Title/Author: The Promise: Love and Loss in Modern China by Xinran
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
In a nutshell (Publisher):
At the start of the twentieth century in China, the Hans were married in an elaborate ceremony before they were even born. While their future was arranged by their families, this couple had much to be grateful for. Not only did they come from similar backgrounds – and as such were recognized as a good match – they also had a shared passion in their deep love of ancient Chinese poetry. They went on to have nine children and chose colours portrayed in some of their favourite poems as nicknames for them – Red, Cyan, Orange, Yellow, Green, Ginger, Violet, Blue and Rainbow. Fate, and the sweep of twentieth century history would later divide these children into three groups: three went to America or Hong Kong to protect the family line from the communists; three were married to revolutionaries having come of age as China turned red; while three suffered tragic early deaths.
With her trademark wisdom and warmth, Xinran describes the lives and loves of this extraordinary family over four generations. What emerges is not only a moving, beautifully-written and engaging story of four people and their lives, but a crucial portrait of social change in China. Xinran begins with the magic and tragedy of one young couples wedding night in 1950, and goes on to tell personal experiences of loss, grief and hardship through China’s extraordinary century. In doing so she tells a bigger story – how traditional Chinese values have been slowly eroded by the tide of modernity and how their outlooks on love, and the choices they’ve made in life, have been all been affected by the great upheavals of Chinese history.
A spell-binding and magical narrative, this is the story of modern China through the people who lived through it, and the story of their love and loss.
My verdict: A thoughtful, engaging story on the Han family and the Chinese people’s journey in finding love amidst loss and grief during the start of the twentieth century in China.
“In the 1950’s people married for political reasons; in the 1960s it was class; in the 1970s everyone wanted to marry a PLA officer; in the 1980s it was university students. By the 1990s people had begun to trust their own instincts in who they married, and since 2000 it’s been every man and woman for themselves.”Lili, Green’s daughter in ‘The Promise: Love and Loss in Modern China’ by Xinran
Xinran’s books aren’t so much about being compelling or captivating. They’re more about capturing the voices of the Chinese people, in this case, Chinese women, their stories and lives, then getting them translated as accurately as possible to get their messages across. I’ve read two of her books many years ago (Sky Burial, Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother – my reviews from 10 years ago) and wasn’t disappointed. ‘The Promise’ didn’t disappoint either.
During one of her walks with her husband, Xinran observed an interaction between a female and 2 male birds, to which her husband, Toby, noted that the birds were ‘talking about love’ (tan lian ai), which meant ‘dating’ or ‘making love’ in English. He asked if its meaning is any different in Chinese.
His question made Xinran pause and reflect. What exactly does ‘talking love’ mean in Chinese? The definition from a Chinese dictionary felt very impersonal and void of emotion and was different from her own understanding. Unsatisfied, she decided to take a deeper look into the love lives of the women in China.
Set at the start of the twentieth century in China, ‘The Promise’ encompassed love stories from 4 generations of the Han family and was divided into 4 parts to represent the 4 generations.
The book opened with Red, who, through an arranged marriage, was engaged at 9 and married at 28 to Baogang, who was in already love with another woman. Their entire time spent on the same bed, was done ‘ceiling-gazing’, while Baogang shared with her the stories of the woman he loved. They had a sexless marriage for 61 years. She was still a virgin when Baogang passed away.
Red’s sister, Green, who is 12 years her junior, has a love story like one from a romance novel. She and Meng Dafu fell in love through their love for poetry. Coincidentally, at that time, ‘marrying a revolutionary was the height of fashion’. She was lucky in that sense, and as she reflected on it she said ‘our marriage may have been a consequence of the founding of the PRC, but our love was a road paved by da-you poetry, a long journey which began that day we went to visit his family.’ Her visit to Dafu’s village, Shandong, helped her see what life was like living and working in the fields, relying on nature for food and necessities. And seeing how Dafu went about helping his family and neighbors made her love him even more.
