'Good Women' reveals agonizing stories of submission in China

— Girls naively desperate to please, raped in the name of the revolution. A woman trapped in a loveless marriage by a politically powerful husband.

Traditional expectations of obedience and submission have persisted in China, author Xue Xinran learned from callers to her pioneering call-in radio program "Words on the Night Breeze," which was broadcast throughout China for eight years, beginning in 1989.

Xinran, who goes by the professional name she adopted for the radio show, has gathered the stories of these women in a new book, "The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices." It is bound to raise eyebrows back home with its harsh portrayals of rape, sexual abuse and other brutalities usually suffered in private agony.

"Women's position in Chinese culture is very low " still very, very low," Xinran said during a recent visit to Hong Kong. "Chinese women need someone to stand up and say something about their lives."

Among the tragedies recounted in "Good Women" is the story of a 17-year-old girl Xinran calls "Hongxue" (most names in the book were altered to protect privacy). Raped repeatedly from age 11 by her father, Hongxue deliberately injures and sickens herself to escape him by being sent to hospitals. Told she must go home, she pushes a fly into a wound in her arm and dies of blood poisoning.

"I don't care about the consequences; even death is better than going home," the girl wrote in a diary sent to Xinran after the girl's death.

Rape, insanity and family disintegration are recurrent themes in the book, published by Random House. In another story, a beautiful girl is asked on her 18th birthday to fulfill a mission "for the sake of the party" and unwittingly agrees to submit to rape by a high-ranking army officer. She ends up spending her life as his trophy wife, trapped in a loveless marriage by his threats of revenge.

Other tales involve a hard-nosed college sophisticate, village women living in primitive isolation and a group of bereaved mothers who find new reasons to live by caring for earthquake orphans. Their stories bring to life challenges confronting Chinese women as the country's move toward a market economy wipes out old social guarantees and brings new opportunities.

Women face sexual bias in school, jobs and benefits. Many Chinese still believe that the greatest achievement for a woman is to give birth to a son, and Chinese society is just beginning to face up to such issues as domestic violence and sexual harassment.

At first, listeners accused Xinran of giving voice to "sexual hooliganism" in her radio show, which had millions of followers.

Xinran challenged her male listeners to call up her studio hot line and profess their love for their wives or mothers. None called. She asked the audience to call and tell her how many "good women" they had met. Fewer than 20 of the thousands who finally replied said they knew of any.

"This is a negative culture," Xinran said, lamenting the tendency of Chinese to rebut praise by denigrating themselves and family members. "We need to say beautiful things to our families."

For Xinran, who was born in 1958 to a wealthy, "capitalist" family, the mournful wail of a train whistle evokes the ache of childhood separation from her parents, whose lives were devoted to serving the military as engineers. Raised primarily by her grandmother, Xinran went to live with her parents for the first time when she was 7.

A few days later, the Cultural Revolution began. Radical Red Guards burned the family's possessions " including Xinran's toys and books " imprisoned Xinran's father and forced her mother to spend long days in interrogation for the family's "counterrevolutionary" background. Xinran and her 3-year-old brother were sent to live in a facility for children of prisoners for the next five years.

Beaten and spat upon by playmates, Xinran retreated into a secret library a sympathetic teacher shared with her. By age 15, she was already publishing poems.

The decade-long nightmare ended in 1976 with revolutionary leader Mao Zedong's death and the rise of Communist leaders who were weary of political chaos but unwilling to loosen their grip on power.

Xinran attended military schools and became a radio journalist. Divorced, she juggled caring for her son, now 14, with the demands of investigative journalism. She remarried earlier this year, to British literary agent and friend, Toby Eady.

In 1995, tired of the responsibilities and demands of Chinese-style celebrity, Xinran requested a leave from the radio station to research her book.

Visiting illiterate women in remote villages, she found that her subjects tended to flee at the first sight of tape recorders, pens and notebooks. So she set those aside and sought to learn from the village women the practical skills of living.

"I learned how to make food, how to make children's clothes, how to make shoes. I've always lived in the city and I've never learned many of those things," Xinran said. "'How can you survive in this world?' they asked. As soon as they felt superior to me, they began to tell me stories of their lives."

In 1997, Xinran moved to England, where she worked at odd jobs, taught Chinese and wrote "Good Women."

"It was as if a pen had grown in my heart," she writes.

She hopes her book will encourage Chinese women to be more confident.

"Chinese women have suffered for a long time, but they are still giving, trying and loving," she said. "They have a lot of pain in daily life. We want to be good mothers, good wives, good grandmothers."


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