The author and journalist Xinran has written a number of non-fiction books about women in contemporary China, but in her latest book she goes back in time to examine the changes in love and marriage since the Republican era. Much has been written about political, social, and economic changes in China since before the 1949, but few authors apart from Lynn Pan—who explored the common notion that love originated in the West before it arrived in China—have taken an intimate look the Chinese women’s private lives spanning four generations.
Xinran first came up with the idea for her new narrative, The Promise: Love and Loss in Modern China, after a friend told her about a woman named Red who despite having been married for over 60 years, never consummated her marriage. Shocked, Xinran went to her mother with this story. Her mother didn’t seem surprised and said to her daughter, “Many couples only talked about love; they never had experienced it or did anything about it.”
Red’s story led Xinran to think about enormous changes in China over the last century, but from a romantic standpoint and if people in China really didn’t experience love. She writes in her introduction,
I had never before realized just how much Chinese women have changed in their understanding of the difference between sex, emotions and love. Could it be that in the space of only two generations, a collective cultural understanding had completely turned on its head?
In The Promise, Xinran interviewed four generations of women from the same family and made inferences from their stories, which ranged in time from the era of arranged marriages to the digital age in which young people find partners through online dating apps. She started with Red’s story. The eldest of nine children all nicknamed after colors in the rainbow, Red obviously had no descendants, so Xinran also spoke at length with Red’s sister Green and several women in the two generations below the sisters. But it is Red’s story that stands out because of her utter lack of control over her own marriage, thanks to the restrictive customs of the time.
In the 1920s, it was normal practice for parents to arrange their children’s marriages, even before they came of age. Red was betrothed to a boy named Baogang, who as an adult years later joined the Nationalist army during the civil war and didn’t return home to marry Red until 1949. On their wedding night, Baogang never joined Red in their bedroom and the next day claimed he had had too much to drink. On their second evening as husband and wife, he made another excuse to stay away from Red until very late that night. And when he did enter their bedroom, he confessed he was in love with another woman named Lin and was waiting for her to return to their hometown. Even though Baogang was in love with Lin and was saving himself for her, he wouldn’t dissolve his marriage to Red because he couldn’t go against his parents’ wishes to marry her. Xinran explains that women of Red’s era had few rights when it came to their married lives.
It was not until the 1980s that Chinese people were truly able to decide freely about marriage, to make up their minds and look for the kind of family that they really wanted.
Lin never returned, but that didn’t change Baogang’s relationship with Red. Red, on the other hand, felt conflicted because she grew to love Baogang in her own, platonic way while still feeling resentful that a phantom Lin still held a central place in Baogang’s heart. Red’s parents were madly in love throughout their marriage, so her style of marriage wasn’t what Red was used to at home, yet she remained powerless against filial piety and the customs of the times.
In the next generation, Communist politics dictated how one looked for a spouse. Even Red’s sister Green, twelve years Red’s junior, experienced different dating standards than her elder sister because she came of age during the early years of the Mao era. Since families were de-emphasized during this time in favor of the Communist party, Chinese women were encouraged to marry devotees to the revolution. And then there was the era reform and opening up in the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping era. Women—and Chinese citizens in general—enjoyed more opportunities than they’d had in decades. Chinese women in this era looked for men with university educations. This custom isn’t so different from customs in the West, although Western universities didn’t close for a decade all in the name of agrarian development.
The narratives turned extraordinary again during the last section, in which Xinran interviewed Red’s grand-nieces, all of whom were born in the 1980s. By the time these women came of age, the dating world had completely upended, even by US standards. This coincided, of course, with China’s great leap forward from the iron rice bowl of the 1980s to basically a cashless society punctuated by high-speed trains all in the span of a generation.
One of Red’s grand-nieces dated almost exclusively online, never intending to meet the men she poured her heart out to over dating apps. It wasn’t uncommon for her to have develop online relationships with several men at once. Lili, one of grand-nieces, had an actual boyfriend who was British. Given the culture of online dating, the British boyfriend didn’t rule out that Lili was in close contact with other men from these apps. Yet he couldn’t bring himself to communicate this concern to her. Instead, he told Xinran,
I really care about Lili, but like I said, I don’t know what I mean to her. Sometimes I wonder whether she’s another one of those young women with several social-media ‘lovers’… I’m confident that she’d choose me over them. For Chinese people today, there are virtually no guidelines for dating.
At the end of The Promise, Xinran found evidence of love in each of these generations, even in the skewed online dating world of Red’s grand-nieces. Each of these relationships was defined by the limitations of the given era. In her conclusion, Xinran wondered if the stories of the earlier generations would live on with contemporary young adults and their descendants.
Many of their generation looked upon their great-grandmothers’ arranged marriages as mere fairy tales, and turned their grandmothers’ sense of revolutionary duty into the butt of jokes. As for their mothers’ stubborn devotion to love, it seemed somewhat childish to them.
Only time will answer that. At the very least, the stories she tells will contribute in keeping these stories alive and giving hope to the next generations.