was doing on her show. Surprisingly, the women express little anger or blame towards the men who are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of the crimes and ill-treatment.
The Good Women of China shows some ugly sides of humanity, but these stories must be told, must be heard and must be heeded. Because of the author's sensitivity, the women have been able to express their pain, in some cases for the first time, several of them breaking down in tears while being interviewed. The prose is clear and simple, often in the women's own words, with excerpts from interviews, letters and diaries giving a sense of immediacy and strong images of the different personalities. Each story is framed by just the right amount of Xinran's thoughts and the historical context. Her willingness to share personal experiences is a measure of her solidarity with her sisters.
Although at times a harrowing read, the book does contain some poignant moments, love, and hope, and is a moving reminder of the ongoing work of feminism. Xinran is an extraordinary human being whose compassion and determination has allowed these intimate stories to come to light. The Good Women of China demonstrates that the personal is indeed political.
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