London-based Chinese journalist Xinran (Sky Burial: A Love Story of Tibet, 2005, etc.) gathers her emotional, informative interviews with Chinese elders.
For more than 20 years, the author compiled a list of people with fascinating stories she wanted to explore. During the last several years she traveled across China with her video crew to film and interview them. Mostly in their 70s or older, proud, hardworking and often living in squalor, her subjects represent a wide variety of Chinese culture: the pioneers who built the northwest garrison city Shihezi out of the desert; a husband-and-wife team who participated in the first oil-prospecting brigades; a female general; a retired policeman in Henan province; a witness to the Long March of 1936; a few artists, including a renowned acrobat who traveled the world performing his art, and a tea-house singer. In each interview, Xinran seeks to answer an essential question: “Why do the Chinese find it so hard to speak frankly about themselves?” The interviewees recount incredible hardships during the Cultural Revolution, when families suffered from famine, schools closed and people were routinely denounced, such as the famous revolutionary heroine known as the “Double-Gun Woman,” whose son-in-law Xinran located. Mothers, especially, made excruciating sacrifices, but this generation was often forced to delegate the raising of its children to others; many of the elders express terrible guilt at their children’s deprivations. Xinran digs gently at the speakers, encouraging them to speak honestly and constantly inquiring about whether they share these stories with their children. Most do not; their children, they say, are more interested in making money than reliving family history.
Prolix, tangential and engrossing, Xinran’s interviews offer an invaluable social history that textbooks don’t reveal.