Written with the Pen Grown in Her Heart
Raw, sad, lyrical and candid — my first book of 2019, and already a huge winner; I’m pretty sure this will be one of my overall top reads of the year. I can see few ways how this reading experience can possibly be topped.
Xinran tells the stories of some of the hundreds, perhaps even thousands of women whose stories she listened to (and, if allowed by both the women themselves and by the Party censors, broadcast) for eight years as a Nanjing radio presenter on a nightly program called Words on the Night Breeze; a combination of recorded interviews and live talk radio with musical interludes. As a young reporter she had come to realize that, conditioned by centuries of physical and emotional suppression (far from being abolished, made even worse by the Cultural Revolution), complete and unbridled male dominance in society, and the associated deep-set mysogyny which Chinese women had even swallowed themselves, hide and hair, her countrywomen had practically no sense of self — nor any sense how to talk about their feelings, experience, traumas, hopes, dreams, disappointments, and injuries. Indeed, as the Chinese characters explained on the book’s back cover (see below) make clear, even the words “female” and “woman”, “mother” or “girl” are not anywhere near synonymous in writing: All female substantives are “female” with a specific function: a “woman” is “a female whose job is to do the housework”, a “mother” is “a kind female” (or “a female with kindness”), a “girl” is “a female with kindness and [a sense of] tradition (or, since the second part of the sequence is identical with “mother”, “a female with a sense of tradition who is attached to her mother”) — and lastly, if a “female” has a son attached to her, the result is “good”.
In this book, which she wrote after having moved to England in 1997, Xinran takes her readers on her voyage of discovery of the lives of some of the women she met during those eight years of reporting; as well as her discovery of herself and her role as a reporter. We meet, inter alia:
* The girl who kept a fly as a pet (and if you think that’s a euphemism for poverty and hunger, think again: the title of the chapter hints at the fact that a baby fly’s feet were the sole soft touches this girl ever felt after having “become a woman” at age 11, from which time she was brutally raped daily by her own father — so much so that she took to making herself dangerously ill, in order to be able to spend time at the hospital, where she was better (though not perfectly) protected … until she died of septicemia at age 17);
* The scavenger woman who, though well-educated, lived off scraps and in a ramshackle hut near Xinran’s radio station just so she could be near her son — an important man whose threshold she had not even crossed a single time;
* The mothers who endured an earthquake and saw their loved ones perish before their eyes, painfully and in one instance, over a period of two weeks (a young teenage girl, her lower body squashed high up in the ruins of a broken wall, with rescue coming too late to reach her and rescue equipment falling woefully short of what would have been needed); in another instance, as a double suicide of husband and daughter, after the daughter had been gang-raped by strangers in a tent near the rescue facility where she had been taken — and yet, these mothers had built a new community with the children made orphans by the earthquake and were giving all their love to these orphaned children;
* Xinran’s mother and several other women, all left emotionally and often also economically destitute as a result of their lives having been broken to pieces by the Cultural Revolution (no matter whether for reasons of their education, foreign contacts and financial independence, or similar reasons for being considered “counter-revolutionaries”, or because their youthful idealism for the new system was brutally abused and ground to shreds, and they were tossed, literally within a single day and by the Party itself, into loveless and abusive marriages with high officials);
* The childhood Xinran herself cannot leave behind and which, likewise, was replete with physical and emotional abuse for being the daughter and granddaughter of suspected “counter-revolutionaries”; as well as several other women of Xinran’s generation with similarly devastating experiences;
* The Guomindang general’s daughter, who grew up with a Chinese family after her parents had had to flee to Taiwan without being able to take her (then five years old) with them, and who was driven into insanity by a combination of seeing her foster family being tortured on her account and the torture and abuse that she herself suffered after having been “outed”; and
* The women of Shouting Hill (a remote, barren hillside area to the West of Xian), the encounter with whom was the last straw for Xinran to leave China and life as she knew it behind and seek a different life for herself and her son in London.
On this last group, Xinran writes:
“Women there [in Shouting Hill] are valued solely for their utility: as reproductive tools, they are the most precious items of trade in the villagers’ lives. The men do not hesitate to barter two or three girl children for a wife from another village. […] After they become mothers, they in turn are forced to give up their own daughters. Women in Shouting Hill have no rights of property or inheritance.
