Imagine you have been given the assignment to chronicle an entire generation. All the hopes, fears, tears and laughter of 20 years' worth of graduating classes are to be combined into a single book. Imagine further that your subjects, now in their 80s and 90s, have been traumatized by poverty, war and repression, and have grown up in a country where being open and honest with your feelings was not only culturally frowned upon, but often could subject you and your entire family to public humiliation, imprisonment, even death. In her book, "China Witness," author Xinran faces just such a daunting challenge and emerges victorious, giving us a fascinating glimpse into the lives and experiences of a people few in the West know anything about.
A collection of interviews with elderly Chinese, "Witness" is not as much a history book as it is a series of testimonials by people who witnessed history. The book has been compared to the writing of Studs Terkel, whose book "Working," was so successful at chronicling a generation of Americans. But "Witness," is even more impressive than Terkel's work because of the immense governmental and cultural hurdles Xinran had to overcome to get her subjects to open their hearts. In contrast to America where freedom of speech is the norm and where a single question can often garner a person's entire life story, getting Chinese people, particularly older folk, to be frank and open is as easy as trying to pry apart a bear trap with a pair of tweezers. As Xinran says in her introduction "Almost no one in China today believes you can get their men and women to tell the truth."
Xinran's most telling quality as an interviewer is her absolute sincerity. By sharing her own emotions honestly and openly with each of her subjects, she subtly invites them to respond in kind. The results are remarkable, as the lives and feelings of a generation steeped in denial begin to shine through like rare sunbeams on a cloudy day. More than just a record for future generations, the interviews themselves also offered many of her subjects a chance to come to grips with their own history. "It has been not only a personal journey for me through the experiences of my parent's generation," writes Xinan, "but also