Message From an Unknown Chinese Mother by Xinran

6623279Nonfiction — print. Translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman. Chatto & Windus, 2010. 212 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “Stories of Love and Loss”, Xinran’s book includes ten chapters each one dedicated to the story of Chinese mothers who have lost their daughters through infanticide, theft, and abandonment or have spent their lives caring for the thousands of orphans in China. Xinran explains how and why these women made the decision to end their daughters’ lives or abandoned them as toddlers in train stations around the country — a decision that seems unimaginable — in order to help the more than 120,000 Chinese girls adopted by parents in twenty-seven countries at the end of 2006 understand why their mothers could place them up for adoption.

Through these ten stories, Xinran asserts that mothers in China do not make the decision to place their daughters up for adoption out of malice or spit or because they hate their female children but because female babies have been abandoned in farming cultures around the country since ancient times and because of the one-child policy. She also attempts to argue that women abandon their female infants due to sexual ignorance; they have no knowledge of how to prevent a pregnancy and no options when they do become pregnant. A particularly weak and unconvincing argument when discussing the abandonment and infanticide of female infants.

But while it would be easy to condemn the reasons offered, Xinran makes it abundantly clear that most of the women profiled in this book do not have the choice to keep their daughters. Many of these women are physically and emotionally abused by their in-laws when they give birth to a daughter and one man, who clearly adored his daughter, explained how his parents told him not to return home until he and his wife had a daughter. If they did not have a son in the next two and a half years, he would lose his right to inherit his parents’ property and dishonor his ancestors.

Without a son, there is no one to continue on the family line, honor the ancestors, inherit property, or care for the parents in their old age, and while some families would also accept a daughter, many of them believe the firstborn child must be a son in order to “root” the family. The state prevents them from keeping children born after that much desired son, but Xinran contends through her stories that desire for a son is the foremost motivation for the death and abandonment of infant girls around the country.

Those women living in the city at least have the opportunity to take their daughters to orphanages were they will hopefully be adopted, but those living in the countryside are often given a bucket of water or food slops following their birth of their daughter in which they supposed to drown their child in. And some women are “extra-birth guerrillas” who travel the country via train attempting to evade the one-child policy and hold onto their daughter. But all those interviewed in the book explain how tremendous and heartbreaking the losses of their daughters have been in their lives and how they desperately hope young girls adopted by foreigners from China understand that their mothers miss and think of them every single day.

“…a woman was like a pebble worn smooth and round by water and time. Our outward appearance was changed by the fate meted out to us in our lives, but no water could alter the heart of the woman and her maternal instincts.” (pg. 18)

There are some aspects of Xinran’s book that frustrated me — her unnecessary insertion of herself into the story, in particular — but I do think the book is an interesting introduction into the state of Chinese adoption and addresses an often forgotten group when discussing the impact of the one-child policy in China. Xinran wrote the book specifically for girls adopted from China by foreigners, and for that audience I believe the book would be both interesting and illuminating.


  1. It’s been YEARS since I’ve read any Dahl but I look forward to when my kiddos are a bit older and we can read them together (or even better…they can read them themselves). I never thought to look for his books on audio! I love the idea of Kate Winslet narrating.


    • I was a bit apprehensive because I assumed she would read the books in a single tone, but Winslet was a fantastic narrator. Highly recommend her! I can’t wait to read Dahl with my kids and I don’t even have any. 😛


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