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Message From An Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Love and Loss

The unbearably sad stories of China's abandoned baby girls.

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Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother:
Stories of Loss and Love
By Xinran
Scribner
304 pp

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Western mothers adopting girls from China asked Xinran Xue to write her book. That way, said Xinran (who writes under the single name), their children might know what had been in their birth mothers’ hearts.

Xinran’s answer was Message From An Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Love and Loss. It’s her account of the women she has met and the stories she’s been told, starting with her years as a call-in radio host, hearing the lives of women who had long remained silent. It’s a startling flip side to the happy stories Westerners tend to hear from colleagues and friends, loving adoptive parents thrilled to meet their children at last.

The varied mother-daughter stories, translated from the Chinese, have two common threads: One, they’re unbearably sad. Two, they’re on the other side of a cultural divide, one that’s sometimes as horrific to Xinran as to Western readers. (Xinran herself founded a charity, The Mothers Bridge of Love, in part to bridge cultural differences between children and their adoptive parents.)

In the book’s most graphic case, Xinran sees the tiny foot of a newborn girl twitching in a slop pail in an isolated Chinese village in 1989. Policemen hold her back from rescuing the child, she writes, and the faint movements soon stop. Older women, there and elsewhere, explain that “doing” a baby girl – smothering or strangling her – is an accepted fact of life in some areas of the country, one that saves families from calamity.

“Around these parts, you can’t get by without a son,” one villager tells her. A son is necessary, and China’s one-child policy would not allow families the luxury of trying again.

“You have no one to burn incense at the ancestors shrines. But it’s not just that. You don’t get the extra land given to you either (that a son would bring). If your children just eat, and don’t earn, and you have no land and no grain, then you might as well starve!”

Xinran blames the tragedies on long-held tradition, on the combination of sexual ignorance and economic boom times, and on the one-child rule. Regardless, either Xinran is a magnet for stories of child abandonment, or they are stunningly prevalent. In just one scene, she chats randomly on a train with a man who lovingly strokes his sleeping toddler’s feet. She then realizes the man has abandoned the little girl on a station platform and reboarded. As the train speeds away, the man tells Xinran it is the fourth daughter he has deserted.

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