Sisters in struggle

NOT long ago, Xinran Xue met a young Chinese woman while giving a talk in Somerset.

Xinran asked how long the other woman had been in Britain and whether she liked the people she'd been meeting. "Half," was the reply. Surprised, Xinran pressed for details. What she heard made her smile. "The British people, they are so lazy, do you know that?" asked the newcomer, perfectly outraged. "I've been here over a year - they never change any streets!" When I raise a baffled eyebrow, Xinran patiently explains that in the past 20 years most roads in China have been rebuilt from scratch. Here's a hint: if you fancy making a fortune there, take up cartography.

What an excellent allegory for China itself, where it's all change from the top to the bottom of society - though the rate of progress is far from uniform throughout this enormous, densely populated land, which is home to 56 different ethnic groups, each with its own history, language and culture. "China is a big ocean," says Xinran. "My experience and my books are like a drop of that water. I cannot explain the ocean, but I can explain a cup of green tea."

Westerners know the petite 48-year-old author via her bestsellers The Good Women of China and Sky Burial. Now comes her first novel, Miss Chopsticks, about three sisters from the country who go to bustling Nanjing to seek their fortune. "Chopsticks" is a northern Chinese phrase referring to women's disposability. Xinran writes, "While men are believed to be the strong providers, the roof-beams holding up the house, women are merely fragile, workaday tools, to be used and discarded. Whenever I visit [China], I see hundreds of chopstick girls becoming part of the structure that holds up the roof of China, in the same way that China itself, which was closed to its neighbours for so long, is now becoming part of the framework that holds up the world."

The sisters, who are all based on real women, though not actual sisters, come from a large but blighted family - there are no sons. Lacking proper names, they're numbered by birth order: Three, Five and Six. One by one they come to Nanjing, finding employment in a restaurant, a water spa, and a booklovers' teashop. Through them, Xinran illuminates some of the complexity of contemporary Chinese culture. "This is a new nation, a new generation. Here you talk about history, tradition and antiques. For the Chinese it's all about the future. Not just big roads; we have more than ten cities with populations over a million. Sometimes I find this country's people living in their grandparents' glorious history. China is looking forward."

How's the view, I wonder? This is the country, after all, where it's better to be a donkey than a woman; a country where they joke that development benefits everyone except farmers, workers and women; a country where 78 per cent of the population are uneducated peasants, and where suicide is the fifth biggest killer of women. Though nothing truly awful happens to Xinran's three protagonists - certainly not compared to the horror stories of abuse, rape and denigration revealed in Good Women - it's still a tale of hardscrabble lives and painful awakenings.

With its agriculture-based history producing a culture that's strongly male, China has no precedent of powerful women. But does that make it unique? "In English, why is it history, not herstory?" questions Xinran. "Why is it man-made, not woman-made? We all come from societies founded on being male. It's especially pervasive in the Orient - Korea, Japan - partly because of geography. We are always grouped together and didn't interact with the rest of the world. In these cultures women are always at the bottom. A good example is the Chinese tax system, one of the oldest in the world, which said that if you had one more boy you got one more piece of land from the state, but if you had one more girl you received nothing. So a boy is not just a boy anymore but part of the family's economic future, and very valuable."

But surely everyone understands that you need two to tango! Xinran nods and we exchange a look that says, yes, we understand the interdependency of the sexes, but try telling them. "Mao taught the country to give women freedom of marriage and freedom of their name. Before him we had no right to have our own name. What he did to the country was horrible, but we have to be honest to the history: some of what he did for women was very good. He liberated women from the house and into society, where they started working alongside men. But the problem is, women worked very hard in the daytime and then went home and had to do all the housework. So a lot of women said, well, if liberation just means double work, I'd prefer to stay at home."

You'll find very little difference between men and women in China's cities, she says. "In offices women are paid less than men, but that's the same here." Yet home life hasn't progressed as rapidly. "It's not a modern home, it's traditional and you have to be the woman." That also sounds familiar, I say, and she laughs. The sight of her husband (London literary agent Toby Eady) cooking is unnerving, she admits. "I can't sit there. My reaction is, 'I'm a woman, I should do it.' And I'm educated! I should know better. But it's indoctrinated in us for generations."

