Book Review – Buy Me The Sky by Xinran

I am a big fan of Xinran’s books. It is still difficult to find female Chinese writers writing about women’s issues in China in English. While more Chinese women are taking up the pen regarding these issues, Xinran was one of the first. She was in China collecting women’s stories when many people in China thought those stories weren’t important. Her books The Good Women of China and Letters From an Unknown Chinese Mother were groundbreaking in their time. This time, Xinran has widened her scope and looks at the first generation of young men and women raised under the One-Child Policy in her new book Buy Me The Sky. Be sure to read my interview with her about this book here.

About Buy Me The Sky

With journalistic acumen and a novelist’s flair, Xinran tells the remarkable stories of men and women born in China after 1979 – the recent generations raised under China’s single-child policy. At a time when the country continues to transform at the speed of light, these generations of precious ‘one and onlies’ are burdened with expectation, yet have often been brought up without any sense of responsibility. Within their families, they are revered as ‘little emperors’ and ‘suns’, although such cosseting can come at a high price: isolation, confusion and an inability to deal with life’s challenges.

From the businessman’s son unable to pack his own suitcase, to the PhD student who pulled herself out of extreme rural poverty, Xinran shows how these generations embody the hopes and fears of a great nation at a time of unprecedented change. It is a time of fragmentation, heart-breaking and inspiring in equal measure, in which capitalism vies with communism, the city with the countryside and Western opportunity with Eastern tradition. Through the fascinating stories of these only children, we catch a startling glimpse of the emerging face of China.

My Review

While many theorists, psychologists, moralists, and even economists have all weighed in on what the outcome would be for China’s only children generations, we had to wait for those first only children to grow up before they could tell their own stories and begin to piece together the real emotional impact of what it means to be, not just an only child, but a country of only children. Xinran finds a group of these young people, mostly through casual acquaintance, and tells their stories.

Unfortunately, I think the stories are very limited. 9 of the 10 chapters (the 9 people who get a whole chapter to themselves) are students she met who were living abroad. That means these are all rather affluent people. There are some variations in their stories, one girl was a waitress and one young man was from the countryside and borrowed money from his extended family to leave China, but the type of person who has the opportunity to go abroad is very different from someone who cannot afford to school, or was a “left behind” child, or was denied a hukou. I think that chapter 10 was the strongest because it focused on all of those other ones, the ones she met in China. They are all lumped together though and I would have liked to have seen more variety throughout all of her interviewees.

Of course, no two people are alike. Even if she had 20 interviews in the book and had met Chinese youths from all over the world, in and out of China, the stories would not have been representative. How do you write a book about millions of people? It is impossible. This book at least offers a glimpse of what life was like for those kids. Hopefully this will be just a jumping off point for more writers, researchers, and the youths themselves to tell their stories.

This book is a good introduction to the One-Child Policy and what life was like for that first generation growing up under it.

Have you read Buy Me The Sky? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.