SINCE Xinran Xue wrote "The Good Women of China" in 2002, she has sought to tell the story of ordinary Chinese people. That first, brilliant book was based on a Chinese radio show that Ms Xue (who writes under her first name only) hosted for eight years, inviting women to call in and talk about themselves. The result was a moving and shocking account of what it was like to be a woman in socialist China.
The country is far more open now than it was even two decades ago, yet the task of recounting the first-person experiences of some of its 1.4 billion people is just as vital—and sometimes as tricky. In "Buy Me the Sky", her seventh book, Ms Xue takes on China’s first generation of only children, those born between 1979 and 1984, after the one-child policy was introduced nationwide. Each chapter uses the life and experiences of a "single sprout", as she calls them, to enliven a larger story.
中国跟哪怕短短20年前相比也已经开放了许多，但讲述该国14亿人口当中某些人的亲身经历依然是一个至关重要、有时十分棘手的任务。在她的第七本书《给我买片天》（Buy Me the Sky）中，薛欣然把目光投向中国第一代独生子女，也就是在1979年到1984年之间出生的人。每一章通过一个"独苗"的生活和经历栩栩如生地叙述一个更宏大的故事。
The central question is what developing an idea of children in the singular has done to Chinese society; what happens when those one-and-onlies, so long the sole focus of their parents’ and grandparents’ love, attention and expectations, go out into the world. Has not thinking about others until adulthood skewed the morality of a generation?
Her thesis is that today’s only children are materially better off than their forebears—sometimes hugely so—but that they are a lonely generation whose parents’ dreams lie heavy on their shoulders. Economic change has made the generational divide sharp and deep, says Ms Xue. "Chinese children are the property of their parents, and we single children, in particular, are the property of all the generations before us," says one only child she meets. Another woman notes that she spent the nine months of her pregnancy under the "direction and protection" of 12 relatives from two generations above her, every move she made linked to the fate of her family.
No wonder, says Ms Xue, that many find it hard to discover their own path in life: "A bird cannot carry its cage when it flies." One young man is so ill-equipped for adulthood that he cannot pack his own suitcase, yet, away from family scrutiny, he transforms from being a picky eater into a happy omnivore. Several of her onlies embody the spoiled generation of the title, others are "labouring ants". One interviewee moans that in America and Europe people under 30 are knowingly hedonistic and encouraged to explore their options in life, whereas in China, another says, the young instead spend those years studying and setting themselves up in a profession, trying to buy a house and car, making themselves worthy of marriage. A third disagrees: being an only child "has become an excuse for my generation", he says.
Ms Xue raises more questions than she answers—her book is a series of observations rather than a rigorous study, a little too reliant on individuals who have travelled far from China and into the author’s path. Weighing the consequences of one of the most extraordinary social experiments on earth is not an easy venture.