For all the slick sophistication of the cities, in the countryside the bulk of the population still lives in grinding poverty. There are more women than men, because families keep hoping a boy will arrive. "The single child policy was first brought in about 1979," explains Xinran, "but became strong from 1981 to 1984. Before that, Mao encouraged women to give China as many children as possible! But it was only in 2004 that the policy actually became the law.

"This policy was carried out very well in big cities, in an unbelievable way. If you had one child already and got pregnant you were punished: you lost your job, lost property, lost everything. But this never worked in the countryside, which has never been touched by modern policies. There, it's like 500 years ago; people are still living by traditional beliefs that say the family is the future and you need more boys to work the land. Corruption is big; people buy the right to have more children."

Those punished for fecundity prior to 2004 are perplexed. Logically speaking, that was a case of the state disobeying its own law. "Lots of Chinese are confused. People are asking, 'What is the law?' This is a very Chinese situation; the policy-makers always legislate after the fact. You don't know what you can't do. We still haven't got freedom of religion or of the press, or an independent legal system. Before 2000 we never had the right to talk about sexual education; that started in 2002."

The Chinese are renowned for hiding their emotions and public displays of affection were unheard of, except sometimes between a mother and her children. That, too, is changing, in what Xinran refers to as a new cultural revolution, driven by the twin engines of the internet and sexual freedom.

"This is difficult for most educated families; they're ashamed to say, 'My son has a girlfriend,' or, 'My daughter has a boyfriend,' until they're married. But it's becoming a fashion. If you go to the universities, girls have started showing off that they have boyfriends or are living with someone. This would never happen before. With sex education in the schools, young people are accepting more and more that sex is a normal and enjoyable part of life."

Xinran only spent about three years in total living with her mother, and cannot recall any tender hugs or kisses. This is something she's more than made up for with her own son, Pan Pan, now 19, with whom she shares an easy, blatantly affectionate relationship full of laughter and gentle teasing in both directions. When Xinran told her mother she was marrying Eady, the older woman told this adult, divorced, successful single mum, "'Behave yourself. He's a man. He needs your care. Don't lose your temper. If you have a problem, take a bath.' Once I thought this was a normal Chinese mother. Now I'm reconsidering. If you marry someone it's for love, not to behave yourself and play the part of another person. You don't change yourself."

Back in the Chinese countryside, progress happens slowly and these ancient beliefs mean female suicide is still rife. "There are many reasons why a woman might kill herself or be forced to kill herself. Any woman can be raped, can be forced to marry someone, or maybe she can't give the family a son. Most Chinese country women don't know how to value their lives. I met the woman who inspired Number Three again. She returned to her village and had a daughter and is pregnant again and worried, because if she can't have a boy she has to think about whether or not she should kill herself. That's not happening in the cities, not since the 1950s. But even at the universities, if a girl is dropped by a boy, or gets pregnant, or is called bad names, the only way to clear her name is suicide. This is the only way she can prove she's a good woman."

Pan Pan once asked his mum what she'd do if she were prime minister. She'd make being a housewife a career, supported by social services and a wage. "Motherhood is the most difficult job, it's 24 hours and not easy physically or psychologically. Women start preparing for this job from their first period. We pay the price for devoting our lives to other human lives. I always talked about this on my programme. The head of my station was really mad with me, said no-one mentioned periods." The price exceeds monthly pain and bloating. The minute a girl becomes a woman she's alert to new dangers and difficulties. Xinran says, "I can't wake up society but I want to wake up someone so they think about how women become victims. Rape, sexual abuse, beatings, treating someone as though she has less value because she's a woman - they damage you for life. I try to show people what is inside these victims.

"This is why lots of Chinese people are disappointed in me. They say there are so many rich, successful, upper-class Chinese that I never write about. But those people have so many voices. How many voices are there for the poor people who cry and suffer all the time, who think they deserved what happened to them? When I started my radio programme [Words on the Night Breeze ran from 1989 to 1997] the letters were full of such pain. I tried to tell them they were victims of culture abuse, that they had beauty, they were good people."

