China is one of those few countries which went through tremendous social and political changes in the last 100 or so years. As everything kept changing, human relations also kept changing in China. In The Promise, Xinran Xue explains how the changing political and economic conditions changed the love relations in China. The Promise is the true story of love lives of Chinese women, told through four generations of one family – the Red. It is told in their own words. In the end, we see that six different voices emerge out of these four stories. They were all shaped by the changing politics, and society. The changing culture defined and continues to define their love lives. Xinran Xue says that Chinese history and culture is full of love stories. In the Chinese language, the word ‘lian ai’ was traditionally used to describe feelings of love between a man and woman, whereas now it is used to refer to both the emotional and physical strands of love. From Red, the oldest generation woman who always followed the natural cycle of the Earth, to her younger sisters Green and Orange, who embraced the Revolution, the older generations were heavily influenced by traditional classical love stories. Those were the models on which they based their idea of love, models which instilled in them a promise that they too would find love.
Xinran Xue says that those love stories were originally passed down generations through thousands of years of oral tradition, drama and ‘shuochang’ storytelling until the Cultural Revolution put a stop to the spreading of such “poisonous weeds.” When these forms of art returned to the artistic stage after Reform and Opening Up, Red and her sisters revived the memory of their mother’s teachings in those familiar stories and music and found themselves longing for their own childhood. But just as they thought they were getting their history back, the younger generations were on a train speeding away from them, bound for the future. They had no chance to share this oral history with them. Xinran Xue continues and takes us to the 1980s. In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping opened a door that China had left closed for hundreds of years. Xinran Xue says that for so long a grey and impoverished nation starved of enough food to eat and enough color in its everyday life — China began to greedily embrace the cut-price American way of life — McDonalds and Starbucks became symbols of fine dining to the Chines, while the most basic of American daily products became known as the extravagant indulgences of the country’s social elite.
When the fourth generation came of age, everything had changed in China. Xinran Xue tells us that the fourth generation of Red’s family not only grew up during China’s period of Reform and Opening Up but also in the lonely households of the one-child policy. The fourth generation women 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. In short, with the passing of each of the three generations, family values had time and again been turned on their head.
The Promise is an amazing study of love relations and how they are shaped and reshaped by the changing political and economic condition. Xinran Xue shows how the love relations evolved in China and how different love was for each of the four generations covered in this book. In short, the lesson is that as society develops economically and politically, it has an emancipatory effect on both men and women and their relations. In other words, love is not a static concept. It may be a study of love in China but a similar study in any other country will probably give similar results. Xinran Xue is a gifted storyteller and The Promise reads like an unputdownable novel. William Spence’s translation from Chines into English cannot be over-praised.