Voices from the mother country
Xinran talks to Linda Morris; 13/2/10; (2 Items)
Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love is published by Chatto & Windus.
It is only in the final chapter of Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother that its author, Xinran, confesses the secret of her “unforgotten” daughter and her intense personal motivation for documenting the untold stories of mothers and daughters in modern China. Her name was Little Snow, born in a Nanjing hospital 20 years ago. The newborn’s forehead was stained by a dark pink birthmark, which the nurses said was the tear her dying mother had shed as she held her daughter. The father, a doctor, had taken sleeping pills and slashed himself with a scalpel, lying down to die next to the wife he could not live without. Xinran, a radio journalist at the time, was interviewing victims of a snowstorm at the hospital when she heard the whispered story of the orphaned girl. “I thought to write a story – it was a drama to me – and I was curious to see the baby,” she says on the phone from London. “At first the baby was very quiet. The nurse put her next to the window. The snow was falling and it makes shadows on the baby’s face like the tears of her mother. My hands started to touch her little fingers. I don’t know about fate, and I can’t put it into words, but her body language seemed to be saying that she recognised me and it was like we were mother and daughter.”
The Sydney Morning Herald; No Internet Text
In her sixth book, Xinran sets herself a quest to answer the single most important question of China’s daughters adopted out to families in 27 countries: do you know why my Chinese mother didn’t want me?
The answer is not, as adopted girls constantly put to her, because they were ugly. Rather it lies, Xinran suggests, in the straitened circumstances of their birth mothers, caught between modern China and its ancient traditions and in the more recent conflict between collectivism and individualism.
Nothing less seismic could explain why mothers-in-law would barbarically stuff a newborn girl’s nose with tissue to preserve the male line, why a midwife would trade in unwanted babies and why a young woman would take cocktails of pesticides to erase the memories of children lost to orphanages.
Persuading hospital authorities to turn a blind eye, Xinran thought she could beat the system
and take Little Snow home, although she already had a son. As presenter of a pioneering Sunday evening program featuring a live phone-in, she enjoyed a celebrity status that she thought could persuade friends in high places. She was wrong.
The head of her radio station was threatened with dismissal, and so was she, if she didn’t return Little Snow to an orphanage. In secret, Xinran visited the child daily for six months until, while she was on a two-week assignment, the orphanage was abruptly shut down and the children were scattered to other institutions. Despite searching, Xinran was never to see her “daughter” again. “I live with regret. I should have made up a story and taken her away to relatives.”
Xinran – she adopted the moniker at 15 – may have made her name as a talkback host behind the red curtain but in London it was as an author that she rose to prominence in 2002 with the publication of The Good Women of China, her best-selling debut nonfiction work.
Initially her manuscript – containing accounts of incest, domestic violence, forced marriage and abuse – ran so counter to the colourful memoirs that had by then sold so well in the West it was rejected by the well-known literary agent Toby Eady, who represents many Chinese expatriate authors.
During their first meeting they argued, Eady telling her that her unsanitised stories would never find an audience. “I said my stories are real stories about real Chinese – it’s not about sweet- sour chicken or pork.” Five years later they married.
Four more books followed, none matching the stellar popularity of The Good Women of China. Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother borrows two stories that were edited out of The Good Women and – like its predecessor – is a work of oral history stitched together with snapshots from Xinran’s life. It is not easy to read, containing at times harrowing accounts, reconstructed from the author’s encounters with mothers who have abandoned and adopted out their daughters.
Among the nine narratives is her eyewitness account of the old village custom of “doing baby girls” – drowning them in slops buckets after birth – and a father, on the run from authorities for having an extra child, who abandons his daughter at a train station. Xinran injects herself as the storyteller and writes, if not sentimentally, then emotionally in a departure from the classic Chinese literary form.
“I want people to read and feel my heart, not my mind,” she says. While Xinran insists she is articulating stories long suppressed by the cultural straitjacket of the Chinese state, scholars of Chinese literature generally ignore her writing. Many dismiss what they say is a growth industry of emigrant Chinese women authors writing for largely uninformed Western readers, especially women, of an exotic, inscrutable and miserable China.
