Xinran: I want to tell the world about the lives of ordinary Chinese women

The author discusses 20 years of research for her book, The Good Women Of China
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The Independent Culture

Xinran was born in Beijing in 1958 and lived with her wealthy family until the Cultural Revolution separated them when she was seven. After working in a military university she became a radio journalist. Her talk show, Words on the Night Breeze, started in 1988; within three weeks she was receiving 100 letters a day, mostly from women. She moved to the UK in 1997, where she compiled their stories in The Good Women of China. Her other books are Sky Burial (2004) and What the Chinese Don't Eat (2006), a collection of her newspaper columns. Her charity The Mothers' Bridge of Love (www.motherbridge.org) helps Chinese women and children and their adoptive parents abroad. Miss Chopsticks is published by Chatto & Windus.

While travelling in the northern Chinese province of Shanxi, Xinran met the family of a woman who had committed suicide by drinking pesticide because she couldn't give birth to a boy. "You can't blame them," shrugged the widower when he heard that the people from the village would not attend her funeral. "It's her fault that she only managed to give birth to a handful of chopsticks and no roofbeam."

To Xinran, his words spoke volumes about Chinese culture, in which women are disposable tools and men strong providers. The book that resulted, Miss Chopsticks (Chatto & Windus, £16.99), is billed as the first novel from a journalist whose books have consistently caused reviewers to reach for the word "extraordinary". It follows the stories of three sisters as they leave their poor, rural family to take on the flabbergasting world of the city.

When Xinran published The Good Women of China in 2002, frankly detailing the lives of "ordinary" Chinese women, critics called it "unforgettable". Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club, wrote: "When I finished reading... I felt my soul had been altered". She followed it up with the equally astonishing Sky Burial and a collection of her journalism, What The Chinese Don't Eat. This book is just as moving.

When I ask why it is billed as a novel, however, she declares somewhat guiltily that it isn't really fiction at all. "To be honest, I don't know how to write fiction," she says. "I always admire fiction writers: they can make up the characters and let then them be happy or bad or nice. Every time I tried to, real people talked to my mind."

Real people have been talking to Xinran since she started presenting her radio show, Words on the Night Breeze, in Nanjing in 1988. The weight of responsibility she feels for Chinese women is obvious, and it is soon clear why she finds it hard to invent happy endings for them. The programme allowed Chinese women to tell their stories - anonymously, painfully and often sailing dangerously close to the edge of the country's censorship laws. Many said her programme was their lifeline.

Although the young Xinran had dreamed of being a journalist, her journey was a tough one. She was born in Beijing in 1958 to a wealthy family. "I had good skin," she says. "People said I was like an egg's white. My bedroom was white with tiny flowers. I was very good at drawing trees."

The first she knew of the Chinese Cultural Revolution was when she returned from school, aged seven, to find the Red Guard throwing her family's books and toys onto a fire. Her plaits – an "imperialist, petit-bourgeois hairstyle" – were cut off and burned. Her parents were jailed for 10 years, and she was sent away to be bullied by children of the Revolution. She still has nightmares. "In the daytime I can hold myself so well, I can smile to everybody and talk and do normal things. But in the night I never recovered from that nightmare of my childhood. I tried to kill myself before. I was too scared to sleep."

When Xinran moved to Britain in 1997, things were not always easier. She resented being viewed as "an uneducated, poor Chinese woman", and once was so insulted by being ignored at dinner by an English lord that she sent him a cheque for the cost of the meal, as if he had been her servant. "My husband said I was naughty," she glimmers. She is married to the literary agent Toby Eady, and lives in a cool apartment, Zen-ishly serene, four storeys above a bustlingly multicultural west London street. When we meet, she offers Chinese green tea from a choice of colourful little cups. She's prettier and less forbidding than her author photos suggest, her eyes equally quick to laughter and tears.

We begin by talking about the Chinese language. All her books have been translated into English by Esther Tyldesley - now a close friend. "I spent £3,000 having Good Women translated, twice, and it failed. Toby said, 'Very nice, but I don't feel their heart.' So I decided I would not publish it." Chinese, she explains, is an ancient language, rooted in seasons and emperors and with 18,000 characters. "We have 20 different words for wife, and you can hear the feeling from a man when he introduces his wife... Even if you learn proper speaking you get lost in Chinese society."

Tyldesley, crucially, had lived in the remote Chinese countryside, so Xinran asked her to translate a sample chapter. "One day in the very early morning Toby called me and said, 'I am in tears by your book.' I said, 'Yes, that is my book!'"

Chinese, she adds, "has a very rich sense of humour that doesn't work in English", so I ask her to tell me a Chinese joke. "Chinese has quite sexy jokes," she says. "This is why, when we talk and westerners take us very seriously, that makes us laugh! For example, sometimes the governor is coming, and people say, 'Don't believe him: on the table he looks like red, but actually he's very yellow!'" She collapses in giggles.

I must look confused, because she tries again. "When a new boss comes, they will say, 'Be careful, he likes to eat tofu.' Tofu is very soft," she spells out, indicating her breasts and bottom. "So sometimes we tease westerners. 'Do you like tofu?' And the girls laugh." Her face is creased with mischief. "The Chinese are very funny."

Xinran has made her name by writing about the lives of Chinese women, and that is not about to change. "The whole of history is outside the door," she says. "But inside the door are lots of stories that people don't like to speak about." Her next book, China Witness: Voices from the Last Generation, is based on 20 years of research among her parents' generation – history burned during the Cultural Revolution; voices soon to be lost for good. "I took six students," she says. "They were all shocked. They didn't believe it was true. They typed the wrong names of recent Chinese history makers. I said, 'This was the chairman of China!' They said, 'Oh, I heard about this but I didn't know the words.'"

Xinran is now published in 30 languages and her book available in about 30 territories – none of them China. Many there think she shouldn't be telling these stories, including her mother. "She says, 'If you go on doing this lots of Chinese will hate us.' I say, 'But I know they want to give the past to their children. Their children will tell them in future this is best.' But my mum is quite worried. I'm worried, too."

So far, though, the only story Xinran is too afraid to tell is her own. Separated from her mother at an early age, she never had a birthday party, was never hugged. She recently launched a charity, The Mothers' Bridge of Love, for abandoned Chinese daughters and their adoptive parents abroad, but she is still afraid to talk to her mother about their own separation. "You know, still I go to the toy shops a lot to touch the dolls." She sighs. "I am still dreaming of being a daughter."

In The Good Women of China, she wrote: "There are many families who have not confronted what happened to them during the Cultural Revolution." So should they confront it? Should she?

"I think that's very difficult," she says, slowly. "It is like after the Second World War in Germany, Italy, Japan... My book hurt my mother. She says that it is too hurtful to open this conversation. She asked me how mothers should answer their children's questions when they haven't been educated enough to understand the history themselves. I think that China needs another two or three generations."

Xinran is quick to point out that she is not a spokesperson for China or Chinese people. "Since I published my first book, people started treating me as a politician," she laughs. "They think I know everything from China. Actually, it is 42 times the size of this country, and I am doing just the one job!" But, while she is unable to tell her story, she still feels a burning need to share those of other Chinese women.

Does she feel personally responsible for every woman and girl in China? To answer, she tells a story about her visits to the Chinese countryside. "I used to go quite a lot," she says. "I was very naive, honestly. I saw poor children who couldn't play, so I made them paper rabbits. A few years later I went back and my rabbit was up there with the Buddhas. I wanted to touch it, but the children, who were now grown up, said, 'Don't touch! Our parents say this is the only friend we have outside the village'. You know that this family is not strangers any more. It is with you forever."

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