Monday, March 8, 2010

310) Mothers in China - Xinran (book)

Mothers in China
Sobs on the night breeze

The centre of global gendercide
The Economist, Mar 4th 2010

Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love
By Xinran
Chatto & Windus; 224 pages; £16.99

DURING the past 30 years of economic reform, China has made what is probably history’s largest single improvement to human welfare, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. Yet millions have also been crushed by the vast engine of Chinese growth—and it is among these that Xinran Xue (who uses only her first name) finds her stories. In previous works of oral history, she has rescued from the chaos that is modern Chinese record-keeping personal narratives of her grandparents’ generation (“China Witness”, 2008) and of women caught in China’s endless political turmoil (“The Good Women of China”, 2002). In her latest book, “Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother”, she turns to the relationship between women and their daughters in tales of loss and often unthinkable heartache.

Visiting a peasant family in Shandong, she sees a newborn baby girl snatched from her mother and dumped headfirst in the chamber pot: the head of the family demands a son and, because of the one-child policy, will not let the daughter live. Two years later, the young couple pays Xinran a visit. They, along with the rest of the young people, have left their village to look for work in cities. The mother says she had two more daughters but her father-in-law gave them away to foreigners for adoption. “Have you seen any foreigners?” she asks Xinran, fearfully. “Do you think the foreigners know how to hold my baby?”

Xinran now runs a charity in London for adopted Chinese children. But from 1989 to 1997 she presented one of China’s best-known local radio programmes, “Words on the Night Breeze”, in the southern city of Nanjing. Some narratives, such as that from Shandong, came to her because of her work. But what is astounding is how many she just happens upon, as if such tales are lying all around.

At the tiny restaurant where Xinran eats lunch, the waitress tries to kill herself twice, each time after a little girl’s birthday party. The woman is tortured by the happy faces because, thinking it her duty to produce a male heir, she had smothered her baby daughters. She survives because, as well as the bottle of agricultural fertiliser she swallowed, she drank one of washing-up liquid, thinking that any chemical in a bottle was poison. The detergent diluted the fertiliser’s fatal dose.

Cycling to work one winter’s day, Xinran has a flat tyre. The woman who repairs her bicycle turns out to have been a midwife. Under the author’s patient questioning, she reveals the pricing system of her trade: three times the normal price for a first-born son; six times more if the father is first-born, too; yet more if a daughter is “done”. The trick is to strangle the baby with the umbilical cord as it emerges, and call it stillborn.

Most of Xinran’s mothers submit stoically to the cruelties of “son preference” and the one-child policy. But a few go to extraordinary lengths to have more than one child. On a train journey she meets one of China’s so-called “extra-birth guerrilla troops”—families with daughters who leave home and move secretly from city to city, hoping to escape the birth-control regulators long enough to produce a son. The father rocks his daughter tenderly to sleep, as he explains the dangers of their life. At the next stop, Xinran sees the young girl talking to a food seller on the platform and waves goodbye, assuming the family has got off. But later she meets the father on the train: he has abandoned his beloved daughter to strangers because his wife is expecting another child and the family cannot hide more than one. She was the fourth daughter they had given up.

One might perhaps object that some of Xinran’s stories are not as typical as she implies: she blames the unflinching “son preference” of traditional Confucian culture for the families’ decisions to abandon or kill their daughters. But, in fact, the number of “missing girls” is highest in richer, better-educated provinces: prenatal ultrasound scans and selective abortion have proved even deadlier to girls than the cruel dictates of village elders. But this is quibbling. The core of “Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother” is the individual stories of women who have lost their daughters. One would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by them.

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