Book Review: Buy me the Sky: The remarkable truth of China’s one-child generations, by Xinran

cv_buy_me_the_skyAvailable now in bookstores nationwide. 

We are giving away a copy of this book, and tickets to Xinran’s solo event on Friday 15 May at Auckland Writer’s Festival here.

Xinran is a true inspiration. In her books, she not only explains China as she sees it to the English-speaking world, she also shows herself to be one of life’s truly good people. What flaws she has, she acknowledges, but her ability to listen to and translate people’s experiences in a story is truly special. She uses her fame and influence for good, both in China and in London, where she lives, working with The Mother’s Bridge of Love to help disadvantaged Chinese children.

The theme of this book is China’s one-child policy, which still exists, though in a weakened form, today. It is incredible to think that the vast majority of Chinese children born between 1978 and now are only children. While I am an only child, I haven’t met a lot of other “one-and-onlies” my age, as it wasn’t usual in NZ in the 1980’s to have only one child. The effect that this policy has had, in interaction with the booming Chinese economy, is not altogether positive, as we learn through the chapters of this book.

Each of these chapters deals with a different only child who Xinran has known well. Each child was met in a different way – some were children of friends of hers, others were randomly-met acquaintances (she met Golden Swallow for the first time in a hotel foyer in Christchurch.) Each of them had vastly different family circumstances, but they had one thing in common: they were all Chinese children who were their families’ “one-and-only” child.

Xinran says, in the context of Golden Swallow’s experience: “Chinese only-child families are preoccupied with just three things: making money, cosying up to government contacts for protection, and making outrageous comparisons between their children.” This may not be true across the board, but certainly it can be understood in the context of the booming economy of China, where those who are rich are busy spending their wealth, and those who aren’t can’t take a moment out of the day to enjoy it (or spend time with their only children), as they are so busy earning it. Xinran says that China is moving so quickly these days, she can’t keep up with the changes in culture through her 6-monthly visits home. She learns a lot from her students, as they do from her.

Buy me the Sky explores how having only one child can affect families in different ways, and throughout the book she asks a question about a cultural incident in China – the Yao Jiaxin incident – of each person she interviews, to see what their thoughts are on it. This incident saw a privileged and talented piano student kill a peasant woman with a fruit knife after running her over in his car accidentally; just in case she caused trouble for him. Each of the only children is their parent’s everything – this incident reflected Yao’s need to remain his parent’s everything; and it caused him to have his own life taken, as China still practises capital punishment for first-degree murder.

Every time I said I was an only child to a new friend the answer was always ‘Oh you lucky thing, you must be so spoiled.’ I wasn’t, possibly because my parents were from huge families, but why would one want to be? How exactly can this be said to be lucky? The stories in this book are mainly of spoiled children – spoiled in different ways. Spoiled by money, spoiled by attention, spoiled by love, spoiled by high expectations – the culture of China adds to this, and these children straddle between old familial ties and the modern world.

The final chapter in this book touches on the difference between children from cities, and those from the countryside. In China, the progress of culture marches on in cities, leaving vast areas of the countryside behind – in terms of technology and in terms of values and beliefs. For instance whilst Chinese living in the countryside have not been as detrimentally effected by the one-child policy, the rates of female infanticide are much higher. In 2009 there were 33.31 million more men than women in China, as a result of female infanticide.

Read this illuminating book to better understand the changing culture of Chinese people. Many recent Chinese immigrants to New Zealand will be part of the generations described by Xinran in Buy Me the Sky – the one-and-only chance to carry on the family lineage.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Buy Me the Sky
by Xinran
Published by Rider Books
ISBN 9781846044724

Xinran is appearing in Christchurch in WORD’s Autumn Season, and twice at the Auckland Writer’s Festival. I saw her several years ago in Christchurch, and I highly recommend going along to her session (and reading this book).

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