Buy Me The Sky by Xinran
|Buy Me The Sky by Xinran|
|Category: Politics and Society|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: The remarkable truth of China's one-child generations. Highly recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 320||Date: May 2015|
I started reading Xinran thirteen years ago, and whilst I haven't read all of her books, every one that I have read has at some point had me in tears. This one was no different.
Book reviews should be about the book and not the author, but it is difficult to understand Xinran's work without understanding a little about her. Born in 1958 and brought up in Beijing. Her parents were wealthy, but were imprisoned during the cultural revolution and she was raised by her grandmother. Educated at the First Military University of the People's Liberation Army (if the internet is to be believed) she went on to become a journalist and radio presenter.
She began to push the boundaries of the medium in her home country with her call-in show Words on the Night Breeze which focused on the stories of women from around the country. As well as taking their calls, she started to travel the country to interview women, and grew into possibly the first writer to document for an international audience the very specific nature of being a woman in China. Being able to do so, meant leaving her homeland.
The Good Women of China was that first book (and I strongly recommend that you read it) but it was only the beginning of her work. Returning home regularly, and working with Chinese students initially in the UK but then around the world, she continued to collect stories of what it is like to be Chinese in the late twentieth / early twenty-first century – and to render them in books of fact and books of fiction, all of them books of witness.
Her latest edition focuses on the impact of the one-child policy, not through what it has meant for the parents and would-be parents, but through the children that it has produced. How are these treasured and pampered Emperors and Princesses faring in a world that sheltered them from birth, but which is now opening up and expecting things of them that they were never trained for.
Things like basic independence, for instance.
According to the Appendix on China's birth control policy, the short-hand we have for it the "one-child policy" is a bit of an over-simplification. Apparently, according to the relevant official spokesman in 2007, at that time between 30 and 40 per cent of the population could have two or more children. Allowances are made for the state of the development of various parts of the country.
He stated The policy in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, as well as Jiangsu, Sichaun and other provinces and big cities is that one married couple can have one child. Nineteen provinces have ruled that in rural areas, if the first child is a girl, a second child is permitted. In the countryside of Hainnan, Yunnan , Qinghai, Ningxia and Xinjiang provinces, current policy allows married couples to have two children. In Tibet and other sparsely populated areas, more than two children are allowed. In the vast majority of the country if a husband and wife are both only children, they are allowed to have two children.
This has to be seen as a step in the right direction. Interestingly, we in the west are probably the harshest critics of the one-child policy, but are we not also the loudest voices crying out for population control? In the one area where China has done exactly what she might have thought we wanted her to do, we still manage to condemn her.
To be fair, it was a bold experiment, one that had particularly sad and harsh consequences and one which should have been abandoned long since. I still hold that population growth is one of the greatest modern challenges, but we have to accept that this was not, is not, the way to go about resolving it. There needs to be some freedom of choice brought into the equation.
Freedom of choice, is not something that the Chinese have had the opportunity to become very much acquainted with. This book looks at how being an only child, being a product of the policy, even as it was gradually relaxed in some parts of the country over time, impacted on the children themselves – and what that might mean for China's immediate future.
The latter part of the equation – what it might mean for China as a whole – is alluded to in parts but the focus is on what Xinran does best: the telling of individual stories, very personal experiences, which we can be assured are replicated thousands of times. Xinran doesn't judge in these pages, although from her telling of the tales, it's clear that she can be very judgmental with the young people entrusted to her care. She has the benefit of having been in the West since 1997, and by her own admission she has learned a lot – and equally continues to struggle with much. This conflict – or balance – within her own personality is probably what makes her uniquely positioned to tell these stories and to do so with such generosity and warmth, and to be able to steer well clear of sentimentality and yet still move us emotionally.
The heart of the book is the nine chapters which tell a story each. We meet in turn: Du Zhuang, Golden Swallow, Wing, Lily, Moon, Shiny, Firewood, Glittering and Flying Fish. Each of them an only child; each of them brought up coddled and protected and bearing the burden of being the entire future for their parents; each of them trying to find their way in a world for which they have not been equipped.
Many of them arrive in England to study, often having survived University courses in China, completely unable to hang up their own clothes, cook a meal or even order food in a restaurant. One seems uncertain as to which side of a knife to use. None of them understand that you learn a language by playing around with words and getting them wrong, rather than studying to learn a vast vocabulary before opening your mouth.
All of them very quickly become conscious of their inadequacies in the face of confident young westerners who wear what they feel like, cook and clean (or not), experiment with their lives and with ideas, who speak up in class, who don't automatically bow their heads in supplication to elders. And all of them realise extremely painfully how they have not been so much protected by their parents but imprisoned by them.
Xinran's role in mentoring these young minds has been to help them understand why their parents have behaved the way they have, whilst at the same time no continuing that route and by a combination of encouragement and 'tough love' to get them to learn their own way in the world.
What tugs at the emotions in these stories isn't so much the individuality of them, but the universality. In reading you know that this isn't just one young person, but a huge swathe of a generation. And you know that as the world turns and changes ever more quickly, there will be more and worse cases coming along behind.
What struck me also though, was that although the stories are about Chinese children born of a specific set of circumstances, their problems are those of "poor little rich kids" the world over. I remember an incident from my own university days when the daughter of a famous British television personality stood in our communal kitchen with an open tin of garden peas in her hand and asking 'so what do I do now?'
And I count myself lucky to have grown up with a brother with whom to squabble and play; to have had a grandmother who would let a toddler crawl towards the open fire to feel its heat and draw back of their own accord; to have had parents who wanted for us whatever we wanted for ourselves and placed no burden of 'keeping the incense burning' upon us.
So when you read these stories, as I recommend you do, keep an open mind. Try to be understanding as well as outraged – and to give credit to those who do come through with honour for their adaptability in doing so. It will take China a long time to overcome the situation arising from having so many only-children, ill-educated in practicalities, unused to social peer-to-peer action, drilled with a need to protect the family name in an every-increasingly-consumerist society (yes, even in China).
If you enjoy this, then you’ll also love Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love by Xinran.
You can read more book reviews or buy Buy Me The Sky by Xinran at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Buy Me The Sky by Xinran at Amazon.com.
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