Green’s daughter, Crane, met Tang Hai as rusticated youths who were sent to Bashang, a hastily arranged camp, 300km north of Beijing; to be ‘re-educated’ about peasant life and agriculture, one of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolutionary ideas. After graduating from his military academy and was being offered a position as an instructor, Tang Hai appeared unannounced at Crane’s home, told her he was finally in a position to propose to her. They married the next day without much fanfare.
‘For Chinese people today, there are virtually no guidelines for dating,’ opined Lili, Crane’s daughter.
Lili turned to virtual relationships after failing in a real one. While maintaining her relationships online, she was also dating a “’proper’ boyfriend”, an English man named Ben. When asked if she’d marry Ben someday, she expressed uncertainty as ‘her parents’ military status meant that a foreign son-in-law would lead to more political background checks and make family reunions difficult affairs.’ She admitted that she didn’t like Chinese men in a romantic way after observing how the men in her family treated the women, like they were ‘subordinates’ and had them wait on them hand and foot.
Yoyo, Green’s other granddaughter; Crane’s niece, has boyfriends according to trends. She calls herself a ‘backpacking lover’. She has tried ‘flash love, flash marriage, rented marriage, internet dating’; she’s just missing being ‘xiao san’ (a mistress).
Wuhen, Orange’s granddaughter, born in 1984, married a man who left her 2 years later and started another family, simply because they had a daughter instead of a son, and to his family in his village, ‘a man without a son is the most unfilial.’ He parted with her via a text message and told her to tell his daughter that ‘her father is dead.’ And she too, in the end, had turned to virtual relationships.
In digging into the stories of the Han women, Xinran not only showed how political winds affected their outlook on love, but she also showed how much China has changed and is still changing throughout the years and how it has widened its generational gap – like Tiger, Lili’s uncle, who ‘worshiped Chairman Mao as a god’, while Lili, thought it ‘strange if someone’s got a sibling but think it’s perfectly normal to have slept with a dozen guys by the time you’re sixteen or seventeen.’
After reading this book, it made me wonder, has any one of them, besides Green and Crane, ever felt true love? The Chinese people throughout the generations seem to marry, quoting Xinran’s mother, for ‘revolutionary compatibility’ or survival, not for love.
For instance, Red stayed in her ‘marriage sentence’, first because of her fear for ramifications, then it was just weariness. There were also the rusticated female youths who ‘wasted no time in marrying the children of local cadres, to position themselves closer to power…’ because they could no longer bear to suffer the hardships of the countryside. Some sold their bodies to commune cadres hoping this path will lead them back to the city.
Was there ever a chance for them to ‘talk love’? After all, in the 1970s love was a ‘restricted product’, not to be expressed freely. In the 1990s, one can even end up in prison for kissing in public! And it was not until the 1980s that Chinese people were truly able to decide freely about marriage, to make up their minds and look for the kind of family they really wanted.
Overall, a very insightful, moving and compassionate read on love and loss in modern times China; Chinese tradition, beliefs and culture. I’d recommend this to those who want to learn more about the Chinese people and their history.
Thank you Netgalley and the publisher for a free eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are mine.
About the Author
Xinran is a Chinese author, journalist and activist. The host of a ground-breaking Chinese radio show ‘Thoughts on the Night Breeze’ which invited women from across the country to discuss their issues in a frank and open setting, Xinran was a pioneer. Her first book, based on ten years of her radio show, was released in 2002 – The Good Women of China was a literary sensation in the West and has now been published all over the world in more than 30 languages, becoming an international bestseller. She has written one novel, Miss Chopsticks, and four other non-fiction books: Sky Burial, China Witness, Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother and Buy Me the Sky. Xinran lectures and gives speeches on writing and Chinese women and history in over twenty countries. In 2004, she set up The Mothers’ Bridge of Love charity to create a bridge of understanding between China and the West. Xinran is based in London, but visits China regularly.
Once again, the two books by Xinran that I reviewed 10 years ago:
Have you read The Promise? What did you think? If you haven’t, do you intend to? Have you read any of Xinran’s books before? Please share with me your thoughts!