The crying Chinese woman or girl is infinitely marketable, says Dr Yiyan Wang, the chair of Chinese studies at the University of Sydney. Xinran and contemporaries such as Jung Chang (Wild Swans), Geling Yan (The Uninvited) and Fan Wu (February Flowers) construct an image of China frozen in time, they say, usually one of an oppressive regime represented by the Chinese state or family.
Xinran bridles at the criticisms. China must confront its past, she says, just as Europe must continually face down the dark events of World War II. Her book is about showing those overseas girls how things really were for their mothers. “There is no single China. China should be told by different people in different colours.”
To write Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother, Xinran – travelled halfway around the world with Eady to a rented apartment in Sydney’s McMahons Point. “Toby said, ‘You must write this story because so many people have been adopted or suffered adoption.’ But I said I couldn’t. He said, ‘Maybe you can: write it in some other place,’ and I’ve always liked the water.”
It was January 2008 and during the six weeks it took her to finish the book violent thunderstorms rolled across the skyline, mirroring Xinran’s emotions. She wrote furiously for 14 hours a day in delicate Chinese script until her fingers bled.
She decided to tell the story of Little Snow, which she had kept from her son, after a tense meeting with her mother, from whom she had been separated for much of her childhood. Xinran was born in 1958, the year Mao unveiled the Great Leap Forward, his plan to transform China into a communist state, and at four weeks old she was left by her military officer parents in the care of her grandmother.
Seven years later she returned to live with her parents at their military base close to the Great Wall. A week later Red Guards accused her Western-educated father of being a “reactionary technical authority”. Her parents were sent to prison and Xinran and her little brother were sent to a “black school”.
Trying to rebuild the shattered mother-daughter bond, Xinran journeyed to China in 2007 from her new home in London to confront her undemonstrative mother. When they came face to face, Xinran was mute.
“Sitting in silence I began to understand how those adopted daughters long to understand their birth mothers and to tell them how much they love them,” she writes. “I realised in a small way I was one of them.”
With this book published, Xinran says her next mission is to write on the social consequences of China’s one-child policy, which she sees played out in her son, Panpan, her “best friend”. Now 22, he remained in China when she left for London in 1997 to become part of the Chinese writing world in exile.
It was two years before they were reunited and when she asked what he would like for his birthday he said a 10-minute cuddle with his mum. She immediately quit her academic post. When he finished boarding school, she brought him home to familiarise him with family life. She wonders what he would have been like if he had been a big brother to Little Snow, whom she still hopes one day to meet.
In China Witness, Xinran’s previous book, she asks Yao Popo, a medicine woman she met at her ramshackle shop in Xingyi, south China, to share the happiest and unhappiest times in her life. When I ask the same question of Xinran, she delves back into her grim childhood and how she waited fearfully for the Red Guards to select children to beat.
Her happiest memory, drawn from the recent past, is of a simple domestic scene in her cottage in Wiltshire. “Toby was playing chess with Panpan and I saw Gypsy, our dog, put her head on the chess board, and they had to stop playing, obviously. I never had a proper family in my life. I thought how much family can mean to human beings and how much we miss it in China.”
An Australian journalist in nationalist China
John Fitzgerald; Big White Lie – Chinese Australians in White Australia; UNSW Press; 2007;
No Internet Text
Why did the young Vivian Chow go to such lengths to ensure that the legend of Loong Hung Pung did not fade away along with the memories of his father’s generation in White Australia? Vivian Chow was heir to a largely forgotten radical lineage of Chinese political activists that can be traced back to the earliest years of the Yee Hing fraternity in Australia. His father was a founding member of one of the earliest political alliances working for a modern democratic form of government in China. According to family lore, this organisation was inspired by the ideas of Loong Hung Pung, and was founded in Australia in the late 1870s or early 1880s under the English title of Revolutionary and Independence Society of Australian Chinese.
By the same account, Vivian’s mother was the daughter of the second Grand Master of the original Yee Hing lodge who assumed office immediately after Loong Hung Pung died. Vivian’s family was also on close terms with the family of James Ah See, known in China as Tse Tsan-Tai, and universally acknowledged as one of the three founders of the Revive China Society (Xingzhonghui) in the brief period before Sun Yatsen’s faction came to dominate that organisation in Hong Kong.
