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Manoa 15.2 (2003) 211
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The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by Xinran. Translated by Esther Tyldesley. New York: Pantheon Books, 2002. 242 pages, cloth $24.
Born into a so-called capitalist household in the midst of China's Cultural Revolution, Xinran was labeled polluted and not allowed to play with other children or participate in school activities. Her only nourishment came from the scraps of food and knowledge her unpolluted peers discarded.
During the brief "opening" of China in the 1980s and 1990s, she became the host of a popular radio show, and was able to travel the country and speak and listen to women who otherwise would not have been heard.
The pain and anguish she unearthed were more than she ever expected. Her accounts of the lives of women, rendered in interviews, reveal a society where generations were destroyed through separation, chaos, and the propaganda of the Cultural Revolution; the women were left with the task of creating families and relationships from the chipped remains. Isolated by lack of information and their own suffering, they confided in Xinran, seeking guidance, forgiveness, and acceptance. The most disturbing and dramatic of these narratives are the ones set in the past because we are often left wondering what became of the women. At the end of a story about a sexually abused girl in the 1970s, Xinran wonders what became of her. So do we, but we are never told.
In the case of an imprisoned ethnic Japanese woman, her memories of her mother's suicide, her sister's rape during "re-education," and her father's mental impairment trigger Xinran's own traumatic childhood memories.
However, there is an emotional distance in her style that keeps the reader at bay. We are told how beautiful her black braids were before they were sheared, how her best friend spat on her, and how her toys were burned, but we don't hear the scissors snip, visualize the spit, or feel the burning flames. Throughout the more than dozen lives she recounts, her interview style, brief descriptions, and use of the past tense create a barrier. It may be that some of the intimacy she achieved was lost in the translation. But this is a minor criticism. Setting out with the goal of discovering what a woman's life is worth in China, Xinran recounts stories that help raise the veil that has long cloaked Chinese women in secrecy.
Katya Cengel has had her work featured in Marie Claire (Australia), the Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Christian Science Monitor. She is writing a book about living and working in Ukraine.