Book Review: The Good Women of China by Xinran

For nearly 8 years in the late 80s and early 90s, Xinran hosted a radio program in China called Words on the Night Breeze where she invited women to call in and share their stories. Unfortunately, because of strong government censorship, many of the calls could not be shared or the experiences talked about in full. Xinran received thousands of letters, voice messages, and personal interviews from women whose stories could not be shared with the women who needed to hear the stories the most – fellow Chinese women.

Thus, The Good Women of China was born after Xinran moved to England and was allowed to share the thing she had learned publicly. When Xinran first began collecting stories from women in China, very few people, even women, knew anything about Chinese women. I know that seems like a very bizarre statement to make, but it is true. Women were expected to stay silent and keep their pain and their stories to themselves. Xinran found that women in China usually knew nothing about what it really means to be a woman, knew nothing about their relationships with each other or with men, and knew nothing of sexuality. Xinran’s idea of exploring women’s lives was considered radical and she was routinely shocked by the things she learned.

Even though the book is older (first published in 2002) and the stories are even older (most collected while Xinran was still in China doing her radio program from around 1988-1996), they are a slice-of-life glimpse into the lives of women during the cultural revolution through the great opening up and reform era of Deng Xiaoping.

The stories are heartbreaking. Most of the women were victims of rape at one point. I sobbed while I read the chapter on the mothers who lost their children in the great Tangshan earthquake in 1976. I was sickened by the story of the Guomindan general’s daughter. These stories are not for the faint of heart, but they are all true. And even though the stories are 30, 40, 50+ years old, they are not so far removed as to be irrelevant and help explain why the role of women in China today is the way it is.

If you want to understand more about women in China, this is the quintessential guide. 5 stars.