Magazine article The Spectator

'Buy Me the Sky: The Remarkable Truth of China's One-Child Generations', by Xinran - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Buy Me the Sky: The Remarkable Truth of China's One-Child Generations', by Xinran - Review

Article excerpt

Buy Me the Sky: The Remarkable Truth of China's One-child Generations Xinran

Rider, pp.320, £20, ISBN: 9781846044717

This book starts with a Chinese boy so privileged and pampered that, at 21, he can't open his own suitcase, let alone unpack it. It closes at the opposite end of the social scale with a small girl squatting on a plank over a village cesspit, watching the maggots seething and squirming far below as they struggle to climb the sides of the pit towards the light.

The cesspit was the only place where a child of five could find refuge from back-breaking labour in the fields. 'Granny said girls who don't work get no food,' she tells Xinran, who meets her two decades later as a student working for her doctorate in Europe. She says that the cesspit maggots, endlessly crawling up and nearly always falling back, remained for her ever afterwards an indomitable image of perseverance, courage and hope.

Both boy and girl are only children. Both belong to the tidal wave of students spilling out of China around the turn of the millennium, the first few generations of only children, all of them much cherished and relatively affluent, a phenomenon without precedent in their own country or anywhere else. They belong to the future but they come dragging with them long black shadows from the past. In a continent in flux, where everything around them changes almost daily with alarming finality and at inconceivable speed, they find few viable signposts or guidelines.

Statistics tell a sombre story. In just over 40 years since the one-child policy was implemented, the birth rate has gone down in China by 400 million. The population now includes 30 times more men than women. Unwanted -- female or otherwise inferior -- babies are still strangled or drowned at birth by their own mothers, according to ancestral custom, an unchanging rule-of-thumb from a village world where for thousands of years infanticide has been standard practice, 'just another woman's task, and part of good housekeeping skills'.

The gulf between the present and the past is hard, if not impossible, to bridge. A younger generation embodying the traditional hopes and dreams of parents and grandparents has been narrowed down in each case to a single infant, born to fulfil impossible expectations. Only children bear the burden of responsibility not only for themselves and for their elders, but for all the brothers and sisters who had no life so that they might live. Unspoken, unexplored and undigested experience weighs heavy on them. 'We are different from other people...,' one of them explains to Xinran, 'we who were born and grew up alone.'

Realistically speaking, the practicalities of their new role have yet to be worked out. …

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