The Good Women of China, Xinran has written one of the most powerful accounts of the lives of Chinese women. Her searing stories of mothers who have been driven to abandon'their daughters or give them up for adoption is a masterful and significant work of literary reportage and oral history. Xinran has gained entrance to the most pained, secret chambers in the hearts of Chinese mothers-students, successful businesswomen, midwives, peasants-who have given up their daughters. Whether as a consequence of the single-child policy, destructive age-old traditions, or hideous economic necessity, these women had to give up their daughters for adoption; others even had to watch as their baby daughters were taken away at birth and drowned. Xinran beautifully portrays the 'extra-birth guerrillas' who travel the roads and the railways, evading the system, trying to hold on to more than one baby; naÃ¯ve young girl students who have made life-wrecking mistakes; the 'pebble mother' on the banks of the Yangzte River still looking into the depths for her stolen daughter; peasant women rejected by their families because they can't produce a male heir; and Little Snow, the orphaned baby fostered by Xinran but confiscated by the state. For parents of adopted Chinese children and for the children themselves, this is an indispensable, powerful, and intensely moving book. Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother is powered by love and by heartbreak and will stay with readers long after they have turned the final page.
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March 08, 2011
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Excerpt from Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother by Xinran
A BOOK WRITTEN
FOR ADOPTED DAUGHTERS
It took a long time for me to summon the courage to relive the personal memories and experiences of my life as a reporter in China. In The Good Women of China, my first book, published in 2002, I wrote about those brave women who had told me their stories when I worked as a radio presenter. But there were some stories I could not yet bring myself to tell. They were too painful and too close to home. I am not a particularly courageous woman; I am just a woman who longs to feel a mother's embrace and that lifelong bond of love and dependence between mother and daughter. Little by little, that longing seeped through me until it began to dominate my thoughts night and day. Reawakening the memories threatened to reopen old wounds: I would miss my own mother more than ever and would feel even more bitterness that I would never have that kind of love.
At a talk I gave at the International Book Fair in Melbourne, Australia, in 2002, someone asked me, "Xinran, what is your dream?"
I didn't even have to think about the answer. I said, "To be a daughter."
There was uproar from the audience of several hundred people. "But you were born, so you must be someone's daughter!"
"In a biological sense, yes," I responded. "But I was born into a traditional culture, I experienced brutal political upheavals as a child, and my mother and I lived in times that did not consider bonds of family affection important. The result is there's not a single occasion I can remember when my mother said she loved me, or even hugged me."
After the meeting, I found a line of silver-haired women waiting for me by the car. They were there, they said, to give me a mother's embrace. One by one they came up to me, put their arms around me, and kissed my forehead. ...
I could not help myself, tears poured down my face. In my heart, I cried, "I'm grateful for their genuine affection, but how I wish my own mother could have held me like this. Every day, since I was a little girl, I have missed my mother's love so much!"
In 1958, when I was just thirty days old, I was sent away to live with my grandmother. Like millions of Chinese women, my mother believed that anyone who put their family and children before their country and the Party was at best selfish and at worst criminal.
My earliest memory of my mother is of her walking toward me on a very quiet platform in the Nanjing railway station. She was a cloud of purple--her silk scarf draped over her shoulders waved in the breeze. She smiled sweetly and opened her arms to me like a dancer on the stage.
I was five years old and had never called anyone mother before. That day, at my grandmother's urging, I called my mother "aunty"--what children call any female stranger in China--and as I whispered the word this beautiful woman stiffened and a solitary tear fell down her face.
In 1966, only two weeks after I had begun living with my mother, the Cultural Revolution began. My parents were both sent to a political jail within a month of each other. My younger brother, who was only two and a half, and I became orphans. Ten years later we were all back as one family but no one has ever spoken about how we survived the struggles during that turbulent time.
In 1989, after twelve years of studying and working at a military university, I became a radio presenter. The first time I went to a small village in the countryside, I was devastated by the poverty-stricken lives I witnessed. It was only a forty-minute drive from the city I worked in, but they were so poor that in the summer most children did not even wear trousers, they only had a pair to provide warmth in the winter. I was so shocked to hear from the people I interviewed, face-to-face, the real numbers on how many lives had been lost in the past one hundred years within China. I was so ashamed by my lack of knowledge of traditional Chinese culture and the real history of China.
Until then, I never realized how ignorant I was about the real China and how misguided I was in my education about my mother's and grandmother's generations, so I started to reeducate myself by learning the truth from people. I went on a journey to find out the answers to my bewildering questions from my country and my people. Over the next eight years, I traveled around and met more than two hundred Chinese women for my radio program. I listened to them, and their stories struck a chord deep within me. I found myself as one of them--as a daughter, our lives watered down by the tears from our past.
