China Witness by Xinran

340-5Nonfiction — print. Translated from the Chinese by Esther Tyldesley and Nicky Harman. Patheon, 2008. 435 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “Voices from a Silent Generation”, Xinran’s book is a collection of interview transcripts with a dozen elderly people in China who’s jobs ranged from Acrobat to cherished Lantern Maker to Oilman to the average taxi driver asking them about their lives as well as a few tidbits of her own thoughts of where China has been and is headed towards. Her hope with the book is the preserve the voices of those that lived through the Cultural Revolution under Mao; think Steven Spielberg and the Shoah Foundation, which videotapes Holocaust survivors as they discuss their own history.

From my experience with Sky Burial, I recalled Xinran as a wonderful storyteller but that sadly was not the case here and finishing this book became a chore. The interviews were uneven with some interviewees getting more attention and more background information than others, and while I personally found the oilman, the medicine woman, the Lin family, and the “world’s biggest prison” survivors to be the most interesting, I still believe the other interviewees would have been just as interesting had they been given the same attention. The background information was certainly not there when it came to smaller parts of Chinese history (i.e. not Mao’s Cultural Revolution).

Every interviewee gets asked the same two questions — how poor were you when you were growing up? how did you meet your wife/husband? — but in some cases these questions were not relevant to what the interviewee was even saying, and I found the repetition of questions (and answers) to be annoying. Some of the interviews felt incredibly unfocused, and while there is no doubt that the interviews are an important part of the story of twentieth century China, there is a large sense that many things are left untold. On the plus side, however, I was not as bothered by the question and answer format as I originally thought I would be when I discovered the structure of the book.


  1. I’m sorry to hear this book didn’t work out. I read “Miss Chopsticks” by Xinran this year and really enjoyed it. Maybe her fictionalised works are better?


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