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Epub ISBN 9781407063577
Published by Chatto & Windus 2002
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Copyright © The Good Woman of China Ltd, 2002
Xinran has asserted her right under the Coypright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work
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First published in Great Britain in 2002 by
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Table of Contents
For every Chinese woman
and for my son PanPan
The stories told here are true, but names have been changed in order to protect the people concerned.
In Chinese, ‘Xiao’ in front of a surname means ‘young’. When it precedes a first name, it creates a diminutive and indicates that the speaker is close to the person being addressed.
I would like to thank:
for allowing me time to write
for helping me to understand more about the Chinese
for giving me his heart and his hand to help make this book
for a translation imbued with her experience of and feeling for China
for bringing her knowledge of China to the first draft
for her interest in understanding China and for her sensitive editing
for letting me know what younger people think about China
for making me feel proud of what I have done
for reading and responding to this book
ContentsTHE GOOD WOMEN OF CHINA
Translated by Esther Tyldesley
Chatto & Windus
At nine o’clock on 3 November 1999, I was on my way home from teaching an evening class at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies. As I walked out of Stamford Brook tube station into the dark autumnal night, I heard a rushing sound behind me. I had no time to react before someone hit me hard on the head and pushed me to the ground. Instinctively, I tightened my grip on my handbag, which contained the only copy of a manuscript I had just finished writing. But my assailant wasn’t deterred.
‘Give me your bag,’ he shouted again and again.
I struggled with a strength I had not known I possessed. In the darkness, I could not see a face. I was aware only that I was fighting a pair of strong yet invisible hands. I tried to protect myself and, at the same time, kick with my feet at where I thought his groin might be. He kicked back and I felt sharp bursts of pain in my back and legs, and the salty taste of blood in my mouth.
Passers-by started running towards us, shouting. Soon the man was surrounded by an angry crowd. When I staggered to my feet, I saw that he was over six feet tall.
Later, the police asked me why I had risked my life fighting for a bag.
Trembling and in pain, I explained, ‘It had my book in it.’
‘A book?’ a policeman exclaimed. ‘Is a book more important than your life?’
Of course, life is more important than a book. But in so many ways my book was my life. It was my testimony to the lives of Chinese women, the result of many years’ work as a journalist. I knew I had been foolish: if I had lost the manuscript, I could have tried to recreate it. However, I wasn’t sure that I could put myself through the extremes of feeling provoked by writing the book again. Reliving the stories of the women I had met had been painful, and it had been harder still to order my memories and find language adequate to express them. In fighting for that bag, I was defending my feelings, and the feelings of Chinese women. The book was the result of so many things which, once lost, could never be found again. When you walk into your memories, you are opening a door to the past; the road within has many branches, and the route is different every time.
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,
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 only information Chinese people had access to, and they spoke with one identical voice. Communication with anyone abroad seemed as remote as a fairy tale. When Deng Xiaoping started the slow process of ‘opening up’ China in 1983, it was possible for journalists, if they were courageous, to try and make subtle changes to how they presented the news. It was also possible, although perhaps even more dangerous, to discuss personal issues in the media. In
Words on the Night Breeze
I was trying to open a little window, a tiny hole, so that people could allow their spirits to cry out and breathe after the gunpowder-laden atmosphere of the previous forty years. The Chinese author and philosopher Lu Xun once said, ‘The first person who tasted a crab must also have tried a spider, but realised that it was not good to eat.’ As I awaited the reaction of my listeners to the programme, I wondered whether they would think it was a crab or a spider. The number of enthusiastic letters that piled up on my desk convinced me that it was the former.
The letter I received from the young boy Zhang Xiaoshuan was the first that had appealed for my practical help and it threw me into confusion. I reported it to my section head and asked what I should do. He suggested indifferently that I contact the local Public Security Bureau. I put a call through and poured out Zhang Xiaoshuan’s story.