By Luciana Leitão
“At school, I was forbidden to take singing and dancing lessons with the other girls because I was not to ‘pollute’ the arena of the revolution. Even though I was short-sighted, I was not allowed to sit in the front row in class because the best places were reserved for the children born to peasants, workers or soldiers; they were deemed to have ‘straight roots and red shoots’.” Written by the famous Chinese journalist and historian Xinran, The Good Women of China serves as a good introduction to the Cultural Revolution, showing real stories of women who faced its ordeals.
The author is a reporter who conducted a radio programme for eight years in China, in which women talked about themselves and their lives. Her first book, The Good Women of China — prior to becoming a proliferous publisher —, was a collection of these testimonies going through hard experiences during the Cultural Revolution.
Xinran herself was a victim of the Cultural Revolution, having been separated from her parents — deemed ‘capitalists’ —, in the early 1960s. It was in the 1970s that she became a radio journalist, getting her own show in the late 1980s. The name of the programme was Words on the Night Breeze, and Xinran received more than 100 letters a day, mostly from women, most of which she wasn’t able to publish, considering the censorship in Mainland China. The content of the letters and the following interviews revealed the human face behind the atrocities committed during the Cultural Revolution and the impact these had in the post-Mao China.
Throughout the book, which has been hugely translated into more than 30 languages — in fact, I read the Portuguese translation by Inês Castro, but you can read the original in Chinese or the English translation by Esther Tyldes —, Xinran reveals the many ways in which she was forced to bend the system, giving voice to all Chinese women, regardless of their social statute.
The book is almost a punch in the stomach — reading real stories of women who sacrificed themselves, who were exploited by men and who were abused and tortured, who were forced to marry, given the rigid cultural traditions and the historic events. The many protagonists tell stories that you wouldn’t believe could happen — Hua’er, for instance, was sexually assaulted in the name of the reeducation of the Cultural Revolution; Hongxue only felt tenderness, when she was caressed by the paws of a fly.
The stories portray realities — of instructed people taken to prisons or institutions that served to reeducate them; of female children who were taken to study groups, to be raped time and time again.
The stories are sad, but so was reality. Still, Xinran’s attempt to an objective look doesn’t allow the book to fall into senseless drama, giving it, instead, the very needed consistency to tell stories that reveal the History of a country. In the year of the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, these stories must not be forgotten.