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Book Review and Recommendation: The Good Women of China by Xue Xinran

Published in 2002, The Good Women of China is a book by British- Chinese journalist Xue Xinran. Composed mostly from interview she conducted and letters she received whole working as a journalist/radio host, this book reads like a collection of short stories. Most of the stories are quite sad and tragic, as is the tone of the book. The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices speaks about difficult subjects (raging from political repression to abuse) and events (ranging from a devastating earthquake to the horrors of  Cultural Revolution). It is not an easy book to read, and it was probably not an easy book to write. At the start of the book, Xinran tell a story of an event that nearly costs her the manuscript for this book. A man tried to steal her bag, and she fought him desperately despite the fact he was six feet tall and stronger than her. At that point Xinran was already living in London, I believe. A policeman asked her why she had risked her own life for the sake of the bag, and Xiran answer that her book was in there. A manuscript, she was aware that she might not have the power to write again. I think this story is symbolic of the inner struggle that Xinran probably had to go through to be able to put these stories to paper. 

 The majority of events described in this novel takes place in China. As specific as some situations were, I felt that the stories of loss and abuse were universally human. In other words, they are easy to relate to. The most hearth-breaking stories in this book are those of women that were raped as children. I was somewhat prepared for the descriptions of atrocities committed during Cultural Revolution, and some of the other horrors described in this book but you can never quite prepare yourself for reading about child rape, can you? Perhaps because of that, reading this book reminded me of FDLF cult in USA and its leader Warren Jeffs who was ultimately sentenced for raping 12 year old girls, his ‘brides’.  I saw a film about life in that cult, and parts of some documentaries. I found it extremely hard to watch the documentaries (I think there was a documentary series). Just knowing about such things as child rape is extremely emotionally draining and upsetting, but seeing the victims with your own eyes or reading their stories makes one feel even worse. This book is more like a documentary than a film. It just throws it all in your face.

It is one thing to read fiction about such events and quite another to read the ‘real’ accounts.  There are many such present day stories, whose horrors are unspeakable. Finding the words to say them must be incredibly hard. Think of the European girl Natasha who was kidnaped and imprisoned for years. When she finally managed to escape, she was the same weight she was when she was imprisoned at 10 years old. Extremely underweight and abused for years, Natasha managed to escape.  I was always amazed by her courage and wondered what gave her such strength. These stories are everywhere. They do not happen only in the East, in Africa or China. They happen in Western and European societies as well. Why is paedophilia so present? Why do we still have so many child marriages, even in so called developed countries? I always feel haunted by the numbers I remember. The number of child and incest marriages in the West is enough to make everyone sick to their stomach. It’s a problem that is sadly not limited to a single country, or continent.

Reading those parts of the book was as horrible as seeing those FDLP girls with my own eyes and knowing there are so many children still  trapped in that cult. They often kick teenage boys out of that cult so they wouldn’t get into the way of all these men who want to marry their baby sisters. I watched those boys coming back, trying to save their sisters. It is a very brave thing to do, being raised in a cult and devoting your life to fight against it. The human instinct would be to flee and never look back, yet past will always caught up with us. Thinking about so many little girls ‘married’ at age of 12 and raped is enough to give anyone nightmares. I’ve read this book yesterday and needless to say I found it very hard to fall asleep the night after. I did feel devasted after reading this book, and it's hard not to feel that way. 

I just described what the most difficult part of the book was for me, now I’m going to talk a bit more about the book itself.  The author of this book Xue Xinran worked as a journalist for many years, and her stories are presumably based on real events. Some people noted that there seem to be many coincidences in the stories, suspecting that some of them might be fabricated or ‘polished’. I’m not going to make any accusations, because I know life is stronger than fiction. If the author changed some details, or even made up some stories, that won’t really change my opinion of her.
I would say that Xue Xinran is a very brave women. As I was reading the book, I wondered how she was able to hear so many heart-breaking stories and keep her sanity. I think Xinran herself admits that at times she feels overwhelmed. As a host of a popular radio show, Xinran received a staggering amount of intimately sad and heart-breaking letters. A young woman that wrote to Xinran asking for guidance killed herself because Xinran failed to read her letter or answer her in time. It is a very heavy weight to carry.

What I found very interesting is the questions Xinran tried to answer with this book. This is after all a book about Chinese women and the author does reflect on the state of women in the Chinese society. She doesn’t go into great length, there is no encompassing study but this is certainly a book that makes one thing. Xinran is an excellent interviewer but she is also very human. I liked how Xinran often let the women tell their stories in their own way, showing a great deal of patience and common sense. The author tells the stories of so many women, and for me personally the story seemed a bit too quick at times. I wanted to know more about these women. What happened to them once the chapter answered? The amount of stories shared felt a bit overwhelming. I felt like they deserved more space. At times, the writing even felt a bit cold. I know that the job Xinran took upon herself was incredibly hard. It is not a job any book can fulfilled. 

I know it must have been heard hearing all those stories, trying to write them down, give them justice and at the same time talk about the complex topic that is the position of women in Chinese society. Wars are a terrible things, not just while they last, but in the years that follow. Women, as a perhaps more vulnerable part of the society, are often the ones on whose shoulder it all breaks- the years of chaos and social instability. It is important to write about such things, to give women a change to speak. Many of them are being ‘strong’ for the sake of their families and their sense of duty, and talking care of everyone else women often forget to take care of themselves. As tremendously important as I think this book is, I felt that the writing lacked something. A bit more warmth perhaps. Perhaps the author is more a journalist, than a writer. Moreover, Xinran started to open up a bit about her own life and history in the book, but one gets a feeling she left many things unsaid. It’s not a major fault, though. I would still recommend this book to everyone. It’s not an easy read, but it is worth it.

There is one things that bugs me, though. I have a feeling that some people might use this book to talk negatively about China. There is almost an implicated that these sorts of things only happen in China. Alright, the cultural revolution is something that happened only in China, there are similar examples of cultural repression around the world. I do understand that this book shows the difficult situation of women trapped between tradition and the desire to go ahead, but this is not a problem limited to one country. The only examples of successful business women that were shown were those of deeply unhappy ones. I know this book is intended to give a voice to those who, for different reasons of tradition or politics, were unable to speak for themselves. However, I can't help wondering whether this book got published and became popular because the West felt threatened by China's economic growth. While China wasn't doing so well economically, nobody cared about the victims of communistic regime. Now, suddenly people are paying attention- is it because they feel threatened by China's economic growth? That's, however, not directly connected with my opinion of this book. I just want to stress that it is important to stay open minded and not use a book like this one like some pamphlet. As relevant as I find this book to be, I felt like I need to mention something that was bothering and that is a potential misuse of this book. I do believe Xinran had good intentions but I wondered whether she could have made this book a bit more rounded up. A lot of things felt uncertain, and when it came to her personal history, many things were left unsaid. Nevertheless, I would recommend this book to every woman. I don't think it's suitable for children or overly sensitive young adults, as it a very heavy read indeed.


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