2010 2011 Books in Translation Non Fiction

Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother – Xinran

  Translated from Chinese by Nicky Harman

A million female foetuses are aborted and tens of thousands of baby girls are abandoned every year in China. The desire for a male heir has clashed with the Chinese one-child policy to form a society where the birth of a girl is seen as a disappointment. This book gives the painful story of the mothers who abandoned or murdered their babies.

The book consists of ten short stories, each explaining the circumstances of a different mother. I found the introduction detailing the statistics and background of the Chinese traditions very interesting, but the short stories were a disappointment. The writing contained some scenes that should have been very distressing, but the emotional connection wasn’t there and each story was too short for me to fully understand the implications of keeping the baby girl.

‘What? Isn’t that killing her?’
‘Well, I can’t help it if you must use city folk’s language so, yes, that’s what it was.’
‘And what kinds of methods did you use?’
‘Oh, all sorts! Twisting the umbilical cord round the neck, then as soon as the head came out you could strangle it. If it came out head upwards, you could make it choke on the amniotic fluid, and then the baby couldn’t even take one breath. Or you could put the baby in a basin, hold wet “horse-dung” paper over its face and in a few seconds its legs would stop kicking. And for women who’d never had a baby boy, just girl after girl after girl until the family were fed up with it, it was simple enough to chuck it in the slops pail…

It seemed as though the book was packed with one abandonment/murder after another and the repetitiveness reduced the impact of the message.

It is clearly a difficult and emotive subject, but I think this BBC news report does a better job of getting the seriousness of the situation across. Perhaps my problems with short stories are the main cause of my disappointment with this book? I would have preferred it to focus on one story and to have seen the problems faced by a family that decided to keep their a girl.


This is the first book by Xinran that I’ve read. Do you think I’d enjoy any of her earlier books?

24 replies on “Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother – Xinran”

I’ve read Miss Chopsticks by her, a fictional book, and it was well done. It shows the hardships young girls have in rural China versus the city. A bit of a compare and contrast. But it is a good coming of age book. It’s not nearly as graphic (from what I remember) as the passage above. Just a well told story.

I’ve heard good things about Sky Burial as well.

Jules, Thanks for letting me know that you enjoyed Miss Chopsticks. I can see that I might like a full-length fictional book written by her, but the combination of short, non-fiction stories wasn’t to my taste.

Sounds a bit grim but maybe as you say not as hard hitting as it could be because of the lack of the emotional connection.

Interesting as this was a topic on radio 4 this morning… Apparantly there are 6 boys for every 5 girls now in China. Poetic justice when the grown up men then can’t find wives.

Novel Insights, The BBC article I linked to said that there are already about 20 million boys who will never be able to marry because there aren’t enough women and that number rises by 1.5 million every year. Such a sad situation all round. 🙁

I’ve seen this book around and was curious about it but I had no idea of the subject matter. I think you’re right about the number of stories taking away from the message. Maybe if the author had just developed one or two stories, it would have been much better.

Vasilly, that is my thought, but I’m sure it is just personal taste. I found the repetition sad, but annoying. A longer story about one or two people would have been much more interesting for me.

I think it’s a pity when similar stories are repeated in a book until you start to find it boring. I guess the book needs a minimum number of pages, but once the message comes across, it shouldn’t go on and on.

I don’t like short stories either, and I’m not sure I’d want to read all of this book. Maybe I’d read half, that seems about enough.

Judith, I’m sure that lots of people enjoy seeing slight variations of the same story, but I would have preferred this to be a single short in a magazine instead of ten in one book. It is.important that her message reaches a wider audience, but a shame this book didn’t quite work for me.

I plan on reading this one soon, Jackie. I love books about China. I have read The Good Women of China by Xinran (this is shortish stories too but if this book doesn’t break your heart there’s something wrong with you – I bawled my eyes out but still loved the book). I have also read Sky Burial which is another incredible true story that I can highly recommend.

The Book Whisperer, I love books set in China too, but our book taste has differed in the past. Perhaps Good Women of China would leave me cold too? Guess there is only one way to find out!

Not read this, so I can only surmise, but is it just the murder after another and the repetitiveness , Bolano in 2666 wrote a section called “about the crimes” which is almost a catalogue if murders & yet you feel the impact of them. So maybe It’s the authors lack of connection with her tale.

Parrish, that is actually a very good comparison. I felt exactly the same sense of repetition when reading Bolano’s About the Crimes section. If you felt the impact of that then you’ll probably like this.

Agree – sounds like a good premise. It’s hard to believe how prominent female infanticide is in the 21st century. Think I’d love to read this – slightly less motivated due to the lack of emotional connection, but nonetheless…

Anothercookiecrumbles, it is amazing to think this is actually happening in the world today. I hope they can come up with a solution sometime soon.

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