Xinran opened Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival with launch of ‘Buy me the Sky’

Xue Xinran signs copies of 'Buy me the Sky' at the opening of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

Xue Xinran signs copies of her latest book 'Buy me the Sky' which was launched at the Opening Night of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival. Photo by: Mothers' Bridge of Love

Xinran opened Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival with launch of ‘Buy me the Sky’

11 May 2015

By Naomi Canton

The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival opened to a packed house with a talk by British-Chinese writer Xue Xinran about her latest book, Buy me the Sky, which was published in the UK the same day.

It is a series of stories about the men and women born in China after 1979 when the controversial one-child policy was introduced – a national policy that was not relaxed until 2013. Xinran examines their attitudes and their relationships with others in a bid to capture a fresh face of an emerging superpower.

Her book shows how Chinese parents had pinned all their hopes and dreams on these only children but that their overindulgence had created a generation of spoilt arrogant self-centred young adults – the centres of their own social universes, often unable to carry out basic household tasks.

Jemimah Steinfeld, Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival Manager, who has lived in China, said she was “blown away” by London-based Xinran’s 2002 book The Good Women of China in which she interviews women across China about what it means to be a woman in modern China

Now Buy me The Sky looks at the offspring of the single-child policy in China.

Xinran herself had a son in 1988, when the policy was still part of Chinese culture. She moved to the UK from China with him in 1997.

To see a slideshow of the Opening Night click below:-

CEO of Asia House Michael Lawrence who introduced the talk said: “The Bagri Foundation have been tremendous partners and we are also thankful to the Arts Council who continue to support us. I would also like to thank and congratulate Jemimah Steinfeld, our Literature Festival Manager, who has shown creativity, patience and tenacity in putting together this programme. We have a fantastic Festival with more than 20 events where you will hear some of the most exciting voices from Asia.”

In conversation with Isabel Hilton, founder and editor of, Xinran said her initial interest in this topic was not to write a book. She was brought up before the one-child policy and she said just wanted to know more about being a mother to one of these ‘one and onlies’. Her mother’s generation had, unlike her, strived to have large families.

Xinran explained there was no sex education in Chinese schools and no family social support so she said she “did not know how to be a mother to an only child.” So her initial interest was to meet other mothers of ‘only’ children living in China.

She spoke about how in Chinese villages the single-child policy had put tremendous pressure on couples to have sons. “Sometimes a couple would be dragged out and told by their parents not to come back till they have son and treated as a criminal,” she told the shocked audience.

Hilton mentioned the single-child policy had caused a shortage of wives, a shortage of labour and a rapidly ageing population in China.

Xinran said that Chinese society was “totally shaped by family” as there was no national religion even though many religions have entered China. “We have Confucianism instead which has rules on behaviour such as respect to your elders and to be dutiful to your parents,” she said.

Her book explores the dysfunctional relationship the urban offspring of the one-child policy often have with their parents.

She relayed an incident when a Chinese daughter told her mother that if she had a second child she would jump off a building; the mother had an abortion. “But in the last two weeks a child did jump because the parents had a second child. They don’t have this idea of respect for family, many of them lack this,” Xinran said.

“A lot of them don’t know how to share because that comes from having siblings. Many treat their parents as slaves, they don’t know how to cook and when they live overseas they can’t cook or survive. Many of them don’t want their own children now as they don’t want their family centre replaced by their child,” she said.

In her book she describes how some of these sons referred to as ‘Little Emperors’ (or xiao huangdi) don’t know how to do basic things like hang up clothes or have never been in the kitchen, even at the age of 21.

There is a woman described in the book who is on the phone for three hours to her mother getting advice on how to cook in the UK. She can’t even identify spinach in the supermarket and her mother has to send her a photo of it, Xinran said.

Whilst the only children from the cities often did not have good relationships with their parents when they grew up, those from the countryside tended to have strong bonds with their families, she said.

She said she spoke to one boy who spent 50p on meals in the UK just so he could send back money from his scholarship to his mother. There was another boy in the book whose father sleeps on the floor in is his home so he can have a bed, she said.

But she said there were major differences between Chinese and Westerners. “The Chinese understand before they think whereas Westerners think before they understand,” she said cryptically. “How many people in Number 10 speak Chinese?” she asked. “I think the Chinese understand the West much better than the reverse. From Year 10, I was learning Shakespeare,” she added.

The influence of the West in China is also covered in Xinran’s book. “Western fast food cultured entered China so quickly,” she said. “At that time people in China were very hungry and they were living off rations. Between 1980 when China opened up, to 1991, every single cheap fast easy western food culture entered,” Xinran said. She said that the Chinese showed a lot of respect to Western businesses like Starbucks and McDonalds as there was a general lack of knowledge about the West in China.

“That was partly because McDonalds opened its first branch in one of the top locations in Beijing. It’s difficult to change people’s first impressions,” she said. “People in China still think McDonalds is the best Western food in the world,” she added.

“These Little Princesses and Little Emperors often get criticised in the Chinese media but there is little written about how it feels to be a single child born in that generation so that we can listen to them, find out what they think and how they feel to be a single child. No country has ever had such a policy so how do they feel? That is what I wanted to find out,” she said.

To listen to the full audio of the event click below:-

To read about all the events taking place during this year’s Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival click here. For more information about youth engagement during the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival click here.

Interested in creative writing? Then join our creative writing class on Thursday 14 May. For more information click here.