The unusual social practice of one wife being shared by several husbands also occurs in Shouting Hill. In the majority of those cases, brothers from extremely poor families with no females to barter buy a common wife to continue the family line. By day they benefit from the food the woman makes and the household chores she does, by night they enjoy the woman’s body in turn. […]
They [the women] lead an extremely hard life. In their one-roomed cave houses, of which half the space is occupied by a kang [earthen bed heated from below], their domestic tools consist of a few stone slabs, grass mats and crude clay bowls; an earthenware pitcher is regarded as a luxury item for the ‘wealthy families’. Children’s toys or any household items specifically for the use of women are unthinkable in their society. […]
It is the women who greet the dawn in Shouting Hill: they have to feed the livestock, sweep the yard and polish and repair the blunt, rusty tools of their husbands. After seeing their men off to work on the land, they have to collect water from an unreliable stream on the far side of a mountain two hours’ walk away, carrying a pair of heavy buckets on their shoulders. When cogon grass is in season, the women also have to climb the hill to dig up the roots for use as cooking fuel. In the afternoon, they take food to their menfolk; when they come back they spin thread, weave cloth, and make clothes, shoes and hats for the family. All through the day, they carry small children almost everywhere with them on their arms or on their backs.
In Shouting Hill, ‘use’ is the term employed for men wanting to sleep with a woman. […] After being ‘used’, the women tidy up and attend to the children while the men lie snoring. Only with nightfall can the women rest, because there is no light to work in. When I tried to experience a very small part of these women’s lives through joining in their daily household tasks for a short while, I found my faith in the value of life severely shaken. […]
I noticed a bizarre phenomenon among the female villagers of Shouting Hill: when they reached their teens or thereabouts their gait suddenly became very strange. They began walking with their legs spread wide apart, swaying in an arc with each step. There was no trace of this tendency in the little girls, though. For the first few days I puzzled over this riddle, but did not like to enquire too deeply into it. I hoped to find the answer in my own way.
It was my habit to make sketches of the scenery I thought typified each place I was reporting on. No colour was necessary to depict Shouting Hill, a few lines were enough to bring out its essential qualities. While I was sketching, I noticed some small piles of stones that I could not recall having seen before. Most of them were in out-of-the-way spots. On closer inspection, I found blackish-red leaves under the stones. Only cogon grass grew in Shouting Hill; where had those leaves come from?
I examined the leaves carefully: they were mostly about ten centimetres long and five centimetres wide. They had clearly been cut to size, and seemed to have been beaten and rubbed by hand. Some of the leaves were slightly thicker than the others, and were moist to the touch, with a fishy odour. Other leaves were extremely dry from the pressure of the rocks and the burning heat of the sun; they were not brittle but very tough, and they too had the same strong salty smell. I had never seen leaves like this before. I wondered what they were used for and decided to ask the villagers.
The men said, ‘Those are women’s things!’ and refused to say any more.
The children shook their heads in bewilderment, saying: ‘I don’t know what they are, Mama and Papa say we’re not to touch them.’
The women simply lowered their heads silently.
When Niu’er [the girl with whom Xinran was staying] noticed that I was puzzled about the question of these leaves, she said: ‘You’d best ask my granny, she’ll tell you.’ Niu’er’s grandmother was not so very old, but early marriage and childbearing had made her part of the village’s senior generation.
Her grandmother slowly explained that the leaves were used by women during their periods. When a girl in Shouting Hill had her first period, or a woman had just married into the village, she would be presented with ten of these leaves by her mother or another woman of the older generation. These leaves were gathered from trees very far away. The older women would teach the girls what to do with the leaves. First, each leaf had to be cut to the right size, so that it could be worn inside trousers. Then small holes had to be pricked into the leaves with an awl, to make them more absorbent. The leaves were relatively elastic and their fibres very thick, so they would thicken and swell as they absorbed the blood. In a region where water was so precious, there was no alternative but to press and dry the leaves after each use. A woman would use her ten leaves for her period month after month, even after childbirth. Her leaves would be her only burial goods.
