PERSONAL: Born Xue Hue, 1958, in Beijing, China. Education: Attended a military university in China; studying English and international relations.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Pantheon Books, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Author and radio show host. Worked variously as a cleaner, Chinese-language teacher, freelance journalist, and voiceover talent for a Chinese television production company.
The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices, translated by Esther Tyldesley, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Author of numerous poems and short stories.
SIDELIGHTS: In her native China Xinran—a name she chose for herself, which means "with pleasure"—attended a military university and worked as a civilian employee of the military. In 1988 she was assigned to a job in the Chinese state media and worked at the Nanjing radio station. There, with the slight loosening of state restrictions on Chinese broadcasters, she originated an evening radio program called Words on the Night Breeze. The call-in show featured ordinary Chinese women talking, guardedly, about their lives, relationships, and views of the world. In many cases the stories related to Xinran were grim and disturbing, reflecting a culture of political and social repression of women. She fielded stories of sexual abuse, incest, brutal treatment of wives and children, forced separation of families, and coerced marriages.
"Xinran's show was watched carefully by the Communist party because it occasionally involved discussions of intimate relationships, which had been forbidden," wrote Delores Derrickson on the Rocky Mountain News online. Despite the scrutiny, Xinran continued her explorations of women's troubles in China. "I was trying to open up a little window," she writes in her book, "a tiny hold, so that people could allow their spirits to cry out and breathe after the gunpowder-laden atmosphere of the previous forty years."
The stories she heard often had a strong emotional impact on her. Once she received a letter from a boy in a small town who reported a young girl had been kidnapped and pressed into a marriage with a much older man. The man kept the girl in chains to prevent her from escaping. Xinran called the police, but they were unconcerned; such kidnappings happen frequently, they said, and weren't anything out of the ordinary. Though she finally managed to get the girl released, the episode galvanized her desire to help. She would often seek out the women who contacted her for the radio show and try to help them directly. "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 machine who did not dare to speak to anyone about how their husbands beat them, I was often unable to help them because of political regulations. I could," she writes, "only weep."
She tells these stories, and her own, in The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices, a book written in London after she moved there in 1997 "to see what it was like to live in a free country," explained Derrickson. "The bulk of The Good Women of China is comprised of individual stories, each meticulously, if plainly, told," wrote Charles Foran on the Globe and Mail Online. "As such, it is a jeremiad of suffering that indicts both the ravaging effects of Mao's social engineering and traditional Chinese male culture."
The book derives its title from Xinran's observation that "When we women come into this world, we want to be good—a good daughter, good mother, good friend, good lover, good wife. But because of our culture, many women feel they're no good," as she commented in an interview on "AsianWeek" online. Men in China, she said, have five standards for defining a "good" woman: "1. A good women is quiet, never goes out, is never open, especially to other men; 2. A good woman must give the family a son; 3. A good women is always soft and never loses her temper; 4. A good woman never makes mistakes in doing the housework, she never mixes the colors when doing the wash, she never burns the food when cooking; and 5. A good woman is good in bed and retains her beautiful figure." How then, she wonders, can any women in China ever consider herself good?
Some critics of the book have remarked that Xinran's emotions and presence intrude too much on the stories she relates. A reviewer on the Book-Club Web site remarked that "Xinran's presence and her feelings are sometimes overly intrusive rather than letting the stories and emotions stand for themselves." The book "does not lack for remarkable material," Foran observed, but the critic pointed out shortcomings he perceived, such as "manipulating reader responses through her own uniformly high-pitched emotions, and using proverbs as lazy shorthand." However, "criticisms aside, there is valuable witness in this book" Foran concluded.
Melissa Fitzpatrick, writing on the Chinook Bookshop Web site, called The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices "a compelling and important read, with each chapter devoted to a different true story. Each one is intimately told and offers an unforgettable experience centered in a nation so repressive of women that they are frequently aborted or abandoned in favor of a son." A Kirkus Reviews critic remarked that the book is "An important document that records with intelligent sympathy lives warped or destroyed by political revolutions." And, the Book-Club Web site reviewer concluded that The Good Women of China "is a brave and unique collection of heartbreaking stories from a very brave and unique woman."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Economist, July 13, 2002, "Unenviable Lives; Women in China."
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2002, review of The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices, p. 1210.
Publishers Weekly, August 26, 2002, review of The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices, p. 56.
AsianWeek,http://www.asianweek.com/ (November 1, 2002), Terry Hong, "Xinran: The Voice of the Good Women of China" (interview).
Book-Club Web site,http://www.book-club.co.nz/ (December 13, 2002), review of The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices.
Chinook Bookshop Web site,http://www.chinookbook.com/ (December 13, 2002), Melissa Fitzpatrick, review of The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices.
Dick Staub Web site,http://www.dickstaub.com/ (October 8, 2002), review of Good Women of China: Hidden Voices.
Globe and Mail Online,http://www.globeandmail/com.ca (December 13, 2002), Charles Foran, "Voices from the Iron Room."
Rocky Mountain News Online,http://www.rockymountainnews.com/ (November 29, 2002), Delores Derrickson, "The Horrific Tales of Good Women."*