Do you ever finish reading a book and think that perhaps you should start over and read it again; that there was simply too much to absorb the first time through? The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices was such a book for me, not because it was enjoyable or entertaining, but because it was moving and at the same time very disturbing.
From 1989 to 1997, the author, Xinran, hosted a radio call-in show, “Words on the Night Breeze” during which she invited Chinese women to speak about their lives. Broadcast every evening, the show became famous throughout the country for its unflinching portrayal of what it meant to be a woman in China. From the hundreds of women who phoned in to share their stories of forced marriages, Communist Party indoctrination, persecution and imprisonment, extreme poverty, shocking cruelty, and incredible endurance, Xinran chose fifteen, including her own, to share in the book which was only written after she left China. “At that time in China, I might have gone to prison for writing a book like this.” she wrote in the closing paragraph.
When we lived in China for a short time a few years ago, I remember how shocked some of my college age students were to learn how old I was. They told me that Chinese women my age looked much older. Knowing that life in China had been hard, I wasn’t completely surprised, but I started looking at the elderly women on the street and in the market more closely. I wondered how much older than me they actually were and what their lives had been like. Until I read The Good Women of China, however, could not have imagined what many them probably endured.
Xinran is six years younger than I am. Many of the women she writes about are my contemporaries. Their stories are powerful, gripping, and anguished accounts of inhumane treatment, sexual exploitation, torture, rape, hunger, and death often at the hands of Chairman Mao’s Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976. All the while, I was going to school, starting my career, getting married, and enjoying a life of freedom completely oblivious to what was going on half a world away.
Later, during the 1990s and early 2000s, I had the privilege of being ESL tutor to an elderly Chinese gentleman. Ling Cong Xin, better known as Sunny Ling to his Canadian friends, came to Canada with his wife in 1987 to live with their daughter and her family. After we had been meeting together for quite some time, I tried to convince him that he ought to record his memories and experiences. At first, he was very reluctant to do so, but eventually he asked if I would help and so began one of the most exciting projects that I have ever had the privilege to be involved in. I recall Sunny speaking with contempt about the soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army forcing women and girls in occupied territories including China to be their sex slaves or “comfort women” before and during World War II, but he never spoke of Chinese girls being repeatedly raped by their own countrymen during the Cultural Revolution. Sunny was a highly educated man who had at one time been an official in the Nationalist government. During the Cultural Revolution, many of China’s intellectuals were imprisoned or, like Sunny, forced to leave the cities and take menial jobs in the countryside. When we reached this point in his story he began to claim that his memory was failing him and our project came to an end. I believe that reliving the memories simply became more than he could bear. Like Xinran, he also expressed a genuine fear that if some of the things he told me about were ever published, the Chinese government might make life difficult for his relatives who still lived in that country. After reading The Good Women of China, I can’t help wishing that Sunny’s wife had spoken English and that I’d also had the opportunity to hear her story.
“These are stories that must be read. The lives of these anonymous women are so moving that when I finished reading their stories I felt my soul had been altered.” Amy Tan
“Mao said ‘Women hold up half of heaven.’ Sadly, this remarkable book demonstrates that he was wrong. Women in China actually hold up half of hell. Xinran has written the first realistic portrayal of women in China. Read it, and weep.” Jan Wong