When Deng Xiaoping’s efforts to “open up” China took root in the late 1980s, Xinran recognized an invaluable opportunity. As an employee for the state radio system, she had long wanted to help improve the lives of Chinese women. But when she was given clearance to host a radio call-in show, she barely anticipated the enthusiasm it would quickly generate. Operating within the constraints imposed by government censors, “Words on the Night Breeze” sparked a tremendous outpouring, and the hours of tape on her answering machines were soon filled every night. Whether angry or muted, posing questions or simply relating experiences, these anonymous women bore witness to decades of civil strife, and of halting attempts at self-understanding in a painfully restrictive society. In this collection, by turns heartrending and inspiring, Xinran brings us the stories that affected her most, and offers a graphically detailed, altogether unprecedented work of oral history.
This is a heartbreaking book which I would never have picked up except I was looking for an X author for my Women Authors A-Z reading challenge this year. I never know how to rate books like these because it’s important to know about the situations in countries other than our own, but I always feel helpless and angry when I know that women are having such frightful difficulties.
I have to bear in mind that this book was published in 2002 originally, the author having moving from China to England in order to be free to do such a thing. A lot can and probably has changed in 16 years, plus many of the stories related in this book are from earlier years yet.
The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) seems to have disrupted relations between men and women and the nature of family relationships to an extreme. Survival was top of mind for everyone and each did what they had to. Xinran reveals the painful stories told to her by Chinese women—of having children horribly injured, daughters gang raped, husbands treating them like servants (or livestock), work denied, promotions skipped over, you name it.
As China seems to be heading into another iteration of their authoritarian regime, there will undoubtedly be more issues for women. I hope there is still someone like Xinran to listen to women’s voices and to articulate what they are able to (Xinran herself had to walk a fine line so as not to offend the Communist Party).
In the era of the Me Too and Time’s Up campaigns here in North America, we have to hope that our sisters on other continents are able to achieve some gains as well.