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China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation

3.71  ·  Rating details ·  553 ratings  ·  71 reviews
This hugely important and ground-breaking book — an unprecedented oral history — gives voice to a silent generation and tells the secret history of 20th century China.

In 1912, five thousand years of feudal rule ended in China. Warlords, Western businessmen, soldiers, missionaries and Japanese all ruled China, exploited and fought one another and the Chinese. In 1949, Mao Z
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published October 7th 2008 by Chatto and Windus (first published 2008)
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3.71  · 
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 ·  553 ratings  ·  71 reviews

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Dec 02, 2009 rated it really liked it
A fascinating look at what the older generation feels and thinks about China, and the stories of their lives.

This book makes a lot more sense if you've read a lot about China (I have) because much of what the author says and implies about certain events are easy to miss if you're not aware of Chinese recent history. For instance, many of the people are very guarded in their assessment of political history and seem unable to criticize some of the horrible policies of Mao. In fact, you have to rea
May 07, 2009 rated it really liked it
Xinran is one of the most authentic voices from China writing today. I snap up each of her books as soon as they come out. I picked this one up with high hopes, as it's about the 'silent generation' of Chinese who lived through the Revolution and the suffering afterward -- the whole gamut of natural and political catastrophe that is modern China. Unfortunately, the 'silent generation' learned early to lie to stay alive, and that is how their interviews often come across -- they're holding back, ...more
Ranjeev Dubey
Feb 25, 2013 rated it it was ok
Any book on China describing the 'dark years' between the 1940s and 1990s is welcome especially if it avoids the rich, the powerful and the elite and deals instead with the lived experiance of common folk. Xinran has ferreted out people from a variety of fields across the face of China and discussed their lives with her. Some are powerful but many are peasants or poor or stripped of all power or all of the foregoing. The result is a very interesting portrait of life in the raw in times of enormo ...more
Nov 12, 2009 rated it really liked it
This is a very good book that gives some excellent insights into both current China from the perspective of both the author who is in her middle years and now lives mostly in the UK and of the people that she interviews who are mostly people in their later years, most of whom were revolutionaries when the Communist Party took over China in the late 40s. To give an example of an insight. It had not occurred to me - duh, it should have - that the Chinese have always existed under rulers who foster ...more
Oct 09, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: china
This is the book that got me interested in Chinese history.
It consists of interviews with older Chinese in which they talk about their experiences of various stages of the People's Republic. Some of them are gruelling and sad, and what's even sadder is that the interviewees themselves have not shared their stories with their children and grandchildren. It seems to be a common occurrence that present-day Chinese elderly don't talk much about their lives in pre-capitalist China.
When I read China
A deeply moving testament to the lives of ordinary Chinese citizens who endured decades of fear, oppression and political machinations. Many of the people Xinran interviewed had never spoken about their experiences not even to their children or spouse. As all were elderly or very elderly Xinran has succeeded in shining a light in some very dark places.

It was a humbling experience to read these testimonies.
Donna Swartz
Jun 14, 2010 rated it really liked it
Most interesting view, as this was a compilation of interviews of Chinese (who remained in PRC after 1949) by a Chinese journalist, Xinran, who grew up in China but now lives in London. Her sensibilities remain in sync with her interviewees, with the overlay of her western experience. The form, language and content of this book is, therefor, a wonderfully true reading of the mainland Chinese soul. What is unsaid is just as revealing as what is said. Poignant.
Prina Patel
Dec 14, 2017 rated it did not like it
I have had a fascination with China and Chinese history since I first visited the country in 2002, spending a couple of months as a volunteer in Shanghai, and falling enough in love with the country and its people to consider moving and living there for a longer period of time (a plan that sadly never materialized).

