If so, does this cause them pain? Do the stories they hear from other people of their generation also start to seem unreal? How can they convince their uncomprehending or doubting children that stories and events that have left no physical historical trace really took place?

Returning to Guilin in the south – famous for its lush greenness and eerily beautiful limestone formations – for the first time in ten years, my heart grew heavy. As we continued our journey and the moment for approaching my interviewees drew closer, I felt underprepared, hesitant, overwhelmed by the speed at which China was changing. Everywhere I had been a decade ago seemed no longer there. I had nothing with which to orient my memories.

When I moved to Britain in 1997, I was very proud of the speed at which China, and its cities in particular, were changing. But after I saw how careful Europe was to preserve the traces of its past, I began to be troubled by the unseemly haste with which my country was destroying the old to bring in the new. I saw now that this millennia-old empire of ours was being rebuilt by mindless modernisers who took their cultural bearings from McDonald's. In the two decades that Mao had been dead, modernisation had taken a heavy toll on every Chinese city, with arrogant local planners still gleefully bent on continuing this irresponsible destruction of the ancient past.

Xingyi, the capital of the Buyi Minority and Miao Minority autonomous region in the province of Guizhou (south China), is a typical example of a city being transformed by post-Mao modernisation. 'Situated at the intersection of three provinces,' the local government guidebook informed me, 'Xingyi has historically been a key communications, and collecting and distributing centre in the region. Surrounded by undulating hills and intersecting rivers, the area is notable for its limestone formations. With its beautiful countryside and temperate climate, Xingyi – the home of many illustrious historical figures – has much undeveloped potential as a tourist destination.'

Arriving in Xingyi, on our way from Guilin to Chengdu, felt like stepping into a time warp. Everything in the city reminded me of early 1980s Beijing and Shanghai: the streets, the clothes, the shops, and especially the municipal government guest house that we stayed in, with its shabby decor, malfunctioning room fittings and leaky bathrooms, its clueless receptionists, chambermaids who never changed your towels, and waiters and waitresses who ignored diners in the main restaurant to minister to raucous private rooms of local officials, its ceaseless din of karaoke and its noticeboards passing off romanised Chinese as English.

What really took me back twenty years was the yard full of high-priced cars and the self-important officials getting out of them. The only way to ensure the attention of the staff in a guest house like this is to impress upon them, the moment you swagger inside, just how important you are. Otherwise, your laundry will disappear, your breakfast token be misplaced, and your personal belongings get 'tidied away', never to be found again. Sometimes your room – for which you have already paid – will even be taken away for an official meeting, while your dinner will fail to materialise, because the cooks have knocked off after producing yet another banquet for government bigwigs.

In the two nights and three days that we spent in the city, Toby and I got the full Xingyi experience, with cockroaches, bedbugs and a violent midnight encounter with a roaring drunk, karaoke-singing cadre thrown in as special bonuses.

But, as Nietzsche once said, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. My original intention had been to start my interviews in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, western China, but while attending the wedding of the friend who translated my first book, The Good Women of China, I happened to encounter my first storyteller: the Medicine Woman of Xingyi.

Early one morning, Toby and I – just as we always do in China – were wandering about the streets, people- watching. A couple of hours before 9 a.m., the streets of Xingyi were already bustling with commercial activity: with peddlers and stalls run by local farmers and fishermen, selling various exotic local delicacies, including the mountain mushrooms for which the area is famous. We stepped into a dark, narrow lane running parallel to the main market street, and back through history: past the kind of dilapidated houses and shopfronts I associate with films depicting the 'old' (pre-1949) society. What immediately struck me was that most of the shopkeepers and stallholders were women: in addition to those mending shoes, carving chopsticks, selling haberdashery, making burial clothes and paper funeral money, a great number were selling local speciality foods and herbal medicine.

My attention was caught, from some distance, by an old woman whose face shone with a particular, resolute intelligence. She was sitting in an open-front shop talking to a customer. Various kinds of dried herbal medicines were displayed around her: some hanging in bags, some on shelves, tied in bundles; others heaped on the ground at her feet.

I pointed her out to Toby. 'She's the only one on this lane who doesn't look worn-down, demoralised by life. I wonder why she seems so different from everyone else round here.'

'Go and talk to her, I'll wait. We're not in a hurry.' Toby knows that I love these opportunities to chat casually with Chinese women – spontaneous encounters can yield unexpected information.

I waited until the old lady had finished with her customer, then walked over and started up a conversation. 'Hello. Are these herbs all grown round here?'

'They are,' Yao Popo (Chinese for Medicine Woman) replied in a Hunan accent, without even looking up from the bunch of herbs she was binding.

'What about these? Where are these from?' I asked again, trying to get her to open up.

She finally looked up at me. 'I don't pick them myself. Local farmers bring me my stock.'

I climbed one of the two low steps in front of her shop. 'You must be famous round here, then.'

'I'm just an ordinary old woman,' she smiled. 'I've been here a long time, that's all.'

'So when did you start selling medicine?'

'Oh, years ago. Was there anything particular you were looking for?' Yao Popo eyed Toby, standing a little way back from the shop. A foreigner would be a rare sight in provincial Xingyi. 'Who's that?'

'My husband,' I quickly explained.

The Medicine Woman squinted. 'He's tall. And handsome. My daughter married a foreigner too, a Taiwanese.' A lot of people in rural China think that anyone from outside the mainland counts as a foreigner – even if they are ethnic Chinese. 'He treats her well, but he's not much to look at.'

It was my turn to smile. 'Are a man's looks so very important?'

'Of course!' she frowned. 'Or you'll have ugly children.'

I smiled because I knew how to get her to talk to me now. 'How many children do you have?'

She was delighted to be asked. 'Two sons and five daughters, a dozen grandchildren and four great- grandchildren!'

Yet again, I was reminded of how much importance Chinese women attach to having children. 'Goodness me. Lucky you.'

'How about you?' Yao Popo asked me, suddenly looking worried on my behalf.

I felt touched by her concern. 'Just the one son. He's eighteen.'

'Only one?' Yao Popo was unable to conceal her sense of regret. 'At least you had a boy, I suppose. Back then, when I was young, we were told to have lots. If you didn't, everyone said you were a bad woman.'

In the 1950s, ignoring the warnings of demographers and economists, Mao Zedong encouraged women to have as many children as they could, telling them it was a heroic thing to do. He thought that its enormous population would turn China into a global superpower.

I next asked a question to which I already knew the answer. 'You're a woman – do you really think sons are better than daughters?'

She stared uncomprehendingly at me. 'It's because we're women that we need to have sons, to protect us. Before 1949, women who didn't manage to have sons really suffered. Girls were always abandoned before boys. I almost starved to death myself. I wouldn't be here today, if my father hadn't taken pity on me.'

I climbed the second step. 'I'd like to hear about your life.'

She batted a hand at me dismissively. 'What's there to hear? No one takes notice of what us old people have to say, not even my children. What good would it do you if I told you? Don't waste your time, or your husband's. Off you go, he's waiting for you.'

Glancing around to check there were no other customers about, I sat down on a small stool next to her. 'I'm not going until you've told me about yourself!'

She looked at me, surprised. 'Do you really mean it?' she said, more seriously.

I nodded. 'I want to be able to tell my son about people like you. He moved to England six years ago, when he was only twelve. He has no idea about ordinary Chinese people's lives. Whenever I come back to China, I ask

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