What the Chinese Don't Eat by Xinran

To the ruler, the people are heaven; to the people, food is heaven. XINRAN, journalist and former Chinese radio talk show host, demonstrates the continued vitality of this old proverb in WHAT THE CHINESE DON'T EAT, a collection of her columns in The Guardian, the London paper. In this new book she touches on many aspects of Chinese society -- the Cultural Revolution, the one-child policy, the growing wealth gap, cultural differences, religion, and amazing economic and social progress. But the focus, like her previous two works, The Good Women of China and Sky Burial, is the often tragic and sad lives of women in this ever changing nation.

Xinran, who now lives in London, visited China regularly, and she was awed by the progress her homeland had made. When working as a radio broadcaster in 1989, her station had to decide which western festivals could be mentioned on air. Christmas was struck from the list because the Chinese translation of the name sound like "Victorious-Egg-Festival" -- it was not politically correct to admit victory of western culture. Easter, "God Resurrecting Festival," could not be mentioned because "Chairman Mao hasn't risen again," so how could the station tell the public that the western God had already ascended to Heaven?

In her visits from London Xinran has seen bright lights adorning the streets of big cities during Christmas and Valentine's Day. The latter -- "Sexual Hooligans' Day -- was largely unknown during her time in China but is especially popular these days. Restaurants have menus as thick as books and can seat as many as 5,000 people. Cell phone ring tones include "an emperor ordering a concubine" and Chairman Mao's voice proclaiming his iconic line, "People's Republic China stands up in the world." Yet there is another China where a peasant mother warns her son going to Britain to study to not open the window when the plane is in the air because it "could be too windy." And poor peasants are nostalgic of the days when Chairman Mao took care of them. Xinran correctly points out that the Chinese people still have a long way to go before they can appreciate freedom and democracy.

And despite all the progress in society, many women still suffer from unspeakable tragedies. Unlike most countries, the suicide rate for women is higher than that for men because many women are still taught to believe that a "good, clean name" is more important than life itself. Moreover, the stories about mothers forced to abandon their baby girls as a result of the one-child policy are especially poignant. A mother, when asked by Xinran if she wanted to find her daughter, replied, "I would rather suffer this dark hole inside me if it means she can have a better life."

reviewed by Gordon G. Chang,
who is the author of The Coming Collapse of China and Nuclear Showdown
  • About CCC Chinese Book Club:

    The CCC Book Club is one of the earlist book clubs targeting expariates living in Beijing and the only book meeting groups focusing on China-related books for the international community.

    At the CCC' s Book Club, participants are assigned a great book to read (or selected chapters) and then asked to discuss its meanings with other book club members, using their own interpretations. All assigned books (mostly China-related fiction and non-fiction, a mix of classics and modern ones in English or with English translation) are available at CCC library and bookshop or at major foreign-language book stores where participants are encouraged to purchase their own copies.

    You are also welcome even though you may not have read a single page of the book yet. Just join our discussion!

    Booklist:  Click here to view the whole booklist of the past meetings.

    CCC Book Club day group:
    10:30 am, every third Wednesday of the month.

    CCC Book Club Evening Group:
    7:30 pm, every second Thursday of the month

    Note: sometimes the date is different because of holidays. So check the monthly calendar for the most up to date info during the month.

    Venue: China Culture Center, Beijing, China.