I moved to London in 1997. After eight years of digging, searching, and feeling for Chinese women, I felt empty and run-down. During my time as a radio presenter I had received about a hundred letters every day with personal secrets full of dreams and confusion, and I had witnessed my country jumping onto a rapidly moving express train toward the Western lights, but the people still lacked the necessary education to grasp the massive force of change that was sweeping across the country. Therefore, as a Chinese woman who had walked a long march to find out who I am, I chose to start afresh in London, where I could deepen my understanding of the world.
But once there, I was stunned and hurt by how little Westerners understood the Chinese people. And on my many trips back to China I discovered how little the younger Chinese understood about their parents' generation. I found that our children have been cut off from the real history and even from their own family history. They have no idea about what kind of life their mothers and grandmothers have endured; they don't even believe that they have love stories.
Then one day in 1998, while I was teaching at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, an Italian student came to me with a book he had been reading and asked me, "Is it true that Chinese women physically lack emotional cells and are mentally short of love as described in this book?" I was flabbergasted. Finally, through gritted teeth, I told him, "I am going to write a book that will move this world to tears about the Chinese women I know, on their rich feeling, their deep love and unconditional giving."
Since I began writing books about the lives of Chinese women, I have been fortunate enough to receive countless letters, photographs, and videos from adopted Chinese girls and the adopting families from all over the world. Their letters, like the two that follow (and the others on p. 187 and pp. 195-199), bring me comfort, and it is with their encouragement that I have finally managed to write down the stories of Chinese women who were forced to abandon their babies.
I am the (adoptive) mother of two beautiful daughters of China. My daughters are now 11 and 9. They both are very happy in our family and much loved. They also will never forget they have a birth family in China. They love their birth mothers and both of them, like you, would very much like to see their birth mother's face and hear her words. Please write your book. In this way they will know the heart of their birth mothers. Though we have told them we will look for their birth mothers if they desire to find them, we have also told them such a search may not be successful. The message you send from birth mothers may be all they ever have of their Chinese family.
One thing you can tell the Chinese birth mothers is that their daughters have not forgotten them. In our family their birth mothers are honored. My daughters and I study Pu Tong Hua. We have already returned to China 2 times with our daughters. They love the land of their birth, as their father and I do. We are proud to be an American Chinese family.
Please send our love, gratitude, and honor to their Chinese mothers.
The Macechko Family
So lovely to hear from you. I know just what you mean about how it takes days for your "head" to arrive back after your body. Flying around the world is such an odd experience in that way. Please, please, please do write Messages from Chinese Mums. You have to write it for all those girls. Mei and Xue even now ask why their "tummy mummy" couldn't look after them. I have to say, I don't know. Because I do not know. I can't lie. I can only guess--maybe poverty, maybe postnatal depression, maybe rape, maybe the fact that they are girls, maybe she was a teenager?
I can only guess at the pain. I save all books and newspaper clippings of China, so that when the girls are big, they can read what life was like and try and understand--maybe understand what their birth mother experienced. But, if you wrote some stories of the Chinese mothers, it would be more clearly explained.
I couldn't read The Good Women of China because I found it too painful. I cried and cried and cried. Each woman I thought of as Mei and Xue's mother--and what she had to bear and what loss for her to leave her babies. Some day all those adopted girls have to understand that their mothers gave them up--(HOPEFULLY) not because she didn't love them, but because life was too hard and too painful to bear. They must understand this fully. This is the only way to heal the pain for them of being rejected in that way.
Mei and Xue have brought such joy to our lives. Barry and I are complete with them and our family is a tight, beautiful bond. But I am aware that somewhere there is a mother (if she is alive) who has a deep pain about her girls. I want her to know that the girls are alive and happy and for her not to worry. But I also know that life is very complex and a well-intentioned Westerner can cause many problems easily.
I understand fully about MBL. It is very important. The link between all those girls and their mothers. The link between women of the world is very important. For some, your books are just stories, but for many of us, they are much more than that. Someday Mei and Xue will read your books and understand a little about their birth mum's life and those of their birth grandmothers. We can only thank you for that.
With big hugs, Xinran (Mei and Xue send them also). They are fascinated by you--Xue is very literary and loves the idea that you write books. She had me read out your email (I read out bits). Both girls sense some link with you. It is very interesting. Do come back and see us and come and stay when you are next over.
With love, Ros
These letters pour in. They haunt me and make me wonder: if I were an adopted daughter, where would I find answers to my inevitable questions about my strange start in life? In truth, I have been asking similar questions my whole life. I have tried so hard to forge a connection with my mother: I wish I could have known what happened to her during the ten years that she was missing from my life. I have dreamed of asking her if she knows what happened to me and my brother when she wasn't there. We had no right to play, to speak; we had no one to protect us from the Red Guards' violence and abuse. Mum, do you know all of this? But I never dared ask her.
