Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love by Xinran

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Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love by Xinran

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A moving account of daughters abandoned (or worse) and the Chinese mothers who grieve for them. Beautifully told with no excess sentimentality. A stunning read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: February 2011
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099535751

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Xinran first came to my notice with her 2002 book "The Good Women of China" which retold tales of the women she had come across through her work in Chinese radio, where for many years she had hosted the local equivalent of a cross between Woman's Hour and a late night phone-in talk show. She has been busy bringing us other stories in the meantime, but in this latest work she returns to those early days in radio and the stories she learned. Many of these stories she decided were too painful to tell. They speak of children, specifically daughters, abandoned by their Chinese mothers one way or another.

For many of us in the west there is a fascination with China and its culture. We adore the beauty of its landscapes and its art. We admire the tenacity that has held on to traditional ways of life through all the vagaries of political unrest and, at times, insanity. At the same time we have something well beyond disquiet about aspects of those traditions – at least as they play out in modern times.

The tendency to take a moral stance, to succumb to the horror and distrust engendered by those things which we do not understand or which are simply alien to our morality, is one that isn't specific to the "western" world-view. These are reactions that Xinran herself – as a Chinese and as a mother – had to contend with.

This is why she found some of these stories so hard to tell.

As a mother her first-born was a son, so she had no concept of how it might be for the mothers of daughters in the real-politik world of the one-child policy combined as it is with ages-old duties to provide a son-and-heir and the loss of face for not doing so.

She did foster a daughter, however, and had her wrenched from her care and protection. She (almost) knows what it is like to lose one.

Another reason is that she did not really know what it is like to be a daughter. She was not abandoned, but entrusted to the care of grandparents for much of her early life, but then returned to her parents. Despite the family continuity, through the nature of the times or maybe the nature of the people, she was never (that she felt) unconditionally loved and cherished. Her parents were caught up in politically turbulent times, and duty came above all else it seemed.

Stories of abandonment cut a little too close to home.

Paradoxically, it was partly this feeling of semi-abandonment that brought her back to the stories of the unknown mothers, the women who had done the unspeakable to their daughters.

The other motivation was that through her charity the Mothers Bridge of Love, she came into contact with many of the families in China and in the West who had adopted girl children. As they grow these girls and young women obviously question why their mothers didn't want them. Xinran knew all too well, that it wasn't as simple as 'not wanting' to keep them. There were and are a myriad of reasons why so many young Chinese girls found their way into families around the world and away from their birth mothers. In this book, she seeks to explain some of them.

The other final thing Xinran seeks to do through publishing these tales, and the letters from adoptive mothers that accompany them is to reassure the mothers who wonder about their daughters, that for those who have been adopted into the west at least, they are loved and cherished in their own right and are being given every potential to develop into themselves. Moreover, they are encouraged to retain their Chinese identity and be proud of their heritage, even if (for a time and for precise reasons they may never know) it could not keep them safe within it.

There are ten tales in the collection, stories of mothers who saw their children drowned at birth, or who abandoned them on lowly railway stations in the middle of nowhere "I bought her a bun and the stall holder will watch out for her", or who left them at the orphanage for a while but upon going back to claim them found the orphanage demolished and the children scattered. She talks to people who worked in the orphanages, such as they were. She runs up against a medical profession trying to heal, but tied by political red tape when the patient is a tiny unregistered child – especially a female child. She talks of extreme poverty and ignorance in mountain villages, and a not dissimilar naivety in city universities. She talks of the women who continue to wait for their daughters, and those who could not bear to wait.

Xinran places everything in its socio-political context. It is important that we understand the constraints. Economics is an issue. Chinese tradition and pride to the point of absurdity is another. Then again, perhaps "Face" becomes so much more important when you have nothing else of value. The family planning laws are known to most of us in essence, but she provides a lengthy Appendix to show that the politicians have tried to embed the rights of female babies into the letter of the law – even if they cannot hope to police it in practice. Then there is the speed of modernisation (or if you prefer, westernisation) in China. Young people were swept along on our ideas of sexual freedom, without a thought for the fact that they are still hidebound by marital traditions of virginity and inheritance laws that are positively feudal.

Xinran once said that she would write a book that would "move the world to tears about the Chinese women" she knew. If The Good Women of China wasn't it: this is. The stories are intensely personal, and at times utterly heartbreaking. This is tempered by sheer shock at the time slots. Practices and beliefs that can only be described as mediaeval are commonplace into the late 1980s / 1990s. Xinran's skill is that in highlighting the terrible circumstances, she manages to raise not outrage but empathy.

A word for the translator: Obviously I cannot speak for the accuracy of the translation but Nicky Harman has rendered a crisp and evocative text without sentimentality. A short introductory note and a few footnotes from the translator indicate some of the difficulties of translation between such differentiated languages and explain some of the cultural significances which simply get lost in translation.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion

For a less harrowing take on modern China try Fucshia Dunlop’s food and travel odyssey or for Chinese history in fact & fiction try The Forbidden City, Blue China by Bamboo Hirst or Peony in Love by Lisa See.

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