A year ago the Chinese journalist and historian Xinran returned to China. She was there to research her latest oral history, China Witness, a collection of interviews given by grandparents and great-grandparents. She took the opportunity to visit her mother, from whom she was separated at the age of seven during the Cultural Revolution. The visit offered the opportunity to talk about what had happened 40 years ago and its effect on both mother and child.
"I spent four hours sitting with my mother." Xinran's voice cracks. "Both of us were in tears. I believe both of us wanted to talk, that we had both dreamed of this moment and had been waiting to speak. I think she really wanted to know what happened to me during the Cultural Revolution and I really wanted her to know how I grew up without her."
She pauses; the memory remains painful. "But we couldn't speak a word. We were too frightened of hurting each other."
Xinran was more aware than most of the torment hidden beneath her mother's dignified silence, because she has spent 20 years mining the memories of men and women whose personal suffering remains taboo. The younger generation, she says, is thirsty for modernity and not interested in the old stories; the older generation feels shame, a powerful force within Chinese culture.
"The older generation became unsure about whether to tell their children all they had been through, because they needed to be respected by their children," she explains. In the past 20 years, China has changed beyond recognition and much of the younger generation have become detached from their poverty-stricken roots. As a result, a silence has descended on the old.
Xinran understands too well the dangers of becoming detached from family history. Born in 1958, she was separated from her own family in the early 1960s. In the 1970s she became a radio journalist, eventually getting her own show in the late 1980s. Called "Words on the Night Breeze", it featured anecdotes sent in by ordinary Chinese and became hugely popular, receiving more than 100 letters a day, mostly from women. Those letters and follow-up interviews told a shocking story.
After moving to the UK in 1997, she used the interviews as the basis for her first book, The Good Women of China, which became a bestseller and was so successful in her native country that it was withdrawn from sale after three months, because her publisher feared a backlash from the authorities.
She was encouraged to write the new book by her husband, the literary agent Toby Eady, and was partly inspired by conversations with her mother-in-law, the author Mary Wesley, who confided in Xinran in much the same way the Chinese witnesses did.
"She asked me: 'What does Toby think of me as a mother?'" says Xinran. "I told her that I wanted to be honest with her, and that for Toby she was not the great mother but she was the best woman friend in his life. She was silent for a few moments and then said that was very fair."
China Witness reflects her "education" about the realities of life in China. "When I became a journalist in the late 1980s I was very naïve," she admits. "When I travelled to the countryside, I was shocked by what I saw. When I started talking to people, I found they had no idea of what had happened to the last generation."
Xinran's sufferings in the Cultural Revolution made sense in light of the testimonies she gathered, which are remarkably frank given the circumspection encouraged by Chinese society. It is easy to see why the reticent elderly trusted her with their secrets. Small and slim – she looks far younger than her 50 years – she has the kind of face that elicits confidences. She exudes a genuine interest in the lives of others. Before parting she insists on passing on advice about child rearing – I had a baby two months ago – even though it is late and she is clearly tired.
Among the testimonies solicited for the book are those of women such as Yao Popo, a 79-year-old medicine woman in Xingyi, who benefited from the Cultural Revolution; and General Phoebe, a 78-year-old American-born Chinese woman, who joined the People's Liberation Army in 1949, and went on to become a party-endorsed role model for the younger generation. They also include stories from men, such as Lin Xiangbei, 89, who spent 20 years as a political prisoner and whose children were left as orphans in everything but name during the Mao period. Lin's story is rendered more moving because the grief he reveals he refuses to share with his children for fear of losing face.
Fifty witnesses were originally lined up for the book, but a combination of shame at revealing their past and fear of China's draconian and confusing censorship laws (beyond the obvious, what constitutes "unacceptable" is often only known when the police arrive) saw the number whittled down to 20. Even so, Xinran faced a mammoth editing task. "It was very difficult, because when I finished interviewing the recorded work was over 800,000 words. I spent over seven months, maybe more than that, editing."
Though the axe fell on what she describes as the "more emotional" passages, the book still packs a punch, especially for Western readers whose sense of individualism clashes with the belief in collectivism that dominates Chinese society. "You have to understand, the huge difference between China and the West is that you have a society structured around religious roots," Xinran explains.
While Western religion resulted in the individual being placed at the centre of society, in China Confucianism meant the collective became all powerful and the notion of collective punishment was deeply ingrained. "The first Chinese emperor in 230 BC set out a very crude system: if one person opposes the Emperor, 3,000 of his relatives should be killed," Xinran explains. It is a system that justifies the punishment of innocent people, even children. "Collective punishment is seen as normal, like the sun rising from the east and setting in the west." Xinran seems resigned to how those in power used collective punishment on herself and others: you cannot change the habits of two millennia in one lifetime, she says.
As debate about China's record on human rights and Tibet raged in the run-up to the Olympic games, Xinran openly opposed a boycott. She argued that if the games were spoiled by protest, doors opened to the West in recent years would be slammed shut.
This view was reflected on the streets of Beijing, she says. "I asked a policeman what he thought about human rights and Tibet," she says in explanation. "He said, 'I am telling you the truth: the police arrested foreign protestors to protect them. You know what could happen if we gave them to the people? They would be punished.'" In a country made up of over 50 ethnic groups, a sense of national unity is vital. It is done in China by promoting the idea that all the ethnic groups make up one family, she says. "During the Olympics the Chinese crime rate was very low. The reason was, it was a family issue: everybody behaved in order not to let the family down."
She sounds weary. Insomnia, caused by the nightmares she still has about her childhood, has collided with jetlag and her voice trails off along with her thoughts. She is sleeping badly: "In the daytime I can be myself, but in the night... the memories come back." What those memories are, she does not say, even when pressed, merely commenting that she was placed in a "very black hole".
It is a place she has only been able to explore through the memories of others of her mother's generation. Has her mother read the book? "Oh no," she says hastily. Her mother believes there are things that should remain unsaid. Not Xinran, however. "With my mother's generation, even today no one respects what they did," she says. "We hardly understood why they were so cold to their own children. But they just had a deep sense of duty, all of them." She pauses. "This helped me understand my parents very much."
The extract: China Witness, By Xinran trs Esther Tyldesley, Nicky Harman and Julia Lovell (Chatto £20)
'...Thoughts of many other women I had interviewed welled up in my mind: how many women in China worked day after day, night after night, toiling away to raise their children ...? We Chinese use our mothers like candles, they melt themselves away to shine their light on others.'Reuse content