Voices from a Silent Generation
Pantheon, Hardcover, 9780375425479, 448pp.
Publication Date: February 24, 2009
China Witness is an extraordinary work of oral history that illuminates the diverse ways in which the Chinese perceive and understand their own history.
Xinran, the acclaimed author of The Good Women of China and Sky Burial, traveled across China in 2005 and 2006, seeking out the nation’s grandparents and great-grandparents, the men and women who have experienced, firsthand, the vast changes of the modern era. In cities and remote villages, Xinran spoke with members of these generations from all tiers of society, interviewing them for the first and perhaps the last time. Although many of them feared repercussions for speaking freely, they spoke to Xinran with stunning candor about their hopes, fears, and struggles, and about what they have witnessed: from the Long March to land reform, from Mao to marriage, from revolution to Westernization. While the West has commonly viewed the last one hundred years in China through the single narrative lens of Mao’s rise and rule, the experience of this same period for the Chinese themselves has been infinitely more complex.
In the same way that Studs Terkel’s Working and Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation gave us the essence of very particular times, China Witness gives us the essence of modern China–a portrait more intimate, nuanced, and revelatory than any we have had before.
“Xinran’s interactions are extraordinary…[she] uses a wide range of stories — of public-works projects and persecutions, romance and reeducation — to show how China’s masses clung to scraps of individuality amid the deadening conformity of the communist system.” — New York Times Book Review
"As Xinran crisscrosses the vast country, she proves herself to be a tenacious conduit for gently urging remarkable histories onto the page and even on film, recording the memories and lives of her elderly Chinese witnesses." --The San Francisco Chronicle
“Xinran . . . doesn’t treat her subjects like something from a 1945 newsreel, the dutiful witnesses of history’s march. She pokes them and flatters them; she gets excited by their stories and on occasion cries along with them. [In this book] we see the red lines that many Chinese still draw for themselves in public discourse, or even privately, the boundaries they dare not cross even today. No other style of storytelling could have exhibited them with more clarity or greater rawness.”
—Oliver August, The Times (London)
“An invaluable social history that textbooks don’t reveal.”
“Extraordinary in-depth interviews with a dozen unlikely survivors of the cultural revolution (the Policeman, the Acrobat, the Lantern Maker . . .). This brilliant work of oral history–by a sort of Chinese Studs Terkel–gives a completely riveting glimpse of everyday life behind Mao’s bamboo curtain and subtly reflects on the politics of memory and what may be yet to come.”
—The Guardian, Best Books of 2008
“[A] stirring, startlingly honest account of life under Chairman Mao and the current reformers revamping the socialist state. If the reader wants proof of how resilient and tough the Chinese people are, witness the incredible stories related by Lin Xiangbei, a loyal Communist later branded a counterrevolutionary, or Teacher Sun and her husband, former political prisoners, or Mr. Changzheng, a survivor of the infamous Long March. Xinran . . . does not leave out the average people who were the backbone of the republic, . . . all of whom reveal a rich, multi-faceted national history that celebrated individualism as well as collective achievement . . . [T]he author puts a bow on these candid interviews with a final set of astute observations in an especially noteworthy book.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)