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Chinese authors

Book review: Buy Me the Sky by Xinran - sad indictment of Chinese youth

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 June, 2015, 6:45pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 June, 2015, 6:45pm

Xinran's latest book confirms all the worst stereotypes of young Chinese going overseas to study and start their careers: spoilt, incompetent and arrogant - and all because mummy and daddy coddled them.

Buy Me the Sky is about the erosion of Chinese values, and it hangs much of the blame on China's one-child policy. The mainland introduced the policy in 1979 and by some accounts that system has now produced a surplus of 30 million men - due to a preference for sons that has led to severe gender selection - and about 400 million fewer Chinese than if they'd been allowed to breed at will.

The first generation of only children began to reach marrying and child-bearing age in 2002, and there are now more than 10 million families from this selfish generation raising their own children, making the problem even larger. These spoilt people are lukewarm about childcare, often pushing them into the arms of their grandparents.

Large portions of Chinese society have gone from large, multi-generational, multi-sibling rural families to isolated, single-child urban cells. Xinran argues that only-child households, which lack both the sacrifice and support of larger families, have fuelled a culture of estrangement and conflict.

Xinran, a former journalist and radio presenter born in 1958, makes her argument through a series of stories about the young Chinese she meets, mostly in London. However, her examples and characters are hard to believe because of the stilted writing and lack of storytelling deft. Xinran is a bestselling author, so this may be partly due to translation - by Esther Tyldesley and David Dobson - but there's no hiding her condescending aunty tone of voice. The saccharine stories she tells read like tedious Sunday school parables with punch-in-the-stomach lessons.

However, Xinran is right on many key points. Many Chinese children have their interest in life, their creativity and motivation to make their own way "squashed by parents who pander to their every whim". That leaves lonely young adults who can't order a meal on their own, carry on an adult conversation or do their laundry, as the portraits in the book show.

"Chinese parents never believe that their children can grow up, or that they can take charge of their own future. Confucius did not believe it 2,000 years ago, and neither do parents nowadays. It seems to be ingrained in Chinese culture," she laments.

However, it is Xinran's tone of voice and her lack of tact in delivering her points that stays with the reader. The self-congratulatory condescension becomes stifling, undermining what could otherwise be interesting individual stories.

Wing, one of the subjects, asks Xinran an important question, which, after reading the book, the reader may be tempted to answer for the author, with a resounding "no": "Do you think just because you presented a programme on women's issues for eight years that you know everything about life? Life changes, why can't principles?"

"Buy Me the Sky" by Xinran (Rider)