Do the Chinese value human life as we do in the West? Not in the same way, she says. "A lot of people ask about China's human rights policies, and I say I totally agree, but a lot of Chinese people just don't value their lives. When we talk about the quality of the nation, we have to improve things for women first. We are moving in this direction but there's a long way to go. The greatest difficulty is not for women but for men - how do they understand it? But woman, as everyone knows, is the first teacher of human beings. She's the quality of the family and of society."

I have two final questions. First, does Xinran have a favourite chopstick girl? She doesn't hesitate. "Number Five." This sister, deemed the slowest and least attractive, flourishes in the unlikely environment of a water spa for wealthy urbanites. Xinran admires Five because she's true to herself. "Many of these girls adopt the city lifestyle. They are ashamed to talk of their mothers and their villages because Chinese society is very class-ridden. Two months ago I met Number Five again. She's in her early twenties now. She has amazing talents from her life in the countryside."

Xinran laughs. "The funny thing is, she still believes she can make a good life without reading and writing! I really like her. She transforms the beauty of the countryside for city people, showing that you can get beauty in different ways. She's learning about acupuncture from the blind people - this is why she said she doesn't need to read and write, because they can't and they have made very good lives!"

To end, tell me what's good about China, I suggest. "I really admire the women and what we've been through, the mothers of the last generation who carried a new generation to today with their love. I have travelled to more than 30 countries and never seen women like Chinese mothers, driving themselves for their children and their husbands. Maybe my books feel sad, but you can see all these stories occur in a very beautiful culture, which I truly love. China has a lot of problems, but from my studies I've found that in fact, China's not that far away from the rest of the world."

Life is changing rapidly, says Xinran; more rapidly than western nations have done throughout history. "The Chinese have worked their way out of the political party's control in just 20 years, but it's not easy. So the subjects of my story are sad, but in the spirit of the Chinese women, and the beautiful culture and the belief in the future, these are all wonderful things." sm

• Miss Chopsticks is published on Thursday by Chatto & Windus, priced 16.99.

The life of Xinran Xue

Xinran Xue was born in 1958, in Bejing, "when China was at its poorest, and a day's food ration consisted of a few soybeans". When she was a month old she was sent to live with her grandmother so her parents could concentrate on their work for the Party. Family wealth meant that she inhabited a beautiful house and ate imported chocolate, unaware that elsewhere in China, children starved. Aged seven, she returned to live with her parents on the military base where they were engineers. But before the reunited family could get properly reacquainted it was ripped apart by the Cultural Revolution.

Suspecting her father of being a reactionary, and also damning him because his "capitalist pig" father had worked for a British company, the Red Guards burned their house, destroying precious books, artefacts and furniture. Xinran's father was jailed for ten years; her mother was also detained. Xinran and her younger brother were sent to a centre for the children of prisoners, where they lived for five years. The centre was harsh, "with none of the smiles, games or laughter of childhood". She was told her parents, whom she barely knew, were monsters who drank human blood. Life outside was even worse. As a "polluted" child, she was mocked and bullied, but found a refuge in books.

Xinran attended military schools then university. After 12 years working as a civilian in the military, she was selected to become a radio journalist. In 1989, in the somewhat freer climate under Deng Xiaoping, who started opening up China, she launched Words on the Night Breeze, focusing on women's issues. Over eight years the show made her a celebrity. She received hundreds of letters and calls each day, mostly recounting tales of oppression, abuse and loss. Her goal was "to open a little window, a tiny hole, so that people could allow their spirits to cry out and breathe after the gunpowder-laden atmosphere of the previous 40 years". She received huge acclaim as the first person to "lift the veil" on women's issues, and became director of programme development and planning at her radio station.

She also married, had a son, Pan Pan, and divorced. In 1995, inspired by her listeners' tales, she began researching The Good Women of China, which was published in 2002. In 1997 she moved to London, and later re-married literary agent Toby Eady (who is, incidentally, the son of the late novelist Mary Wesley). Her other previous books are Sky Burial and What the Chinese Won't Eat (a collection of newspaper columns for the Guardian).