Xinran is a journalist, yet she tells us things that are stranger than the wildest fictions. She opens a window through which we see into another world: for China is so huge and so remote that it seems like a whole other world. And Xinran shows us not only the present, the modern China of the bustling and industrial cities, but the China of the recent past, of her early life and her parents' generation - not to mention the old ways of life which still survive in the peasant villages.
Xinran's appearance at the Literature Festival took the form of a conversation with Julia Darling, well known playwright, poet and novelist and winner of the 2003 Northern Rock Foundation Writer's Award. She began by asking Xinran about her childhood, about its smells and sounds. But for Xinran, who was born in Beijing in 1958, childhood was marked not by these sensory fragments, but the fractures produced in her life (and that of so many Chinese people) by the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Her family was well-off and westernised: her grandfather worked for GEC. Her parents were imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, and she was brought up by Red Guards as a child of the Revolution, not regarding her parents as her family. Although this period is so recent, it has become a sort of fracture in people's lives, creating an area in their memories which they do not wish, as individuals and as a society, to enter. And perhaps, says Xinran, it is because her own memories are so painful that she has made it her mission to tell the stories of other women. She adds, modestly, that it makes you realise that though your own story is painful, it is nothing compared to others.
In the late 1980s, as part of the move to open up broadcasting, she was asked to run a late night radio programme Words on the Night Breeze: she accepted the task with no particular ambition, she says, "like a soldier" doing the task allocated to her. But the programme gave her a new name, and a new purpose in life. She adopted the name "Xinran" from a line of poetry by Zhu Ziqing about the spring:
Xin xin ran zhang kai le yan"Xinran" is the adverb for something that is done "with pleasure", and the programme was as new as the spring. In Roman script "Xinran" looks hard and edgy, but as she pronounces it the is no "X" sound and barely an "N"; the name itself sounds like a whisper on the breeze.
(With pleasure, Nature opened its eyes to new things)
The phone calls and the letters she received at Words on the Night Breeze showed her much that she had not known about the lives of women in China: the emotional poverty of a society just emerging from the Cultural Revolution, when even the mildest sexual display was seen as delinquent, the material poverty of the majority of people, especially in the villages (where her driver could not understand her shock at seeing a group of children and adolescents naked in the street: "It's the summer!"), the low value attached to women's lives... In 1995, she decided for a change to broadcast two questions to men: How many good women have you met in your life? and What is a good woman? She was surprised not to get a rush of calls, and when the responses started to come in by mail, they were almost entirely negative: only a few letters said that they had ever met a good woman. Shocked, she started to piece together the Chinese man's definition of "a good woman". There were five criteria:
- A good woman is quiet, never goes out, is never open, especially to other men;
- A good woman must give the family a son;
- A good woman is always soft and never loses her temper;
- A good woman never makes mistakes in doing the housework, she never mixes the colours when doing the wash, she never burns the food when cooking;
- A good woman is good in bed and retains her beautiful figure.
Now she has written another book, and again it is the true story of a woman's life. Sky Burial is the story of how Xinran was introduced by a listener to her radio programme to Shu Wen, a Chinese woman who had spent 30 years in Tibet, searching for her lost husband: it sounds like a romance, and Xinran says her publishers urge her to try writing fiction ("I bet they do!" says Julia Darling, adding "Sky Burial might as well be a novel; it's a found story.") but that she has no idea how to write fiction. The book is shaped by her dedication to telling the truth of the story as it was told to her, and as she has been able to piece it together since. There is yet another layer of strangeness here: strange as China seems to us, to Xinran it is Tibet which is the extraordinary place.
Like the speakers at the earlier Women in Exile event, Xinran lives on the border between two cultures. She lives in London and writes for a western audience, but she writes about China, and does not yet write in English; her books are translated - though so sympathetically that it is not immediately obvious. It takes courage to stand in front of an audience and speak in a language which is not your own, and Xinran does it because there are things she wants to say. She greets questions with "Thank you for giving me the opportunity to say this..." She is particularly enthusiastic about Mother Bridge, a charitable organisation which she has founded to help to build bridges between China and the west, helping each to reach a better understanding of the other. While everyone can benefit from this, the people who need it most are Chinese children growing up with adoptive families in the west, knowing little or nothing of their background, and their adoptive parents. Hitherto she has written about the China of today and its roots in its recent past; now she is ready to start building from that past on into China's future.
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Last update: 3rd November 2004