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Non Fiction

Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother by Xinran

China is one of the few countries where female suicides are higher than male ones, by 25 per cent to be exact.

At the end of 2006 there were over 120,000 registered adoptive families for Chinese orphans, almost all girls, in 27 countries.

After reading Xinran’s Message from An Unknown Chinese Mother you can understand why.

There are few places more hostile to a baby girl born to an impoverished peasant family than China, thanks to the gender apartheid created by the 1979 one-child policy, which has resulted in untold female infanticides by poor families desperate to produce a son.

To answer the pleas of parents who adopted girls from China and the these girls who grew up to asks the question, ‘Why did my real mother let me go?’ Xinran sets out to write this book.

Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother is made up of the stories of Chinese mothers whose daughters have been wrenched from them, and also brings us the voices of some adoptive mothers from different parts of the world. These are stories which Xinran could not bring herself to tell previously – because they were too painful and close to home. In the footsteps of Xinran’s Good Women of China, this is personal, immediate, full of harrowing, tragic detail but also uplifting, tender moments.

Ten chapters, ten women and many stories of heartbreak, including her own: Xinran – the country’s first agony aunt on her seminal Chinese radio programme, Words On The Night Breeze – has already told the stories of many Chinese women in her book The Good Women Of China; here she gives a voice to the grieving mothers, forced to abandon their daughters to state orphanages and Western adoptive parents, or worse, in the street.

Xinran once again takes us right into the lives of Chinese women – students, successful business women, midwives, peasants, orphanage manager, all with memories which have stained their lives. Whether as a consequence of the single-child policy, destructive age-old traditions or hideous economic necessity….. these women had to give up their daughters for adoption, others were forced to abandon them – on city streets, outside hospitals, orphanages or on station platforms – and others even had to watch their baby daughters being taken away at birth, and drowned.

There is a naive girl student who have made life-wrecking mistakes; the ‘pebble mother’ on the banks of the Yangzte still looking into the depths for her stolen daughter; peasant women rejected by their families because they can’t produce a male heir etc.

The author has her own stories to tell too. She reveals that years ago in China she herself, well able to bear the cost, and the mother of a son, tried to foster a little girl orphan, called Little Snow. After a few weeks of keeping her, Xinran was warned, she would violate the one-child policy. Had she refused, not only she but her senior colleagues would be punished. The little girl soon vanished; the orphanage to which she had been sent was demolished to make way for a new highway. There were no records of her whereabout.

I couldn’t imagine what cruelty human are capable of until I read about this:

  • One particularly heartless incident, she witnesses a midwife drown a newborn in a slop bucket.
  • There is the ‘extra-birth guerrillas’ who travel the roads and the railways, evading the system, trying to hold onto more than one baby. When they gave birth to a new baby, the elder one was left in train station to fend for him or herself.
  • I thought cruel things like this happened to poor peasant families, I was incensed to know of incidents where mothers abandoned their baby girls for the mother’s own selfish reason and convenience.
  • A another story about the mother, Na, thinking that if the baby went to America, some day Na might find her. Na agreed, learning only after she had moved to America that there were already 30,000 adopted Chinese children there. She had sent her baby to the orphanage with some keepsakes, so that some day ‘we’d always have this means of identifying each other’. Many mothers did this, and in every case the orphanage got rid of the clothes and objects.

Xinran wrote the book with the aim to document the love and loss of mothers who abandoned their children; and to show them how things really were for their mothers, and to tell them they were loved and will never be forgotten. I don’t quite buy it.

Mother love is supposed to be such a great thing, but so many babies are abandoned, and it’s their mothers who do it. They’re ignorant. They feel differently about emotions from the way you do. Where I come from, people talk about smothering a baby girl or just throwing it into a stream … to be eaten by dogs, as if it were a joke. How much do you think these women loved their babies? (page 138)

If birds can feel like this and never abandoned their babies, then how is it possible for human parents to give up their own children? Again and again. I cannot and will not believe that outdated customs combined with government policy can really force human beings to renounce that most beautiful and basic of human feelings, the parental instinct. It should not be possible, but it is. (page 95)

Parental  instinct, is not always an instinct.

Rating: 3.5/5

A book not for the faint and soft-hearted. Some parts read like horror stories.

I am reading this for non-fiction 5, China Challenge and A to Z reading challenge.

Hardback. Publisher: Chatto & Windus, 2010; Length: 212 pages; Setting: 60’s to present China. Source: Library. Finished reading at: 27 June 2010


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


9 thoughts on “Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother by Xinran

  1. Thank you for this beautifully written post on a heart breaking subject

    Posted by Mel u | July 3, 2010, 12:29 am
    • @Mel, thank you too for reading this.

      @Mee, I would like to read the Good Women of China soon too. It is very sad. I can’t stop saying how horrified I am about the “Murders” that are committed.

      Posted by JoV | July 3, 2010, 10:44 pm
  2. I saw this book when it was out in Australia, but I reckon I’d want to read the one I already have first (The Good Women of China). This book sounds okay but I’m not sure if I want to read the whole book about unwanted girl babies. It’s too sad.

    Posted by mee | July 3, 2010, 2:49 am
  3. I have a copy of this and will probably read it in the Autumn. Thank you for letting me know how distressing some of the scenes are – I will remember to select the time I pick it up well to limit my distress. It sounds heart breaking, but it is something I feel we should be aware of.

    Posted by Jackie (Farm Lane Books) | July 3, 2010, 3:26 pm
    • Hi Jackie, it is distressing. It just defy humanity. I think the solution is education and it will take a few generations before changes are tangible. I am angry with the land ownership law which dictates the man gets more of the portion, which made the society value boys in order to inherit the land and secure livelihood.

      It’s just a vicious cultural cycle to put girls in disadvantages and peril.

      Posted by JoV | July 3, 2010, 10:38 pm
  4. Even though I know how difficult it must be to read a book like this, I always find this… importance in the most difficult books. Like by overcoming the uncomfortableness, I’m tackling a small part of the subject. Now, I’m aware and know more. That’s pretty important, in my mind.

    This book sounds far from an easy read, but if it’s a well-written account of important truths, I can certainly see reason for reading it…

    Posted by Biblibio | July 9, 2010, 11:05 am
  5. Heartbreaking. A friend from India told me recently that in some part of the countries, they won’t let the couple find out the sex of their child during pregnancy, in fear of the couple wanting to abort female baby. It is interesting that in numerous cultures, boys are preferred. Sad.

    Posted by christa @ mental foodie | November 1, 2010, 1:30 am

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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