I could hardly watch tonight’s Channel 4 News report from China; it is impossible to imagine the grief of mothers finding the bodies of their children in the rubble of the earthquake. And now I find it difficult to write about the story of an earlier earthquake in China. Of course it is not my story but it stayed in my memory long after I finished reading The Good Women of China by Xinran.
I picked up the book tonight thinking I might take a few extracts from the chapter called The Mothers who Endured an Earthquake. Xinran discovered their stories in 1992 when she went to Tangshan, an industrial city which had been completely rebuilt after it was destroyed by the 1976 earthquake. 300,000 people died.
I went looking for the book because of the reaction of the Chinese government this time: quick to accept help, apparently openly allowing criticism and comment in the press. In contrast, after the 1976 disaster the government – struggling to cope with the death of Mao Zedong – did not respond at all. In fact communication was so bad they knew nothing about the earthquake until it was reported in the foreign press through information from international monitoring centres.
Xinran went to Tangshan because she was curious to find out more about the women there for her late night radio programme Words on the Night Breeze. She went to an orphanage founded and run by women who had lost their own children in the earthquake and she interviewed two mothers who had watched their children die, trapped in the ruins of the city, unable to reach or help them.
In The Good Women of China, Xinran tells their stories with simple, understated sympathy; at times I think she is numb with horror. She found it difficult to write and it is difficult to read. It feels intrusive and unnecessary to select extracts to post on my blog, so far removed from the suffering. But it is worth saying that her radio broadcast inspired an outpouring of emotion in the much more suppressed and secretive China of 1992, and the last words of the chapter are inspiring now in their human understanding.
“On the train home, I cried all the way. I cried again when I took up my pen to write down the experiences of these mothers…
“They did not lock their mother’s kindness away in their memories of their children; they did not immerse themselves in tears of suffering and wait for pity. With the greatness of mothers, they made new families for children who had lost their parents. To me those women proved the unimaginable strength of Chinese women.”