Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.46.4: THE GOOD WOMEN OF CHINA, by Xinran, 2002, BR

V046-04_goodwomenBRThis is the second book I have read by Xinran, a Chinese woman journalist and broadcaster who now lives in England.   The first one was about just one Chinese woman, a doctor who went looking for her husband, also a doctor, who was sent with troops into Tibet in the early 1950s.  Forty years later, after living with nomadic Tibetans she discovers that her husband had been killed in the fighting between the Chinese and Tibetans and had, because he performed heroic medical deeds, been given a “sky burial” [1] by the people of Tibet.


Xinran began an even radio “call-in” program in Nanjing in 1989 called Words on a Night Breezethat became something of a phenomenon. Her book is subtitled hidden voices. Despite a title that sounded more like a poetry program she began to receive a growing torrent of communication from women all over China. They told her their stories, pouring their hearts out to s stranger who was often the only person to whom they had ever confessed their tormented lives.  


While the Maoist revolution had changed the social position of some women in China, the vast majority of tem remained trapped in age-old traditions and social pressures that placed tem in a subordinate status to men, socially, economically and politically. In a nation that is eighty percent rural, women are part of a system that makes them not only workers on farms, but also those who must conceive and bear the next generation of workers.   Despite the central importance of their gender, females are held in low regard. Sons are treasured because they carry on the family name and, importantly, remain in the family to see to the care of their aging parents.   Daughters who marry leave the family home to become what amounts to servants in the homes of their mothers-in-law and can only improve their status is they can bear sons for their new families.   Hence, they are seen to be of little or negative value when they are born and many are immediately killed or abandoned.


In one of the stories Xinran relates that, even during the revolution, women were expected to demonstrate “The Three Submissions and the Four Virtues.”   These consisted of “submission to your father, then your husband and, after his death, your son.” The virtues were fidelity, physical charm, propriety in speech and action, [and] diligence in housework.”   The revolution created more equality between women and men, but the social habits of a thousand years leave a residue.   Part of that residue is of a society that is still, despite giant cities of millions of people, dominated by rural and village culture with anachronistic customs, mores and superstitions.  The author relates a story of a workmate who “adopted” a child that she represented as hers by birth.   When another workmate gave birth to her child the workmates were invited to the hospital to visit the new mother and see the new baby.   But the adopting mother declined to go because of the superstition that a new baby that is looked upon by a woman who has never given birth herself will bring that baby bad luck.   Since she had “adopted” her child she had not birth a child.   Keeping her pretense that her child was indeed hers prevented her from going and ruined her relationship with her workmate.


The Good Women of China is speckled with proverbs that that do not bear well on women.   One says that a man who beats his wife is “putting his house in order.”   A saying of Confucius is that “lack of talent in a woman is a virtue.”   Another, more ambiguous, is that “there is a book in every family that is best not read out loud.” [2]   This may be the reason that many women endure mistreatment and rape in silence because their bringing charges will cause the family to “lose face.”   In the story of Hongxue, a young girl who is repeatedly raped by her father, even her request for her mother to protect her is denied.   To escape the girl makes herself so ill that she has to be hospitalized.   The girl is so lonely that she keeps a fly as a pet and even keeps it after it dies.   She does make friends with another inpatient who commits suicide after she is released.   After her family tries to have her returned home, and thinking that she has caused her friend’s death Hongxue kills herself by mashing her dead pet fly into an open wound.


Bizarre as that might sound, suicide is the only way out for many of the good women of China, especially in villages and rural areas where they face the typical future of going from being the property of their father, to that of their husband, and the abused servant of their mothers-in-law, especially if they fail to bear sons.   Since, when women marry, they go to the homes of their husband’s parents, there is little wonder that female infanticide and abandonment is still practiced in China. To incur the expense of raising a girl is a bad investment, especially when children are expected to care for their aged parents.  


These days, with the one-child policy in effect, male offspring are even more precious. Owing to these factors Chinese demographics have been getting out of balance between males and females. They time may be nigh when females will increase in value do to their rarity.   However, females may find that of little advantage in rectifying their historical low status. In one story she investigated Xinran herself was surprised to find in the town of Shouting Hill on the edge of the desert the social practice of one wife being shared by several husbands. Often the husbands are brothers and children do not know who fathered them. The term employed by the husbands when they wish to have sex with their “wife” is that he wishes to “use” her.   Yet these women have no rights of property or inheritance.   The verb seems apt.

©2007, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 10.15.2007)

[1] Sky Burial is the title of that book, and refers to a “burial” where the deceased is dismembered and allowed to be eaten by vultures.   This is also practiced by the Parsis, in India, where the place their deceased on Towers of Silence, to also be eaten by vultures, although dismemberment and pulverization of bones is no involved as it is in the Rivet form.   This practice appear to be of Zoroastrian origin, at least the Indian version.

[2] Xinran herself often repeats Chinese proverbs and social thought. At one point she says that she believes that “lying shortens one’s life.” (So why is George Bush still around?)