BOOK REVIEW: The Promise

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The Promise
Love and Loss in Modern China
By Xue Xinran
Translated by William Spence
Out 7th February from I. B. Tauris
£17.99 hardback

Knowing the dates of battles, rattling off royal lines of succession, and memorising the names of every American president—or Chinese emperor—is one way to study the past, but they only provide an outline. Fellow fans of social history hanker to learn how politics play out in that most intimate space, the home. How do laws and policies shape attitudes, and therefore our lives? What happens within a marriage that is contracted for political reasons? Or to a society cut off from communicating with the rest of the world? 

In The Promise, Xue Xinran wonders what the Chinese talk about when they talk of love. “The past century has seen more upheaval than any other time in the 5,000-year-old history of Chinese civilisation. The ways in which people show love for each other have also changed in the face of war and cultural development.” For answers, she dove into the history of one family—encompassing four generations, six voices, and more than 100 years of history.

Xinran, born in 1958, is a Chinese author, journalist and activist based in the UK. Her first book, taken from Words on the Night Breeze, her groundbreaking Chinese radio show, was the bestselling The Good Women of China. She’s written four other nonfiction books: Sky Burial, China Witness, Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother and Buy me the Sky, and one novel, Miss Chopsticks. (I interviewed her in connection with that.)

Her great gift is attentiveness, which encourages women to tell their stories, which she absorbs with intense empathy. She recedes, allowing their voices to resonate louder than her own. While this might seem straightforward on the page, it takes tremendous skill to go this deeply into things—especially when speaking with women who’ve never opened up to anyone before.

Xinran was startled by how dramatically women’s attitudes about sex, emotions and love had altered, and how quickly those changes had occurred. It made her realise how little she knew about her ancestors’ histories of love and marriage. She understood it only loosely: that for her grandparents’ generation, arranged marriages were often the norm; during her parents’ generation political turmoil determined their love lives; and within her own generation, money was often a major consideration in choosing a husband.

The Promise tells the story of several generations of the Han family, beginning with Han Junpei and Huang Shiyum, who married in 1919, having been betrothed before birth. Their union produced nine children, born between 1920 and 1935, all nicknamed after the colours that featured in some of their parents favourite poems: Red, Cyan, Orange, Yellow, Green, Ginger, Violet, Blue and Rainbow.

The family fractured into three groups—three children wound up in America and Hong Kong, three married revolutionaries, and three died young. The combined factors of the age range, and the forces of politics and geography, left the siblings unfathomable to one another. The family was riven by politics: relationships were terminated in compliance with party rules (during the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards could force couples to divorce), others for reasons of political security. One sister was widowed when her husband, working as a spy, was beaten to death. Even on the rare occasions when siblings were reunited, they couldn’t understand or identify with one another because of their vastly different experiences and attitudes. It’s a sharp reminder of all that we take for granted, growing up in democracies, and how that shapes us.

Thus for many Western readers, some of the anecdotes will be baffling and borderline unbelievable, from the 61-year-long unconsummated marriage described at the start of the book, to traditional Chinese rules for women that excluded them from family trees, forbade them any say in who they’d marry, and in some cases, denied them an education. Reading now, in our age of non-stop over-sharing, it is startling to encounter elderly men and women who’ve spent their lives terrified of expressing emotion for fear of political reprisal.

As readers get to know the family, we gain a cultural education, from learning about wedding traditions circa 1949, to discovering the Zuo Yue Zi, which set out rules to optimise recovery after childbirth. Then there’s the chilling Three Obediences and Four Virtues, “a set of moral principles that dictated how a woman should act . . . Confucian in origin, they set the moral standard both for how women were required to act and how men must choose their wives.” Needless to say, “they allowed no space for women to be themselves or have control of their own live or needs.”

One of the interviewees, Crane, of an age with Xinran, explains: “My grandparents rooted their love in ancient poetry. My parents understood each other through classic Western literature and da-you poetry. The China I was born into didn’t have literature and romance; it didn’t even have movies, books or theatre. It had slogans.”

The Promise depicts a country in turmoil, where extremes were (and still are) the norm, notably in the differences between urban vs rural life. It’s a country where profound poverty afflicts even those toiling at jobs, and where, before the 1990s, you could be jailed for kissing in public. Social mobility was almost unheard of; anyone from rural China trying to move into a city had to secure a special permit. Without it you “basically didn’t exist,” had no rights within the city and could be arrested for being there. 

For the youngest women Xinran interviewed, the generation gap feels especially huge. They’ve grown up with freedom and material wealth that was unimaginable in China until recently.  On the other hand, they also grew up without siblings, and lack the sense of the centrality of family that was so integral to their forebears. These modern lives revolve around technology, and the young women speak about choice, explaining that having multiple lovers is a status symbol. Nevertheless,  loneliness is rampant.

Filled with poignancy, insights, and revelations, this is an ideal book for anyone curious about life in China—and surely, in this day and age, that means all of us.

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