With this in my mind (and heart), I had high hopes for China Witness because I remember reading Xinran’s Good Women of China and liking it enough that it still has a place on my books
Sylvia Ttl
Aug 04, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: politics, history
I sought to read this book out of a great interest over the modern history of China from the standpoint of ordinary people from all walks of life. I appreciate the author's effort to tour China to document true but publicly-unavailable stories, yet she has annoyed me in many occasions for interrupting the interviewees from telling a full account. As a result, a potentially noteworthy personal history ends up as boring and long-winded "grandmother" story that I could not bear to read on. Not to m ...more
Sahel Chin
Mar 02, 2009 rated it it was ok
I have read everything else by this author, and she is typically a very compelling storyteller. Sadly, this book was dull and just a chore to get through. Even worse, the subject matter is interesting, but just not presented well.
Jan 09, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, meridian
This past century has been a tumultuous one for China. Until 1912, China was still ruled by the Qing Dynasty, which gave way after the Xinhai Revolution to a series of regional warlords vying for supremacy. Nationalists were finally able to consolidate power by 1928, but then war, first with Japan and then civil war within China, was followed by the Communist revolution in 1949. The “Time of the Leadership of the Party” and the Cultural Revolution caused untold suffering, including millions of d ...more
Jun 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
a book filled with interviews. The author is very interested in telling the story of the peasants, and the price they paid with their blood and sweat to build China after the Liberation in 1949.

What we don't understand in the West is what it was like before 1949, so we have no idea why when this new nation was born people were enthused and filled with optimism.

Not as compelling as her book interviewing just women of China, but interesting to me.

"China's peasants have been treated as a part of th
In this collection of interviews with elderly Chinese people, all of whom are witnesses to the great upheavals that beset twentieth-century China, Xinran aims to tell their stories and to testify about their personal experiences living in such a tumultuous century. The interviewees come from all walks of life: a traditional lantern maker, former police officer and court official, a general returned from America, a shoe repairer; these are ordinary people with ordinary lives (as they often say) b ...more
Sep 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: personal-impact
I wept. Xinran effectively captures the unique personalities of each of her subjects, from a brief snippet of an overheard conversation to long interviews with people who lived (somehow!) through conditions that seem impossibly inhumane. Truly though, their stories of hardship are engrossing and emotional. What brings me to tears are the stories of parenting during such tumultuous times. Consistent are regrets of losing connection with their children, and though reasons are as varied as DNA comb ...more
Jan 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
Fascinating insight into the first-hand experiences out those who lived through the vast upheaval that was Chinese life in the 20th century. The drive and sacrifices of the individuals who sought to reshape their nation is laudable, but equally compelling is the sense of betrayal by those who sacrificed so much to be only be left behind and forgotten as Chinese growth took off.

Each interview brings a unique perspective on these events, which I admittedly had only a rudimentary knowledge of. Alt
Kirsten Benites
Aug 16, 2016 rated it liked it
When reading this book I had a hard time not comparing it to another "oral history" which I read recently: Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich. The authors approach the role of oral historian very differently. Xinran is very much a part of the book--she discusses how she found interviewees, her journey through China interviewing them and includes her (in my opinion) very leading questions as well as their responses. Alexievich in contrast is completely absent from Voices from Chernobyl, ...more
Aug 27, 2013 rated it it was ok
If I had read China Witness before reading other works by Xinran I would of given it more stars.
China Witness is a collection of interviews of Chinese who lived through the Revolution. Whilst the interviews are heartbreaking, tragic i feel as though I am not getting full insight into these people's lives. They tell their story's and share their pain, anguish, resilience and determination but something seems to be missing slightly. Perhaps as part of the 'Silent Generation' these people are so
Apr 06, 2011 rated it it was ok
I read to page 231 (out of 417) before deciding to set this one aside. I find the subject, living through the turmoil of China's cultural revolution, interesting, but the presentation did not engage me. I expected it to be like her other books, The Good Women of China and Letter from an Unknown Chinese Mother, but it lacked the narrative style of those books. Instead of telling a different story in each chapter, China Witness gives only a short introduction followed by a transcript of an intervi ...more
Dec 28, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: china
This book is an interesting look at the lives of the older generation in China. Each chapter starts off describing the person or persons that the author is interviewing, followed by a transcript of the interview. I personally was not a huge fan of the straight transcript format, but that's just a personal preference. The people she interviewed were extraordinary, and their stories were fascinating. Sometimes I wished for more analysis to go with the interviews. I would recommend this book to any ...more
Cj Newman
Mar 19, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Great book for those, like myself, who enjoy learning about the culture of Chinese women. Real women, not officials or famous citizens. Xinran winnowed the initial list of 50 down to 20 solid interviews of such women for the purpose of recording a period of Chinese history for the children. Mainly people who lived through the Cultural Revolution and just before and after. She was seeking their honest remembrances. Some warmed up a little slowly, but for the most part many (and their spouses chim ...more
Mar 25, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This book is a collection of interviews with people who are 60+ years old in contemporary China. So these are people who were born after the Guomintang revolution, but before the Communist one. They survived that, plus the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and now the market reforms. The premise of the book is that this is a group who has both seen and done a lot, and has something important to say about what it means to be Chinese.

