Wednesday, August 17, 2005

On the North side of Beijing there is a road called San li Tun. Locals and visitors know it better as "Bar Street." Its just what it sounds like. A long road lined on both sides almost exclusively by bars. Discos, lounges, pubs, music halls, there's an establishment to suit every taste.

Newly middle class and newly rich locals, students, wanabees, up and comers, academics, ex-pats and tourists all mingle on this lively lane nightly in yet another display of the dawning cosmopolitan and market driven life of the new Chinese capital.

Just off the middle of the road is a side street. A street filled with 1960s era apartment blocks that house students and ex pats mostly. Tucked in between two towers is yet another example of the recent flowering of life, expression and thought in China. A combination bookshop, restaurant, speaking and concert venue.

A place where people gather to hear book readings, drink coffee, eat noodles and Turkey CLub sandwiches, listen to music and shop. It wouldn't be out of place in Berkeley, New York or London.

One night in April I was invited to go there with some local friends of mine. It was for a book reading and some food. As I walked into the large, seductively lit, many shelved room, supported by old hard wood floors, I saw an eclectic group of locals and foreigners, eating, drinking, talking and debating.

The best was yet to come. The woman who came on to speak that night was a well-known radio personality and author in China named Xinran. For a long time she provided one of the only voices for Chinese women.

Her show "Words on the Night Breeze" was a place where women spoke freely about their darkest secrets and the issues that affected them in a traditional, male-dominated society.

Repression, death, children who left the farm, rape, beatings, all were talked about.

From the show came a novel, "The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices," published after she moved to London in 1996.

She was in Beijing that evening to read from her new book: "Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet." The story follows a woman who left China in 1958 to find her "disappeared" husband. Along the way she is treated with kindness in Tibet and discovers the mysteries of the people, religion and natural beauty of the place.

When she gets back to China in the early 1990s, she returns to a country drastically changed from the grey, repressive Maoist era.

The title of the book comes from an ancient Tibetan burial ritual. The deceased is chopped into small pieces and dipped in Yak butter and then fed to the birds.

That night in Beijing she read with passion and pathos. When she was done there was a question and answer session. It was during this time I realized just how deep the changes in lifestyle and more importantly, thought had taken place.

The session tuned into an honest conversation and debate about women's rights in China, the Maoist legacy and the status of Tibet. All subjects that 15 years ago would have been completely taboo to discuss in public or even in private.

She finished by reminding us that we all share the same blood, laughter, tears, successes and failures in life. She urged us to go out and speak about China, and Chinese people to whoever would listen.She took her time in London and the West to learn, so that she could come back to China and spread the word of brother and sisterhood and educate Chinese people about the West.

In honor of her request, I write this piece today.

You can buy her book at any bookstore or on

(Nan A. Talese/Doubleday - $18.95)