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Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Book review

Reviewed by's Anna Gowan

As host of a popular radio talk-show in China during the late 1980s, journalist Xinran was privy to her listeners' darkest secrets. In reading aloud the hundreds of anonymous letters she received each week, Xinran became a confidant; a sympathetic ear in a society not used to divulging its secrets. 

In her stunning debut, The Good Women of China, Xinran detailed many of the stories featured during her talk-show.

After a brief foray into fiction, Xinran has returned to her roots with Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother . Here she attempts to find an answer to a question frequently asked by Chinese adoptees and orphans: Why didn't my mother want me?

The stories detailed here are a consequence of China's one-child policy, as well as the country's archaic attitude to inheritance, gender, and the role of women within the family.

It is the skills she learnt as a journalist that allow Xinran to question her subjects on matters rarely discussed in Chinese society, from adoption to infanticide to abandonment. 

Given her proximity to the stories - the book includes Xinran's own account of fostering a daughter - it is not surprising to discover she resisted writing this book for many years. The stories are shocking and devastating in equal measure. 

During her interviews, Xinran is frequently admonished for being too soft and empathetic, yet she does not shy away from revealing her horror at the choices made by Chinese women.

While exploring the secret lives of these women, Xinran describes the historical context of each story. Readers are also given an insight into Chinese culture, from the succulent food to the effects of the rapid development following the cultural revolution.

Beautifully written and translated, Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother is Xinran's brave ode to China's abandoned children. 

Rating: 8/10

Title: Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother
Author: Xinran
Publisher: Random House
RRP: $37.99
Available: Now