I have tried to heal, to make myself a woman with a happy smile each day, but I can't control myself in the night--lonely fears wake me up again and again. I don't want to recall missing my mother, but the ache never dulls. And that is why I was afraid to dredge up these things that have cost me so many tears and why I was afraid to write about the women who abandoned their daughters. But it is also why I must tell their stories.
In December 2009, after I had finished editing this book, I returned to China and tried once more to confront my mother. I wanted to unburden myself of long-buried memories; I wanted to tell her what had happened to me, her daughter, during the Cultural Revolution. I wanted her to understand the nightmarish torments I went through, and which still haunt me. For her to know how much I missed her and still long for her, my mother. But I could not get a word out. I just sat silently in front of her, in floods of tears.
Over the years I have begun to understand how those adopted daughters long to understand their birth mothers and to tell them how much they love them. I decided that, no matter how painful it was, I would write down the stories I had stored up for so long. This book was to be an honest record of mothers' lives, a gift of mother-daughter love that I, a daughter, could share with other daughters, a message from an unknown Chinese mother to her daughter, wherever she may be.
I started writing this book on February 2, 2008, in a little house by the sea on Blues Point Road, Sydney, Australia. Strangely, my labors were accompanied by a fortnight of the violent storms that a southern hemisphere summer sometimes brings.
February 7, 2008, was the Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, and the Australian media reported on the tens of thousands of Chinese who joined in the cultural festivities. Among them were more than a hundred families who had adopted Chinese children. As I watched these girls dressed in Chinese costumes asking their Australian parents in English what the Spring Festival was, I had mixed feelings. Were these girls really China's daughters?
Yes, I think they were. As the ancients said: when oranges from the south were transplanted to the north, they were still oranges, even if they tasted a bit different. I believe that even though these girls have been brought up in a foreign land and a foreign culture, the blood of their Chinese mothers still runs in their veins.
But what do their birth mothers feel? Does the unknown Chinese mother feel joy or sorrow at knowing that her beloved daughter is now happy in another mother's arms? I did not actually give birth to a daughter, nor am I the mother of an adopted daughter, but I weep every time I try to imagine how they feel. And once I lost a little girl who was like a daughter to me, so I know something of what they feel. There is an emptiness that can never be filled, there is an ache felt by the broken-hearted birth mother, by the adoptive family in the West, and by the daughter who will spend the rest of her life in a dual embrace--because the life she lives is a product of great joy but also of great sorrow.
By the end of 2010, the number of Chinese orphans adopted worldwide had reached more than 120,000. America has the largest number of adopted Chinese children from China, nearly 80,000.* These children have gone to twenty-seven countries--and almost all were girls. Most Chinese find the adoption figures almost incredible, just as they find it hard to believe that Chinese children have found mothers and homes in so many countries. Why does China have so many orphaned girls?
Most Chinese would say that it is because there is something inherently wrong with traditional culture; in other words, old customs are rooted in ignorance. Westerners, on the other hand, believe that the one-child policy is to blame. I began to gather information for myself when, in 1989, I started presenting Words on the Night Breeze, a program for women started in Henan, and then moved to Jiangsu Radio in Nanjing.� As this job took me all over China doing interviews, I came across women who had been forced to abandon their babies. I feel there are three main reasons why.
First, female babies have been abandoned in farming cultures of the East since ancient times; second, a combination of sexual ignorance, which remains rife, and the economic boom; and last, there is the one-child policy.
In developing countries, with their communities that rely on primitive methods of farming, or on hunting, gathering, and fishing, hard manual labor is survival; so a preference for boys is inevitable. Males have an indisputable physical advantage over females when it comes to laboring, carrying goods, hunting, and defense. Another factor that cannot be ignored in China is an ancient system of land distribution that still persists today. It began with the Xia dynasty (approximately 2070 BC to 1600 BC), and found its most complete form in the Well Field System of the Zhou dynasty (1045 BC to 256 BC), and the Equal Field System set up around AD 485 by the Northern Wei rulers. What these had in common with the present system is the principle of allocating fields based on the number of household members. Discrimination in favor of men became, therefore, an immutable law. In AD 485 a list was drawn up of households, and then land was allocated based on the number of permanent household members. Land was divided into two kinds: arable fields, for growing grain, and mulberry tree land, for feeding the silkworms. Every male aged fifteen years or more received 40 mu of arable land, while females received 20 mu, and slaves and servants could also be allocated land. This land reverted to the government on death. As for mulberry tree land, males received 20 mu, and this became their property--they could buy and sell it and it did not need to be handed back to the government. During the Tang dynasty, AD 618 to 907, it was clearly stipulated that females were not normally to be given their own land. And so dynasties have come and gone through Chinese history, but the ways in which land is apportioned have never really changed, and the basic inequality between men and women has became a deeply entrenched tradition. In the villages, boy children not only carried on the family line and inherited the clan name, they were the source of the family property and the creators of its wealth.
