Xinran: 'Women couldn't speak out before the 90s'

Author Xinran on her new book Buy Me the Sky

Image: Random House/Juliana Johnston
Xinran’s first memory of writing was when she was 15-years old, penning a poem about a tiny blade of grass struggling to grow between two rocks. It went on to be published in a national newspaper, her first taste of fame.

It’s a poignant image considering the dainty author’s own struggle against the odds. Born into a well-to-do Beijing family, Xinran – who uses only her first name when publishing, dropping her surname Xue – was separated from her parents at a young age. She can still recall her home being set ablaze by Chinese Red Guards who eventually imprisoned her mother and father, along with tens of thousands of alleged ‘anti-Revolutionary’ intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Xinran was subsequently raised by her grandparents, a warm but lonely upbringing. Despite her early struggle – or perhaps because of it – Xinran succeeded in becoming one of China‘s best-loved cultural commentators.

Her breakthrough book was The Good Women of China (2002), a memoir about the experiences of Chinese women during the ’90s. Her material was drawn from a rich seam of personal anecdotes amassed over a decade of presenting a radio chat show called Words on the Night Breeze – a popular sounding board for women across China.

According to Xinran, the greatest difficulty facing people back then was the social pressure not to speak out. ‘For these women, who suffered from many different kinds of political and cultural abuse, there was no opportunity to speak out before 1990s,’ she says.

So how about today? According to the author, the battleground has shifted. ‘For less educated women [especially in rural areas] there is not enough access to information, which denies them the autonomy to make their own choices,’ she says.

In her latest book, Buy Me the Sky, published earlier this year, she takes on another social taboo, China’s one-child policy. The book tells the stories of children brought up under the policy, first introduced in 1979; a generation born into relative material wealth but unable to fully enjoy it because of an enormous pressure to fulfil high parental expectations.

As Xinran puts it, ‘An age of loneliness created a generation of lonely people. Solitary, they keep lonesome watch over their own selves in a sea of plenty.’

In recent years, the author – now in her 60s, but still with a girlish twinkle in her eye offset by quirky black, thick rimmed glasses – has observed China’s changes from a distance. In 2004, she moved to England, where she continued writing about her homeland, garnering a regular column in the Guardian and several book deals while making appearances at literary festivals. In 2009, she married agent Toby Eady. Yet despite becoming Anglicised she insists that she still remains, ‘too Chinese to be British’.

Nevertheless, after several years of looking at China from abroad, her view of the country has inevitably shifted. When she now returns to the Mainland, the empathetic writer sees it through different eyes. ‘I admire those hardworking parents and feel excited to see changes, but the luxurious waste is shocking. It’s also painful,’ she adds poignantly, ‘for those lost.’

Buy Me the Sky can be ordered at The Bookworm, priced 120RMB.

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