BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation by Xinran, translated by Nicky Harman, Julia Lovell, and Esther Tyldesley [in San Francisco Chronicle]

China WitnessSince the 2002 best-seller The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices, Beijing-born London journalist Xinran has emerged as an international dynamo reclaiming the voices of neglected citizens throughout her homeland. Her subsequent titles – Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet, What the Chinese Don’t Eat, Miss Chopsticks, and even her children’s picture book, Motherbridge of Love – are tenacious extensions of her life’s work: to acknowledge and preserve the disappearing stories of ordinary, everyday people who have managed to survive extraordinary experiences.

China Witness is Xinran’s most ambitious work – a rich tome filled with unforgettable stories from China’s tumultuous past century. “This book is a testament to the dignity of modern Chinese lives,” she begins.

For most Western readers, China looms large as a vague entity associated with Mao, communism, human rights abuses and – more recent – the 2008 Olympic Games. As China rushes into the new century as a growing superpower, Xinran struggles to “describe a twentieth century that, in many respects, has been full of suffering and trauma.” Ironically, her greatest obstacle proves to be the Chinese people themselves: “Almost no one in China today believes you can get their men and women to tell the truth.”

Citing the concept of “guilt by association” in Chinese law – that whole families are punished for an individual’s crime – Xinran explains how the “powerful traditions of clan loyalty, (instilled) in the Chinese a strong inhibition towards the idea of speaking out openly – out of a fear of implicating others.” The ensuing silence is history lost: “The truth of China’s modern history … will be buried with my parents’ generation.”

Sifting through two decades of research, Xinran chooses 20 “ordinary people … who would otherwise lack the fame, money and rank to get their … astonishing experiences heard.” She chooses the book’s first witness, 79-year-old “Medicine Woman of Xingyi,” because “She’s the only one on this lane who doesn’t look worn-down, demoralised by life.”

Xinran populates the book’s dense pages with unique glimpses of “real China”: an elderly couple who helped pioneer Chinese oil exploration in the 1950s, a “news singer” who sang the news to illiterate inhabitants who had no other access to information beyond their isolated communities, two of the elderly last harbingers of the traditional folk art of lantern-making, a survivor of the Red Army’s fatally disastrous 8,000-mile Long March, a police officer who rose to be a chief justice but retired early rather than fall prey to the all-too-prevalent corruption surrounding him and finally a shoe mender whose 28 years of working on the street somehow allowed her to send her two children to the best universities in China.

As Xinran crisscrosses the vast country, she proves herself to be a tenacious conduit for gently urging remarkable histories onto the page and even on film, recording the memories and lives of her elderly Chinese witnesses. While time is running out – her witnesses are on average in their 70s, with the oldest a fragile 97 – Xinran finds the younger generations unknowing, even uncaring, about the starvation, chaos and corruption their elders endured and survived as the nation became today’s China. Progress and power lull today’s youth: “All they care about is money, they don’t care about people.” The refrain repeats all too often.

Xinran is confronted with more questions than answers. “‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’ve no idea’ appears to be the usual response … In the search for their roots and for their self-respect as a nation, Chinese people have lost their way.” But Xinran is an effective guide: From the young team that accompanies her on her story-collecting journey to the hundred-plus student “assistants” along the way, Xinran witnesses a growing understanding.

As Xinran notes in her afterword, the Internet has managed to break the restrictions of the age-old “guilt by association”: “The Chinese Internet is full of every kind of Chinese voice … [t]hese voices mostly come from the younger generation.” Impatiently, we wait for the countless stories that remain to be told.

Reviews: San Francisco Chronicle, March 16, 2009

“In Celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: New & Notable Books,” The Bloomsbury Review, May/June 2009

Tidbit: Click here to read my 2003 interview with Xinran, shortly after the U.S. publication of her first book, The Good Women of China.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009


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