In detailing the tragic stories of Chinese women forced to give up their baby girls, Xinran demonstrates not only her relentless journalistic instinct but also her capacity for human understanding. For example: On a bus ride one day, when a stranger points out to her some misapplied makeup and then starts chatting with her, Xinran realizes she can repeat this mistake in the future to create opportunities for other women to approach her. "I gradually learned how to use my own lack of knowledge to unlock the secrets of Chinese women," she writes.
With such keen sensitivity, it's no wonder women have poured out their life stories to this Chinese British journalist and radio broadcaster. Born in Beijing, Xinran grew up estranged from her parents during the Cultural Revolution and considers herself an orphan of sorts. She has the valued perspective of both insider and outsider - a native with first-hand experience of Chinese history and culture, as well as an observer pursuing deeper aspects of a culture suppressed for decades which can sometimes seem foreign even to her.
Xinran has authored several books based on oral history, including The Good Women of China and China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation. Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother follows in the same vein, chronicling Xinran's encounters with the practice of killing or abandoning baby girls in China. The phenomenon results from a combination of China's one-child policy; sexual ignorance coupled with modern sexual liberation; and an ancient tradition stemming from rural cultures, in which males were not only more useful on the farm but were also qualified to receive grain rations and inherit the land and wealth.
As the book progresses we follow Xinran from the time of her initial exposure to this practice through a woman's letter, to her increasing involvement in the lives of these abandoned children and the mothers who are forever haunted by guilt and grief. At one point, Xinran even attempts to foster an orphan girl and is heartbroken when China's family planning officers force her to give the child over to the care of the state and Xinran is unable to trace her.
Each chapter reveals another aspect of this subculture. There are the "extra-birth guerilla troops" - nomadic parents who float from one place to another in order to avoid the scrutiny of government officials as they attempt, one baby after another, to give birth to a boy (in order to be able to return home with honor), often abandoning their unwanted girls along the way.
One of the most horrifying moments is when Xinran visits a mountainous area in Shandong province and has dinner at the house of the head of the village. The family's daughter-in-law happens to be in labor at that very moment, and, after a series of strange occurrences, Xinran realizes too late that there is a tiny foot sticking out of the pail beside her. Quelled by two policemen who had accompanied her to the home, Xinran is forced to keep silent.
Almost as astonishing is the matter-of-fact way the culture accepts these practices, including the women themselves. When, years later, Xinran meets the same daughter-in-law, she discovers that the woman had subsequently given birth to two more girls and "done" (the common euphemism for drowning baby girls at birth) them in the same way. She tells Xinran that her mother-in-law had someone else do her first girl for her but that she managed the next ones herself.
Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother is heart-wrenching and intense in its rawness. We hear the voices of women who will forever mourn the loss of their newborn girls. And we witness the author's admirable attempts to intervene in the lives of these women and children across the globe - both in immediate circumstances within China and through her work in making these stories known to the grieving mothers, their grown-up daughters, and interested readers across the globe.
This review was originally published in March 2011, and has been updated for the March 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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