The Revive China Society is remembered as China’s first revolutionary political party. Vivian Chow claimed that this party, too, had its origins among the labour fraternities of eastern Australia and that the Chinese revolution was partly inspired by Australian ideals.”
The legend of Loong Hung Pung has traceable historical roots in Chow’s own family history. Vivian Chow was born in 1906 in the northern NSW town of Lismore to Chow Toong Yung and Jessie Mary King, who married in the nearby town of Casino in 1894. Vivian’s father Chow Toong Yung was a native of Chin Mei (Cunmou) village in Doong Goong County. Although surnamed Chow (Zhou), Toong Yung and his descendents were entered on official records under the surname of Yung
after an Australian customs official mistook the father’s last name for his surname when he stepped ashore in Australia around 1870.
Vivian’s own passport was issued under the surname of Yung, after the style of his father, a name by which he is still remembered in his home town of Lismore. Vivian’s mother, Jessie Mary King, was the daughter of Stephen King (Jung-Sao, Zhong Xiu) and Annie Lavinia Lavett, who married in Grafton in 1877.39
It was Jessie’s father, Stephen King, whom Vivian extolled as the second Grand Master of the Yee Hing network and a founder of the Revolutionary and Independence Society of Australian Chinese. Vivian recalled meeting his grandfather as a boy in Grafton before King returned to China around the time of the republican revolution in 1911. In Grafton King was known as Sun Hung Kee.
This northern NSW city was a focus of Loong Hung Pung’s Yee Hing fraternity. Loong was reported to have, for example, been on close terms with Kai Koon, who was ‘in charge of goldfields affairs’. Colonial records show that Kai Koon was naturalised as a British subject in Grafton in 1857.”
Vivian was a keen observer of life in northern New South Wales. As a child he showed precocious artistic talent, publishing witty cartoons about his teachers and classmates in the biannual school magazine of Lismore High School, The Lens.
At the age of 15 he was employed as a cartoonist for the Richmond River Free Press. His brother Luther,’ 11 years his senior, worked as a journalist for the Northern Star. After graduating from high school Vivian moved to Sydney and wrote home shortly afterwards to Luther indicating that he wanted to visit China, to where their father had earlier suggested that the family should pay a trip. In fact, in 1908 he had advertised a forthcoming sale at the family store in Lismore ‘on account of leaving the district’. But their mother insisted that the children remain in Lismore when her husband Toong Yung returned to China.’
His father was not on hand in 1925 when Vivian wrote home from Sydney seeking Luther’s assistance and his mother’s approval to visit China. Concerned that Vivian was prone to asthma, Jessie was reluctant to let him travel alone.
Luther was not keen to accompany Vivian as he held a good position at the local newspaper and was serving as a lay preacher with the Church of England in the city. Still Vivian’s persistence paid off. In September 1925 the two brothers sailed for China, where Luther went to work as a proofreader with the North China Daily News in Shanghai and Vivian travelled through China, Japan and revolutionary Russia, before finally settling down in Shanghai.
At the time of his first visit home to Lismore in 1932, Vivian listed his positions as foreign-affairs editor for the Shanghai evening newspaper Sin Wan Pao (Xinwenbao) and co-editor of the Chinese-Australian journal that he helped to found in Shanghai, United China Magazine.’ Over his term as editor, United China came to be known for its anti-Japanese editorials and stubborn opposition to the nationalist government in Nanking. United China is one of the few surviving sources for the legend of Loong Hung Pung.
With its twin focus on Chinese-Australian community history and Japanese aggression in China, United China stood out from the hundreds of magazines published in Shanghai in the 1930s.
The editors of United China wrote in glowing terms of the Australian traditions of egalitarianism, fair play and rule of law while regretting that these traditions were not extended under restrictive immigration laws to families of Chinese descent. There were a number of other Australian journalists and media outlets operating in Shanghai in the 1930s and early 1940 but few were as committed to Australian values or as fiercely opposed to Japanese ambitions in the Asia—Pacific as was United China.
China, Women, Children, Migrants & refugees, Australia