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From Foot-Binding to Feminism: a Millennial Charts China’s Rapid Change

20 June 2019

From The Guardian:

When I sit down with Chinese journalist Karoline Kan to talk about her memoir, Under Red Skies, it is 5 June: the day after the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Kan’s emotional discovery of what is euphemistically referred to as “the June Fourth Incident” forms a moving part of her memoir about life as a millennial in China. “China collapsed for me suddenly,” she writes of the day she used a VPN to skirt web censorship and first learned of the killing and injuring of thousands, as she binged hungrily on suddenly accessible western coverage. “I no longer understood what was in front of me. I had no faith in what I had been brought up to believe.”

She explains: “When you grow up in China, trying to find the accurate details of something that happened before you, sometimes they are not available. And it’s like trying to solve a puzzle.”

Kan was born in 1989, the year of the massacre, and her memoir is a riveting blend of coming-of-age story, family history and cultural commentary, encompassing vast generational differences and the urban-rural divide. Kan is on the frontline of a rapidly changing country, having grown up poor in rural China, then attending university in the capital before working in the New York Times’s Beijing bureau. Her job title was “researcher”, as Chinese legislation does not allow citizens to be journalists for foreign-owned media. These days, she is the Beijing editor of website China Dialogue as well as a published author. It’s been quite the rise.

“Nobody in my family ever wrote a book,” she says. “There isn’t even a journalist in my family or anybody who could be considered intellectual. So to me, it was a nice dream.” She was never concerned about reprisals for her writing: “I was nobody, just a writer, and also writing in English. So unless I decided to write something totally political about the Chinese president or the party, it was pretty much fine.”

Kan was almost never here: under China’s one-child policy, her birth was forbidden. Kan’s mother entered a protracted game of cat and mouse with the Birth Control Office, tricking doctors into believing she had been fitted with the mandatory uterine ring by putting an iron ring in her pocket during an X-ray. She was also able to evade forced abortion and forced sterilisation. Nevertheless, having Kan lost her her job as a teacher.

. . . .

Her great-grandmother had bound feet, and her grandmother narrowly escaped the same fate. Kan writes: “At first, my grandmother, Little Guiqin, was told to practise walking so she could get used to the pain. The torture lasted for a few hours a day. She’d painfully and slowly pace up and down the yard. She’d cry and cry but then she got lucky. Less than a week after the initial binding, revolutionaries put a stop to the tradition.”

She says now: “I grew up in a traditional Chinese family from a small town where women naturally obey men. My teachers would tell me: ‘You should choose a job that suits women, not compete with men.’ I felt unhappy with it. I don’t think I’m any worse than male students. But at the same time I was afraid of being regarded as somebody weird, who doesn’t fit in.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Non-Fiction, Non-US