When Deng Xiaoping's efforts to "open up" China took root in the late 1980s, Xinran recognized an invaluable opportunity. As an employee for the state radio system, she had long wanted to help improve the lives of Chinese women. But when she was given clearance to host a radio call-in show, she barely anticipated the enthusiasm it would quickly generate. Operating within the constraints imposed by government censors, "Words on the Night Breeze" sparked a tremendous outpouring, and the hours of tape on her answering machines were soon filled every night. Whether angry or muted, posing questions or simply relating experiences, these anonymous women bore witness to decades of civil strife, and of halting attempts at self-understanding in a painfully restrictive society. In this collection, by turns heartrending and inspiring, Xinran brings us the stories that affected her most, and offers a graphically detailed, altogether unprecedented work of oral history.
In 1988, Xinran (ne Xue Hue) was selected to work in state media and ended up at the Nanjing radio station, where she began broadcasting "Words on the Night Breeze" a year later. The show featured letters and calls from ordinary women discussing their problems, and was hugely successful and revelatory, as women had few avenues, public or private, for talking about their lives, which were frequently grim and often harrowing. Xinran quit the show in 1995 to try to help her listeners directly, but by 1997 she had burned out. She persuaded the radio station authorities to let her travel to England, where she began teaching Chinese, met and married English book agent Toby Eady and wrote this memoir of her experiences on the program, including a compendium of some of the most painful of the "Night Breeze" stories. She presents narratives from women who live "in emotionless political marriages" and those, the majority, who struggle "amid poverty and hardship." They have commonly experienced sexual abuse: rape, frequently gang rape. Apparently designed to bring the women's horrific stories to light, the book doesn't do enough to situate them clearly in the context of the show as a state-produced product, or within Xinran's own difficulties in processing and presenting the material on the air (or in this book). The results will leave readers sympathetic to the grave enormity of the women's circumstances, but-due perhaps to minor translation problems and Xinran's lingering political worries-somewhat confused about how Xinran tried to deal with their plights.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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November 10, 2003
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Excerpt from The Good Women of China by Xinran
1: My Journey Towards the Stories of Chinese Women Early one spring morning in 1989, I rode my Flying Pigeon bicycle through the streets of Nanjing dreaming about my son PanPan. The green shoots on the trees, the clouds of frosty breath enveloping the other cyclists, the women's silk scarves billowing in the spring wind, everything merged with thoughts of my son. I was bringing him up on my own, without the help of a man, and it was not easy caring for him as a working mother. Whatever journey I went on, though, long or short, even the quick ride to work, he accompanied me in spirit and gave me courage. 'Hey, big-shot presenter, watch where you're going,' shouted a colleague as I wobbled into the compound of the radio and TV station where I worked. Two armed policemen stood at the gates. I showed them my pass. Once inside, I would have to face further armed guards at the entrances to the offices and the studios. Security at the broadcasting station was extremely tight and workers were wary of the guards. A story circulated of a new soldier who fell asleep on night duty and was so keyed up that he killed the comrade who woke him. My office was on the sixteenth floor of the forbidding, twenty-one-storey modern building. I preferred to climb the stairs rather than risk the unreliable lift, which broke down frequently. When I arrived at my desk, I realised I had left my bicycle key in the lock. Taking pity on me, a colleague offered to go and telephone down to the gatekeeper. This was not so easy since no junior employee at that time had a telephone and my colleague would have to go to the section head's office to make the call. In the end, someone brought me up my key with my mail. Amidst the large pile of letters, one immediately caught my attention: the envelope had been made from the cover of a book and there was a chicken feather glued to it. According to Chinese tradition, a chicken feather is an urgent distress signal. The letter was from a young boy, and had been sent from a village about 150 miles from Nanjing. Most respected Xinran, I listen to every one of your programmes. In fact, everyone in our village likes listening to them. But I am not writing to tell you how good your programme is; I am writing to tell you a secret. It's not really a secret, because everyone in the village knows. There is an old, crippled man of sixty here who recently bought a young wife. The girl looks very young - I think she must have been kidnapped. This happens a lot around here, but many of the girls escape later. The old man is afraid his wife will run off, so he has tied a thick iron chain around her. Her waist has been rubbed raw by the heavy chain - the blood has seeped through her clothes. I think it will kill her. Please save her. Whatever you do, don't mention this on the radio. If the villagers find out, they'll drive my family away. May your programme get better and better. Your loyal listener, Zhang Xiaoshuan This was the most distressing letter I had received since I had started presenting my evening radio programme, Words on the Night Breeze, four months earlier. During the programme I discussed various aspects of daily life and used my own experiences to win the listeners' trust and suggest ways of approaching life's difficulties. 'My name is Xinran,' I had said at the beginning of the first broadcast. '"Xinran" means "with pleasure". "Xin xin ran zhang kai le yan," wrote Zhu Ziqing in a poem about spring: "With pleasure, Nature opened its eyes to new things."' The programme was a 'new thing' for everyone, myself included. I had only just become a presenter and I was trying to do something that hadn't been done on the radio before. Since 1949, the media had been the mouthpiece of the Party. State radio, state newspapers and, later, state television provided the