The life stories of the people interviewed in this bo
Jun 27, 2013 rated it liked it
A necessary book. There are not enough of these stories being told, and censorship is effectively silencing an entire generation of people who are already reluctant to reminisce over the hardships they faced in their youth. It took me a while to finish this book because while I am interested in the subject matter, I was completely put off by the style in which it was written. Too much of the book felt like I was being handheld through each interview, and being told what to feel. Parts of the boo ...more
Dec 06, 2010 rated it really liked it
China's history experienced by millions during Mao's Cultural Revolution is captured in a series of interviews by a journalist. Her subjects are the grandparents and great-grandparents who survived imprisonment, re-education, famine, separation from their families and hard labor.

The author selected 50 ordinary individuals across China to interview. The interviews covered not only the tragedies and hardship that they experienced, but also their candid opinions of the changes that China has gone
Sep 22, 2013 rated it liked it
This book was a bit disappointing. I applaud Xinran's mission to preserve the memories of past generations of Chinese, respect her love of her country, and found many details of interest. At the same time, in my opinion she tried too hard to make political points, not only in her commentary but in the questions she chose to ask - if the text of the book is anything to go by, she occasionally pushed her interviewees too hard. Repeatedly I was left wishing that she had let them discuss the things ...more
The Tick
May 04, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: china, history, memoir
This was a hard book to read--there wasn't always enough background information, especially when it came to smaller aspects of China's recent history, the kind that wouldn't be covered in broad historical surveys. There were also some things that I felt could have been shortened or cut (especially the love letters--they were sweet, but they didn't really add to what the book's main focus was supposed to be).

On the other hand, Xinran really did an excellent job of finding people with perspectives
Feb 06, 2012 rated it liked it
I feel guilty for not liking this book more. Xinran travelled China, interviewing the elderly who had lived through the Communist Revolution. She is trying to give these men and women the chance to share their true thoughts and feelings - something they have been forbidden to do throughout their lives. There were many nuggets of fascinating insight, but the book mostly consisted of straight transcriptions of her interviews. I wanted to want to be drawn in by them, but the book spent a lot of tim ...more
Aug 27, 2014 rated it really liked it
Here is a book that matters... If you have read Xinran's "The Good Women of China" and found it enlightening, this, too, reveals some secrets and truths yet unrecorded in Chinese historical documents.

"China Witnesses" is a compilation of Xinran's interviews of people who lived through the darkest years of China's history. If you want to dig deeper at grass roots level into the sentiments of the very generation that has witnessed China's evolution from poverty and socio-political unrest, this wo
Aug 04, 2009 rated it it was ok
Not as riveting as Wild Swans, mostly because the interviews were so uneven. Some were fascinating and others, minimally interesting. Also, the author was disturbingly intrusive throughout. I wanted to get more of the flavor of the Chinese subjects, without her commentary- except perhaps as a footnote. The question and answer format was annoying, especially as she kept asking key questions over and over to all the subjects. There is no doubt that the interviews are an important part of the story ...more
Ke Yu
May 25, 2012 rated it it was ok
this comes as a huge disappointment after the high expectation set by "the good women of China"--the book reads like 'raw' transcriptions of interviews (with inadquate good probings); the author's strength--intertwinning her actions, thinking and the storyline, is in the main casted away; and the stories read quite thin--at times, it seems that she had wanted to achieve too many purposes (how people expereinced the old times, how they met and raised the family..) and in the end none is adequatel ...more
Gill Collins
Jan 20, 2015 rated it really liked it
This non fiction book takes time to read and process. Interviews and connected stories of old Chinese people and their experiences in rural China has created an intriguing series of chapters. The singing news teller,party geologist and Gobi desert pioneers etc are fascinating accounts of harsh and troubled, yet joyful lives, give an interesting sense of Chinese culture. There is some lack of cohesion and a prologue of Chinese historical markers would have helped my enjoyment of this book.
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Xue Xinran, who usually writes as simply "Xinran", was a radio broadcaster in China before moving to Great Britain and beginning to publish books. She currently writes as a columnist.