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The Voice of Chinese Woman
Author Xue Xinran listens to the voices of China's abused and neglected women across the nation. After touching the lives of many around the world, the book is finally coming home.

Many Chinese female writers have reached the global spotlight by challenging stereotypes. Not Xue Xinran, she's doing the opposite.

The former radio journalist has ignited a new round of furor overseas with her book Good Women of China.

Part memoir, part history, part tragedy and part social documentary, Good Women of China, an international bestseller, has been translated into 27 languages and published in 57 countries.

In the book, the author electrifies a literary world that is familiar with the picturesque, colorful family sagas and memoirs flowing from the pens of Chinese women in recent years. Xinran, now based in London, loves to go by her given name just as she did as the host of a popular radio call-in program "Words on the Night Breeze" in He'nan and Jiangsu provinces for eight years, beginning in 1989.

"In many ways, this book was not about my own life," says the 45-year-old over the phone. "But it is a testimony to the lives of all the women in China who have been silent for too long."

The book's origins emerged slowly from the radio show, which aimed to give a voice to abused, abandoned or neglected women. It was a broadcasting phenomenon from the outset. Trapped in a cultural straitjacket that dominated Chinese society for centuries, these women were given a unique opportunity to articulate their stories on live radio for the first time.

One harrowing tale, possibly the centerpiece of this internationally acclaimed debut work, still haunts Xinran.

She says a 17-year-old country girl named Hong Xue -- names in the book have been altered to protect people's identity -- was raped repeatedly by her father from the age of 11 onwards. Hong Xue deliberately injures and sickens herself to escape.

After doctors at the local hospital told Hong Xue to go home, she responds by pushing a fly into a wound in her arm and dies of blood poisoning.

"I can control my day, but I can't control my dreams at night," Xinran says, her voice trembling.

"I wanted to open a tiny hole in the 5,000-year-old wall around China, and write about the real women."

Between 1989 and 1997, Xinran criss-crossed the country and interviewed more than 200 women. She met women living in ancient caves, young university students, beaten peasant wives and mothers with lost daughters.

In 1995, Xinran asked men two questions on her radio program: How many good women in your life have you met? What's the standard of a good woman?

"I received more than 1,000 letters," she says, explaining another motive for the book. "Only a few admitted that they had ever met a good woman in their lives. I was so shocked. If these men could write to me, they were at least educated and this is the way they felt."

Other tales involve a hard-nosed college sophisticate, village women living in primitive isolation and a group of bereaved mothers who find new reasons to live by caring for earthquake orphans. Their stories bring to life challenges confronting Chinese women as the country moves toward a market-oriented economy that erases old social guarantees and brings new opportunities.

Xinran has her own powerful memories. Her parents were imprisoned as suspected "reactionaries" during the cultural revolution (1966-1976).

She has a 15-year-old son, but divorced her first husband and has since remarried, last year, to British literary agent Toby Eady.

She has worked as a cleaner, a teacher in London University, did voiceovers for some television production companies of BBC and waited tables in a Cantonese restaurant to support herself in London when she first arrived.

Still, she has always wanted to write.

"It was as if a pen had grown in my heart," she writes. "Chinese women have suffered for a long time, but they are still giving, trying and loving. They have a lot of pain in daily life."

However, some believe she is trying to gain fame and fortune by exposing the "ugly" side of China, particularly the situation in the rural areas. Five Chinese college girls in Melbourne staged an open protest when she was doing a lecture on a book tour last year.

"I told them these problems written in the book are not only China's, but also the world's," Xinran says. "The purpose of the book is to draw attention on what happened and is happening to Chinese women. In that way, we can get international aid."

Later that same day, A-jiao, an elderly Australian Chinese came to speak with Xinran.

At 17, she was sold to a 80-year-old Australian man as his fourth wife. Seven years later her husband died, leaving her an unborn child and no financial support.

Unable to speak English well, she found herself isolated from the rest of the community.

One morning, one of her neighbors knocked on A-jiao's door and gave her a big hug. It turned out the neighbor read Xinran's book. Soon afterwards, the community warmed to A-jiao. She came all the way from her small town to Melbourne to express gratitude to Xinran.

Hearing the story of A-jiao, the five students reconsidered their beliefs. Returning to Xinran's lecture the following day, they held a banner that read, "Xinran, we're proud of you." Now with two books under her belt: Good Women of China and Sky Burial, Xinran is busy preparing another.

After meeting many reporters in about 20 countries, all asking a "barrel" of good questions, Xinran has found the inspiration for her third book.

"It's to let our country know what the rest of the world wants to know about us," she reveals.

Besides, her husband plans to set up the International Annual Chinese Fiction Prize in China next year. Its goal is to provide global readers an opportunity to hear the unique literary voices emerging from China and give young Chinese writers a bigger stage.

The Chinese version of Good Women of China has been purchased by Xuelin Publishing House and will reach local bookstore shelves this September. Shocked by the suffering of women across the country, Xue Xinran has come to the defense of her compatriots. Xinran talks with her mother-in-law Mary Wesley, also an author, at the book tour in London last year.

(Eastday.com June 30, 2003)

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