Article 22 of the Population and Family Planning Law of the People's Republic of China, promulgated on December 29, 2001, says: "Discrimination against and maltreatment of women who give birth to baby girls or who suffer from infertility are prohibited. Discrimination against, maltreatment, and abandonment of baby girls are prohibited." However, a "good woman" must give birth to a boy--every married village woman knows this. It is both her god-given duty and her parents-in-law's most fervent hope. So in some poorer villages, if the first child is a girl, the unfortunate child is abandoned or even smothered at birth. Where birth control is not properly understood, abandoning infants is just another law of nature that has operated from time immemorial. If the extra infant the family could not bring up was a boy, he would often be adopted by another family or sold. For a girl, death was almost inevitable.
China's one-child-per-family policy was drawn up at the Second National Symposium on Population held in the city of Chengdu, Sichuan province, on December 11-14, 1979. The then vice premier Chen Muhua (who also happened to be the first woman premier in China's history) convinced delegates in the closing debate that limiting couples to one child could slow the rapid rate of population growth in China. That was the start of the "population revolution," which remains the subject of fierce debate to this day. The renowned Chinese specialist in population studies Professor Ma Yanchu* had warned in the early 1950s that the country's population was growing too fast; at his suggestion, the government carried out China's first population survey in the early part of 1953. The results were published on November 1 of that year: at midnight on June 1, 1953, the Chinese population stood at 600 million. In just four years since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the population had grown by 100 million. In his comparative study New Theory of Population (1957), Professor Ma wrote that in the years 1953-57 the population may actually have exceeded the 20 percent annual increase found in the 1953 survey. In his view, the slow growth of manufacturing technology together with a surge in population and its attendant social conflicts meant that as the global economy and civilization developed, China would lag behind. Ma's ideas were diametrically opposed to Mao's, which were that the population and the economy should grow in parallel. As a result, Ma was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. But history proved Ma right: the population continued to grow--from 700 million in 1966 to 1.2 billion in 1979--while education and the economy lagged far behind that of the developed world. Even today, most city dwellers over the age of forty-five will remember the treasured ration coupons for oil, meat, grain, and cloth. One year, I remember queuing from five o'clock in the morning until noon in the snow and freezing temperatures to buy half a pound of pork for my teacher. This was the ration for the entire family for their Chinese New Year dinner! In the countryside, the population continued to grow. The increasing narrowness of roads between the fields was mute proof of the struggles to wrest food from every tiny scrap of land. To put it bluntly, the economy was stagnating and the imposition of a population control policy offered a tiny respite in the daily struggle for survival for a people who had suffered a century of war and political upheavals and battled daily with poverty. Millions of families, however, continued to believe that it was their god-given duty to produce a male heir to carry on the family line; in fact, it was a sin not to do so. As the "family planning era" really got under way in the 1980s, these people paid a heavy price. Whole families were ruined, homes destroyed, and people died at the hands of village cadres who carried out family planning policies crudely and violently. It was illiterate peasant families who fought the local government most bitterly for the chance to have a baby boy. There is a Chinese saying I've quoted before that "the heavens are high and the emperor far away," meaning that the farther one goes from the center of government, the more likely it is that local rules will prevail over edicts from the capital. With an area of 9,600,000 km,2 China is a vast country and there are areas where the one-child policy has never been effectively implemented. In the most remote mountain areas in the west of China only lip service is paid to it. In 2006, when I was doing interviews for my book China Witness in the region bounded by the Yellow River and the Yangtze River, I came across many families with five or more children in mountain villages in the west; even in the east of China, poor peasant families with three or more children were common. On my visit back to China in December 2009 I had four different taxi drivers in four different cities--Tianjing, Nanjing, Anhui, and Guangzhou--who all came from the countryside and each of them told me the same thing: that they have more than three children. They said that the one-child policy can be avoided by money and power in their hometown! Not all twenty somethings in China are only children; there are also many with hordes of brothers and sisters. In contrast, in eastern China's urban areas, enforcement was and is draconian. Almost everyone lived within the state-planned economy up until the beginning of the 1990s. So having more than one child meant losing your job, your home (which was allocated by your employer), your entitlement to food and clothing rations, your child's entitlement to schooling and medical care, and even your chance of finding other work, as no one would dare employ you. Just because you had had one "extra" child, you and your family would forfeit absolutely everything. Among educated people, there were very few indeed who were prepared to run the risk of ruining their prospects in this way. However, that did not stop them from employing every possible means, from modern medical technology to traditional Chinese herbal remedies, to ensure the birth of a boy. I think this goes some way to explaining the gender imbalance in some areas of China.