Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Good Women of China

Leslie T. Chang writes about the lives of the young women working in factories in her book, Factory Girls. I thought some of the most interesting parts of that book were when Chang spoke with the host of a radio show in Dongguan that the young factory girls called into with their problems. It's not hard to imagine the issues women from farms in interior provinces have once they enter factory life in a coastal megalopolitan Chinese city.

When looking for more books to read on China recently on, I saw a book written by a radio host of a women's talk show from Nanjing - The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by Xin Ran. Seeing how much I took from Chang's interviews with the host in her book, I gave Xin's book a chance.

Xin Ran was the host of the first call in radio show for women in China with her program in the early 1990s. She was wildly popular. Women from all over China, not just Nanjing and the surrounding Jiangsu Province, were drawn to her. Women of all ages and from all walks of life poured their hearts out to Xin both on her radio program and through mail.

Xin paints several vignettes in her book: a liberalized university student speaking openly of sexual promiscuity, a beggar, a lesbian, women who survived the Tangshan earthquake in 1976 (when their children didn't), women living in caves in a primitive village in northern Shaanxi Province, and women whose lives were shattered by the cultural revolution.

The women Xin described in The Good Women of China show a comprehensive picture of what it means to be a Chinese woman in contemporary society. They also portray the painful history Chinese women have endured for centuries.

There is one particular passage that I think shows the oppressive history Chinese women have gone through in particularly stark terms. This paragraph is from a discussion with a women who was able to get an education in the 1940s, a time when most women did not have such an opportunity on page 114:

These "Three Submissions and Four Virtues" that Chinese women were to live by show a lot about the value placed on women in traditional China. Although the "Three Submissions and Four Virtues" are not pertinent to life in China today, women in Chinese society still face uniquely difficult challenges.

Both Chinese people and foreigners have told me more than a couple times something along these lines:
"Mao and the communists weren't all bad. They changed China's backwards attitude towards women and made women equal to men. Women don't have their feet bound any more, after all."
I've always found that argument spurious. After reading Xin's book, I now find such arguments completely disingenuous off-base.

The second half of Xin's book highlights women and stories from the cultural revolution. I wasn't expecting Mao's cultural revolution to be a major part of the book since it was written in the 1990s. But it makes sense; there is no way that women in the 90s, or even now, could have broken free from everything Mao inflicted upon his own people decades ago. And seeing how taboo trying to reconcile or discuss that era is, there still has to be a lot of emotion teeming beneath the surface.

From pages 202 and 203:

Women in China have the highest suicide rate in the world. Baby boys are valued much more than baby girls; there are 126 boys for every 100 girls aged one to four in rural areas. Despite the great steps China is making and has made in recent decades, there are still deep scars both from contemporary and more ancient Chinese history. Xin Ran's book gives the reader a deeper understanding of the struggle Chinese women face.


Anonymous said...

When the Chinese make those statements about the Maoists not being so bad I don't think its necessarily a ringing endorsement for them as much as it is a statement of how truly awful things were prior to them. Executions were handed out easily for what does not even constitute a crime in the west (ie adultery) and as you mentioned, women were almost viewed as a subspecies.

Its sad that the Maoists get as much credit they do from the Chinese for the simple fact that, hey, you should have seen the other guys.

Mark said...

I think you're right about what you're saying, Hopfrog. I'm probably looking at things a little too black and white on this. Things were still impossibly difficult for women under the communists, but were/are better, to a degree, than what they were before.