On the day I left Shouting Hill, I found that the sanitary towels I had given to Niu’er’s grandmother as a souvenir were stuck in her sons’ belts; they were using them as towels to wipe away sweat or protect their hands.
Before my visit to Shouting Hill, I had thought that Chinese women of all ethnic groups were united, each developing in a unique way, but essentially walking in step with the times. During my two weeks at Shouting Hill, however, I saw mothers, daughters and wives who seemed to have been left behind at the beginning of history, living primitive lives in the modern world. I was worried for them. Would they ever be able to catch up? One cannot walk to the end of history in one single step, and history would not wait for them. However, when I got back to the office and saw that trips like ours were bringing hidden communities to the attention of the rest of the country, I felt as if I was at the beginning of something. This beginning contained my hope. Perhaps there was a way of helping the women of Shouting Hill to move a little more quickly . . .
Big Li listened to my account of the women of Shouting Hill, then asked, ‘Are they happy?’
Mengxing exclaimed, ‘Don’t be ridiculous! How can they be?’
I said to Mengxing that, out of the hundreds of Chinese women I had spoken to over nearly ten years of broadcasting and journalism, the women of Shouting Hill were the only ones to tell me they were happy.
In August 1997, I left China for England. My experience of Shouting Hill had shaken me. I felt I needed to breathe new air – to know what it was like to live in a free society. On the plane to London I sat next to a man who told me he was coming back from his seventh visit to China. He had visited all the important historical sites. He spoke knowledgeably about tea, silk and the Cultural Revolution. Curious, I asked him what he knew about the position of Chinese women in society. He replied that China seemed to him a very equal society: everywhere he went he saw men and women doing the same work.
I had boarded the plane with the idea that I might find a way of describing the lives of Chinese women to people in the West. Suddenly, confronted with the very limited knowledge of this man, the task seemed much more daunting. I would need to reach far back into my memory to recapture all the stories I had collected over the years. I would have to relive the emotions I felt on first hearing them and try to find the best words to describe all the misery, bitterness and love that the women had expressed. And even then, I wasn’t sure how Western readers would interpret these stories. Having never visited the West, I had little idea how much people there knew about China.
Four days after I arrived in London, Princess Diana died. I remember standing on the platform of Ealing Broadway tube station surrounded by people carrying bunches of flowers that they intended to lay at the gates of Buckingham Palace. I couldn’t resist the journalistic impulse to ask a woman next to me in the crowd what Princess Diana had meant to her. We started talking about the position of women in British society. After a while, she asked me what life was like for women in China. For Westerners, she said, the modern Chinese woman still seemed to wear an ancient veil. She believed it was important to try and see behind that veil. Her words inspired me. Perhaps there would, after all, be an interested audience in the West for my stories. Later, when I went to work at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, other people were encouraging. I told one of the teachers about a few of my interviews and she was adamant that I should write them down. Most of the books written so far, she said, had been about particular Chinese families. These stories would give a broader perspective.
However, the defining moment for me came when a twenty-two-year-old Chinese girl asked me for help. She was studying at SOAS and sat next to me one day in the student canteen. She was very depressed. Her mother, without any concern for the cost of long-distance calls, was phoning her daily to warn her that Western men were ‘sexual hooligans’ and she wasn’t to let them near her. Unable to turn to anyone for advice, the girl was desperate to know the answers to the most basic questions about the relationship between men and women. If you kissed a man, were you still considered a virgin? Why did Western men touch women so much and so easily?
There were students sitting near us in the canteen who were studying Chinese and understood what she was saying. They laughed in disbelief that anyone could be so innocent. But I was very moved by her unhappiness. Here, ten years after Xiao Yu had written to me to ask whether love was an offence against public decency and committed suicide when I failed to answer, was another young girl whose mother was responsible for keeping her in a position of complete sexual ignorance. The Western students whom she studied alongside, who hugged each other without a thought, had no notion of what she was suffering. Indeed, in China, there are many sexually experienced young women – usually living in cities – who would laugh at her. But I had talked to so many women in a similar position. After her cry for help, it seemed to me even more imperative that I use their tears, and my own, to create a path towards understanding.
I recalled what Old Chen had once said to me: ‘Xinran, you should write this down. Writing is a kind of repository and can help create a space for the accommodation of new thoughts and feelings. If you don’t write these stories down, your heart will be filled up and broken by them.’ At that time in China, I might have gone to prison for writing a book like this. I couldn’t risk abandoning my son, or the women who received help and encouragement through my radio programme. In England, the book became possible. It was as if a pen had grown in my heart.