Message From An Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Love and Loss

The unbearably sad stories of China's abandoned baby girls.

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    Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother:
    Stories of Loss and Love
    By Xinran
    Scribner
    304 pp
    View Caption

Western mothers adopting girls from China asked Xinran Xue to write her book. That way, said Xinran (who writes under the single name), their children might know what had been in their birth mothers’ hearts.

Xinran’s answer was Message From An Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Love and Loss. It’s her account of the women she has met and the stories she’s been told, starting with her years as a call-in radio host, hearing the lives of women who had long remained silent. It’s a startling flip side to the happy stories Westerners tend to hear from colleagues and friends, loving adoptive parents thrilled to meet their children at last.

The varied mother-daughter stories, translated from the Chinese, have two common threads: One, they’re unbearably sad. Two, they’re on the other side of a cultural divide, one that’s sometimes as horrific to Xinran as to Western readers. (Xinran herself founded a charity, The Mothers Bridge of Love, in part to bridge cultural differences between children and their adoptive parents.)

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In the book’s most graphic case, Xinran sees the tiny foot of a newborn girl twitching in a slop pail in an isolated Chinese village in 1989. Policemen hold her back from rescuing the child, she writes, and the faint movements soon stop. Older women, there and elsewhere, explain that “doing” a baby girl – smothering or strangling her – is an accepted fact of life in some areas of the country, one that saves families from calamity.

“Around these parts, you can’t get by without a son,” one villager tells her. A son is necessary, and China’s one-child policy would not allow families the luxury of trying again.

“You have no one to burn incense at the ancestors shrines. But it’s not just that. You don’t get the extra land given to you either (that a son would bring). If your children just eat, and don’t earn, and you have no land and no grain, then you might as well starve!”

Xinran blames the tragedies on long-held tradition, on the combination of sexual ignorance and economic boom times, and on the one-child rule. Regardless, either Xinran is a magnet for stories of child abandonment, or they are stunningly prevalent. In just one scene, she chats randomly on a train with a man who lovingly strokes his sleeping toddler’s feet. She then realizes the man has abandoned the little girl on a station platform and reboarded. As the train speeds away, the man tells Xinran it is the fourth daughter he has deserted.

Still later, an adoption specialist tells Xinran about passing off her own beloved daughter as an orphan, putting her up for adoption in hopes of giving her a better life. And, when Xinran needs bike repairs after saving an abandoned infant she happens to find, the repairwoman turns out to be a former midwife, one who too has stories of killing newborns or smuggling them away.

The matter-of-fact brutality Xinran describes brings Holocaust accounts to mind, yet the stories also hold a surreal, fable-like quality. The most striking case is Xinran’s own story of loss. She learns of a baby whose mother had hemorrhaged to death, upon which the child’s father, a surgeon, killed himself in grief “next to his wife in the hospital mortuary.” Xinran, mother of a young son, takes the infant home. But she is forced by the state to give her up to an orphanage, then loses her forever when the orphans disappear with no warning and no trace. Even now, she writes, she looks for “Little Snow’s” teardrop-shaped birthmark on the faces of young women.

Aside from some jarringly detailed factual bookends, such as the text of China’s adoption law, the book’s tone is similarly dreamlike. Readers are enveloped in the individual stories rather than given a linear understanding or perspective.

But any Chinese-born girl wondering about her birth mother will find heartrending answers in the book. One well-off young woman, who said her parents forced her to give up her daughter in 2002, told Xinran that she’ll carry the pain of that day as long as she lives.

“I want to put my arms around her,” the woman said. “I’ve missed her and worried about her so much, I want the comfort of seeing her with my own eyes and holding her in my arms.”

Seattle writer Rebekah Denn blogs at eatallaboutit.com

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