Monday, February 22, 2010

xinran, message from an unknown chinese mother

Having read and sobbed my way through previous Xinran books China Witness, What Chinese People Eat and festival of depression The Good Women of China, I could not resist reading her most recent book, Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother. With a title like that, it wasn’t much of a leap to suspect that it wasn’t going to be a cheerful tome. And, like the rest of her books, it wasn’t—but you are left with hope for the future, all the same.

In the nineties Xinran had a radio program called Words on the Night Breeze. It was a program for women and about them, and really struck a chord with its audience, one that felt it was going unheard. The stories she was given for this program, in letters and calls and interviews, often lead to bigger tales that are retold in her books. And it is lucky for us that they are. In a country so censored by its government and changing so quickly, to have a record like Xinran’s is an important thing.

In 2004 Xinran started her own charity, the Mothers’ Bridge of Love, for those who have adopted Chinese girls and for the mothers who had to give them up in the first place. It’s a subject close to Xinran’s heart, after the distant relationship she had with her own mother and other, more complicated reasons that are outlined in the last chapter of her newest book. Other chapters are filled with the stories of other families, and are all heartbreaking tales. From how some Chinese peasants treat their newborns if they are girls (in a scene Xinran saw firsthand, and which will leave you devastated) to one woman whose daughter was kidnapped on the banks of a river, from the women who became pregnant unexpectedly and hid their pregnancies due to the shame it would bring upon their families to the parents who have to give up their beloved daughter—the fourth—because of China’s stringent one-child policy, the stories Xinran unearths are ones that strike close to your heart. While I am fervently pro-choice, there are many doubts about whether choice was a factor in some of these decisions, and that is what makes them so hard, yet necessary, to read.

China’s tangled history means that paperwork and records are something that are rarely kept, if ever written. Mothers who give up their babies will come back to check on them, only to find that their daughters have been given to another orphanage, or away altogether, but authorities could not tell them where or to whom they went. Xinran’s own wrenching experience trying to help a fledgling orphanage only to return from a story to find the building empty of all she had loved and cared for is indicative of just one story when the same thing happens all over the country. The quality of the orphanages are poor and the staff untrained; there is no way to trace the babies back to their original parents or sometimes even the place they were found. Tokens of love left with the babies for them to remember their parents by are thrown away. By the end of the book, you will want to throw it on the floor, stamp your feet and yell, “It’s not fair.” And it’s not. Xinran’s charity is set up to help those on either side of the divide—mothers, children, adoptive parents—find their roots if possible, or, if anything, know that there was once a mother out there for them who very possibly loved them with all her heart but was unable to care for them.

Nothing is really mentioned of mothers who are not interested in their children at all, but that isn’t really the point of the book. It’s for children out there who wonder what the reasoning was behind their abandonment, and it’s there to give them some explanations of what certain women went through, from the point of view of women who think of their lost daughters every day. The translation and Xinran’s casual writing style is, like with other Xinran books, is more about telling the tale than reaching for the literary stars. Not to say it’s terribly written—it isn’t—but she is first and foremost a journalist who wants to get the stories out to the people who need to hear them, not someone who needs to pretty up her statements for more impact.

Ending on appendices relating Chinese adoption laws, a humorous list of the 18 wonders of Chengdu, the shocking suicide rates amongst women in China and some letters Xinran has received from adoptive mothers, it’s another of Xinran’s fascinating journeys into a culture we can sometimes be barred from learning the truth of, and yet another brutal but essential read. If you haven’t yet read any of Xinran’s books, I would still advise the Good Women of China as your first look for its portrayal of women and what they have suffered. And if you have any inclination, you can donate or read more about Xinran’s charity The Mothers’ Bridge of Love here.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Fiona, I read this book too and cried inconsolably... Couldn't sleep the entire night thinking of all the mothers and their daughters..., that emptiness that they'd feel...the kind that can never be filled..It's really heartbreaking... :(


Opinions, opinions! Come one, come all.