I exchanged some sanitary towels I had with me for a leaf from Niu’er’s grandmother. My eyes filled with tears as I touched it: how could this coarse leaf, hard even to the hand’s touch, be put in a woman’s tenderest place? It was only then that I realised why the women of Shouting Hill walked with their legs splayed: their thighs had been repeatedly rubbed raw and scarred by the leaves.
There was another reason for the strange gait of the women in Shouting Hill, which shocked me even more. […]
The doctor who had come with us told me that one of the villagers had asked him to examine his wife, as she had been pregnant many times but never managed to carry a child to full term. With the villager’s special permission, the doctor examined the woman, and was dumbfounded that she had a prolapsed womb. The friction and infection of many years had hardened the part of the womb that was hanging outside to cutin, tough as a callus. The doctor simply could not imagine what had caused this. Surprised by his reaction, the woman told him disapprovingly that all the women in Shouting Hill were like this. The doctor asked me to help him confirm this; several days later I confirmed the truth of that woman’s words after much surreptitious observation of the village women as they relieved themselves. Prolapsed wombs were another reason why the women walked with their legs spreadeagled.
In Shouting Hill, the course of nature is not resisted, and family planning an alien concept. Women are treated as breeding machines, and produce one child a year or as many as three every two years. […]
I saw many pregnant women in Shouting Hill, but there was no sense of eager anticipation of a child among them or their men. Even while heavily pregnant, they had to labour as before and be ‘used’ by their men, who reasoned that ‘only children who resist being squashed are strong enough’. I was appalled by all this, especially at the thought of shared wives being ‘used’ by several men throughout their pregnancy. […]
The evening after I had established that prolapsed wombs were an everyday phenomenon in Shouting Hill, I was unable to sleep for a very long time. I lay on the earthen kang weeping for these women, who were of my generation and of my time. That the women of Shouting Hill had no concept of modern society, let alone any awareness of the rights of women, was a small comfort; their happiness lay in their ignorance, their customs and the satisfaction of believing that all women in the world lived as they did. […]
On the day I left Shouting Hill, I found that the sanitary towels I had given to Niu’er’s grandmother as a souvenir were stuck in her sons’ belts; they were using them as towels to wipe away sweat or protect their hands.”
Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale come alive, and then some …
Obviously Shouting Hill is an extreme example even within China, distinguished from other parts of the country, as Xinran highlights, in part by its extreme remoteness, which prevents the women living there from learning anything that might induce them to question, ever so tacitly, their own living conditions. (Or prevented them — I have no idea whether the practices described by Xinran are still going on today; shocking though they are even for the late 1990s.) And I’m sure that at least some of the hundreds of millions of women in China, even some of those of Xinran’s and her mother’s generations, lead less traumatic or even happy lives. But from Xinran’s account, there is no question that the lives she describes are not rare exceptions; and given the severe reticence drummed into any Chinese woman from long before she can even walk and talk, it is anybody’s guess how many there are who simply have not and never will speak out — or who may look happy and successful but in reality are far from that (and Xinran provides examples of such women as well).
In the book’s prologue, she talks about a mugging attempt in London, with the mugger trying to take away her handbag, which contained the only manuscript copy of this book then in existence. She fought her assailant tooth and nail, even at the risk of being killed, and comments on a policeman’s later question whether her book was more important than her life:
“Of course, life is more important than a book. But in so many ways my book was my life. It was my testimony to the lives of Chinese women, the result of many years’ work as a journalist. […] I wasn’t sure that I could put myself through the extremes of feeling provoked by writing the book again. Reliving the stories of the women I had met had been painful, and it had been harder still to order my memories and find language adequate to express them. In fighting for that bag, I was defending my feelings, and the feelings of Chinese women. The book was the result of so many things which, once lost, could never be found again. When you walk into your memories, you are opening a door to the past; the road within has many branches, and the route is different every time.”
And in the epilogue, she concludes:
“I recalled what Old Chen had once said to me: ‘Xinran, you should write this down. Writing is a kind of repository and can help create a space for the accommodation of new thoughts and feelings. If you don’t write these stories down, your heart will be filled up and broken by them’. At that time in China, I might have gone to prison for writing a book like this. I couldn’t risk abandoning my son, or the women who received help and encouragement through my radio programme. In England, the book became possible. It was as if a pen had grown in my heart.”