The emotional recounting of Hongxue's short, unhappy life opens The Good Women of China, a moving yet ultimately horrific collection of stories about female persecution during the Cultural Revolution. Written by Xinran Xue, whose radio program "Words on the Night Breeze" provided Chinese women with a much-needed voice during the 1990s, the book chronicles not only her listeners' troubled lives but also her own journey of feminist discovery.
Aside from the author's descriptions of her own life, we're mostly reading third- or fourth-hand accounts of what other women experienced. The distance is both discernible and awkward. As a result, several passages seem strained or muffled by less than deft translation and cultural barriers. By the time certain stories are passed along via letters, interpreted by Xue, translated by someone else, then edited by still another person, they appear to have either lost their essence or simply been boiled down to it.
Even so, the overall effect of the book is nothing short of heartbreaking. Children are abused and gang-raped. Smart women are given away in marriage to Party members who are manipulative brutes. Others are forced to wallow in abject poverty, scraping together whatever they can to feed themselves and their families. At several points, the agony and suffering here may become too overbearing for even the strongest soul; some readers will likely need to reach for a tissue and take a moment to recover from the wretched misery.
Released in the UK and throughout Asia this summer, The Good Women of China has been likened in early reviews to Jung Chang's 1991 bestseller Wild Swans. But while Chang's engaging book—covering how three generations of women in her family were affected by China's changing political climate—held a crisp, clear vision, Xue's far broader approach works against it. There's no denying The Good Women of China is an important book, or even that it is essential reading for anyone interested in 20th century Chinese society. At the same time, due to a disjointed structure and heavily depressing narrative, it is also an easy book to put down.