Buy Me the Sky: The Remarkable Truth of China's One-Child Generations by Xinran, book review

A compassionate critique of China's 'little emperors'

Jemimah Steinfeld
Wednesday 27 May 2015 22:40 BST

Chinese journalist Xinran burst on to the literary scene in 2002 with The Good Women of China, which gave voice to women across the nation. In Buy Me the Sky she turns her attention to China's only children, those born after the implementation of the one-child Policy from 1978. These "one and onlies" are the apple of their parents' eyes, burdened with high expectations, and yet simultaneously dismissed by society as "little emperors". Xinran sets out to talk to these children as has rarely been done before.

Each chapter concentrates on the life of one young person and mixes their background with conversations held between themselves and Xinran. Dialogue is fast-paced and punchy. At times, Xinran as both mother and moral crusader scolds them. She then ends every chapter asking readers for thoughts on Yao Jiaxin, a 21-year-old only child, who stabbed a woman to death he had just run over in order to avoid responsibility – a case that many in China said represented the ills of this generation.

Even taken alone, each chapter is a great story. We meet a man who cannot pack his own suitcase; another whose main ambition is to take selfies with celebrities – it could work, if he knew how to use a camera. These anecdotes are then positioned within a wider cultural context, making the book a timely look at modern China.

All of the characters in the book are ones Xinran met outside China. While these children are not always rich, they still represent a certain demographic, whose perspectives are likely to be different to those who have never left the country – as is the experience of many of China's only children. Xinran acknowledges this and says she encountered hundreds from within China too. Perhaps those who made the cut really did have the most captivating tales? Still, it would have been interesting to hear from China-based only children too.

When you think Xinran is steering you towards one central thesis – in support of accusations that they're spoiled – she introduces some who are the exact opposite. In the character of Moon, for example, we meet a compassionate daughter. If anything, the first half of the book is a soft opening. As the reader progresses, the stories become more touching, even haunting; a section on a boy whose family has murdered its unwanted baby girls is a reminder of how tough life remains for many in China.

It is an accomplished book. Xinran cares deeply about these children, who are now becoming parents themselves. By the end, you care deeply too.

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