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256 pages, Paperback
First published October 2, 2002
"At that time in China, I might have gone to prison for writing a book like this. I couldn't risk abandoning my son, or the women who received help and encouragement through my radio programme. In England, the book became possible. It was as if a pen had grown in my heart."
Oh, poor Xinran. You haven’t even got the various categories of women straight. How can you possibly hope to understand men? Let me tell you. When men have been drinking, they come out with a set of definitions for women. Lovers are “swordfish”, tasty but with sharp bones, “Personal secretaries” are “carp”, the longer you “stew” them, the more flavour they have. Other men’s wives are “Japanese puffer fish”, trying a mouthful could be the end of you, but risking death is a source of pride.
And what about their own wives?
Salt cod? Why?
Because salt cod keeps for a long time. When there is no other food, salt cod is cheap and convenient, and makes a meal with rice…
At that time women obeyed the “Three Submissions and the Four Virtues”: submission to your father, then your husband and, after his death, your son; the virtues of fidelity, physical charm, propriety in speech and action, diligence in housework. For thousands of years, women had been taught to respect the aged, be dutiful to their husbands, tend the stove and do the needlework, all without setting foot outside the house.
During the Cultural Revolution, anyone from a rich family, anyone who had received higher education, was an expert or scholar, had overseas connections or had once worked in the pre-1949 government was categorized as a counter-revolutionary. There were so many political criminals of this kind that the prisons could not contain them. Instead, these intellectuals were banished to remote country areas to labour in the fields.
Journalists in China had witnessed many shocking and upsetting events. However, in a society where the principles of the Party governed the news, it was very difficult for them to report the true face of what they had seen. Often they were forced to say and write things that they disagreed with.
When I interviewed women who were living in emotionless political marriages, when I saw women struggling amid poverty and hardship who could not even get a bowl of soup or an egg to eat after giving birth, or when I heard women on my telephone answering machines who did not dare speak to anyone about how their husbands beat them, I was frequently unable to help them because of broadcasting regulations. I could only weep for them in private.
I told the director about Shilin, but said that we could not broadcast her story. He was surprised. ‘What’s wrong? Usually you are pleading to be able to broadcast things.’
‘Nothing’s wrong,’ I replied, ‘but I can’t bring myself to tell this story again or make a programme about it. It would be too difficult.’
‘This is the first time I’ve ever heard you say anything is too difficult, so it really must have been a hard story to listen to. I hope you can manage to put it behind you.’