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Mao Zedong can, in some ways, be credited with modernising China and turning it into the world power it is today. He can also however, be blamed for the deaths of around 70 million people, through starvation, executions and forced labour.
Such is the secrecy surrounding the events of the Cultural Revolution that much of it has only come to light thanks to brave authors, such as the 4 Chinese female authors on this list, who left China and told their stories.
Most modern works of Chinese memoir focus hugely on life under this the Mao regime. It is an all consuming and still much debated era in modern history. If it was just down to facts and figures the rest of the world would know very little.
We should be very grateful to these 4 women memoir writers.
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Jung Chang is one of the finest and best known Chinese women writers of non-fiction. As well as her memoir ‘Wild Swans’, her recent biography of the controversial ‘Empress Dowager Cixi’ was so passionately and skilfully written that it has been the cause of much debate.
Chang was born in China in 1952, left for Britain in 1978 and subsequently became the first person from Communist China to be awarded a PhD from a British University.
Book Recommendation: ‘Wild Swans: Three Daughter’s of China’ (1991)
Yes, you’ve heard of it, but have you read it?
Reading this book as a teenager taught me more about the Cultural Revolution than teachers or the media ever did.
The scope of this memoir is huge. It covers 100 years of Chinese history, told through the stories of her grandmother, her mother and herself. It covers torture, loss, brainwashing and forced labour.
Xinran is a journalist, author and advocate for women’s rights. Born in 1958 in Beijing, she was separated from her family aged 7 due to the Cultural Revolution.
She moved to the UK in 1997 with her son to avoid ‘hot-housing’ him, as many parents were doing with their only children due to the one child policy. She wrote this recent piece in ‘The Guardian’ on the subject.
Book Recommendation: ‘The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices’ (2002)
In 1988 Xinran began hosting a radio show called ‘Words on the Night Breeze’. A few weeks in she was receiving hundreds of letters and calls a day from woman, desperate to tell their story. On moving to the UK she began compiling their stories into one volume. It came out as a novel, but she herself says that all of the stories are true.
Xinran isn’t a traditional female memoir author. Instead of telling just one person’s story, this book is a collection of different, true stories that comes together as a huge portrait of Chinese women.
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The first book I read of Anchee Min’s was ‘Empress Orchid’ which is a fiction novel based on the same Empress Dowager Cixi as Jung Chang’s biography.
Born in Shanghai in 1957, Anchee Min worked at a collective farm before being talent scouted as an actress. She now lives in San Francisco and has written 2 memoirs and 6 novels, most of which are based on historical figures.
Book Recommendation: ‘The Cooked Seed: A Memoir’ (2013)
Her critically acclaimed first memoir ‘Red Azalea’ told the story of her childhood in China under the Mao regime, but I have chosen to recommend this later memoir specifically because it does not.
The book details the life of the author after moving to America. Going from the poverty of her childhood to one of the richest countries in the world comes with its own struggles. It is the story of how she learnt the language, dealt with her past, and assimilated herself into a completely alien culture.
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Hong Ying was born in 1962, towards the end of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ which caused widespread famine. So from the very first days of her life, Ying was aware of starvation. She began writing aged 18 and has written novels, short stories, poetry and memoir.
She is best known for her novel ‘K: The Art of Love’ which this article described as ‘China’s Lady Chatterley’.
Book Recommendation: ‘Daughter of the River: An Autobiography’ (2000)
A tale of urban poverty in China, this memoir is a difficult read, due to the extreme poverty of her family life in the slums of Chongquing. As she gets older and nears her 18th birthday, she becomes determined to get to the heart of her family secrets, which have left her feeling like an outsider.
It is raw and upsetting, sometimes being described as similar to ‘Angela’s Ashes’.
The Chinese government still keeps its population relatively uninformed, but as more and more young people from China go to study abroad, they are slowly becoming more empowered.
Hopefully we will see many more epic memoirs come out of China and educate the rest of the world on this still-mysterious country.
Have you read any Chinese memoirs that have changed your life?
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