A former Chinese radio-show host now living in England delivers a somber, graphically detailed report on the lives of women in contemporary China.
In 1989, as the Chinese authorities cautiously began opening up to the West, Xinran presented a new radio program in Nanjing called “Words on the Night Breeze.” It provided a forum to discuss various aspects of daily life, using her own experiences “to win the listeners’ trust and suggest ways of approaching life’s difficulties.” Later, with the authorities satisfied by her discreet handling of controversial topics, she was allowed to add a carefully vetted call-in hotline to the popular program. Drawing on her encounters with listeners, Xinran explores such topics as the role of religion in women’s lives (they seem to believe simultaneously in a number of different creeds) and lesbianism (a particularly controversial subject). Sexual abuse, especially incest, too often goes unpunished, she states, illustrating with the example of Hongzue, a teenager who found refuge from her father’s abuse in being hospitalized for various illnesses and, fearful of being sent home cured, deliberately contracted a fatal infection. To underline the pervasively callous treatment of women, especially during the Cultural Revolution, Xinran tells the story of young Shilin, who suffered a breakdown while watching her family being assaulted and was then sent to be “re-educated” in a remote village where she was frequently gang-raped by soldiers. The author also describes her own childhood spent in the care of her grandmother while her parents were away in the army. Her mother, a brilliant technical designer and early revolutionary who was home so infrequently that her daughter called her Auntie, was denied recognition for her achievements because she was the daughter of a capitalist, a “black class” background she shared with Xinran’s father.
An important document that records with intelligent sympathy lives warped or destroyed by political revolutions.